Amygdala Hijacking

I wish my name was Brian because maybe sometimes people would misspell my name and call me Brain. That’s like a free compliment and you don’t even gotta be smart to notice it.
-Mitch Hedberg, Comedian

Speaking of brains, have you ever had your amygdala hijacked? If you are a parent, your amygdala has probably been hijacked many times by tiny, little criminals also known as your kids.

Here’s why: the amygdala (also called the reptilian brain) is the emotional part of the brain, left over from our caveman days. It regulates the fight or flight response. When parents are “threatened,” like for instance, when your child insists on pushing the grocery cart through the store and he “innocently” crashes into your foot, which hurts only slightly less than childbirth, you may respond irrationally. That’s because your prefrontal cortex, your thinking brain, gets hijacked by the very powerful reptilian brain. This is what Daniel Goleman, in his book Emotional Intelligence, calls an “amygdala hijacking.”

Now, immediately after the grocery cart crime, your hair-trigger amygdala tells you to collar the perp who sent the searing pain through your foot and let him have it. For many reasons including social media being what it is, you can’t do this. So how do you get your thinking brain to control your reptilian brain? It is possible – not easy – but possible.

  • First, label your feelings silently in your own head: pain, anger, frustration, etc.

  • Then, take a breath and through (probably) gritted teeth, quietly tell your child how you feel, “When you run into my foot with the heavy cart it really hurts and I become angry.”

  • Next, take executive action. Inform the criminal, I mean child, “I’m taking the cart now – when we have more time on another day, you can push.”

As difficult as the scenario above may be, remember that you can control the hijack. All you have to do is use your head.

By Claire Gawinowicz, Certified Parenting Educator
Posted in A - Z Parenting Tips, Anger | Leave a comment

Dads are Special

As a pediatrician, I often witness one of the most infuriating events for mothers. At their child’s 9-month-old visit, I ask, “Has he said any words yet?” “Dada,” says the mother, frustrated that “dad” gets first billing when many times mom is doing the brunt of the work. I look over to the father in the room, and his smile says it all. “Dada.”

I then proceed to explain to the parents that the sound “da” is much easier to form than the much more complicated “ma” and that babies usually save “the best for last.” Usually, this gets both parents smiling.

I went into pediatrics because I love working with children: their resiliency, their grit, their joy, their pain, their triumphs over obstacles, and their smiles drew me to them. I thought my training gave me the skills I needed to become a compassionate pediatrician. That is, until I heard the words “dada” float out of my oldest child’s mouth and penetrate deeply into my heart.

Children tend to bring out the softer side of men, whether they are fathers, stepfathers, or grandfathers. They allow us – and expect us – to not only protect them, but to put aside all of our needs and our egos, to become selfless and playful, while having an eagle-eyed focus on them.

Fathers sometimes get criticized for not being there for their kids and their families, and some of this criticism is deserved. But as I make my way through my daily activities, I notice so much of the good that fathers bring to the family:

  • Walking down the street, I notice a tall, strong, tattooed man. Perched on his broad shoulders is his 3-year-old daughter, barrettes clanging in the breeze, eyes beaming, toothy grin shining with the knowledge that she is loved by her father, who supports her every step of the way.

  • I see another father, arm around his son, homework in his lap, on a bench waiting for the bus. The father patient, wise, engaged, and encouraging.

  • At work, I knock on the door of my next patient, a 15-month-old girl with cerebral palsy. As I walk in, I see the joy on this special child’s face as her dad raises her up in the air above his head, eyes locked. The obvious love and joy that this father and daughter have for each other in that moment makes me feel like an intruder into a relationship that requires no words.

One need not go on an airplane to experience the most incredible, joyful, sometimes painful, life- altering adventure. A man just needs to hear his baby’s first word: “Dada.” The adventure begins.
Happy Father’s Day!

by Dr. Daniel Taylor
Dr. Dan is a Pediatrician at St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children and Advocacy Director of the Pediatric Residency Program. His is also the developer of an online resource for families in Philly called at Cap4Kids. Dr. Dan writes occasionally for the Philadelphia Inquirer but his most important job is that of dad to his four kids.
Posted in A - Z Parenting Tips, Fathers, Holidays, Parents | 1 Comment

Being a Mom is a Hard Work

“The natural state of motherhood is unselfishness. When you become a mother, you are no longer the center of your own universe. You relinquish that position to your children.”

― Jessica Lange

For all the women out there doing the hard work of mothering, we tip our hats to you. Caring for children, keeping their needs always in mind, and providing constant care is a never-ending job.

In honor of all you do, we share the following video:


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Looking Back to Parent Forward

“Be the parent you wish you had.”

~ Dr. Louise Hart, Parenting Expert

Growing up with seven brothers and sisters was very lively; there was always someone to play with, holidays were rollicking events, and older siblings showed the younger ones the ropes. But because there were hardly any rules in our house, it was also quite chaotic.

It seems my parents did not know the best way to enforce the limits that we needed. So when they did try to keep us in line, they sometimes relied on shame, guilt, name-calling, and occasional mild swipes with the belt. Not ideal methods!

I loved my parents with all my heart and, of course, they loved us. They did the best they could considering their backgrounds and how they were raised, but I did not want to use their approach to discipline my own children. I felt there must be a better way than leaving kids without clear guidelines to follow or expectations to meet, and then harshly punishing them for crossing some arbitrary line.

Do any of the following statements reflect questions you have about how you were raised and how you want to raise your children?

  • “When I was growing up, my parents were too strict. I don’t want to be that way.”
  • “How can I get my children to listen to me without having to yell at them? I don’t want to make them feel bad like my parents did to me.”
  • “My parents never corrected me when I was growing up. I felt like I had to raise myself. I want to give my kids more guidance, but I don’t know when I’m being too hard on them.”
  • “What do I do if my husband and I don’t agree on how to discipline our children? We were brought up so differently.”

In general, people parent the way they were parented, unless they feel a need to do things differently. Taking a long, hard look at how you were raised is an important first step in choosing to change the child-rearing patterns established in your family. You can then decide what parts of your upbringing you cherish and want to repeat with your children and which you want to modify or discard.

While making these changes can be difficult and you may feel disloyal to your parents in the process, know that by doing so you are helping your kids to have the parents they need, want, and deserve.

By Claire Gawinowicz, Certified Parenting Educator
Posted in A - Z Parenting Tips, Co-parenting, Discipline | Leave a comment

Parenting Highly Sensitive Children

Dr. Ted Zeff’s wonderful new book, “The Power of Sensitivity: Success Stories of Highly Sensitive People Thriving in a Non-sensitive World,” gives us many insights into what it means to be a sensitive person. It gives us the privilege of looking through the window as many different highly sensitive children and adult lives change for the better.

One such story that deeply touched me is told by Cecilia Bonnevie, who talks about the gifts and challenges of raising an HSP son. Cecilia talks about the deep appreciation that they have for their eight-year old son’s sensitivity. He has deep sympathy for people. He has recently turned vegetarian because he feels so sad for the animals that get killed. He is not afraid of expressing his warmth and deep love for people who matter a lot to him.

At the same time, this greatly heightened sensitivity also means that he gets easily overwhelmed, especially when he is entering a new situation. He needs to be well-prepared to perform at his best. He needs guidance in understanding and dealing with his emotional reactions.

What’s so heart-warming is the love and thoughtfulness that Cecilia and her husband pour into guiding him in learning about who he is and how he can use that to the greatest advantage. Cecilia tells us about how when her son needs to enter a potentially over-stimulating environment, her husband and she take extra care to prepare him for the shift.

“For example, a week before school started we went to his new school as a family, played at the playground, and talked about his feelings and fears of starting a new school and meeting new friends. We assured him that he wasn’t alone in feeling overwhelmed and anxious and let him know that other kids felt the same way on their first day of school. Since the teachers in our school put up a list of children’s and their teacher’s names before school starts, our son felt more relaxed and confident having this information beforehand.”

Cecilia talks about how they work closely with their son’s teachers and help to inform them about his trait in a way that would not “label” him. They also give then a copy of “The Twenty Tips for Teachers” from Elaine Aron’s book The Highly Sensitive Child. This proactive approach helps create a much more understanding environment for her son.

Cecilia also shows us how love can shape a child’s sense of self. When she notices that her son does not participate in big groups because he is overstimulated by the noise and commotion, she starts volunteering for field trips and in gym class. She plays with other kids so that her son can see how much fun it could be to join in on all the fun and games. He just observes her the first few times she volunteers, but pretty soon, he starts participating. As he starts discovering himself and his abilities, he finds that he is, in fact, very athletic and a fast runner. This, further, adds to his confidence.

Cecilia and her husband show us how parenting a sensitive child is about working with their sensitivity, and not against it. They don’t try to impose any outer standards of behavior on their son. Instead, they unconditionally love him for who he is.

They see all the amazing gifts of sensitivity, and give it shape and direction. Their love and acceptance ensures that their son become more and more confident as time goes on. He participates in the world around him, and discovers who he is in the process.

This heart-warming real-life story tells us of the ways in which parents can nurture their sensitive children. When the child feels this love and interest, it is natural for him to grow into someone who also loves and accepts themselves. This is one of the gifts that understanding parents can give HSP children – the self-acceptance that is at the core of later success and happiness in life.


By Ritu Kaushal, reviewing  Ted Zeff’s The Power of Sensitivity: Success Stories of Highly Sensitive People Thriving in a Non-sensitive World

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Handling Disappointments

“Little by little we human beings are confronted with situations that give us more and more clues that we are not perfect.”

~Fred Rogers

I’ve recently had a huge disappointment in my life. It was quite upsetting. Someone very close to me did not meet my expectations and, as a result, I was shocked and crestfallen.

None of us is exempt from life’s letdowns. Whether it is a relatively small issue like our child not studying and then failing a test or something much more serious like a teen regularly using drugs, disappointment is part-and-parcel of parenting.

So what are we to do when life and the people in it disappoint us? On the continuum of what the research says, I found on one end: “Wallow in your disappointment, do the necessary grieving, talk about it, air your feelings.” And on the other far end: “Venting is good but move on sooner rather than later, use the negative energy to seek out ways to shake it off, learn from this!”

Both of these ideas gave me good guidance about how to respond.  But there was one common reminder in all the advice that was key: I myself am not perfect and I surely, over the years, have disappointed others, including my children. This suggested that I could be more accepting of the “failures” of people in my life. Lesson learned.

Other lessons I’m learning:

  1. No one is perfect. Don’t expect them to be; it’s unrealistic and a set-up for disappointment.
  2. Do not ruminate on others’ imperfections. It’s not productive.
  3. Everyone makes mistakes. Period, case closed.
  4. Forgive. But….don’t forget. This doesn’t mean harboring perpetual resentment, but rather stepping back and looking for the lessons to be learned as well as any positives  to be gained from the situation.
  5. Talk, talk, talk to trusted friends and family or consider professional help. The research shows that it really helps.

Disappointment is complicated. It’s often about many other emotions, not just the disappointment itself: frustration, confusion, irritation, sadness, helplessness, surprise, to name just a few.

I’ve become a stronger person by learning ways to deal with my recent disappointment. This gives me hope that eventually, with time, patience, awareness, and work, I will feel better.

By Claire Gawinowicz, Certified Parenting Educator
Posted in A - Z Parenting Tips, Parents | 2 Comments

Be Like a Great President In Your Home

Whenever you do a thing, act as if all the world were watching.
~Thomas Jefferson

Presidents’ Day conjures up visions of our country’s great leaders and their ability to guide our citizens during times of growth and plenty and during times of stress and great challenges. Oh, to have that level of influence! But wait…. You do — maybe not for the whole country, but for your own children.

As a parent, it is impossible to not be a role model. Your children are watching you and will see your example – positive or negative – as a pattern for the way life is to be lived. The old adage of “Do as I say, not as I do” simply does not work. This puts a lot of pressure and responsibility on you to do “the right thing” and to be very aware of your own behavior. For example, if you don’t want your child to spend much time on “screens,” then you need to put your cell phone down.

Here are some ways you can make sure that you put your best foot forward and be a role model that you will be proud to have your children emulate:

  • Take responsibility for your behavior by admitting your own mistakes and talking about how you can correct them. Do not blame things that go wrong on other people or circumstances.
  • Choose your words carefully. Your children are not only watching you; they are also listening to you. Consider how you speak to your children, your spouse, and other people in your life. For example, do you use harsh words and threats when your children misbehave or do you respond with discipline based on respect for your children’s humanity?
  • Show your children constructive ways to manage disagreement. For example, include your children in family discussions, and use these as ways to show them how people can work together. Getting upset or angry when a problem comes up teaches your children to respond in the same way. You can use problem-solving skills to deal with challenges or conflicts in a calm and productive manner.

The bottom line is, if you wish for your children to have certain traits, then you must do and be these things yourself! As Thomas Jefferson wisely noted, act as if you are being watched… because you are!

By Audrey Krisbergh, Certified Parenting Educator

<read more about being a healthy role model for your children

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What Triggers your Anger?

“There are two things a person should never be angry at, what they can help, and what they cannot.”- Plato

ME (pregnant with my first child, talking to my wise, elderly Aunt Louise): “When my child is born he will be a good sleeper because my husband and I love to sleep.”

WISE, ELDERLY AUNT LOUISE: “Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.”

Oh, Aunt Louise, what a sage you were! You knew my love of sleep had little to do with the way my son would sleep.

But really, folks, I. Love. To. Sleep. So, when my kids were young, I was frequently sleep-deprived and very frequently cranky. I had to find ways to get some rest because, if I didn’t, I easily turned into the kind of parent I did not want to be – an angry one.

Our parental anger sometimes materializes because of an underlying issue within us that is simmering; not necessarily as a result of the actual behavior of the child. Lack of sleep was one of my main anger triggers. When I had a sleepless night, an innocuous act like my child spilling his juice at breakfast could turn me into a screaming shrew.

What are your anger triggers? Recognizing what makes you angry may help relieve some pent-up steam before an explosion erupts. Sleep-deprivation was just one of the underlying issues that made me angry; for you, it might be that you feel pulled in too many directions, have unrealistic expectations of yourself or your children, are under the weather, feel unappreciated, have been the target of someone else’s anger, etc.
Fortunately, there are ways to mitigate your anger:

  • take a time out so that you can calm down and gain perspective on the situation. Recent research suggests that often 20 seconds is all you need to engage the thinking part of your brain
  • learn about child development and what’s normal for what age so you can keep your expectations realistic
  • find ways to get some “you” time
  • consider which responsibilities you can let go of or how you can get help
  • attend parenting workshops or consider professional help such as talk therapy

While not always easy, exploring the underlying issues stewing beneath your anger can turn down the heat in your household. This awareness may not take the anger away, but it can dilute it, redirect it, and guide you to manage it. Aunt Louise would be proud!

By Claire Gawinowicz, Certified Parenting Educator


< for additional articles about anger

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The Gift of Acceptance

Acceptance doesn’t mean resignation; it means understanding that something is what it is and that there’s got to be a way through it.
~ Michael J. Fox

I thought I was an accepting person until I realized I wasn’t.

Case in point: a little over a year ago I developed very painful arthritis and visited a long list of doctors, getting only minimal relief. Friends suggested alternative healing methods but, me being me, I scoffed. Months passed and with the pain still there I decided to try the alternative methods. Guess what? I got much-needed relief. I’m not 100% pain-free, but I’ve been helped a lot because I accepted treatment that I used to consider humbug.

Just like every human being, I experience hardships. But via acceptance, I think I’m managing them a little better.

Which got me to thinking. The coming holidays can be a time of contemplation and reflection. What better season to work on acceptance? Consider accepting your situation (whatever it may be), learn about it, and forge onward as opposed to maybe denying that the problem exists, instantly rejecting possible solutions, or adopting a “poor me” attitude.

Accept also possible setbacks: children may not always live up to our hopes and expectations, efforts to manage a situation may not work out as planned, or your family may resist your new approaches to a problem. You may be disappointed to discover that you don’t always adopt this “I can” attitude when confronted with challenges. I still dig in my heels so deeply sometimes I need a ladder to get out. And I’ve been known to have so many pity parties that I really should hire an event planner!

But with the holidays approaching, the opportunity might be perfect to consider acceptance. It could be a gift to yourself and your family that may help you with some issues in very positive ways.

By Claire Gawinowicz, Certified Parenting Educator
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Parenting Styles: Two Different Reactions

Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent then the one derived from fear of punishment.
– Mahatma Gandhi

Imagine the following scenario: A seven-year-old boy is caught stealing a game from a local toy store.

Now envision two different parents responding to the same situation:

The first parent screams at the boy that he is going to wind up in jail, calls him untrustworthy and a sneak, sends him to his room, and grounds him for a month. No explanation is given about why what he did was wrong or how he can fix the problem.

The second parent tells the boy how disappointed he is and lets him know that in their family, people do not take things that do not belong to them. He has the child think about what would happen if everyone took whatever they wanted and asks him to consider how the owner of the store might feel about his merchandise being stolen. This parent gets his son’s input about how the child could make amends – making sure that either the toy is returned or the boy finds a way to re-pay the owner. Furthermore, the parent helps the child decide what he is going to say to the owner when they go together to the store. This parent knows that it is not totally unusual, or indicative of a future life lived as a criminal, for seven-year-olds to pilfer; he also knows that he has to impress upon the child that stealing is wrong.

Which child do you think would be angry at his parent and focus on his resentment toward his parent rather than on what he did wrong? Which one do you think would attempt to steal again if no one were around who might catch him in the act? If you answered child number one, you would be right.

Which child do you think would be more likely to learn that stealing is not acceptable? Which one would feel that although he made a mistake, he can learn from it, make amends, and restore his own and his parent’s positive view of him? Which one will more likely take responsibility for his actions now and in the future? Which boy would feel that his parent is there to support him to get through life’s challenges?

If you answered child number two, you would be right. Although it takes more time, effort, and thought to teach children life’s lessons in a way that they can make them their own, it is a much more powerful approach.

By Audrey Krisbergh, Certified Parenting Educator
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