Recently a mom sent me this question —
“I’m struggling with keeping my cool when others around me (kids, husband) are upset, cranky, in full on meltdown mode, etc. I am at least aware now and I try to stop it but it’s still so hard! Like if my kids throw a fit, I end up throwing an adult tantrum too instead of keeping my stuff together and it just escalates everything. What can I do?”
I love this questions SO much because she’s right! We can skip into the house happy as lambs but if we meet cranky kids or pissed off partners, all our happiness can puddle at our feet. Then we’re left feeling “upset, cranky, or in full on meltdown mode” ourselves.
[ps2id id=’brainthing’ target=”/]
It’s a brain thing!
There are 4 strategies I teach my clients and use personally to H.U.S.H. or transform the cranky vibes so we can keep our cool when the flames start rising in those around us.
It’s a brain thing!
We have two brains — our emotional brain and our cognitive or thinking brain.
Okay, it’s more complex than that but stay with me here.
The emotional brain evolved to keep us safe and help us escape from hungry lions. Think of the emotional brain as the baby brain. Like babies, it primarily runs on instincts, impulses, basic needs, and feelings. Our thinking brain evolved to help us do things like create, communicate our thoughts through language, and solve complex problems. Think of the thinking brain as the adult brain. Like (calm) adults, it primarily controls our ability to reason, think ahead, and communicate with logic.
Most of us aren’t living around lions, but that doesn’t mean our emotional brain goes on vacation; it simply transforms other things into lions. You or your partner’s lions may take the form of a mean boss, overwhelming kids, or confusing siblings. For our kids, the lions that activate their brains may take the form of — mean mom, dismissive dad, annoying sister, confusing teacher etc.
So how does this work?
I think of our emotional brain as a baby, not because it’s young (actually it’s the oldest from an evolutionary standpoint), but because it’s driven by instincts, impulses, basic needs and feelings…just like a baby. And when a baby or small child is REALLY emotional, what does he need? He needs to be Heard.Understood.Seen.Helped or HUSH for short.
Whether we’re talking about a literal baby or the emotional “baby” part of our brain, when we HUSH or hear, understand, see, and help our partners or kids, we calm the emotional parts of their brains… those parts that create the cranky house vibes.
I hear ya from waaay over hear, “okay, but what about me?!?! Who takes care of MY emotional baby brain?!”
Here’s the beautiful thing about HUSH. It calms your emotional baby brain too!
All four of these strategies require that you focus on the present moment, which calms our emotional baby brain. It’s hard to truly hear, see, and understand what’s going on in front of us if we’re caught up in our triggered emotions from the past or fear of the future.
So what exactly do I do to calm my family’s emotional baby brain?
Let me start by saying, you don’t have to use all four of these at once. It only takes one to begin calming the emotional baby brain. Woohoo!
Let’s dive in —
Letting our loved ones know that we hear their words is the easiest thing we can do when they’re feeling overwhelmed by their big emotions and we’re overwhelmed by our big emotions. It just requires that we listen and repeat what we hear which helps to jumpstart our thinking brain.
When you hear your child: “What I’m hearing you say is [you don’t want fruit, you really want candy for a snack]. Is that right?”
When you hear your partner: “What I’m hearing you say is [you don’t think we spend enough time together as a couple]. Is that right?
Feeling heard usually encourages our loved ones to keep talking. Once they realize that we’re listening, they’re less likely to talk at us and more likely to talk with us.
Understanding takes hearing one step further because true understanding asks us to tap into our empathy or compassion. Understanding goes from “I hear you!” to “I get you!”
When you understand your child: “I get it! [You were looking forward to going to the park today, now it’s raining, and you’re so sad]. Is that right?”
When you understand your partner: “I get it! [You worked hard today, you’re tired and want some time to yourself before spending time with the family]. Is that right?” or “I’m really want to understand. Please say more.”
When we hear our kids and our partner, we’re able to repeat their words. When we understand our kids and partners, we’re able to reflect back thoughts and feelings that resonate with them and makes sense to us.
When we see our partners and kids, we are, without judgement, able to say what we literally see them doing or what we think they’re feeling.
When you see your kids: “Wow! You’re really [stomping your feet hard] right now.”
When you see your partner: “Okay, [looking at your face, I can see how angry you are right now]. Is that right?”
When we truly see those we love, we’re able to speak the words their emotional brain can only express through actions or facial expressions. When the emotional baby brain feels seen, it’s more likely to calm and make space for the thinking brain to reflect and respond.
Have you ever been angry because someone tried to fix a problem when all you really wanted was for them to listen? Or maybe they tried to fix the wrong problem and it just made things worse? Ask, “how can I help?” to eliminate both of these issues.
When you help your kids: *can’t find a toy* “Oh no, how can I help?”
When you help your partner: *just got off a frustrating call with another family member* “How can I be helpful right now?”
I got this question from Cecilia Hilkey of Happily Family. I’ve used it with kids and adults, who’ve been in meltdown mode and it really works!
A few things to keep in mind
- Don’t agree with what your partner is saying? That’s okay! Agreement is not the point. To be hushed, the emotional baby brain doesn’t need you to agree with it (that’s a thinking brain thing). It just needs to know you hear it, get it, see it and are willing to help when and where you can.
- Notice I ended many of the above statements with the question, “Is that right?” This is because sometimes what we think we’re hearing, understanding, seeing and helping isn’t quite right. “Is that right?” let’s us check to make sure we’re on the right track.
- When we hush a baby, we don’t then launch into a series of reasons why the baby needs to hush, we just stop talking! When you hear, understand, see, and offer help, don’t then launch into a lecture or externally process why you think they feel or think that way. Just stop talking and wait. This gives your loved one the chance to respond and gives your brain more time to calm.
Try it! The next time you notice the emotional brain of someone in your family taking over, use HUSH to calm them and yourself!
Super helpful post, Dr. Willis. I really love questions for adults. I sometimes wonder if I patronize my partner by asking these questions. I think it’s hard to separate the mom me from the wife me. I can recall a couple of times when my spouse has asked me to please not talk to him like he is a child. This always took me by surprise. Here I was thinking I was asking questions, but not clear on how they land. Seeing your examples of super neutral and not heavily loaded questions is super helpful. One of my favorites is can you please tell me more? Love your posts. Thank you!
Thank you so much for your comment, Natalia! I’m glad you found the short and neutral nature of the examples helpful! You raise such a powerful point. We have to make these our own…put them in our words or they can come across as patronizing. Another thing you can do is share this post with your partner and agree to use HUSH as a family. This way, you’re both empowered with and understand the tool vs you having to introduce, execute and model it all on your own. When you both understand the purpose of the questions, even if they sound odd at first, they’re less likely to trigger or come across as “mom” like. Thank you so much for commenting! Let me know if I can help in any other way.