You know those moments in parenting when your body and mouth take over and move through the motions of parenting without your more thoughtful, intentional self being involved? Moments when you suddenly realize, “hey, who is driving this car anyway?”
Sometimes these moments are life-saving. Like when you have to get up for the tenth time in the middle of the night and your conscious self refuses to come to the party. Somehow, your body gets up, walks down the hallway, feeds and comforts a child and gets back into bed.
Or when a child is about to run into the street, and you somehow move faster than an Olympic sprinter to catch a kiddo with one hand, while kicking the ball back into the yard with a move that should only be seen on a soccer field? I once moved across a room and stopped a dresser from falling on top of my child. It wasn’t until after it was over that I realized that (1) I wasn’t capable of moving that fast and (2) I wasn’t strong enough to stop the dresser by myself. Yet somehow I had done both.
Yes, these autopilot moments can be amazing and life-saving.
Except when they aren’t.
Sometimes they are embarrassing.
Last month, while camping, my fear of snakes kicked in while hiking with my family. Yep. I have a huge fear of snakes, which I had thought I was mostly over. But there, curled up against a tree by the trail was a tiny, insignificant garter snake. Auto-pilot took over and I literally pushed my children out of the way to get away from the snake. It was wasn’t until I was 50 yards up the path that I quit running and realized I had left them to fend for themselves. (Of course my husband was there and the snake wasn’t deadly, it was more of an oversized worm… but still.I Left My Children.) Auto-pilot had disengaged my brain and my body reacted on its own. When my brain caught up, I was fully aware of all the other choices I had in the moment, but the truth is, it took my brain a while to catch up.
So sometimes auto-pilot is helpful, sometimes it’s embarrassing and sometimes it really gets in the way.
Sometimes, auto-pilot kicks in when we are tired, stressed, overwhelmed or triggered in some other way. Sometimes auto-pilot looks like running away from a snake and sometimes it looks like yelling, screaming or worse.
It’s those moments when we are interacting with our children and somewhere along the line our brain says “stop,” and we just keep going. Do you know those moments? Where you can feel your body and mouth moving through space and time, but your mind is elsewhere?
Maybe we suddenly realize we are screaming at our kids to quit screaming. Or we are in “lecture” mode and, even though our brain is telling us that our kids have checked out minutes ago, our mouths just keep moving and words keep pouring out. Or maybe we feel so angry and out of control that our bodies are frantic and tense and moving with aggression and force.
Each of these moments has something in common. For some reason, the situation creates a kind of flight or fight response. Our emergency response system kicks into gear and our body just reacts with one goal. Get Control Now. We are not interacting with the moment, or with the people around us. We are simply reacting as if the situation is an emergency. And at some point, our brain catches up, our body slows and we can make some judgments and decisions about what to do next.
So this works when it really is an emergency (the dresser falling), but not so much when it really isn’t (almost all other parenting moments).
The truth is, very few moments in parenting are emergencies. And while we tend to go on auto-pilot pretty frequently, it usually isn’t helpful. Most of the time, our thoughtful, conscious, aware selves would make some pretty different decisions if we just invited them to the moment.
The question is how. How do we (1) recognize that we are in auto-pilot and (2) learn to listen to that voice inside our head telling us to stop when we are in the moment. And, even better, (3) how do we recover when we do pull ourselves out of it and (4) learn to turn off auto-pilot all together?
1) Recognition is half the battle. In order to recognize that we are in auto-pilot, it is helpful to learn our own tell-tale signs. Physical cues are sometimes easier to become aware of. Start collecting data. When you are stressed or yelling or in a parenting moment you want to change, notice how your body feels. Are your teeth clenched or your arms heavy? Is your voice loud, does your head hurt or are you moving fast? Once you become aware of these cues, you can use them to trigger awareness. It is often easier to recognize body states than it is to recognize emotional processes.
2) Learn to listen and stop auto-pilot midstream. This is probably the most difficult part. Most of us have the experience of knowing we are doing something we don’t want to do, but we just keep doing it. Our bodies are physiologically tense and engaged in “fight or flight,” a train moving full-steam ahead, while our brain is trying its best to get control of the situation. We can help our brains out by essentially letting the steam out of the engine. If we change the physical state of our body, it is easier for our brains to take over. Think about it, if a boxer goes into a ring to fight, they don’t want to be relaxed, they want to be as tense and hyped up as possible. If we relax our jaw, release the tension in our fists, expand our chest, drop our shoulders, breathe deep into our diaphragm, it will be almost impossible to fight the good fight. Our body immediately feels different and our brain has a chance to catch up and take over the decision-making process. In the moment of auto-pilot, rather than trying to force ourselves to feel differently, we simply change the structure of our body and give ourselves a minute. Breathing. It really is the cure all.
3) When we do catch ourselves, and we change the moment, it is an amazing opportunity to model coping skills. We can narrate and process with our children. Saying something like, “Wow, I just realized how loudly I am yelling. It feels really bad to me and I bet it feels really bad to you. I am going to take some breaths and try interacting differently.” We can show our kids that it is possible to change directions when we feel out of control, be accountable for the impact we are having on the moment and people around us, use coping skills to change the way we feel, problem solve with others, get support, etc. What an opportunity!
4) Learning to turn it off all together means taking pre-emptive measures. It’s about knowing what our triggers are. It’s about knowing when we are operating on fewer resources. Are we tired, stressed at work, particularly triggered by the new high-pitched squeal our child is trying out, feeling disrespected,… afraid of snakes? What we do with this information BEFORE the parenting moment arises makes all the difference. Self-care, support, practicing awareness and breathing are just a few steps we can take on an ongoing basis. Aware and gentle parenting requires us to recognize that we are human, with human reactions and auto-pilot responses, AND be accountable for these patterns in our parenting.
We will practice steps one through three over and over and over again. Some of us will get better at step four, but even then, auto-pilot is destined to pop up from time to time. Remember, there are times when it is actually helpful. Most of the time though, turning off the auto-pilot will let us find a little balance in the rocky path of parenting.