When Mum and Dad Fight

Love, Heartbreak

Festive Season plans unravel when stress leads to conflict. Here's how to create a different outcome

Tracy lies in bed, staring at the celing. The coloured lights are twinkling in the street below, and she can hear the jingly ads playing on the TV. It's nearly 9pm on  the  24th of December. She can't sleep, but it's not because she's anticipating Santa's visit.  A tear slides across her cheek and drops onto her pillow. Her breath comes in a shaky sigh, shuddering her chest.

She wonders whether to pull the pillow over her ears so she can't hear their fighting—but then she won't know if it's going to get better; whether they'll make up and save the relationship.

After supper, Mum started nagging Dad because he hadn't unloaded the dishwasher. But now it's turned into big-voice shouting and arguing.

"Why can't they be friends? Even just for tomorrow?" she sobs to herself. 

How many children, like Tracy, experience anxiety over the festive season because of parents fighting? Sometimes it's the little everyday niggles that explode into acrimonious fights, leaving a toxic atmosphere that pollutes not only your headspace, but the children's.

So whether you're sweating the small stuff like whose turn it is to load the dishwasher or dealing with acute family tension, here's a useful piece of information that can help you create a different outcome, when emotional temperatures begin to soar.

If you could look inside your skull you would discover that you haven't got one brain, but, in a sense, you have three: an outer thinking part of the brain, the inner limbic system where emotions are registered, and the deep inner part of the brain, known as the reptilian brain, which is where the survival instinct is triggered.

Tracy's dad, Jim, had been shovelling snow; he's tired and wants to sit and relax for a few minutes. Sally's been getting the veg ready for Christmas dinner, as well as dealing with two over-excited kids. It's his turn to unpack the dishwasher. But he's adamant it's hers!

"Fine!" she retorts. And Jim knows that means it's everything except fine. Very quickly things snowball, especially at times when tensions are already high.

If Jim and Sally knew about the reptilian brain it could make all the difference as to how they deal with little upsets, stopping them from rolling into full scale conflict. Sally and Jim's voices become sharp; their eye contact breaks except for the withering look that bullets across the room. Everything about their interaction gives a message of attack, and the reptilian part of Sally's brain and Jim's goes into fight, flight or freeze mode.

The thinking part of the brain temporarily shuts down as the brain's energy is concentrated in the reptilian brain, which is in survival mode. Sally may be trying to get Jim to see reason, and of course Jim think he's right in that she doesn't get it, but neither of them is able to hear the other and resolve the conflict until they've calmed down, because the reasoning part of the brain is temporarily not working.

"Why can't you be reasonable?" exclaims Jim. But what he doesn't realize is that neither he nor Sally can be reasonable whilst the reptilian brain is in control.

Reptiles are great at survival but they're not into creating meaningful connection. Likewise, when Jim and Sally shout and argue, the reptilian brain is in control and the instinct is survival—neither are thinking about what this is doing to their need for connection.They aren't able to think about how this upset is impacting their own relationship.

At times like this, when they're firing from the reptilian brain, they're not able to stop to question what impact the fighting will have on the kids.

It takes having all three sections of the brain working synchronistically to be reasonable. To think about what really matters.

When Sally and Jim feel the anger rising they need to recognize that their thinking brain is disconnecting. It's time to back away from the situation and do what's needed to deactivate the reptilian survive-at-all-costs brain. They need to recreate full-brain synchronicity: focus on breathing/go for a walk/listen to a favourite piece of music/think about how they really want this time to be.

Both Sally and Jim need to calm their reptilian brains so that they can be reasonable; able to choose to reconnect and meaningfully communicate, which will lead to the mutual cooperation that they both want.

The good news is that it's never too late for Jim and Sally, or any of us, to develop the awareness that we can do things differently.

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