by David Linares, LMHC
The leading two issues that cause family members – and whole families – to fall into chaotic and very unpleasant patterns of behavior are: emotional reactivity and a lack of emotional regulation skills. These issues cause families to become unhappy.
Unless we want our lives to look like reality TV or a daytime soap opera, we need to learn to be less reactive and more responsive to our feelings and the feelings of our family members. Most people like to watch but not live out that drama in their own families. However, our emotional reactivity can cause others to get reactive towards us, resulting in unpleasant arguments and strained family relationships.
When we react with anger and raise our voice, for example, it is not uncommon for the other person to get reactive with us and shout back at us. When this happens, we are only adding fuel to an already reactive fire. There is a saying about fighting fire with fire: “If you fight fire with fire, the whole house will burn down.” What we need is for someone to grab a bucket of water and stop the fire from spreading (or better yet from starting the fire in the first place). When you look closer and see inside each individual’s heart, you find someone who is hurting and reacting rather than responding.
Reacting is instinctual: you are not putting much thought to your words or behaviors. When you react, your emotions get the better of you. When you respond, you stay relatively calm, and take the time to think about how you want to manage the situation and what to say.
Example: You work hard. Your spouse works hard. One day you forget to do the dishes when it was your turn. Your spouse gets mad and tells you in a rude tone that you need to do the dishes. If you: A) Get mad at your spouse for being mad at you, then you are being reactive. You might even yell or express that anger in a mean way later in the day. If you: B) Refuse to speak to your spouse and hope that doing so will punish your spouse for talking to you like that, or get your spouse to drop the subject because you don’t want to deal with it (meaning you have anxiety over the argument that would cause), you are being reactive. If you C) Respond to your spouse by saying something like “Thank you for reminding me. I can see that you are angry because I didn’t do the dishes yet. I want you to know that when you talk to me like that, it makes me feel angry towards you. I don’t like that because I want to love and respect you, and the way you spoke to me affects that.”
Response C typically opens the door for more conversation, a better understanding of each person’s emotional world and ultimately can lead to a greater connection between the two spouses. It is also likely to lead to less conflict in the future and less reactivity (and you will be less likely to forget to do the dishes next time, too). The same concept applies with parents and their children.
Example: You tell your kid no. Your child yells in your face that they “hate you” and then storms off to their room and slams the door. If you A) Yell at them in an angry tone that you don’t care, that you’re the adult and to stay in their room, you are being reactive. If you B) Ignore the behavior, let them storm off, let it blow over and pretend that it didn’t happen when they later come out of their room, you are being reactive. If you C) Allow them to storm off to their room, wait about 5-10 minutes (so you and your kid can calm down) and knock on the door while saying something in a calm tone like: “Hey, just wanted you to know it may not always seem like I care, but I do love you. When you’re ready to come out and talk about your feelings, I am willing to talk it over.” During that conversation with your child, you will probably want to bring up how the behavior of yelling is not acceptable and that there is or will be a consequence.
Happy families know how to manage conflict and seek to regulate, not control others or their own feelings. They choose a time and place to have those emotional discussions and to release those feelings in appropriate ways. If we learned to do this in our day-to-day lives, there would be a lot less of the drama we see in reality television.
At Serenity Counseling Services, we use evidence-based research methods and skill-building to help individuals and families make real changes with real solutions, so that they can create better lives for themselves and their families. Some methods that we use to help our clients to be more responsive (and less reactive) include but are not limited to: Learning communication skills, listening skills, conflict resolution skills, anger management skills, role-playing common conflicts that happen in a relationship or with kids, and timeout skills for marriage and with children. Timeout skills for example, in a marriage are critical for marital happiness. Many couples will reach a point in an argument where one person wants to walk away or asks to take a break from the argument. Typically the other person will not want this and will constantly follow, text, email and call the other person. This is due to not having a clear understanding and expectations of rules within the marriage. Without these rules, anxiety builds and resentments fester.
Timeouts can actually help both partners calm down and be less reactive when they come back to talk. A rule of time out is that whoever asks for it must state how long they need to take a break and then come back to the conversation at the end of that time. Typically, a timeout lasts fifteen minutes to no more than twenty-four hours. The effect of this can have a major benefit in marriage as it allows each partner to show the other that they can be mature, respectful and trustworthy. In time, each partner’s anxiety lowers when conflicts arise, trust is rebuilt and marital satisfaction increases.
Our therapists also have certification in the ScreamFree marriage and parenting programs for lowering reactivity with married couples. We are currently accepting clients in this program. If you want to learn how to be a more responsive parent, have better connections with your spouse and kids, want more balance and peace in your life, then we at Serenity would be happy to help you learn how to achieve your goals. Give us a call today at 468-2439.
The only rock I know that stays steady, the only institution I know that works, is the family.Lee Iacocca