Consider all the things you do without having to think about how to do them. Brushing your teeth; putting on your clothes; typing that email without looking at the keyboard. And how many times have you pulled into your driveway and thought, “I really don’t remember driving home!”
A musician’s fingers flying over the piano keys; a gymnast sticking a perfect landing after a difficult tumble; a surgeon successfully repairing a damaged knee. None of them have to sit down first to think through how to do what they do. At least I hope they don’t!
When our implicit memory is our enemy
We benefit in many ways from implicit memory. But what happens when those implicit memories cause bad or unwanted behavior?
A small dog barks at you and you freeze in fear even though you have no reason to be afraid; your boss orders you to do something that is not a part of your job description, and you explode with anger; a close friend moves two states away, and you lay in bed all day wondering if you will ever invest again in another friendship.
All these reactions easily could be traced back to something that happened to you that you don’t remember. Very likely whatever happened took place when you were a small child.
Why a child does what they do
In dealing with a child from a hard place—foster care, orphanage, adoption or even prenatal or early birth trauma— events such as neglect, abuse and abandonment truly may have a role in the poor behavior you see today.
When my almost four-year-old son acts poorly—tantrums, outright disobedience, rudeness, hyper-activity, etc.—I try to remind myself to consider whether his behavior is an explicit, cognitive decision to act poorly or an implicit emotional response that he isn’t even aware of.
More times than not, he becomes dysregulated and reacts with abnormal, usually unwanted behavior, much the way I might overreact to the sight of a dog standing in my path. If I had a traumatic encounter with a dog in my past, I would not have to put any thought into my reaction of overwhelming fear at the sight of a dog of any size. I too would become dysregulated.
When we become dysregulated, our mental neurology begins to work from the emotional part of our brain. You could try to reason with me until you were blue in the face that I had no reason to be afraid of that silly little dog. But until I am regulated you will have no success in helping me calm down or relax.
So when I respond to my son during one of his poor behavioral moments with logic and reason, it is useless. His cognitive ability to reason has shut down or closed off for the moment. I call that “blowing a fuse” and until we can reset, logical reasoning will have to wait.
Understanding the cause affects our response
Understanding or discerning where the bad behavior is coming from determines how to respond, really to anyone, not just a young child. Far too often though the first response is to correct, punish, discipline. But this quote from Daniel Siegel is good to remember:
What is the best response?
Regardless if the poor behavior is deliberate or ignited by some implicit memory, the first response should be to connect with the child. Even if the behavior is intentional and thought out, connecting before correcting gives an opportunity to discuss more than the behavior. You can also work at meeting other needs driving the behavior, such as, the need for attention, respect or encouragement.
Definitely if your child is in complete meltdown mode, connecting will help her regulate. As you stay regulated, she can regulate. Then she is ready to interact more from the logical part of her brain. Teaching and modeling now can happen.
Remaining regulated is the key
Common sense tells me that if I am able to help my child regulate, I have to be regulated myself! That’s where it helps to pay attention to what is going on in me. Not always easy!