Every parent probably knows this situation. Your kid has done something inappropriate like hitting or hurting someone else, excluding someone roughly or saying something that makes others feel bad or sad. You would like your kid to say “I’m sorry!” but your s/he isn’t going to. The situation gets more and more intense, especially when you have spectators who seem to be waiting for the “I’m sorry” too.
In situations like these, a part of the brain called the amygdala is active. The amygdala consists of two almond-shaped structures in the brain’s emotional system and it plays several crucial roles. First and foremost, it is an alarm bell, a watch dog. It constantly looks out for what might be dangerous out there, and it will warm you if it spots something that seems threatening. The reaction you experience is instant: Your heart gallops; sugar and oxygen are drawn from the blood; adrenaline is released; your breathing becomes faster and more shallow, you experience muscle tension. Emotionally, we may then feel anxiety, anger or muddled up inside.
STATUS THREATS ARE EVERYWHERE
The brain follows certain logics, but hardly anyone knows them. Especially for parents and kids it can matter the world to understand that the amygdala can hijack the brain and trump other brain functions. When the amygdala goes up, our ability to think clearly, look at situations from various angles, feel empathy and regulate emotions go down.
It is worth knowing that particular situations can trigger the amygdala of a kid and make a tantrum or strong anxiety the next natural step. One such situation is status threats. It turns out that the brain is highly sensitive to status and constantly pay attention to: “Am I good enough and safe? Or am I being made to feel little and stupid and seem to be drawing the short straw?”
Numerous everyday situations put kids in an extremely sensitive position when it comes to status: They may feel belittled by the way parents; siblings or others talk to them or treat them. Someone may talk about the kid in ways that make him or her feel exposed, fragile and locked in by the judgement. The kid may be expected to master a situation or a task that he or she hasn’t yet learnt.
A classic status threat amongst kids takes place when they run a race. The winner often raises his or her arms as the finishing line is crossed, shouting “I won!!!” then turns around saying to the others: “I can’t believe how slow you are.” Whereas the first most likely is an expression of happiness, the latter is a clear status threat. In such situations you can say to the winning kid: “It is possible to win and be happy WITHOUT making others feel stupid and small” or “You can feel proud and happy, yet still make others feel OK.”
MAKE THE SITUATION SAFE
A classic status threat created by a parent is the situation where s/he insists that the young kid says “I’m sorry!” to another kid. Let’s call this other kid Eric. Maybe the parent says: “We are not going anywhere until you say ‘I’m sorry’. Come on: Say ‘I’m sorry’ now!” Whatever the kid has done that is so displeasing, be sure that right now s/he is experiencing a status threat: Being exposed to the critical gaze of others, being physically smaller than the adult(s) in the situation thus being looked down at and being dictated what to do whilst surely having a different viewpoint of the situation that just took place.
You can tackle situations like these in more elegant and brainsmart ways. It is a good idea to spend a sentence or two growing the kid’s awareness of and learning in the situation, for instance by saying: “Look at Eric. His eyes look sad. It makes people sad to be told they are an idiot … Why don’t you say “I’m sorry” so that the two of you can start anew and have fun?” If your kid then doesn’t say ‘I’m sorry’ and clearly looks like someone who’s not going to, you can then say in a gentle though confident way: “Once you get older, you will know that in situations like these, one says ‘I’m sorry’.”
Please be aware of your own tone of voice here: Does it communicate respect and love whilst taking leadership? Please be aware of your own position here as well: Are you at eye-level with your kids, i.e. have you kneeled down (putting yourself in your kid’s shoes) to allow for a respectful encounter?
STIMULATE LEARNING RATHER THAN FUEL ANGER
Remember that the amygdala is an alarm bell. It constantly scans for and reacts to alarming, seemingly dangerous situation. By acting like mentioned above, you help calming your kid’s amygdala (and your own). This allows for your kid’s brain to think, reflect and show empathy. If you react by creating an even bigger status threat, the amygdala will instead hijack your kid’s thinking brain and NO LEARNING will take place. Creating such emotionally overintense situations is a waste of precious time really and you lose out on (yet another) chance to stimulate relevant pathways in the brain.
In order to create more learning, you may want to share with your kid what “sorry” between people does:
- It tells the other person that the hurt wasn’t intentional/on purpose.
- It tells the other person that you would like to move on (and start anew).
- It tells the other person that you would like him/her to feel better (and it typically makes the other one feel better as well as yourself).
It is important that you share this perspective in a situation where your kid’s amygdala is sufficiently calm in order for learning to take place.
By expounding the situation like this – and the rules of social interaction – you help your kid understand and navigate in the world. He/she becomes familiar with how to tackle tricky situations in the future. And your kid will know that you know that childhood is a journey and that every kid does what it is capable of to travel safely.
WHAT YOU NEED TO DO YOURSELF
For this to work powerfully, you need to know that the brain constantly develops so-called association trees. When thinking of one thing, you are “automatically” led to think about something else and then something else too. Be aware whether saying “I’m sorry” is something really rare in your family – and something that seems like a status threat to say. If the natural association of saying “I’m sorry” is to experience a status threat, your kid is bound to avoid saying “I’m sorry”. If “I’m sorry” is part of the repertoire of all family members (especially the adults), it becomes one of several social competencies that stimulate a more fluent and respectful interaction with others.
You can ask yourself whether you show a powerful example in this field too: Do you frequently say “I’m sorry” and mean it, or do you rather want to seem like Ms./Mr. Perfect who is always in the right and seldom admit mistakes? If you spend most of your time doing the latter, you now know why your kid may find it difficult to say “I’m sorry”.
Start scanning everyday situations for status threats. You can often depict whether your kid is experiencing a status threat by looking at his/her face and body: Do the eyes start to shine more? Does your kid’s gaze move down, while looking sad? Do the eyes fleetingly look desperate? It may only be for a millisecond? No matter the signs, when experiencing a status threat your kid needs your help to make room for him/her to bounce back in the situation. If you keep forcing her/him to stay in the status-threatening situation, you create mental claustrophobia and your kid will want to flee this situation in the future too. If, rather, you offer a way out, whilst letting the Wise (Wo)man inside you talk you can actively turn this from moments of experienced punishment into lessons of life and lots of learning. Allow for a smile or even for a moment of laughter from your kid whilst bouncing back. This surplus of mental resources shows you that your kid is getting what you are saying and willing to learn from situations in life.
Anette Prehn (1975) is a Danish Sociologist, keynote speaker, and author of five published books about the logics of the brain. 10 years ago she realised that the brain follows certain logics, but that hardly anyone knows them. Even among the ones who’ve heard about them, most do not know how to apply the them. Anette Prehn’s ambition is to communicate neuroscience and social psychology in outstanding and down-to-earth ways: ways that make it easy to understand, remember and apply those logics. She does this in her BRAINSMART trilogy: bestselling books about key brain logics. Her only book out in English so far is Play Your Brain and her books have been translated into Chinese, Russian, German, Norwegian and Swedish to date.