Parent Calm Thyself First

I was recently lecturing at the Michigan Association for Adoption, Foster, and Kinship Families in Lansing, Michigan and an adoptive mom asked this question...
"What do I do when my 8 yr old becomes aggressive with me?"

I asked her to get up and come to the front of the room and demonstrate exactly what she meant.

I pulled up two chairs and sat her down next to me and I said, "Now tell me what the aggression looks like?” She said, "We'll be sitting next to one another often times in public and she'll elbow me so know no one else can see it.”

I said, “Okay great. I’ll be your daughter and you be you.” Then I elbowed her.

She looked at me and said, “I felt you do that and I don’t like it!” So then I elbowed her again. She got up. I got up and yelled at her and she said she was going to her room. At this point I stopped and said, “Now I’m you and I just went to my room, you follow me and do what she does.” She followed me. (Remember we are in a big conference room and now over on the side of the audience against the wall.) I act as though I’ve closed my door. At this point mom says, “I go into my room to try to calm myself but she’s now banging on the door, and while she’s doing that I’m on the other side telling her that when she calms down I’ll come out.” I said, "then you aren’t calming yourself down". She said, "what do you mean? I’m trying to tell her that when she calms down I’ll come out.” And I again I said, “Then you aren’t really calming yourself down.” I said, “Act like you are behind your door and I’m your daughter.” I start to bang on the wall as she’s trying to tell me once I calm down she will come out and then I start to scream and she’s still trying to tell me that once I calm down she’ll come out and then I start to scream and kick the wall in the conference room and yell, “Don’t leave me, don’t abandon me, don’t reject me.” And I’m screaming louder and louder until I can’t even hear the mom. Then I stop.

I looked at her and say again, “You aren’t working on getting yourself calm behind the door. You are trying to get me calm. Until you get yourself calm, you cannot calm me.” Then the light bulb went off and she got it.

It’s really basic brain science. When we as parents are stressed out we emit cortisol. When our children are stressed out they are emitting cortisol. If we don’t calm ourselves down and turn on our oxytocin hormone (the brain’s anti-stress hormone) then we can’t help our children turn on theirs.

This role play didn’t stop there. We went on for another ten minutes and had a second breakthrough. I’ll share that with you in a while.

Choose Love,



  1. Although i have young children, I have experienced this exact situation and I did in fact figure out that I had to calm myself first as it didn’t work with either of my kids, now 5 and 8. However, I’m still at a loss as to how to set and maintain boundaries around physical aggression, whether towards me or the sibling…

    • Bryan Post says:

      There should be no, zero aggressive behaviors. How you approach this is to use containment with the one who is dysregulated until the calming and soothing takes effect. This is different from time out/isolation but more like “be with me”. Remember that aggression is caused by fear. Calm the fear and diminish the behavior. Learn what triggers the fear so you can manage that effectively thereby influence your children.

  2. deborah squire says:

    Awesome, and I can just see this going on in the conference room…

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