"You may become flooded by feelings such as fear, sadness or rage. These intense emotions can lead you to have a knee-jerk reaction instead of thoughtful responses. When emotional reactions replace mindfulness, you're on the low road and it is very unlikely that you will be able to maintain nurturing communication and connection with your child." -- Dan Siegel
You know what the high road is. When you’re feeling really good, nothing fazes you. You respond to your child’s foibles with patience, understanding, and a sense of humor.
You know what the low road is, too. It’s when you’re stressed, exhausted, resentful. When you insist on being right or wringing an apology out of your child. When your fuse is so short that you feel justified in having your own little tantrum. When you're in the grip of fight or flight emotions and your child looks like the enemy.
All those challenging emotions that flood us and wash us on to the low road can be traced, at core, to feelings of fear, powerlessness, grief, disappointment and disconnection from our child. Sure, we're reacting to our child's behavior. But we rage so we won't have to feel those unbearable feelings. When kids act out, they're being driven by these feelings, too, which is why connecting with them heals their emotions as well as their behavior.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t reasons to get upset. It means there are far fewer reasons than we think. It means that what upsets you might make another parent smile or shrug. It means that when we're in a state of love, not much upsets us. By contrast, when we're on the low road, everything upsets us.
Life is tough. Nobody takes the high road all the time. But you can find yourself on it more and more. How?
1. Practice mindfulness. You don’t have to meditate, although I highly recommend it. Just bringing awareness to your thoughts and emotions is enough to keep you from being in the grip of them. What does that mean? Notice what's happening NOW, in your body. Every time you take a deep breath and feel the sensations in your body, you're practicing mindfulness. You're pressing the pause button so you aren't just getting triggered. That gives you a choice about which road to choose.
2. Accept feelings and take loving action. What does that mean? We usually start sliding down onto the low road by tolerating behavior we don't like without taking action, so we get increasingly annoyed and finally get hijacked by our anger. The high road is accepting feelings while we take loving action. Here's the difference:
"I wish she wouldn't call her sister names." - This is tolerating the behavior that goes against our values, without accepting feelings or taking action. It doesn't solve the problem because no limit is set and the child doesn't get help with the feelings that are driving her to act unkindly. It makes us resentful of our child and more prone to snap later.
"Stop that name calling right this minute or you'll get punished!" - This is reaction without accepting feelings. Although a limit is set, this response escalates the problem and reinforces it, because now the child blames her sister for the punishment, is angry at your unfairness so she doesn't WANT to behave, and still gets no help with her feelings.
"The rule in this house is we speak to each other with respect, and no name calling.....I hear how angry you are at your sister....Sweetie, tell me what's going on.... what's making you so angry?" - This acceptance of feelings shifts the emotions all round. Loving action sets a clear limit on behavior AND helps the child with the emotions at the root of the behavior, so she doesn't have to act on them.
3. Don't get hijacked by the low road. Those emergency feelings of fight, flight and freeze tell you you're on the low road. So when you notice that you're shaking with anger, it's NOT a sign that your child needs to be taught a lesson RIGHT NOW. It's a red warning flag telling you to STOP. Notice you're getting hijacked by your upset. Resist the urge to act on it. Breathe through it. You aren't that emotion; you are observing that emotion. It will pass. Melt that rage away by letting yourself feel the fear, sadness and disappointment under the anger. If this happens often, you need to do some homework to heal your own issues. (And who doesn't have issues?!)
4. The low road never leads to the destination you want. From the low road, our child is so clearly wrong. But the wider view from the high road shows us our child's perspective, and our compassion blooms.
Let's say your child is objectively, totally, completely, off-track. That often happens to young humans with big feelings and immature brains. But your child can only join you on a better path if you're reaching out from the high road. Blame, shame, anger, and criticism never help your child become a better person. (Do they help you be a better parent?) Your heart is your compass here; getting in touch with our love always gets us back on the high road.
5. Choose the high road. Children who feel ugly inside act ugly, which is a signal that they need our help. We always have a choice. Will you join him on the low road and escalate the upset, or will you embrace him with your love so he can get back onto the high road with you?
You can't live on the high road all the time, if you're human. But the more you get used to choosing it, the faster you'll notice when you're off-track. It's hard, yes, but it isn't complicated. The high road is love. The low road is fear. Choose love as often as you can. Unconditionally.