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Why your brain short circuits when a kid cries, even if you're not a parent

The wail of a child has evolved to be maximally distracting. What can you do about it?

Why your brain short circuits when a kid cries, even if you're not a parent

(Art: The New York Times/Sol Cotti)

A few weeks ago, I was deeply immersed in an article I was editing when I heard a high-pitched wail from downstairs.

The acoustics of my parents’ house are so porous that even when my children have meltdowns from a distance away, they sound like they are happening in my face.

So I could hear that my four-year-old was sobbing because she decided she could not tolerate the sound of the washing machine, a noise that had never, ever bothered her before.

Three other sentient adults – my parents and my husband – attended to my daughter’s hulking out.

Intellectually, I understood that my daughter had the support she needed from multiple loving caretakers. And yet I felt my heart start to race, my blood pressure spike, and some part of my lizard brain was telling me to go comfort my child.

I resisted the impulse as I heard the others wipe away my little girl’s tears, but it took me another half an hour to get my concentration back, and it made me wonder: Was this visceral response typical for parents, or was it unique to me?

I looked into the research and it turns out adult humans do have a physical response when they hear young ones crying, and they don’t have to be a parent to have this reaction.

Although most of the studies examined reactions to baby and toddler cries, not preschooler meltdowns, the research showed that crying inspires a range of physiological responses in adults, including increased heart rate, small changes in blood pressure and a shift in galvanic skin responses.

Professor Christine Parsons, a psychologist and associate professor at Aarhaus University in Denmark, who has studied physiological responses to infant cries, said the brain starts to respond to crying almost instantaneously.

It happens “very quickly, quicker than 100 milliseconds,” she said, and it’s not a response that’s in one’s conscious mind. That immediate response also sets off a “cascade” of other neurological responses.

She noted that infant cries have evolved over time to be maximally annoying, “to capture our attention more than other things in the environment.” That makes sense, because babies need adult attention to get their basic needs met, and ultimately to survive.

Even though my children are ages seven and four, the part of my brain that’s aroused in 100 milliseconds wants to protect them.

“That’s still your reproductive success,” that’s on the line, said James Rilling, a professor and chair of the department of anthropology at Emory University, in Atlanta.

However, as Dr Parsons pointed out, adults who are not yet parents also have similar responses to babies crying, unlike some other animals. “Rodents have to have given birth before they care about pups. Humans don’t have such a selective response,” she said.

While I appreciate this explanation, it doesn’t necessarily help me as I’m facing several more months of working from home as my children are educated alongside me. And it doesn’t help the scores of parents struggling to do their work without any additional caretakers at home with them.

I need to figure out some way to tune out at least some percentage of the irrational meltdowns when I’m not on my child-care shifts, so that I can remain employed and preserve what is left of my tattered sanity.

If I react to every whine and whimper, that’s not going to be good for anyone in our household. “When you activate these emotional empathy systems excessively, that can cause something we call ‘empathic over-arousal’,” Dr Rilling said.

That’s when you take on your children’s distress to the extent “that you yourself become stressed out and anxious, and that can interfere with your ability to give compassionate and appropriate care.”

So I asked Dr Crystal Clark, a psychiatrist and associate professor at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine, in Chicago, for advice on how to manage the mid-work meltdowns.

First, she said, be sure to check in with your kid about how they’re feeling. You know your child best: If their upset is extreme, try to take even just a brief period out of your work day to soothe them.

“Assuming you don’t have a million-dollar meeting in the next five minutes, you don’t need to take that long to hold your child,” Dr Clark said.

Not every tear shed needs your full attention, plus kids also need to learn to self-soothe. So right now the name of the game is “setting boundaries” – with both your children, and your employers, Dr Clark said.

As much as it’s possible, let both your kids and your bosses know what hours you will be available to them, and that you will need some grace and some flexibility. (It’s on employers to understand the extenuating circumstances, though many are not rising to the challenge.)

For your kids, having a visual signal that you’re working, like a flag or a sign, may help them learn when it’s okay to interrupt you and when it’s not.

If you feel your body start to react – that ol’ heart racing – try to take a break, Dr Clark said. You should be in tune with your body and what it needs, whether that’s walking around the block, closing your eyes and deep breathing for a few minutes, or calling a friend.

“We all have deadlines, we have all these things that need to get done every day, and we’re forgetting that we have to maintain our own mental health,” she said.

As I was about to write this last paragraph, the four-year-old burst through my bedroom door like the Kool-Aid Man, sobbing because she could not download a game onto her tablet.

May I also recommend a pair of good noise-cancelling head phones?

By Jessica Grose © The New York Times

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

Source: New York Times