Monkey Brain or Lizard Brain? How Do You Do Conflict?

Monkey Brain or Lizard Brain. How do you 'do' conflict?

Family arguments are a way of life. We live, we love, we argue, we make up. Research has made it clear that the way we argue carries more heft in determining relationship quality than whether or not we argue, or how much. Fighting filthy will bring us undone. Fighting fair, on the other hand will keep relationships intact.

People and families have a characteristic way of fighting and each is fed by a different part of the brain. New research is challenging people to look at how their brain influences how they fight, with a view to learning more adaptive ways to engage in conflict and avoid the scalding heat of battle. 

The Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution has developed a test for this very purpose. The ‘Monkey v Lizard’ quiz was designed to give people a better idea of what part of their brain they are using when they argue. With this information, people are then well positioned to make deliberate choices around how they ‘do’ conflict. 

Monkey v Lizard. Now to explain …

There are two parts of our brain that are called into play when we argue. The Old Brain (the lizard) is the primal ‘fight or flight’ response. All action and not a lot of thought. The other is called the New Brain (the monkey) and involves cognitive (thought) processes such as empathy, reflection and understanding. 

The Old Brain is driven to protect us from threat by physically preparing us to fight for our  life or run for it. It can come in handy when there’s, say, a bus hurtling towards us and we need to get out of the way. It’s not so handy when the issue is that of Oreos, or more specifically, that someone has taken the last one.

When there’s no need for a physical response (no need to fight, no need to flee), the cortisol builds up. As this happens, the thinking part of the New Brain that empathises, reflects and understands, gets sidelined in favour of the more primitive, automatic, unthinking part. When this happens, there will likely be yelling, personal sledging and aggression. Nobody listens and nobody is heard. Disrespect will be a hallmark.

The New Brain (the monkey), on the other hand is the thinker. When this part of the brain is at the helm, we’re likely to slow things down before we respond, check things out, reason, listen, reflect, empathise and communicate. When the New Brain drives behaviour, people feel heard, validated and understood. This doesn’t mean everyone agrees – not at all. What it means is that people and points of view are respected and relationships remain intact. There’s less ‘agro’ and more respect.

And now what to do about it.

The first step to bringing harmony to the home is being aware of what you’re doing that could do with some tweaking. Just because you’ve always done things a certain way, doesn’t mean you have keep doing them that way. By being aware of what you’re doing, behaviour becomes less automatic and you start to realise you have choices about how to respond. It’s always good to learn that you can do something better – it means you’re human – and a pretty good one if you’re open to change. 

Ready to give it a go?

You’ll find the Monkey v Lizard Quiz here. It’s quick – like, 10 questions quick – and you’ll be learning something about yourself in the process. What’s not to love about that?

 If your house is getting a bit hot headed, the Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution has a website with free resources and practical tips. You’ll find their excellent resources here. There’s advice for parents and carers and separate advice for young people. They also tailor advice according to the issue.

 

Monkey Brain or Lizard Brain? How do you do conflict?

(Image: Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution)

An easy way to calm the lizard.

If a battle feels looming, one of the ways to engage the new, thinking part of the brain and calm the old, primal part of the brain is by deep, slow breathing. This has been found to lower cortisol levels and reverse the fight or flight response. It’s why taking short space from each other before things overheat is important. It lets the Old Brain (the lizard) disengage and the New Brain (the monkey) come into play.

And finally …

Conflict is a way of life. In a house with flourishing, independent, curious minds it’s going to happen.

When kids are involved, it’s good to think that we’ve brought them up to think for themselves and to know their own mind. When you raise independent minds who are curious, strong, independent and questioning, there are going to be times when those minds differ from ours. Though it’s hard to be grateful for that when their acquiescence would make things so much easier, the truth is, it’s something to be proud of. What that depends on, of course, is that way the conflict plays out.

When people are not heard, acknowledged and validated, relationships fall apart. If this is something you’re struggling with in your family, take the test with your tribe to first show them that there is a different way of being. Then, have a look at the resources in the link. All change starts with awareness. Being open to change and the impact you have on people, when you’re fighting or otherwise, is the essence of healthy relating and the key to healthy, full relationships.

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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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