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 (http://suite101.com/article/nlp-and-the-importance-of-the-subconscious-mind-a181783). 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.