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Are You Hearing Shark Music?

Photograph by Getty Images

If you’ve heard Dan speak, you may have seen him introduce the concept of shark music. Here’s how he explains the idea:

First, I ask the audience to monitor the response of their bodies and minds as I show them a thirty-second video.* On the screen, the audience sees what appears to be a beautiful forest. From the point of view of the person holding the camera, the audience sees a rustic trail and moves down that path toward a beautiful ocean. All the while, calm, classical-sounding piano music plays, communicating a sense of peace and serenity in an idyllic environment.

I then stop the video and ask the audience to watch it again, explaining that I’m going to show them the exact same video, but this time different music will play in the background. The audience then sees the same images—the forest, the rustic trail, the ocean. But the soundtrack this time is dark and menacing. It’s like the famous theme music from the movie Jaws, and it completely colors the way the scene is perceived. The peaceful scene now looks threatening—who knows what might jump out?—and the path leads somewhere we’re pretty sure we don’t want to go. There’s no telling what we’ll find in the water at the end of the trail; based on the music, it’s likely a shark. But despite our fear, the camera continues to approach the water.

The exact same images, but as the audience discovers, the experience drastically changes with different background music. One soundtrack leads to peace and serenity, the other to fear and dread.

It's the same when we interact with our children. We have to pay attention to our background music. “Shark music” takes us out of the present moment, causing us to practice fear-based parenting. Our attention is on whatever we are feeling reactive about. We worry about what’s coming in the future, or sometimes we respond to something from the past. When we do so, we miss what's actually happening in the moment—what our children really need, and what they're actually communicating. As a result, we don’t give them our best. Shark music, in other words, keeps us from parenting this individual child, in this individual moment.

Before you know it, your adorable ten-year-old has become a homeless woman pushing a shopping cart towards a cardboard box where she lives under the bridge down by the river—all because she got mixed up about which way the "greater than" symbol points.

For instance, imagine that your fifth-grader comes home with her first progress report that shows that, since she was sick and missed a couple of days of class, her math average is lower than you'd expect. Without shark music playing in the background you might just chalk this up to the absences, or to the more difficult subject matter in fifth grade. You'd take steps to make sure she understands the material now, and you might or might not decide to visit with her teacher. In other words, you'd approach the situation from a calm and rational perspective.

If, however, your daughter's older brother is a ninth-grader who has shown himself to be less than responsible with his homework, and who is struggling with the basics of algebra, this prior experience might become shark music that plays in your mind as your daughter shows you her progress report. "Here we go again" might be the refrain that takes over your thoughts. So instead of responding to the situation as you normally would, asking your daughter how she feels about it, and trying to figure out what's best for her, you think about your son's problems with algebra, and you overreact to your daughter's situation. You begin talking to her about consequences, and cutting back on after-school activities. If the shark music really gets to you, maybe you start lecturing about getting into good colleges, and the chain of events that leads from a couple of bad grades in 5th-grade math, to problems in middle school and high school, to a slew of rejection letters from universities all across the country. Before you know it, your adorable ten-year-old has become a homeless woman pushing a shopping cart towards a cardboard box where she lives under the bridge down by the river—all because she got mixed up about which way the "greater than" symbol points.

The key to a Whole-Brain response, as is so often the case, is awareness. Once you recognize that shark music is blaring in your mind, you can shift your state of mind and stop parenting based on fear, and on past experiences that don't apply to the current scenario you face. Instead, you can connect with your child who might be feeling discouraged. You can give her what she needs in this moment: a parent who is fully present, parenting only her based only on the actual facts of this particular situation—not on past expectations or future fears.

Ultimately, our job is to give unconditional love and calm presence for our kids even when they're at their worst.

This isn’t to say that we don’t pay attention to patterns of behavior over time. We can also get trapped in states of denial where we over-contextualize behavior or explain away our kids' repeated struggles with all kinds of excuses that keep us from seeking intervention or from helping our children build the skills they need. You’ve met the parent who has a child who is never at fault, and whom the parents never hold accountable. When the "excuse flavor of the week" becomes a pattern of parental response, then the parents are probably working from a different kind of shark music. It's similar to the parents whose children were medically vulnerable as babies, whose shark music now leads them to "over-do” for their kids, treating them as if they are still more fragile than they actually are.

The point is that shark music can prevent us from parenting intentionally and from being who our children need us to be at any given moment. It makes us reactive instead of receptive. Sometimes we're called to adjust our expectations and realize that our children just need more time for development to unfold; at other times we need to adjust our expectations and realize that our children are capable of more than we're asking of them, and we can challenge them to take more responsibility for their choices. At other times we need to pay attention to our own needs and desires and past experiences that can override our ability to make good moment-by-moment decisions. When we are reactive, we can't receive input from others, or demonstrate any response flexibility to consider the various options in our own mind. (If you'd like to go deeper with this concept, Dan covers it extensively in Parenting From the Inside Out, co-authored with Mary Hartzell.)

Ultimately, our job is to give unconditional love and calm presence for our kids even when they're at their worst. Especially when they’re at their worst. That’s how we stay receptive instead of going reactive. And the perspective we take on their behavior will necessarily affect how we respond to them. If we recognize them for the still-developing young people they are, with changing, changeable, complex young brains, then when they struggle or do something we don't like, we'll be better able to be receptive and hear the calming piano music. We'll therefore interact with them in a way that's more likely to lead to peace and serenity.

Shark music, on the other hand, will take us out of the present moment, and out of our right minds as we become reactive. It will fuel our internal chaos and lead us to make all kinds of assumptions, to worry about all kinds of possibilities that simply shouldn't be considered in this particular situation. It might even lead us to automatically assume that our kids are "acting out" because they are selfish, or lazy, or spoiled, or whatever label we choose. Then we'll respond not out of love and intentionality, but out of reactivity, anger, anxiety, and fear.

So the next time you need to discipline, pause for just a second and listen for the soundtrack in your head. If you hear calm piano music and feel capable of offering a loving, objective, clear-headed response to the situation, then go ahead and offer just that kind of response. But if you notice the shark music, be very careful about what you do and say. Give yourself a minute—longer, if necessary—before responding. Then, when you feel yourself letting go of fears and expectations and bigger-than-necessary reactivity that keep you from looking at the situation for what it really is, you can respond. Simply by paying attention to whatever music is playing in the background of a disciplinary moment, you'll be much more capable of responding flexibly instead of reacting rigidly, and offering your children what they need right then. Responding rather than reacting is the key.

* This video was originally produced by the Circle of Security Intervention Program. See their great work in the book The Circle of Security Intervention by Bert Powell et al. (New York: Guilford, 2013).

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This excerpt is from NO-DRAMA DISCIPLINE by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, PH.D. Copyright (c) 2014 by Mind Your Brain, Inc and Bryson Creative Productions,Inc. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.

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