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When Tensions Run High, Look Below the Surface

Connection is the key to promoting calm in others.

Key points

  • When a message is packaged poorly, it helps to focus on the underlying needs being expressed.
  • If someone is flooded, their higher-order thinking shuts down, and they can't effectively re-engage until they're calm.
  • People tend to behave badly when they feel misunderstood. Connection is the antidote.
Josh Willink/Pexels
Source: Josh Willink/Pexels

Irrational behavior. Short fuses. Unrealistic demands. I like to joke the FBI should recruit hostage negotiators from parents in the preschool drop-off line.

For years, my daughter had an entire closet of clothes she just wouldn’t touch. She wanted to feel like a princess every day and wear the same floor-length “ball gowns” again and again. After many fruitless power struggles, unless there was a good reason a dress would be inappropriate, I quit my part-time job as the fashion police. I learned the hard way with her that the more I pushed a particular outcome, the more she resisted it. It was the same with potty training and that weird stage when she would only eat cheese quesadillas for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.

I’m feeling my way as a parent most days, but a podcast episode with Justin Coulson and Kerwin Rae reminded me that parenting isn't so different from adult relationships. I immediately identified parallels in my work with couples; for one, the importance of focusing on the message versus getting distracted by the delivery.

For Couples

Example: Your partner comes in and kicks their shoes off in the middle of the room—your biggest pet peeve after just cleaning the house. You’ve calmly asked them not to do this a dozen times before and finally snap this time, raising your voice and letting your partner have it for being so disrespectful.

Your partner now has a choice. They can respond to your outburst and escalate the fight. Or, they can hear the message you’re trying so hard to convey: Move the shoes, respect me, listen to what matters to me, and please notice I cleaned the house.

Whether they focus on your harsh tone or moving their shoes will largely dictate the way this conversation goes.

Imagine they simply picked up their shoes, moved them to the designated area, and kindly said, “Sorry about that!” Your high emotions would quickly fizzle out. You may even feel embarrassed for overreacting and apologize.

Unfortunately, our nature is typically to fight back or shut down when we feel attacked. Your partner is more apt to say, “Why do you always make this such a huge deal? Just let it go. I had a hard day, and you're acting like a jerk.” That battle of wills could rage on for hours.

Putting their shoes in the corner conveys respect, validates your feelings, and defuses the situation in about 30 seconds. It’s not about being a doormat, or giving in; it’s about picking your battles and listening for the needs simmering just below the surface.

I often tell couples you can be right or you can be married, but you can’t always be both. Winning at all costs means your partner has to lose, and if that’s the hill you choose to die on, your relationship will swiftly follow suit.

For Parents

Example: Let’s apply the same logic to a child screaming in the middle of Target. Your son wants a new truck and you’ve just said no. He’s sobbing, pounding his tiny fists on the ground, working himself into a frenzy. You feel your face flush with embarrassment as his antics attract a crowd of curious onlookers on aisle 16.

You could respond to his outburst with a proud, “Because I said so!” or “Because I’m the grown-up!” which conveys little desire to understand or connect and will likely escalate the tantrum.

You could lecture him about the inappropriate outburst and threaten a consequence, but he’s too overwhelmed for logic right now.

So, is there a better play?

Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson explain we should never try to teach when our kids are flooded, and that’s been an eye-opener for me. In that moment of crisis, your child needs you to empathize and help them out of their inner storm. They feel completely out of control, and that’s a scary place to operate from.

In this case, instead of threatening to take away his favorite toy at home or spank him in the parking lot, what if you tried this: Get on his level, calmly sit on the floor if you have to, and help him make sense of the big feelings.

“Sweetie, you are feeling really upset you can’t have a new truck today. I’m sorry. Can Mommy give you a hug? Hugs help me sometimes when I feel upset.”

Is this foolproof? No. But, Siegel and Bryson stress never withholding love from your child, even when they’ve done nothing to “deserve” it in that moment.

Responses like this begin to show your child your love is not conditional on good behavior. That when they have hard days, you will sit with them in the big feelings, help them name those feelings, and teach them productive ways to work through them.

Frankly, when kids are flooded, redirection is rarely successful (Siegel & Bryson), just like John Gottman notes repair attempts fail for flooded adults. We have to calm our bodies and minds a bit before we can access higher-order thinking, problem-solving, and perspective-taking again.

Gottman finds that most conflict stems from not feeling understood. With adults and kids alike, we often resort to acting out when we feel we can’t make our point any other way: “Listen to me! Play with me! Love me! Understand me!”

We raise our voices, get dramatic and emotional, or we disengage entirely. Sadly, these instincts typically drive us further from the connection we desperately seek.

So, with our partners or kids, what’s the best way to calm the storm?

Don't get pulled into it. Do pay attention to what's brewing beneath it.

Connection is the magic bullet.


Gottman, J. M., & Silver, N. (2015). The seven principles for making marriage work. Harmony Books.

Rae, K. (2019, February 24). Parenting hacks to raise happy kids | Dr Justin Coulson [Video]. Youtube.

Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2016). No-drama discipline: The whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child's developing mind. Bantam Books.

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