The Gift of the Mama Bear
(A red light story with a happy ending)
“How can I stay calm when my child is melting down?”
Parents who are trying to stay connected often ask variations of that question.
“My toddler is melting down and I am trying to stay calm. I can’t. What can I do?”
We have this idea that to be a good parent, we need to be CALM 100% of the time.
Let me start by setting the record straight. You can’t. And furthermore, you shouldn’t.
I don’t like to use the word should or shouldn’t, but I think it’s appropriate here. There are times when it is necessary to be something other than calm.
Consciously Parenting doesn’t mean that you’re calm all the time.
It’s not authentic. It isn’t real. It is impossible. And it doesn’t allow for real connection.
When someone else in our family is losing it, our brains go on high alert. The goal for most situations is for us to stay connected with them on yellow, in our emotional brains, so we can empathize with how they’re feeling and help them shift back to green. Our brains are connected to each other’s brains, and the more mature, more regulated brain can help regulate the less regulated, less mature brain.
When we’re on green (and calm) and someone else we love is on red (or in survival), there’s a huge disconnect there. It’s like one person is saying, “Be calm. What’s the problem?” While the other person is terrified, overwhelmed, and losing it. Real support happens when someone gets how we’re feeling. I’ll write more about that next week in an article called, “Ignore the behavior, not the child.”
When we can shift into empathy for the other person without losing it (which we can’t always do) in these situations and not go on to red, we help ourselves and our children. And that takes time and practice to master.
Let’s talk more about red.
Even though most of us feel like red is something to be avoided at all costs, there are some huge gifts in our “red light” survival brain being activated when it’s actually needed.
Now, if it is going off all the time when your toddler is dawdling from coming inside after a car ride, or when she won’t let you brush her teeth, or if it is happening all the time over little, non-life threatening daily events, it needs some loving attention.
But I want to talk about the importance of actually using the survival part of your brain. It’s there for a reason. It’s there to protect you and your children. And sometimes, even in our modern times, we need it.
Why is it necessary?
It seems our ideal version of a parent is passive and never gets upset.
Here’s an example of how we seem to expect a good parent to always stay calm: Mama Bear, from the story of Goldilocks. Mama Bear had someone break into her house, eat all the porridge she had worked so hard to make, break a chair, and sleep in their beds (that she probably had actually made that morning.) In the story, she didn’t get mad. She didn’t even get the tiniest bit upset. Papa Bear got mad in some of the versions of the story, but it seems like, in general, these passive bears just roll with whatever happened.
Granted, this is a children’s story and angry bears can be scary for small children. And they really didn’t need to fight here.
But what if the ideal Mama Bear isn’t just a passive character?
Now maybe a bear doesn’t need to protect its family from a small child like Goldilocks, but I don’t think any of us have a problem seeing how it might be necessary for a Mama Bear to protect her cubs from some actual danger, by whatever means is necessary. And bears are known for their FIGHT response, not passively freezing or running away, since they’re so big. It’s also a natural human response to go into fight mode when someone we love is in danger. That’s why this response is there.
A couple of weeks ago, I had a mama on my Healing Story Circle call begin with a question:
“How can I stay on green when something really difficult is happening? I lost it and I don’t want to do that. I want to stay calm.”
Sounds reasonable. Yes, we want to stay calm. We don’t want to lose it! She had my attention.
As she continued to share, she explained that her daughter had just had a harrowing medical experience that ended with emergency surgery to save her life.
This mother knew that something was terribly wrong with her child. The part of her brain that kicks in for survival was active, and she was ready to fight for her daughter. This means energy was mobilized into her arms and legs so that she was ready to fight or run. It means that she was less in her thinking brain, and more in her survival brain, so she wasn’t going to be reasoning things out in that moment. Her digestion slowed and only essential functions were maintained in her body (heart beating, breathing, etc). The rest of her energy was redirected to the task at hand.
She had to handle disagreement from her loving husband who wasn’t there and didn’t really understand why she was so worked up. Once she got to the hospital, she had to get through the gatekeeper in the ER who kept telling her to calm down.
She made it through all of that, got her daughter to the hospital through that gatekeeper and managed to save her daughter’s life. But still, she wanted to know why she couldn’t have just been calm through it all.
In life and death situations, we need our survival brain.
It isn’t about being nice or calm in those moments. Our bodies and minds are mobilizing to fight, run, or freeze as needed. The mama bear will fight for the child’s needs, and this is important for our children and for us. In this situation, that survival instinct saved her daughter’s life.
While we certainly don’t enjoy being on red, it is necessary sometimes. It doesn’t feel good – it feels really awful.
“It wasn’t pretty,” she said. “I’m not proud.”
And yet, she had just saved her daughter’s life. That may not always be pretty, but it is something to be proud of.
Red light, or our survival brain, isn’t a state we want to spend all our days in. But when necessary, it can provide the energy to lift a car off of another a person, or do whatever else is necessary to protect our families. That is truly the gift of the Mama Bear.
How has your mama bear (or papa bear) shown up with your kids in a way that kept everyone safe? What are the gifts of your mama bear?
To learn more about the brain stoplight, healthy relationships, and what they really look like in families, check out my book, Consciously Parenting: What it Really Takes to Raise Emotionally Healthy Families. You can read the first three chapters free! Sign up below and I’ll send them to you.
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