We love to listen to podcasts together when we are in the car for a few hours. It’s a great uninterrupted time to listen, pause, think, and talk about new concepts and new perspectives. We heard a great one recently from one our favorites – “Ten Percent Happier” with Dan Harris. This specific episode perfectly aligned with our upcoming children’s book, Making Friends with Feelings.
The guest was Dr. Jacob Ham, a specialist in treating child trauma. One of the things he explained was an amygdala hijack. When our emotions are overwhelmed, and our primitive brain takes over, we tend to overreact with the subconscious intention to protect ourselves instead of responding to the stimulus in a more appropriate manner.
But to make this more relatable, the example Dr. Ham used was the Incredible Hulk! We agreed that this was a great way to explain the amygdala hijack to children and parents. For parents, it’s a great way to explain what is happening with a child in a challenging moment. For children, it’s a great example that can help them become aware of what they are feeling and that there is more than one choice of how to express that emotion.
When we experience an amygdala hijack our primitive brain causes us to enter into one of three protective modes – fight, flight, or freeze. When the Hulk feels threatened he ‘hulks out’ and begins reacting to everything in 100% fight mode for self-protection.
In our children’s story, Buddy ‘hulks’ out when he is experiencing sadness but acts out in anger and bites Shiner. Fred Rogers knew this as well as any therapist, even writing a song called, “What do you do when you are so angry you can bite?”
The reaction to big emotions can cause various feelings that children, and adults, may not understand. We may not exhibit the matching behavior to the emotion, nor would others interpret our behavior correctly to our emotion.
Buddy is so sad that he feels like he must protect himself. He is overwhelmed with a big emotion and acts out in anger, biting Shiner. How often do we see others reacting in fight, flight, or freeze? How often do we take a moment to try and understand what emotions others are feeling? You can’t calm the Hulk by yelling, threatening punishment, or trying to physically change another person’s behavior.
When a child, or even adult is in Hulk mode, try comforting them first and then asking about the underlying emotions. Practice compassion and deep listening to understand what emotions and feelings the other person is feeling. Validate their emotions. What others are feeling is valid, even if you don’t understand the emotion or share the same feelings.
A child has just as strong of emotions as an adult, but they have fewer words to express their emotions. Be patient, kind, and compassionate until the Hulk has calmed.
Source: “Ten Percent Happier” Podcast with Dan Harris. Episode 453: An Ace Therapist Gives Dan A Run For His Money | Dr. Jacob Ham
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