Research Paper By Kathryn Tonges
(Parenting Coach, CHINA)
Parenting is both a joyous and challenging journey. Parents who seek coaching enjoy sharing stories of these joyous interactions and they wish it was always like that. This paper explores research on how new habits are formed and specifically the use of visual cues and visualization as practical coaching tools to support parents shifting quickly from anger to calm-assertive energy and to maintain this state.
Parents prefer being in a calm, assertive and emotionally responsive state when they interact with their children. A survey conducted with twenty parents confirms this. The survey responses revealed they do not like feeling “angry”, “out of control”, “reactive” and “frustrated” (Tonges 2012, Appendix). Parents want ideas so they can change from their disliked state to their preferred state. They do not want to regret what they say or do and they want the change to be automatic and long term. Most have tried breathing and pausing, and new skills learnt in a parenting course but all say they are not consistent and want to make change habitual. (Tonges 2012, Appendix).
UNDERSTANDING HABIT FORMATION
Internalizing a new habit as an automatic routine occurs in the basal ganglia of the brain. This is the centre for stored habits and is central for recalling patterns and acting on them. Brain research shows that habits can be ignored, changed or replaced and that the brain prefers efficiency and is always finding ways to save effort and “chunk” information. (Duhigg 2012, p. 44).
Visual cues, visualization, written words and pictures support efficiency in changing a habit. They are preventive reminders, tools for behavioral amendment and self-reflection. They help refocus on a “positive, wholesome, ideally pleasure-giving activity” rather than immersing in the guilt and distress of the unwanted behavior (Doidge 2010, p. 325). The parent can more readily shift gears and re-label what is happening.
Brain scans show that in action and imagination many of the same parts of the brain are activated. That is why visualizing can improve performance (Doidg 2010, p. 398).
Three-step-cyclic loop: Bad habits can never truly be extinguished, however change is possible. Habit formation is a three-step cyclic loop (Duhigg 2012, p 50). Firstly it begins with a cue that triggers the habit. For parents surveyed this included “feeling ignored”, “time pressure”, “kid’s unacceptable behavior”, “stress” (Tonges 2012, Appendix). Secondly is the habit or behavior whether physical, emotional or mental. In the case of the surveyed parents this included “yelling”, “feeling out of control”, “reactive”, “impatient”, and “angry”. Thirdly is the reward that helps the brain determine whether the habit is worth remembering. For many parents the reward is “feeling in control”, however that is achieved (Tonges 2012, Appendix).
Research shows that it is easier to adopt a new behavior if there is something familiar at the beginning (the cue) and end (the reward) (Duhigg 2012, p. 119). It is important therefore for parents to become aware of each step in their unique habit cycle. For parents it is inevitable that children will have unacceptable behaviors (cue) and that parents want to feel in control of their emotions and feel good about their interactions with their children (reward). It is therefore the habit of the response of reactive “anger” that would need to change for the surveyed parents.
VISUALISATION & VISUAL CUES TO UNDERSTAND TOTAL BEHAVIOUR
According to Daniel Siegel “mindsight” is necessary for parents to make change. This emotional intelligence requires understanding themselves and their child (2011, p. 212). Parents therefore need to engage in self-observation of their physiological, emotional, and thought responses that trigger their behavior (Silsbee 2008, p. 145).
Firstly, to change the anger habit parents need to be anger aware (Semmelroth & Smith 2004, p. 4). Next they need to “draw on their dreams, their vision for themselves” and “mobilize the motivating power of the left prefrontal areas” (Goleman 2011, p. 82). Visual tools are effective here because they support the shift from the conscious mind to the unconscious mind through the Reticular Activating System – the brain’s information filtering system ). The ‘car’ as total behavior: The visual metaphor of a front wheel drive car can help parents understand their total behavior. The front two wheels represent feelings and physiology and direct the back two wheels’ thoughts and actions (behaviours).
When thoughts and behaviors are changed our feelings and physiological responses follow (Glasser 1998, p. 62) The physiological responses and feelings are a guidance system, the cue to a person’s thoughts and subsequent actions. A parent feeling overwhelmed and angry also feels tension in the body. Through coaching parents can use the car model drawn on paper as a visual tool to record their feelings and physiology that occurred prior to an unwanted reaction.
- TUNING IN TO THE BODY Body scan
Parents can “learn how to go home” to their bodies (Thich Nhat Hanh 2007, p. 14).They can develop mindfulness of their posture and the sensations of their body by regularly checking in through the day closing their eyes, feeling and visualizing the areas of tension and what the sensations are “telling them” (Judith 2004, p. 92). Somatic awareness takes practice and willingness. Increasingly parents will sense the precursors to anger (Silsbee 2008, pp. 153-159). Body Visualization: Visualizing the desired bodily posture and state expedites calm- assertive energy as can visualizing a place of calmness or something that represents calm-assertive energy. That something could act like a talisman and would uniquely have meaning for that parent.
- IDENTIFYING FEELINGS Tuning in to feelings also takes practice and desire
Unfortunately parents were often trained as children to discount feelings. Studies in neuroplasticity show that it is possible to change the brain and Siegel asserts that crises, when parents ‘lose it’, are opportunities for growth and integration of the brain (2011, p. 63). This leads to self-regulation and being a role model for children in calming down and naming feelings. Feeling words: Parents, alongside children, can build emotional literacy with a print-out of feeling words or a series of faces with different emotions. “Name it to tame it” allows the left brain to make sense of strong emotions (Siegel 2011, p. 328). An ‘ice-berg’ as primary and secondary feelings: To further explore anger the visual drawing of an ice-berg showing 10% above the waterline and the rest below, is a useful metaphor for parents to examine and list feelings that are below the surface or precede the anger, a secondary emotion. Anger is often the accumulation of unacknowledged feelings. When anger surfaces parents can visualize the iceberg and think below the surface to clearly identify their feeling (Gordon 2000, p.144).
- The ‘fist’ as a brain
Understanding how the brain works can also support a parent’s move from reactivity to emotional self-regulation. The amygdala processes and stores memories of emotional events and is also involved in current emotional responses especially fears. It is the primitive part of the brain concerned with fight or flight (Goleman 2011, p. 30). It is the fast trigger of activating this part of the brain that often blocks effective choices in parenting. Studies show that Buddhist monks changed their amygdala through compassion meditation. ) The middle pre-frontal cortex is the more evolved, responsive part of the brain where parents, and children, can access higher mental functions of thinking, imagining, and planning, including empathy, self-understanding, emotional and bodily self-regulation, sound decision making, even when a person is feeling really upset. Daniel Siegel helps parents and children to remember these two parts of the brain using a fist.
The fingers are the upstairs brain (responsive brain).and the downstairs (amygdala) where the thumb is, represents strong emotions. The fingers touching the thumb are a reminder that the upstairs brain helps the downstairs brain to calm. (2011, pp. 81 - 82) The ‘beach ball’ as explosive emotions: When feelings are identified and acknowledged they can be released and thinking can be accessed in the upstairs brain. Active listening to feelings allows the fog to clear and thinking to appear. When feelings are repressed, parents can visualize trying to hold down a blow-up beach ball in a pool. It takes a lot of energy and effort and eventually it pops up when least expected,uncontrolled; hence, the importance of acknowledging feelings and the thoughts that precipitate explosiveness.
- CHANGING THOUGHTS Visualizing new beliefs
- Preceding their anger the parents surveyed were thinking
“Why are they always fighting?”, “This is terrible”, “She is so naughty”, “I do so much for them and look how ungrateful they are”, I’m a hopeless parent” (Tonges 2012, Appendix). These thoughts are likely underpinned by unhelpful underlying beliefs such as ‘I should be a better parent’, ‘Children should be obedient’, ‘I have to be in control of my children’. McKay, Davis and Fanning label these as disempowering perspectives and believe that core beliefs can be changed with visualization. (1997, p 185)
Changing thoughts requires self-reflection and powerful questions to uncover unhelpful underlying beliefs especially when the parent is feeling inconsistent, frustrated or overly reactive. Intentional redirection is necessary to reframe a perspective. “Is my response here making sense? What assumptions am I making? What can I learn? What is my belief around this? How helpful is this belief? What are my needs? What are their needs?”(Stoltzfus 2008, pp. 78-79). Visualizing the empowering perspective needs to follow such analysis.