Take note of your body right now. You know how you are feeling, how does your body show the way you are feeling? Look at someone else in the room, can you tell what their mood is by what their body is doing?
While you are having a conversation or an argument with your words, there is a whole other conversation going on with your bodies. Our thoughts have a whole-body response. We don’t just say we are mad, we stomp and tighten our muscles. If our thoughts are sad, we hunch our shoulders, hang our head and walk slow. If we are excited, we may jump up and down. Even if we are not in a conversation with someone, or even know the person, our own bodies have a reaction to other people’s body language and mirror without us consciously doing so. Think about watching people in an airport, we smile when we see a family embrace, we glare at someone who is shouting at an employee. We feel our heart tug and wish we could help someone who looks sad.
We all crave to belong and to attune to others, it is one of our basic needs. Our bodies are programmed to attune to others by picking up on body signals and mirroring those signals- mostly without our awareness. This is particularly true of a parent child relationship. A child attunes to a parent’s signals and subconsciously knows when a parent feels safe and not safe.
When your child gets angry, our body mirrors the anger and if we don’t check ourselves, we get angry and louder, and it becomes a power struggle and the only winner will be the one who can dominate.
It is difficult to think when we are angry, so it is hard to rationalize and calm ourselves by thinking our way out of it. That’s called a top down approach, where you try to control your thoughts to change your behaviors. What we can do is use a bottom up approach where we deconstruct the thought, by controlling our body.
By calming your body, you brain will respond and calm as well. Your child’s body will pick up on the signals and deescalate as well as she attunes to the “safe” body language you are portraying. Your goal is to connect with your child, so you can talk about your differences. That cannot be done in a screaming match.
Typically one or both of you will have your legs splayed apart, hands on your hips, firsts clenched or arms crossed. When you spread your legs apart your body is trying to gain territory and show power. To deescalate the situation, bring your legs in closer together, physically take up less room. Open your arms if they are crossed, this suggests openness instead of being closed off. If your hands are on your hips, that is also a body language that conveys power and intimidation. A curious thing about this stance is that it depends on where your thumbs are. If your thumps are forward, it is a power position. If your thumps are backwards, it conveys curiosity and pondering. Try it. Do you feel different with your hands on your hips with your thumbs forwards and then back? It puts your brain in a different gear without even trying to change your thoughts!
When you are angry your body prepares to meet a crisis, you take short breaths, your muscles tighten, and your blood leaves your extremities as it prepares for whatever it is about to face. You drop into your instinct brain and it is harder to think clearly. You can stop this visceral reaction by taking a slow deep breath, dropping your shoulders and opening your palms facing up. It is actually physically impossible to feel stressed or angry in a relaxed body. So, if nothing else, just remember to drop your shoulders or open your hands when you feel tension rising. Your brain cannot prepare for battle if the body won’t participate and you will be able to stay calm and in your thinking brain and your child will respond.
I’ve actually asked my kids to open their palms when they are talking to me and they are upset and I do likewise. They stop and suspiciously ask why, and I say, “Oh it’s just an experiment, now what were you telling me?” And it works! We mirror each other with the open palms and have a conversation about whatever is bothering them.