Why Parents Get So Mad When Someone Else Disciplines Their Kid

When other adults criticize your child’s behavior, it sets off alarm bells in the least evolved part of your brain. Here's how to stop the ringing.

by Adam Bulger

There’s a family member I have. He and I get along almost all of the time. Still, I’m pretty sure he’s wanted to punch me in the face at least once. Because I scolded his children.

He has five kids under 12. They’re all good kids — remarkably good kids, in fact. But no kid on earth is perfectly behaved 100 percent of the time. And five kids is a lot of kids. One or two of them will stray from the pack and get into some kind of mischief. It’s inevitable and mostly not a big deal. I’ve been around these kids for their whole lives, so here and there I give them some light pushback for minor infractions.

Once, while waiting for a wedding to begin, I was watching two of the older kids in a church. They were fidgety and bored, moaning for iPads. To pass the time and to blow their minds with the most gruesome story that society is okay with letting kids hear, I walked them around the stations of the cross. This was a fire and brimstone-style Catholic church and the stations of the cross were real corkers. The kids were awed and interested. And, sure, maybe a little scarred for life. But that’s not the point.

By the time their parents arrived, I was riding a high horse from leading a tour through all that Biblical suffering. When the kids resumed their moaning, I said “have some respect, you’re in a church,” a tad too sharply. Their dad’s eyes went red and I quickly backed off. My sanctimony was an obvious farce. I’m as lapsed as a Catholic can get. I slunk into my pew and wondered what his problem was.

It didn’t take me long to figure out exactly what his problem was. Shortly after the wedding I was alone in a pharmacy with my three-year-old daughter. My whirlwind of a toddler decided to dash through the crowded aisles and a store manager warned her to stop running. I knew the request was reasonable and didn’t have a problem with the manager’s tone. Still, I felt red flaring behind my eyes.

My family friend and I aren’t alone in raging over people disciplining our kids. No parent enjoys hearing someone talk negatively to their kids. It’s deeply ingrained in human DNA. And while it’s tough impulse to turn off, it’s invariably better if we do.

No parent enjoys hearing someone talk negatively to their kids. It’s deeply ingrained in human DNA.

“It’s almost an emotional primal insult,” said Massachusetts-based family therapist Carleton Kendrick and author of the book Take Your Nose Ring Out, Honey, We’re Going to Grandma’s.

Primal is right. That red burn traces back to an early stage of human evolution, before we were had not yet evolved into warm blooded mammals. Our thoughts were basic by necessity. Our reptilian predecessors needed to escape predators, fight for food and struggle for shelter. There wasn’t time to mull over the situation. They had to react or die.

The vestigial tail of our reptile forefathers’ survival instinct lives on in our brain through the limbic system. When facing stress, it quickens our heartbeats, floods us with hormones and jangles our nerve endings. While the rest of the brain has evolved, the reptile part hasn’t. While the danger of being trampled by a herd of wooly mammoths is vastly different than the stress of negotiating a car rental agreement, the limbic system reacts to both the same.

The reptile brain goes nuts when people yell, scold, or reprimand your kid. Your unconscious mind sends out a simple message: your offspring is under attack and you must act now.

It’s hard to overstate the uselessness of this unconscious reaction. Life is almost infinitely more complex than the reptile brain allows for. Unless you’re being attacked by a bear, don’t listen to your reptilian brain. Take a deep breath and remember you’re a warm-blooded, evolved mammal capable of more than fight or flight.

“Lizards are just reacting to the circumstances around them,” family therapist and author of the book Screamfree Parenting Hal Runkel said “But our mammal brains react to the relationships we have as well.”

When your limbic system runs hot, it seems like the only thing in your head, but it’s not. The frontal lobes, the part of your brain involved with higher reasoning and abstract thought, hasn’t gone anywhere. It’s just being drowned out by the limbic system’s banshee scream.

Despite your raging limbic system, the people disciplining your kids could have a point.

“When we’re reacting, we are not allowing our frontal lobes, this unique human part of our brains, to actually have any say in our behavior,” Runkel said.

Runkel stressed the need to pause to give your higher brain functions a chance to can read the situation. Is your kid doing something that could be dangerous, either for them or other people? After all, you’re not always a perfect parent and your kid isn’t always a perfect kid. Despite your raging limbic system, the people disciplining your kids could have a point.

“The first thing is don’t shut the person down and say, ‘you know, I really don’t appreciate you getting in my business,’” Kendrick said. Instead, he said, “you need to see if there’s something of value in the observation, complaint or warning.”

Runkel said that when you get mad at the person disciplining your kid, you’re letting your kid off the hook for their behavior before you understand the situation.

“If you automatically react just because someone’s doing this with your child, then you’ve automatically determined that what your kid did is somehow excusable,” Runkel said.

Choking back fight or flight is tough. But it’s a battle worth fighting. After all, if your kid sees get in some dude’s face, they’re going to think it’s acceptable to fly off the handle. They’ll pay that hostility forward in playdates, in class and with you.

“The professor who talked to me about this 20 years ago in graduate school would say, ‘take it upstairs,’” Runkel said. “Whatever you’re feeling, take it upstairs. Whatever we are sensing has gotta travel up. If we don’t pause, then it’s not gonna travel all the way to the front part.”

He added: “We have to learn to practice pausing before we do anything to give ourselves the best chance at actually creating an outcome that’s better for everybody.”