I am reaching out to you again for your guidance and support. I have an issue with my husband and the way he addresses our children when he is angry. He can get to the point where he looks and speaks very terrifyingly at them, and my heart just breaks. They are fearful and he drowns himself in shame afterward. This morning he was yelling at my six-year-old daughter and she was dysregulating in all kinds of ways as a result, which was pushing him even further into his anger. I felt compelled to jump in and protect her, which often results in him feeling betrayed by me and upset that I am making him a “monster” in front of the kids.
Today we were able to talk afterward and I told him that I feel like I need to protect them and his feelings when I intervene because I am in flight-or-fight mode myself. It is usually very hard. I am stuck. What language can I use in these moments to communicate that he needs to stop without undermining him in front of the kids? This is a heavy day for our family.
Sincerely, Amy from Florida
Mabel: Hi Amy, I am so sorry to hear of your struggles. There are a few ways you can approach this situation. You can have a family meeting when calm, where you all make an agreement that when things escalate you each are empowered to call a time out and take a break. Make a plan that you can all follow. If you are all following the same plan together that would take the shame out of it. I also suggest you look at the Zones of Regulation curriculum for some help on the language for self-regulation and emotional control.
Together, you two can come up with a plan, or code word, for timing out and determine how long the timeout should last. Come up with something you can both agree on. Determine what you can do when he is in that state to deescalate the situation.
This is a quick bandaid. Long term, you need to have a discussion about what he wants to do about this and go from there. Seeking some help from a licensed mental health professional could also help the two of you to work together as a team in these situations.
The next time someone is obviously upset or sad try asking them “are you ok?” or “do you want to talk?” Frequently in our culture, we say “is there something wrong?” or “what’s wrong?” And, while it may seem like we are asking the same thing no matter what words we use, the words we use and how our sentence is phrased can have a big impact.
Our minds are very receptive to language. We connect our sadness as “wrong” when we say phrases like “what’s wrong?” Being sad isn’t wrong, we just don’t feel happy and while that is not ideal, it is not wrong to feel upset. This is all part of the Relational Frame Theory (RFT), which is the psychological theory of human language. The theory argues that the building block of human language and understanding is “relating.” Therefore by saying to someone that is sad, “what is wrong?” they — and you— are in turn relating being sad with something wrong.
Avoiding the ‘freeze up’
Asking “what’s wrong?” tends to make people freeze up and build a wall, and frequently results in a “nothing” response. The phrase itself stigmatizes our feelings, forcing us to only show our “happy” selves. It makes people internalize that the emotions they are feeling are wrong, and in turn, they ask others “what’s wrong?”. It is a never-ending circle. Instead, we should be saying things like “what happened?” , “What’s going on?” , or “How are you feeling?” in a tone that is compassionate and caring.
While we may think what we say is going in one ear and out the other, it is actually being absorbed in the deepest depths of our brain. Same goes with what we say. By telling ourselves things and saying things to others we are conditioning our brain to think and feel a certain way. We are creating relationships between words and feelings that are not necessarily healthy or true.
There is no doubt this is complicated stuff but there are lessons for us all here. By thinking about how we word things before we say them and de-conditioning ourselves to these common phrases we can change our mindset as well as that of the people we are interacting with. Words are powerful tools if used correctly.