Parent According to Your State

Guest Post by Christopher White, MD Founder of Essential Parenting and co-author of Mindful Discipline. 

One common mistake I see parents make — myself included — is to try and discipline/teach their child the same regardless of their level of reactivity.

It is more effective to adjust your intervention based on your state of mind in the moment.

Let's take a look at the 3 general states we exist in.

Reactive state 

In a reactive state, you may find yourself tense, frustrated, or angry. This is the state when the fire alarms are going off in your emotional brain. In the reactive state, we lose our cool and act in ways that are hurtful to other people.

This is where we make “mis-takes” and act out of step with how we want to parent our children. Some people react with anger and hostility in the face of stress and discomfort, some shut down and withdraw from the situation, and some become overly anxious and accommodate their children’s wishes to unhealthy extremes.

These reactive strategies are hardwired into our nervous systems and are completely normal and natural. However, states of reactivity are the most dangerous to our relationships and to the prospects of living life in accord with our values. Learning to recognize that you are in a reactive state can help you immensely in becoming the parent you want to be. 

Responsive state 

The responsive state reflects higher levels of brain integration, prefrontal cortex functioning, and the nine capacities it supports compared with the reactive state. When you are in a responsive state of consciousness, you are aware of the many moving parts in any given situation and are able to flexibly respond in a way that is healthy and just. If your toddler is upset and crying because you won’t let her stay at the park, you feel the discomfort of her crying in your body and your reactive urge to make it stop. But you are also aware of her right to be treated respectfully, so you control your impulse to growl, “Keep crying and I will give you something to cry about!” You are also aware of her need for a nap, and are able to start finding a respectful way to move her toward her need rather than giving in to her want to stay at the park. When in the responsive mode, you parent with skill and confidence. 

Intuitive state 

In some moments, we may find ourselves lucky enough to be in an intuitive state of consciousness. In the intuitive state, life is inherently pleasurable and full of flow. We are in touch with the preciousness of this moment and how blessed we truly are. We see our children for what they are: little beings on their own path — unique, authentic, and heading toward some unknown future to fulfill their purpose on this earth. As Khalil Gibran wrote, “Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself." In some moments, the beauty of this truth cracks us wide open.

In the intuitive mode, we roll with the punches. We take up struggles as a dance — blending with our little sparring-partner effortlessly, and fluidly finding our way to solutions without even trying. From this state, mindfulness and discipline are our very nature. The more moments we are able to live in this state, the more our families will benefit and the more fulfilling our lives will become.

So here are my suggestions for how to parent from each of the three states.

When you are in an intuitive state, trust your instincts and your intuitions. When you are graced with this state of consciousness, you will be seeing situations with great clarity and perspective. 

Let yourself be effortlessly guided by the natural intelligence of your heart — as Jack Kornfield calls it, the “heart that knows what is just, loving, and beautiful.” And enjoy the pleasure and flow of this beautiful state while it lasts. Really soak it in and let the experience sink into every cell of your body and nourish you.

When you are in a responsive state, continue to listen to your gut instincts and intuitions, but also use mental reflection to help evaluate what is working and what is not. There will be times when you’ll go with your gut and be spot-on. And there will be other times when your instincts are off and do not hit the mark. No problem. Just reflect, re- evaluate, and try again to meet the needs of your child and the needs of the situation.

When you are in a reactive state, there are two likely outcomes. The first, and most ideal situation, is that you recognize that you are in a “red alert” state and simply step away from your child. You may have to say something like, “We will talk about this later” or “Daddy needs a little space” before you walk away. 

This is a great time to do one of the 15 mindful awareness practices we detail in Mindful Discipline such as "heat up the tension" or "grounding down."

The other possible outcome of being in the reactive state is to find yourself in that oh-so-fun swampland of messiness and mis-takes. On one hand, let’s do what we can to keep it from happening too often. On the other hand, it will happen — that’s life.

The best we can do when our reactivity leads us into messiness and mis-takes is try to turn manure into fertilizer for growth. As we discussed earlier, experiences of messiness and mistakes are actually essential to good parenting; through them we prepare our children for a world in which they and other people are messy and make mistakes, and it’s not the end of the world.

About the Author

Chris White, M.D. is a board-certified pediatrician whose parenting work aims to optimize the developmental potential of children and their parents. He regularly writes on The Essential Parenting Blog and is the creator of The Essential Parenting Home Course. Chris lives with his two sons, Kai and Bodhi, and the love of his life, Kari, in their home in Woodacre, California. Learn more about Chris and his new book Mindful Discipline.

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