Recognizing overwhelm signals (Skill 9) and staying connected during intense emotions without going over the top, known as interactive quieting (Skill 15), are two key skills we need to sustain healthy relationships. In an ideal world, we develop these skills early in life as parents, family members, teachers, coaches, etc. use these crucial skills to interact with us. While these brain skills sound easy on paper, practicing them in real life is hard work.
Do you know anyone who frequently runs people over with their words and intensity? What about someone who loses it at the drop of a hat? What about a person who can’t seem to stop once they start? Do you know anyone who uses anger to get results? These are all signs Skill 9 and 15 are needed. Sometimes the symptoms are more subtle and we simply avoid conflict or fear making people angry or upset. Using these skills in live time, with big emotions, under intense pressure requires purposeful effort and focused training.
For a number of years now I have practiced these skills but every now and then I drop the ball and fail to utilize these invaluable skills. After a recent bout of sickness, I finally felt good enough to get back to life. I missed my sons, so I sought them out. I found my 5-year old son Andrew playing in his room. Peeking in his room he saw me and responded with a big grin on his face. I walked in and started playfully tickling and wrestling with him. We were having a ball and for fathers, this is a common way dads like to bond with their children. It is also an ideal time to train brain skills. After a few moments of interaction, I was tickling him when he said, “Stop!” “Stop!” “Stop!” while laughing. Wanting to get in a few more good tickles I gave him one round of tickling before saying, “Ok, buddy. That was fun! But now Daddy is going downstairs. I really missed you!” After a hug, he said, “Ok Daddy” as I walked out.
Because he was laughing I didn’t give this much thought but I just broke my own rule for our household. When someone says “Stop” you stop. No more tickling or playing. You simply stop. I also interrupted his play instead of waiting for him to approach me which does not foster a secure attachment. In all honesty, at the time, I didn’t think about these things until my wife told me 10 minutes later that Matthew, our oldest son, said to her, “Daddy never stops.” When I heard this a knot formed in my stomach. While I knew he was exaggerating by saying never, he was also right. He was listening to the recent wrestling match between Andrew and I where I failed to stop the first time. I knew I needed to repair and update minds with my sons.
On my way to talk with Andrew I saw Matthew playing with his new robot dinosaur. I paused and said, “I am very sorry to know that you feel Daddy never stops. How frustrating for you! This makes me very sad because it’s important that Mommy and Daddy both stop when you and brother say stop. I am very sorry for this. Will you forgive me?” He looked at me and, still holding his dinosaur, said, “Mr. Dinosaur gets mad at you when you don’t stop and you didn’t stop when Andrew told you to stop.” “Yes, I bet he does!” I said. “I get mad as well when people don’t stop. I am very sorry for messing up.” Knowing this was a golden opportunity for repair, I stooped down, looked my son in the eye, then I looked Mr. Dinosaur in his robot eyes, and reiterated what I said previously adding, “Matthew and Mr. Dinosaur, will you forgive me for not doing a better job stopping? I am very sorry this happened and I hope you will give me another chance.” With the help of Matthew, Mr. Dinosaur nodded in agreement then Matthew mentioned, “Mr. Dinosaur is also mad at you that we are moving.” I knew my son is processing some big feelings so I validated both Matthew and Mr. Dinosaur about how hard moving is, and how sad it is to leave behind special friends. I said, “I hope you and Mr. Dinosaur will give this move a try and we will see what fun we can discover in our new home.” I received a nod from Mr. Dinosaur and while I knew we would be talking more about these matters, I thanked Mr. Dinosaur and Matthew for expressing these feelings with me. I said, “I am so, so proud of you and Mr. Dinosaur for speaking up about these important things. Thank you!” With a smile on Matthew’s face and some dancing from Mr. Dinosaur, it was now time to repair with Andrew.
I walked into Andrew’s room and sat next to him on his bed. I said, “Buddy, I am really sad right now. You know why?” “No, why Daddy?” he said looking perplexed. “Well, I did not stop when you first said to stop when we were playing. Instead of stopping I kept tickling you. I broke our house rule and I am very sorry. Will you be able to forgive me?” Andrew paused for a moment then said, “YYYEEESSSS, I forgive you.” With a smile, I said, “Thank you, Andrew. I want you to tell me when I forget to stop, ok?” He agreed and after a few moments of chatting I gave him a hug and thanked him for being such a good son.
With Overwhelm Recognition, Skill 9, we simply need to stop once we notice that we or the person interacting with us has reached their peak and needs to rest. Stopping once we start talking, playing, splashing, tickling and interacting, in general, requires self-control and vigilance. If we have the skill this will feel natural for us. If we do not have the skill we keep going and push, yell, stare, splash, tickle, etc. without noticing we ran through the big red stop sign.
Interactive Quieting, Skill 15, builds on this foundation but is more demanding because, instead of simply stopping, we continue the interaction at a high level of energy reaching the very edge of the overwhelm cliff – without going over. What makes Skill 15 so difficult is that we have to do two things at once. First, we regulate our own emotional intensity while we continue the interaction. Second, we carefully observe for signs the other person is close to maxing out then we delicately interact at high levels of intensity with brief moments to pause in order to keep the high-energy interaction going safely and smoothly. It is here where the lack of training shows up. People who cannot regulate their own emotions and do not respect the limits in themselves and other people end up getting into altercations, become argumentative, overly aggressive as well as verbally and physically abusive. Trust is broken and relationships are painfully ruptured.
Imagine a world free from violence, abuse, mockery, contempt or road rage! Imagine what would change if every person knew when to stop and avoided relational casualties because they remained relational without going over the top. Fathers are the ideal people to train these two skills but for many of us, these skills are simply not in our relational arsenal so we pass on our deficiencies without realizing it.
The good news is this. Every one of us can learn these invaluable skills! Learn more about relational brain skills in my new book, Transforming Fellowship here. While my scenario was minor and low on the intensity spectrum these are often the times we minimize the impact on others because we were having fun, we were not fighting or arguing. Yet, the skills are just as essential under these conditions for the health of our brain and bonds.
I hope you learn from my mistakes and press the brake pedal when it’s time to stop.