Chapter Summaries and extract


The Reptile Brain

The Reptile in Us
Why Do They Do It?
Make a Plan

The 6 to 1 Strategy 4

What is the 6 to 1 Strategy?
How to Praise

Tools for Supporting Better Behaviour

Punishments, Consequences and Time Out
Routines and Rules
Play for Better Behaviour

Troubleshooting Guide

Bedtimes and Early Risers
Car Journeys from Hell
Food and Eating
Revolting Table Manners
Rude Children
Other People’s Children
Sibling Rivalry
Well-Intentioned Grandparents
Sport and Games
Television, Computers and Video Games

1 the reptile in us

Wild Threats or Bribes

The four-year-old starts screaming and throwing groceries out of the trolley, just as the baby is beginning to need a feed. The mother can feel her stress levels going through the roof and she has just noticed the disapproving stare of the woman behind her in the queue. She has stopped thinking rationally, she just wants to get home.

To stop the child bawling the mother either gives a wild threat: ‘Right! If you don’t stop screaming then you can’t watch any videos for the rest of the week.’ Or offers a bribe: ‘Come on, darling, if you stop shouting you can choose a packet of sweets.’

When she gets home and calms down she realises that she needs her child to watch a video so she can bath the baby in peace. She also decides that the punishment she thought of in the heat of the moment was a bit too severe. Either she forgets about the threat completely, or she finds a way to get out of it. ‘Right, you can watch a video tonight, but if you behave like that in the supermarket again, then you really won’t be allowed to watch one next time.’ Or: ‘As you’ve been so good since we got back, you can watch a video this time.’

Children soon learn to distinguish between a serious threat and a bluff and will treat each accordingly. If you listen to other parents (as well as to yourself) you will be amazed by how many empty threats you’ll hear. Bribes, on the other hand, will always work. Your child will quickly learn that a great way to get sweets is to throw a tantrum – the more intense, the more sweets. So starts a pattern that will get harder to break every time it is repeated.

It is easy to be critical of these two responses, but remember the parent is under stress and the adrenaline is flowing. The rational brain has shut down and they can’t react logically or reasonably. They are ‘in reptile’.

The Reptile Brain: Fight or Flight

When humans are faced with a perceived danger, the body begins to prepare itself to deal with the threat. This is known as the fight or flight reaction. The blood vessels in the arms and legs open up and blood is diverted away from the parts of the brain that deal with rational thought, to the muscles. The body is preparing to fight or run away. There is simply not enough blood to go round, and with divas and dictators the less blood in the brain, the capacity to think clearly is reduced.

This means that when humans lose their temper or are distressed they say and do things that they may later come to regret. The thinking part of the brain shuts down and we are left with the primeval part of our brain that is akin in complexity and understanding to that of a reptile. Under stress our brains work with all the judgement and rationality of an alligator.

The problem is that our body responds in the same way to an emotional threat as it does to a physical threat. If you worked on a checkout in a supermarket and you wanted to steal some money, you could short-change the customers with screaming children. They never check their change, and even if they tried they couldn’t add it up – reptiles can’t do maths.

Imagine trying to read a map ten minutes after you had been in a car crash. You would see the extent to which your rational brain had shut down. In the following case study, when Maggie gets home and has to deal with a son who is trying to turn bedtime into a game, her body reacts as if she is being physically threatened.

Our physical reaction to stress hormones is the same, no matter what has caused them to be released.

Bedtime in Maggie’s House

Maggie has come back from a long day at work and she is feeling exhausted. She makes tea for her two children, Tom, five and Laura, two.

The trouble starts when she tells the children to go upstairs for a bath. Tom is in the middle of playing with his toy farm and completely ignores her. This ignoring thing from Tom has just started in the last week or so and Maggie is finding it really irritating. She calls him again and still he takes no notice. She has had enough so she leans over to him and shouts. ‘TOM, BATHTIME.’

He gets up slowly and starts to go upstairs at zero miles an hour. Maggie grabs his hand and tries to speed him up; he thinks this is a game. He wriggles free and runs down the stairs again. Maggie goes after him, picks him up and carries him to the bathroom. Maggie gets Laura into the bath, but Tom refuses to get undressed and keeps running away. Maggie tries to jolly him along; she is feeling guilty after carrying him up the stairs. ‘Tom, come on, darling, I’ve run a lovely bath.’ He takes no notice and she gets really furious. ‘RIGHT, NO BEDTIME STORY,’ she shouts. ‘I don’t want a story tonight,’ he says, running off. ‘Okay, you’re not going to the zoo with Daddy this weekend.’

Tom’s face crumples and he starts howling. Maggie manages to get him undressed and into the bath. Laura is helped out and demands her milk. After her bedtime bottle, Maggie reads her a quick story. Meanwhile, Tom has been quietly tipping water on to the bathroom floor. Maggie really loses it. ‘GET OUT NOW!’ she screams and yanks him out of the bath. ‘Look at Laura, she’s ready for bed already, why can’t you be more like her?

This happens every night, why can’t you just do what you’re told? Right! From now on we are going to have bathtime half an hour earlier!’ By pinning Tom down, Maggie gets him dry. He finally stops crying and puts his pyjamas on while she puts Laura to bed. Maggie comes back and they have a cuddle. ‘I will read you a story tonight because you got dressed all by yourself,’ she says.

They have an extra story, because Maggie is starting to feel really guilty about getting so angry. She puts him to bed and he promises to be good at bedtime the next day.Maggie goes downstairs and pours a glass of wine, and finally begins to relax after her day’s work and the battle at bedtime.

Tom’s bedroom door opens and she hears him padding down the stairs. ‘Mum, I’m really hungry …’ Any of that sound familiar? Maggie came into the house feeling tense after her day at work. When she asked Tom to stop playing he ignored her twice, this tipped her over the edge and she began to lose her temper. She shouted at Tom, compared him unfavourably to his sister and made threats that she didn’t follow through. Though she got her children to bed in the end, it was a traumatic experience all round and the chances are something similar will happen the next night.

Afterwards, Maggie felt guilty about what had happened, especially as she knew much of her anger was derived from tiredness due to her long day at work. Maggie became angry and her body dumped a load of adrenaline into her bloodstream. This hormone produced the primeval reaction in her that helped to protect her ancestors from sabre-toothed tigers. While

Maggie’s brain was short of blood she lost control of what she was saying and doing. As she started to calm down at the end of bedtime, the blood began to flow back to her brain and she was able to think more clearly. The guilt she felt meant she read Tom a bedtime story, even though she had told him she wouldn’t. She also knew she wouldn’t follow through with the threat to ban the zoo trip, either.

The message this sent Tom was: When I make a threat, don’t take me seriously. It is also important to remember that children, as well as parents, go into reptile mode. Remember when someone shouted at you as a child, how you got frightened or angry? Those feelings cause the reptile effect in children, and like adults they can say and do things that they don’t mean. Their capacity for rational thought and problem solving goes, and like their parents, they are unable to think straight.

Maggie decided that from now on she was going to start bathtime half an hour earlier. Not a bad idea in theory, but in reptile mode she has forgotten that they are out to tea for the next two days. They won’t be back in time for the early bath and so the new plan will have to wait. Maggie has also forgotten that during the next week she has a couple of late meetings at work. The new regime hasn’t been thought through and so it founders. This is hardly surprising, as it is impossible for anyone to start making plans when they are angry.

Parents become hugely concerned about bad behaviour when it is happening, but they don’t think about it when everything is running smoothly. Unfortunately, it is while in reptile mode that we usually try and change our children’s behaviour. We react by threatening dire punishments, shouting or, worse still, smacking. In addition, we often suddenly decide that there is going to be a new regime. Right! Whenever you find yourself starting a sentence like this, you can be fairly sure you are entering the realm of the reptile. It is supposed to sound strong and decisive, but what it usually means is, ‘I’ve started to lose it.’

How Can I Stay Out of Reptile Mode?

Soldiers spend hours taking apart their guns and then putting them back together again. The process becomes second nature and they become so proficient that they can do it blindfolded. Army training takes into account the flight or fight reaction and the loss of the rational brain under stress.

When a gun jams on the battlefield the soldier can automatically strip the weapon down and correct the fault because he has rehearsed the procedure so many times. If he had to stop and think how to unjam a gun while the bullets were whizzing past his ear he would not be able to do it.

Under stress, humans don’t function properly. Soldiers get round this by preparing in advance. I’m not saying there is a direct comparison between looking after children and going into battle, although some parents might think so. The point is this: if parents have a clearly thought out, well-rehearsed plan ready, when the trouble comes they will stay calm, stay positive and keep the reptile at bay.

The Reptile in Us:

A Summary

1 When humans get angry, stressed or frightened, a physical reaction means their thinking brain stops working.

2 Parents in reptile mode make wild threats that they won’t follow through or use bribes that encourage the bad behaviour to happen again.

3 If parents go into reptile, their children probably will too and things will start to get worse.

4 When parents come out of reptile, they often feel guilty and end up over-compensating. This teaches children not to take them seriously when they get angry.

5 The best way to avoid going into reptile mode is to make plans and be prepared for the trouble when it comes