byDaniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.Oct 15, 2014
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
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
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).
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.