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Emotional Intelligence and the Amygdala Hijack

June 4th, 2018 by Cara Johnson

Our brains are wonderous things. They can send signals incredibly fast. In fact, different parts of our brain can communicate at different speeds! Deep in our evolutionary history this helped us to survive. If the brain perceives a threat it automatically triggers our body into action. You may like heard this referred to as the “fight or flight” response. 

This survival mechanism bypasses our reasoning brain (the neocortex) and puts the amygdala (our emotional brain) in charge.   While this served us well living in a world of scary predators, it can cause some unforeseen problems in our modern world. Any strong emotion such as anger or anxiety can trigger this survival mechanism, and you have been hijacked! The term “amygdala hijack” was first used by Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence

To learn a little more about the amygdala hijack, you may watch these short videos. 


Have you ever become irrationally angry and said something you later regretted? Have you ever yelled at an inanimate object, a stranger, or even your own child? The amygdala hijack is why! When you are emotionally distressed you actually cannot think straight. It is at this point that it is very easy to say and do things that you might regret later. 

You aren’t alone, the amygdala hijack happens to all of us!  From the perspective of parenting it is important to be aware of this phenomenon and prepared for how to deal with it. 

For parents living in todays stressed out, high-paced world it can be very easy to overreact when something bad happens. When our reaction is disproportionate to the offense it damages our credibility with our children.  

A reaction in the moment, espeically one with destructive language and anger may “win” an argument in the short term but guarantees more heated argument or arguments in the long term. 

So, what do we do? Recognizing what is happening is half the battle! Practice being mindful of your reactions. Practice waiting for a few moment before you respond to any given situation. This pause allows your neocortex (or reasoning brain) to catch up to your amygdala (emotional brain). This is the reason for counting to ten (or more) before you respond. This gives your reasoning brain time to get back in control. 

Another strategy is to postpone the confrontation until your reasoning brain is back in control. Intervene and put a stop the behavior, then simply take a time out. Tell the child “I am too upset to talk about this right now” and wait to until you are calm enough to have a productive conversation.  

The opposite of overreaction is of course underreaction. An underreaction is when children are disrespectful without being held responsible. It can be so difficult to stop everything and address each behavior as it arises. There are things to be done, dinner to be made, soccer practices to get to – it is sometimes easier to ignore a behavior for the sake of getting something accomplished, but this is a big mistake. When this happens, children learn that it is ok to be disrespectful and these behaviors can become routine.

When children are disrespectful parents need to immediately stop the action and quietly and calmly remind the child that respect is expected.  This goes both ways and parents need to be respectful if they expect their children to be respectful.

Many of us unconsciously lean towards one reaction or another more often. Which way to you lean – toward under correction or over correction? Being mindful of your tendencies will help you to practice more effective communication in your household. 


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