If we want to prepare kids to participate as healthy individuals in a relationship, we need to create within them an open, receptive state, instead of a closed, reactive one. To illustrate, here’s an exercise Dan uses with many families. First he’ll tell them he’s going to repeat a word several times, and he asks them just to notice what it feels like in their bodies. The first word is “no,” said firmly and slightly harshly seven times, with about two seconds between each “no.” Then, after another pause, he says a clear but somewhat gentler “yes” seven times. Afterward, clients often say that the “no” felt stifling and angering, as if they were being shut down or scolded. In contrast, the “yes” made them feel calm, peaceful, even light. (You might close your eyes now and try the exercise for yourself. Notice what goes on in your body as you or a friend says “no” and then “yes” several times.)
These two different responses—the “no” feelings and the “yes” feelings—demonstrate what we mean when we talk about reactivity versus receptivity. When the nervous system is reactive, it’s actually in a fight-flight-freeze response state, from which it’s almost impossible to connect in an open and caring way with another person. Remember the amygdala and the other parts of your downstairs brain that react immediately, without thinking, whenever you feel threatened? When our entire focus is on self-defense, no matter what we do, we stay in that reactive, “no” state of mind. We become guarded, unable to join with someone else—by listening well, by giving them the benefit of the doubt, by considering their feelings, and so on. Even neutral comments can transform into fighting words, distorting what we hear to fit what we fear. This is how we enter a reactive state and prepare to fight, to flee, or even to freeze.
On the other hand, when we’re receptive, a different set of circuits in the brain becomes active. The “yes” part of the exercise, for most people, produces a positive experience. The muscles of their face and vocal cords relax, their blood pressure and heart rate normalize, and they become more open to experiencing whatever another person wants to express. In short, they become more receptive. Whereas reactivity emerges from our downstairs brain and leaves us feeling shut down, upset, and defensive, a receptive state turns on the social engagement system that involves a different set of circuits of the upstairs brain that connects us to others, allowing us to feel safe and seen.
When interacting with our kids, it can be extremely helpful to decipher whether they’re in a reactive or receptive state of mind. This of course requires mindsight on our part. We need to consider where our kids are emotionally (and where we ourselves are) at any given moment. If your four-year-old is screaming “I wanna swing longer!” as you carry her under one arm away from the park, that may not be the best time to talk to her about appropriate ways of handling big emotions. Wait until this reactive state passes; then, when she’s more receptive, talk to her about how you’d like to see her respond the next time she’s disappointed. Likewise, when your eleven-year-old finds out that he didn’t get accepted into the art program he’d set his heart on, you may need to hold off on word-heavy pronouncements of hope and alternatives. The downstairs state of reactivity doesn’t know what to do with a lot of upstairs words. Often, in moments of reactivity, nonverbals (like hugs and empathetic facial expressions) will be much more powerful.
Over time, we want to help our children become more receptive to relationships, and help them develop mindsight skills that will let them join with others. Then receptivity can lead to resonance—a way of joining from the inside out—that will allow them to enjoy the depth and intimacy that come with meaningful relationships. Otherwise, a child is left adrift, motivated by a sense of isolation rather than a desire and ability to join.
One final note before we turn to steps we can take to encourage receptivity and relational skills: as we help children be more receptive to joining with others, we need to keep in mind the importance of maintaining their individual identity as well. For a ten-year-old girl who’s doing everything within her power to fit in with a clique of mean girls at school, the problem may not be that she’s not receptive enough to joining a “we.” The concern for her may be just the opposite, that she’s lost sight of her “me” and is therefore going along with everything this set of bullies tells her to do. Any healthy relationship—whether it’s family, friendship, romantic, or otherwise—is made up of healthy individuals in connection with others. To become a part of a well-functioning “we,” a person needs also to remain an individual “me.” Just as we don’t want our kids to be only right-brained or only left-brained, we also don’t want them to be only individualistic, leaving them selfish and isolated, or only relational, leaving them needy, dependent, and vulnerable to unhealthy and harmful relationships. We want them to be whole-brained, and enjoy integrated relationships.