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Why Good Times Can Suddenly Turn Bad

November 28, 2016

Big things, like their birthday party or a vacation to Disney World.

Little things, like Trunk or Treat at church or an afternoon at Jumpoline.

Why is it that your child can actually be having fun.  A great time!  And then fall into a crater of dysregulation?  You feel whip-lashed.  Maybe resentful.  Certainly grieved that for some reason, your sweet family and your precious child are missing out on some of the most anticipated, and seemingly normal, moments of their childhood.  Of being a family.

Why do some of those best times turn so bad?


A quick little neurophysiology lesson.  The Amygdala.  The part of your brain responsible for appraising a situation and activating emotion. (Daniel Siegel, MD- The Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology).

The amygdala is scanning for danger an estimated FOUR TIMES every second.  Every ¼ of a second, a teeny tiny cluster of neurons in the brain is asking “Safe?? Not safe?!?!?!”  The amygdala may need to recruit a few of it’s brain-friends to make the final determination on whether it needs to kick it full force into fight/flight/freeze (or not), but this almond-shaped neuron cluster is on the front line when it comes to making that initial assessment.

The amygdala definitely has a negativity bias- meaning that if it is going to make a mistake, it is going to err on the side of deciding something was NOT SAFE even if it actually was SAFE.  The amygdala also supercharges threatening experiences in our memory systems so that when we successfully fight off a sabre tooth tiger, the next time we see even a glimmer of a sabre tooth in our peripheral vision, we immediately access the memory networks that will help us claim victory once again.  The brain isn’t really that concerned with if the sabre tooth in your periphery is actually just a harmless kitty cat from your favorite next door neighbor.  Since the amygdala’s job is to keep you ALIVE, it is fine with you overreacting to the neighbor’s kitty cat as opposed to underreacting to the life-threatening sabre tooth tiger that roams your suburban neighborhood.

You remember Pavlov?  How he got dogs to salivate to a sound of a bell by repeatedly pairing that sound with their dinner?  The dogs started to connect the sound of a bell to “DINNER!!!!” even though there really isn’t any relationship between the two (outside that lab experiment).  Well, some of your kids have paired “DANGER” with things that aren’t actually dangerous (the telephone ringing)- because at one point in time, that thing WAS dangerous (when the phone rang and at that same moment, they witnessed horrible domestic violence).  Or maybe everything was dangerous.

So this might help you begin to figure out why certain fun experiences actually turn your kid into a dysregulated mess.  Think about those environments and be curious- is anything in that environment something that was previously paired with danger for my child?  Sounds? Smells?

But there is one more reallllllly important thing to think about.

The brain is interested in both EXTERNAL cues (discussed above) and INTERNAL cues.

Heart rate.  Respiration.  Cortisol levels.  Sympathetic activation.  All those things change when your child is having a great time.  Jumpoline?!?!  Definite increase in heart rate, respiration, and sympathetic activation.  Birthday party?!?!?  Increase.

Well….all of those things also increase during a fight/flight/freeze DANGER DANGER response.

As your child’s heart rate elevates- as sympathetic arousal elevates due to excitement, or in order to power your child’s body through the energy-required gross motor activities of the birthday party- your child’s brain is still scanning for danger.  And this time- the danger might actually be coming from INSIDE your child’s body.

Because just like Pavlov can pair a bell with salivation, your child’s body can pair increased heart rate with “I’m about to die.”

And just like that- the switch is flipped and all those fun times turn IMMEDIATELY into dysregulation.

Dysregulation that is fueled by the fact that your child is already in sympathetic activation- so the dysregulation might be BIG.

All of the sudden, everyone is out to hurt your child.  An innocent bump on the trampoline causes your child to retaliate with a fist because his brain believed it was an attack.  Or the sweet fun your child was having turns a bit maniacal.  It’s out of control and your child suddenly can’t hear or listen or stop doing the outrageously impulsive thing she is doing.

Because the amygdala is scanning for danger outside AND inside the body.

Because early in your child’s life, sympathetic activation only meant DANGER.  It didn’t mean fun or shared pleasure.  Only danger.

The really great news is that this pairing can be undone.  It takes time, patience, and perhaps a skilled therapist, but mostly a patient and attuned parent who can help the brain re-learn that an increased heart rate can just mean there is a TON of fun happening.

I’m imaging that as we wrap up one holiday week while still swimming in holiday festivities that won’t disappear for at least four weeks, you may be seeing some of this in your family.  Maybe even at this very moment while you are taking a break on the internet from the chaos that is swirling in the background.

We’re gonna make it to January.  Promise.



LIVE Webinar next Tuesday December 6th!  How to Talk About the Hard Truths in Adoption.  Can’t make it live?  All participants will receive a recording of the webinar to watch as often as you’d like!  CLICK HERE!!!

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Robyn Gobbel, LCSW is a child and family therapist in Austin, Texas specializing in adoption, trauma, and attachment counseling. She is the founder of the Central Texas Attachment & Trauma Center.

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