It Must be Some Misunderstanding

So many of our days as a family are just beautiful, complete days of freedom in which we are all comfortable and flexible, and communicative. But some days . . . well, some days are much more challenging. Do you ever spend time together as a family when it seems like none of you are even in the same library, let alone on the same page? Maybe the kids aren't getting along, maybe the parents are stressed, and maybe everyone's expectations are of what should be are on a collision course with what the other family members want. We've had plenty of those days too, when no one seems to get precisely what they want and feelings, already a bit frayed around the edges, get hurt readily.

Misunderstandings, Miscommunications, and Hurt Feelings - Oh My!

We had a few moments like that this weekend, especially with the boys. Mama was working intelligently on a project for much of the weekend, I was tired and a bit grumpy, and each of the boys wanted . . . well, they wanted whatever they wanted, I suppose. They played together amazingly well at certain points, but their enjoyment and patience with each other also dropped precipitously many times, as well. When emotions and tensions run high, it's easy for you as a parent to presume that you can control this dynamic and:

  • Assume that you must be doing or saying something that is making the environment more challenging, and spend hours trying a different tack.
  • Attempt to redirect their activities into something more constructive - or at least less destructive.
  • Try to play referee and negotiate peaceful outcomes to every disagreement.
  • Struggle, usually with little success, to keep yourself from getting caught up in the emotional swirl so you can remain logical.

Been there, done that, and still get sucked into it from time to time. But as we cycled through a few of these situations this weekend, I was reminded of something I came across a few years ago. It was a simple, useful framework for understanding how and why people get aggravated with each other; and what to do, and not to do, about it.

The premise is simple: while a specific situation may be aggravating or stressful in and of itself, it is generally our reactions, and our subsequent judgments of those reactions, that lead to true misunderstandings. Think about an argument or misunderstanding you've experienced or witnessed recently. I would bet that, in some way, the misunderstanding was preceded by some sort of stress trigger or response. What do I mean by a stress trigger? Well, let's say your oldest child is playing alone on the Wii. The other child asks to play as well, and the oldest agrees. Of course, they each want to play the game their own way - perhaps one just wants to connect with someone, but the other likes to win, for example - and almost immediately they get into disagreements and verbal battles about how to play and what their wants and expectations are. As the game continues, these mini-arguments can escalate into full battle - and once each side has dug in, it can be hard for the parent to come in and make peace. That's a stress trigger.

There are hundreds of other examples: a husband's response to their partner's bad day, an upcoming family move, the loss of a job or a game or a favorite toy, you name it. These things, regardless of how big or small they may seem objectively, can be challenging for families to handle because we are so often judged by our initial reaction to stress - not by how we ultimately handle it. This framework suggests that people will handle their initial reactions to stress in one of three ways: by thinking, by feeling, or by doing. Each person naturally prefers (subconsciously) one of these reactions, and tends to have that specific reaction in most - but not all - stress events. Let's use an example to go through all three.

The First Step: Initial Think-Feel-Act Reactions

Let's make it simple and say your oldest child loses a precious toy. He will likely have one of these reactions at first:

The Thinker. Some people respond to stress and change by pausing to consider their options. In this situation, the Thinker would likely sit still for a while, maybe on their own, trying to process what their next step should be.

The Feeler. For many people, emotion is the first natural reaction to a stress event. It could be yelling, screaming, throwing something, or crying. In this example, let's say that the Feeler cries for a while.

To Doer. People who act first tend to be ready to move past the change quickly; they grasp that they have no control and need to move on. In this situation, a Doer might just say "Darn. Can we go to Target so I can get a new one?"

Which one of these is the best response? None of them; all of them. There are no rights or wrongs in terms of how people respond to stress events; there are simply reactions and the way others deal with those reactions. Think of some recent stress events within your family. Does every member of your family tend to have one of these initial reactions in most cases? They do in our family. My basic default initial reaction is emotion. Oh, I can hide it for a while, but it'll come out sooner or later. What about your family? What about YOU? Are you a thinker, feeler, or a doer first?

When I have my initial emotional reaction to stress, it can stay with me for a short period, a very long time, or somewhere in between. But I am not stuck with that reaction permanently; in fact, when we react to stressors we have all three reactions at some point or another.

Steps Two and Three: Traps and Releases

Stress can really play havoc with our bodies and psyches, whether it is relatively minor or exceptionally destructive. But in truth, whatever our initial reaction to an event - Think, Feel, or Act - we will eventually move beyond that and have a different reaction to the same event. Our second reaction will often trap us for a while; it is difficult to force oneself to experience too many things at once, and nearly impossible to move through a reaction at some pre-defined pace established by our thoughts of what we "should be " feeling. Eventually, if we have good help or the gift of being able to get some breathing room, we can work through that trap and have a third reaction, what I call the release. Let me provide an example.

I just quit my job recently, and it was definitely an emotional decision. I don't mean to say that I quit without thinking about it, or in a fit of anger. I mean that my heart told me it was time to go. So I quit; that was my stress event. After I talked to my boss, I had a huge adrenaline rush of excitement and relief - a Feeling reaction - during which I couldn't stop my heart from racing with the possibilities of all that laid before us. After a day or two, I began to think again about what I had done - a Thinking reaction - and spent the next few days in mental paralysis as I tried to see a path forward on how to make money and provide for my family's security without a job. Eventually, and with some support, I was able to work through this trap and sit down and start planning my next moves - a Doing reaction if there ever was one.

I'm a Feel-Think-Act, virtually all of the time.

Let's use the lost toy example above, and say that our child's first reaction is emotion. He loses his toy, and he cries. Does he keep crying for his entire life? Of course not; at some point, he has a secondary reaction, then a tertiary one. When he is done being upset (Feeler), he may immediately want to go to the store and buy another one (Doer), and then come home later and process the experience (Thinker.) Or, he may need to sit and think about for a few days (Thinker) and then go buy a new one - or buy something completely different (Doer.)

When we are ready - regardless of how long it takes - we move into our secondary reaction. As I mentioned earlier, my secondary reaction is usually Think. In my Thinking stage, I can get trapped - sometimes for just a short period, sometimes for weeks or months. It is not until I am able to move past that trap, usually with the help or prodding of someone who knows and loves me, that I am able to move on to my final stage, Acting, and finally get release. I need to complete all three stages to fully process through and make peace - true, permanent peace - with the change.

The point is, that we all have all three of these reactions to a stress event; it is natural, and in my mind critical to the process of really coming to peace with an event. Having a deep emotion and doing something without thinking about it rarely leads to complete peace. Thinking something to death and then doing something about it - without feeling it - is equally unsatisfying. And thinking something through and then experiencing the emotion - without ever acting on it - rarely provides the release from the stress that we seek. It is only through experiencing all three, in whatever order and along whatever timeline as is required by our nature and the situation, that we can deal effectively with the event and move on with our lives, hopefully the wiser for our experiences. And that, believe it or not, is the easy part.

The hard part is when members of the family react differently to the same stress event.

Every Action Has an Equal but Opposite Reaction

The simple fact that people have different initial reactions to stress event is, in and of itself, also a stress event! Let's say that you generally have a Feeling reaction first, but your spouse usually has a Thinking reaction. When you experience the same stress event, you may look at your spouse and think "Why she is so analytical? How could she be so unfeeling? I mean, why won't she just cry and get it over with, dammit?" Of course, she's a Thinker - so she may be thinking "Here he goes, getting all emotional again. I just don't understand that. This really isn't that a big a deal, if only he would think it through." If those initial trigger reactions last a long time, this misunderstanding grows and grows, turning into judgment - and often into resentment. Many people just cannot grasp why others have different reactions; they say or think things like "She's so cold", or "He's such a baby", or "He's just driving through his pain, as usual."

An additional complication is the fact that different people take different amounts of time to move past this initial reaction. Personally, when I react emotionally to a stress it is usually over very quickly - which is why you'll usually hear me muttering under my breath when I am pissed about something, because it helps me get over the emotion more quickly. Other people, even those with the same initial trigger, may take longer to get through something and move on to the next step. For example, if my partner and I both have an emotional reaction to an event but I am ready to move on from that emotion more quickly than she, she is likely to feel hurt and invalidated, and to misunderstand my need to move on as cold or callous. In reality, I am likely neither cold nor callous; after all, I did have the emotion. I just worked through it more quickly. And if our initial reactions were different from each other, having one person move more quickly can be even more challenging to understand.

A Parent's Role

At the end of the day, and at the end of my life for that matter, I hope to be known as a partner and a parent. Ginger and I have discussed our reactions to change events, and developed an understanding of how we each respond differently, at different times, and in different orders. This has really de-stressed our lives; we don't fret about the other's initial reactions, we help each other through our traps, and we enjoy our releases, even if they occur at different times. We can discuss it, rationalize it, and call each other on it. But how do we do it with our kids?

I think that our role in helping our children process their reactions is clear; we need to give them the space - physically, emotionally, and intellectually - to have their reactions in whichever order and under whatever timelines they need. There are no real rules on how to do this, but there are some principles.

Children do not consciously plot their reaction orders or durations; they respond in whatever way feels most natural to them. Only through outside interference will they assign "bad" or "good" labels to their reactions.

Processing stress effectively, and having reactions, is a good thing for a healthy mind and body.

No single one of these reactions is inherently "better" or "worse" than the others. People need practical experience in Feeling, Thinking and Acting in order to get through life - not training, not teaching, but practical experience.

Fundamental human respect indicates that people cannot and should not be forced or coerced to behave certain ways at certain times - so we cannot force a specific reaction upon our child or ask them to mold their behavior to our needs and preferences. After all, if you were crying about a stress event and your kids told you to "get over it, already", how would you react?

All reactions are valid, and will be processed in due time in whichever order works best for the child.

Our own preferences may or may not be shared by the child. It is unfair of us to get frustrated with them just because their first reaction is different from ours.

What we can do is love, comfort, help, listen, support, and attempt to understand. But most critically, we can recognize that much of our stress comes from common misunderstandings about how we - and our children - react to everyday stressors, and to build a cocoon of love and respect in which we can grow and develop as a family in an environment that is safe from the perils of judgment.


  1. Great.
    I'm feel-think-act like you
    the huz is think-feel-act maybe reluctantly
    I never thought about this that way. Thanks. Sticking it to my next Sunday Surf... they're going to start thinking you pay me for all this linky love (oh and how do I subscribe to your comments?)

  2. Cool. I missed this when you posted it. Maybe if I'd read it then one of our recent stress moments would have been less stressful.

  3. It's time for some serious reflection as I try to discover what my pattern is and how I can better understand my husband's very different process and grant my infant son the support he needs as he grows. I'll be saving this. Thank you!