I did everything I knew to do to keep a positive and emotionally safe environment for my kid. As a social worker, counselor, and coach, I knew ALL the things – but I didn’t consider my own brain and how it’s wired. The word “bad” was never a part of any discussion with my son. I thought I was praising him, and physical punishment was never an option. And yet, at the age of 3 he started hiding under tables and desks when he needed correction and would cry, a deep, wounded cry, if he was in “trouble”. It broke my mama heart.
While it might seem that some of this is just small kid behavior, and some of it is, I understand brain development, and I knew it was something deeper. It took years for me to realize that I was passing on generational trauma and anxiety and it was deeply affecting my son.
Habits are passed down from generation to generation.
Just like personalities can be genetically influenced, the way our brain works is influenced by the environment we grow up in. I was raised by Baby Boomers, who were raised by parents raised during the World War and depression generations. Good people who love their children but often had to find a way to just survive – thriving wasn’t even an option. While there is a lot of resilience built into these generations, there is also a “pick yourself up and move on” mentality because they had to find a way to survive.
Let me be clear: this does not mean that the previous generations were “bad” parents. It means that they did the best they could with whatever capacity they were given. Spanking, shaming (wasn’t even a mental health word back then, because there was no mental health) and blaming were taught to the next generation, who taught it to the next generation and so on. These habits became an automatic function of the brain. Our tone of voice, the words we say, how we respond to our world, are often part of the environment we were raised in.
So many of my clients have said to me, “I heard the words my mother said to me when I was a child come out of my mouth. The very words I promised myself I would never say”. That’s a brain habit passed on from one generation to the next. We all have them.
Reactions versus Acting
Typically, these brain habits are reactions. Reactions are what we do without thinking when our brains are in automatic mode. The brain recognizes a situation, looks for a neuron that knows a similar situation and then reacts.
The goal is to begin to act. Over time, I’ve learned to recognize my body and brain signals that I am in generational reactionary mode: my chest feels tight, I can “hear” unhealthy thoughts in my head and my kid has a look on his face like I have just called him the worst word in the world. That’s my cue that I’m in generational reaction, and my cue to stop and change course.
My goal is to always act instead of reacting, but perfection is just not possible. There are times when I will continue to be reactionary, and that’s okay. I’m human and I make mistakes.
Creating space for change
When I can’t stop the reactions, I go back to my son when I feel like I’m in control of my brain and apologize. This has started a beautiful habit of building in healthy conversations around people not being perfect and extending grace to ourselves and others. Through creating this space for myself to change and be imperfect, I have unwittingly provided an environment where my son gets to be imperfect and has learned the art of apologizing – to himself and others.
The surprise of this change is a son who gives grace to his family and friends and understands that people are just going to have a bad day sometimes, and that’s not about him. It’s allowed him the space to recognize when I’m about to start reacting and ask me “are you stressed today?”. At almost 12 years old, he’s learned an art that is hard for adults, the art of giving someone permission to not be in a good space but making it clear through kind words that my stress isn’t his problem. While I would love for this to not be his responsibility, we live in the same house and I’m not going to be a perfect parent. My guilt for not being able to always control my emotions has changed to an appreciation of the gift I’m giving him, and his children if he chooses to have them.
So how do you change?
A simple way to start is just start noticing when you’re reacting and write down a) the situation b) how your body felt (tight chest, hot neck, etc.) and c) how you reacted.
Begin to listen to your brain. There is always a self-defeating narrative going on inside of your brain during these moments. This narrative becomes like white noise that our brain doesn’t recognize. Think of it like an alarm on your watch or phone that goes off at the same time every day. Eventually, your brain stops recognizing the alarm because you are just used to it. These narrative statements are the same. Write them down and then reframe the narrative. “You’re a bad mom” becomes “you were stressed and weren’t thinking”. Rewriting these narratives will begin to create new neurons for the brain to build a new habit.
Be patient with yourself. The reactionary neurons were developed over years. It will take longer than a few days to change them. Give yourself the time to develop a new neuron for your brain to understand. AND, know that in times of stress, increased anxiety, fear, etc., the brain will go back to the original neuron. Progress, not perfection.
Find a coach or a counselor who can help you identify the patterns and have the accountability you need to change. Not sure which one is the best fit? Book a call below and let’s chat.
When is the right time to give yourself, and your family, the gift of peace from the internal chaos? Today.
Mattie Cummins, LCSW, is a neuro-social worker, counselor and coach with over 25 years working with people mental chaos, neuro-diversity and life transitions. She is the owner of Cerebrations, LLC, a coaching and consulting business that specializes in empowering people to tap into their own internal strength and beauty to step boldly into a life of intention. Connect with Mattie by booking a free consult call.