The other night, my son Matthew was angry with his younger brother, Andrew, for something that happened just before turning in to bed for the night. As I was tucking Matthew in his bed, a scowl remained on his face. He said to me, “I don’t ever want Andrew to come into my room again! If he does, I will break his toys!” I quickly realized Matthew had slipped into a non-relational mode, and his brain’s relational connection circuits were missing in action. I knew some serious intervention was needed.
Here is how our conversation went:
Me: “I can see you are really upset with your brother. Wow, you must be really mad to say that you do not want him in your room again when usually you like to play together!”
Matthew: “I don’t like playing with him! He broke my toy, and I don’t ever want him to play with me or my toys again!”
Me: “I would be mad if my toys were broken as well. I can understand why you would feel this way. What do you need when you’re this angry?”
Matthew: “I don’t know. Why can’t I just be mad?”
Me: “You can be mad, but it’s bedtime and time to start winding down for sleep. It’s not good to be stuck in “enemy mode” at bedtime. This can ruin your sleep!”
Matthew: “What do you mean, enemy mode?”
Me: “Well, usually you like your brother and enjoy him. But right now, when you are so mad, it feels like he is your enemy. This means you are stuck in enemy mode, which is another sign that your relational circuits are off.”
Matthew: “What’s wrong with going to bed in enemy mode?”
Me: “The Bible says we should not let the sun go down on our anger. Another way of saying this is that it is not good for us to go to bed angry. Did you know that when you stay angry for more than 6 minutes, your brain sends a chemical called cortisol into your body that sticks around for 24 hours? (1) In the brain, cortisol dissolves all the good stuff you grew in your brain today!” (2)
Matthew: “What?! That doesn’t sound good!”
Me: “No, it is not good for your brain or your body. This is why Mommy is eager for you to get your RCs back on when they go off. It’s also why Mommy and Daddy try to help you calm down when you get upset because being calm is actually better for your body so that you can grow the best brain possible!”
Matthew: “So what should I do about being mad at Andrew?”
Me: “How about you do the VCRC steps and see if this will help you get your RCs on?”
Matthew: “Ok, I’m really mad that my toy is broken, but I’m glad I have other toys and that I usually like playing with Andrew.”
Me: “How are you feeling?”
Me: “Ok, sounds like you are feeling better and ready to go to sleep!”
In this interaction, I validated Matthew and synchronized with his big feelings. After affirming his feelings and acknowledging how upset he was, I invited Matthew to think about what he needed when he feels this way. This is the “comfort” step of the VCRC process, but he was not interested in receiving comfort. I realized he lacked the motivation to get back into a relational mode, so I helped him understand that staying stuck wouldn’t be good for him. After all, when we are in non-relational mode, often the only thing we care about is how we feel. This step grabbed his attention and generated a little motivation to find his way back into relational mode.
The term “enemy mode” is a word Dr. Jim Wilder uses in his new book, The Pandora Problem to describe what happens when we slip out of relational mode. Shifting from relational to enemy mode happens to all of us, probably multiple times a day. The good news is, we don’t have to stay there!
Everything about life and relationships will go better when our brain’s relational circuits are on. There are several ways to restore relational circuits, Shalom my Body, reflecting on appreciation and VCRC. Staying relational not only helps us connect with others, but we can hold onto our brain’s ability to navigate better life and relationships – even when someone breaks one of our toys! Which one do you want to try today?
- Our colleague and author Dr. David Levy shared this point with us.
- Dr. Jim Wilder teaches how cortisol chemically wipes out new brain growth in the developing brain. Learn more in the THRIVE-at-Home curriculum.