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How to stop overreacting to your child

How to stop overreacting to your child is a common question people ask because it’s one of the most distressing experiences parents face. This is especially true when they’re trying to learn connected parenting but they’ve come from a family that used authoritarian or other non-connected approaches. It can be hard to change, and here’s why.

When the reaction happens so quickly that you can’t stop yourself–it’s an implicit memory that’s running the show in your nervous system.

Your body and your nervous system are remembering something, even if your conscious thinking mind isn’t.

How does memory work?

We typically think of memory as our ability to remember events and experiences that have happened to us in the past. We’re able to recall the details and tell the story to someone. That’s one aspect of our memory–it’s called explicit memory. We’re consciously aware of those memories and we can retrieve them whenever we want to.

Implicit memories are unconscious, held in the body, and they cause automated responses that are not in your conscious control or awareness. Automatic responses include “behavioral impulses, emotions, perceptions, bodily sensations and images” (Kestley, p. 84)–in other words, sudden anger, yelling, urges to do something harsh to stop your child’s behavior, an urge to escape yourself, and so on. Implicit memories that result in you reacting to your child (or others) were imprinted in your body memory through an traumatic** experience (scary or otherwise distressing) in which there wasn’t a calm, regulated adult present to soothe you and help you regulate. 

Any cue, in present time (such as your child yelling loudly, or hitting their sibling, or not listening to you), that reminds your body’s implicit memory of a past stressful experience, can trigger a huge body response–right now. It always happens quickly and automatically, before you can use your conscious brain to stop yourself, because it arises from the part of your nervous system that was designed to help you stay alive in an emergency. That’s why you react so quickly, the same way you do when you drop a sharp knife and automatically jump back to avoid cutting off your toes.

In those moments, your implicit memory is driving your action. It’s a short, well-worn pathway that bypasses your conscious thinking mind.

Why does that matter?

Once you know what’s going on in the nervous system, it’s easier to understand why your conscious mind can’t simply use willpower to change your behavior.

It’s not because you’re failing or you’re not trying hard enough.

Sometimes, you can no more stop yourself from yelling than you can stop yourself from jumping backwards when you drop a sharp knife.

It’s possible to make changes, but it’s important to be gentle with yourself as you work on changes–both because it can take time, and also because gentleness with yourself is probably something you didn’t receive at the time the implicit memory was formed. A gentle compassionate inner exploration can actually support your nervous system to heal.

You can work somatically (meaning, with your body):

  • using practices on your own to gain awareness of your body sensations and soothe yourself, and/or 
  • with a practitioner who holds space and helps you to process past traumas, ultimately rewiring your nervous system.

Working at the level of the nervous system can make real change

If the habit or reaction that you’re trying to change is arising from a body memory that you don’t have conscious awareness of, you may find that you’re unable to shift the pattern through talking about it with a friend, or talk therapy. You may be able to put some alternative coping strategies in place, and for some parents that may be all they need. 

But if the habit is driven by an implicit memory from an experience that was highly stressful, there may still be an underlying “impulse” to respond by doing the habit the old way, because your nervous system has been “trained” or wired to meet one of your basic needs through that habit. That’s when you may find yourself stuck.

In somatic work, the body is recognized as holding all of the information, and the implicit memories can be re-patterned. Often you gain new conscious awareness during the process, but you don’t have to try to “remember” the past experiences as such–sometimes they pop up, but often they don’t. They’re not needed to make changes.

Somatic exploration can be a gateway to shifting the nervous system wiring. 

1. Changes can start with awareness. To practice on your own, you can notice what’s coming up in your body at the time you react, or just afterwards.

  • Do you notice any sensations?
  • Are you able to stay present with them?
  • Do any thoughts or images come to you when you’re staying present with your felt sensations?
  • Can you orient (see this video for how to orient), and feel the safety and support of your environment in the present moment?

Another option is to see if there are any subtle signs in your body sensations or emotions that happen just before you lose your patience or react. This can be trickier if your reactions sneak up on you, but sometimes there are earlier signs (e.g., tightness in your throat or jaw). If that happens and you notice them, you can use them as a cue that you need to pause and find a resource to help regulate your system.

2. Somatic work with a practitioner can be helpful when you’ve been unable to make the changes on your own, or in addition to the work you do on your own. One of the hallmarks of a past traumatic event that’s left an imprint (implicit memory) is that you didn’t have a feeling of safety at the time that it happened. When you work with a practitioner, they have a wide variety of skills for helping you to gently bring presence and awareness to difficult emotions and experiences, and they create a safe container for you to process those. The safe container is a critical component for making change, because that’s what was missing at the time that the initial memory was formed. These facilitate re-wiring of that past implicit memory.

Ultimately, when you do somatic work, you build more capacity in your body to “experience” the emotions and behaviors your child expresses, and hold steady with them more than reacting. 

You also build your capacity for being present with a broader spectrum 

of life experiences in general.

So when you find yourself stuck in a pattern of reacting to the same situation with your child, it’s implicit memories that keep you “going down the same path” in the nervous system, over and over again. Understanding how that works, and beginning to track yourself and your sensations, either on your own or with a practitioner, can help you begin to make changes to be the parent you want to be.

If you’d like to learn more about doing somatic work with me, you can email me at or use this link to schedule a free chat and ask any questions you may have. 

(As always, my free chats are exactly that–an opportunity for us to chat, ask questions, and gather any information that may be helpful in determining if we feel like a good fit to work together. There’s no pressure or sales pitches ❤️)

**Traumatic experience – may have been something we commonly identify as “trauma”, such as physical or emotional abuse, or may have been something less often recognized, such as spending time in neonatal ICU as an infant, or being hospitalized and separated from your parent at a young age, or having a parent who was unable to emotionally attune to you. Children need to feel emotionally understood and connected to an adult caregiver–that’s what provides emotional safety. Also, identifying a past experience as trauma is never about blaming parents; it’s about identifying and gaining clarity about what you needed and didn’t receive, even though your parents did their best, so that you can determine what you need now to heal and change patterns for yourself and your child.


Kestley, Theresa A. (2014). The Interpersonal Neurobiology of Play: Brain Building Interventions for Emotional Well-Being. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Moser, Mariah. Course materials, Relational Somatic Therapy Training Manual.

Image Credit: Juliane Liebermann, Unsplash