Column Entry, Let’s Talk Family, “Stay Calm: Brains for Limit Setting”

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Column: Let’s Talk Family: Conversations about Faith and Family Flourishing

Column entry: “Stay Calm: Brains for Limit Setting”

By Jonathan Pettigrew, PhD, Arizona State University; Diane Badzinski, PhD, Colorado Christian University

Column Description: Let’s Talk Family: Conversations about Faith and Family Flourishing is a monthly column offering a space to consider research-based, biblically-sound practices for family communication. We all have families. And we all experience messy family communication from time to time. Our column focuses on what works and doesn’t work for helping families be a little less messy and a lot more rewarding. Please join the conversation.

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Stay Calm: Brains for Limit Setting

Have you ever been so angry that you “can’t think straight”?

Or. have you been so happy that you’re “delirious”?

Emotions are integral to our lives, so naturally they play an important role in family communication. Families, in fact, can elicit some of the most intense emotions that we experience. Families elicit joy and love and gratitude and contentment. On the other hand, the deepest betrayals or disappointments can take root in the context of families. Even in the day-to-day mundane kinds of family interactions we can experience intense negative emotions such as sadness, anger, and hurt. These emotions can affect us physiologically.

Think about a recent intense, stress-filled conversation. How did this interaction make you feel? Did you know that this conversation likely affected you physically? It may have resulted in sweaty palms or even pain in the pit of your stomach. Maybe you felt the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. Or perhaps you got tunnel vision focusing so intently that other things faded into the background. These are all signs that our bodies are reacting to our communication situation. In fact, decades of research confirms that our bodies often respond physiologically during conflict. These reactions can cripple our capacity for rational thought, our ability to process information, problem-solve creatively, or even to listen and emphasize.

Emotions and the Brain

Let’s talk about how intense emotions can impair our thinking and communication. Try something: hold up your hand, tuck your thumb under your other four fingers to make a fist. The wrist is like the spinal cord, and where the wrist meets the hand is the brain stem. This is the part of the brain responsible for the most basic body functions including breathing and our heartbeat. It’s also the part of the brain responsible for instincts like the fight or flight or freeze response when we sense danger. Covering over the brainstem, where our fingers curl over our thumbs, is the part of the brain called the “prefrontal cortex” where the “executive functions” of the brain occur. This is the part of the brain where memories are stored and where social abilities like showing empathy or creative thinking happen.

When encountering danger, we often say that we go into “fight or flight.” Different people tend toward different fractions, but when we feel threatened, we might “fight” (yell, get tense and prepare for a brawl), “flight” (escape to safety), or “freeze” (like a deer in the headlights, hoping danger passes without noticing us). What happens in the brain during such a reaction is that we lose the ability to use our prefrontal cortex and our executive functions. It’s like our fist opens, lifting our fingers open, and we are left with our more instinctual functions.

Why does this matter? Sometimes when we argue, it’s the same thing. The executive part of our brain doesn’t function. Our brain starts to disengage. It’s not that we don’t want to listen or understand another persons’ perspective, but we really can’t. After getting “worked up,” it can take around 20 minutes for our bodies and brains to calm down enough for the prefrontal cortex to re-engaged.

Because of the way our brain works biologically, conflict can make us “lose our heads.” We can get so worked up that we “can’t think straight.” In these situations, it’s important to pause the argument before things get too heated and the brain disconnects. This doesn’t mean a conversation or argument doesn’t need to happen, but it does mean we might need to wait until we’ve “cooled off” and can address the topic.

Emotions and Limit Setting

Applying this research to parents setting limits with their children, it is important for all parties to remain calm to handle the situation wisely. Practically, what do you do to calm down?

One time a pastor told me [Jonathan] that he was helping someone out who was really angry at him. And my friend said to him, “No problem. I’ll come to pick you up, but I can’t get there for an hour and a half. Try to stay angry at me, and I’ll see you soon.” When the pastor arrived, the man said to him, “Do you know how hard it is to stay angry for an hour and a half?”  At that point, the man had cooled off and was able to talk about what upset him.

In addition to waiting for time to do its work, we can also practice some techniques to improve our ability to stay calm and retain control of our minds (executive function) amid stressful interactions. Here are four suggestions:

  1. Breathe. When we are emotionally charged, we often take quick, shallow breaths that reinforce the flight-flight response. So, if we can intentionally, consciously take deep, mindful breaths we can disrupt this response. It can be helpful to count how many seconds we breathe in and how many we breathe out. The purposes are both to take deeper breaths and to refocus our attention.
  2. Practice Mindfulness. Relatedly, the American Psychological Association defines mindfulness as an “awareness of one’s internal states and surroundings.” It involves observing one’s “thoughts, emotions, and other present-moment experiences without judging or reacting to them.” Practically speaking, during stressful interactions we could pause the discussion, step-back, become aware of our thoughts and emotions, explore why we are thinking and feeling a particular way, and reflect on the best way to handle the situation. It might require separating things in the situation that you can and cannot control or letting others be held accountable for their actions. Mindfulness cultivates awareness and reflection, which can help us to control the impulse to react immediately.
  3. Visualization. This technique requires that you close your eyes and picture yourself calm and in control of the situation. Imagine yourself calm as you work through and handle the stressful event. Imagine a positive resolution to the event.
  4. Move. Take a break and engage in some physical activity such as a walk or jump rope. This will not only help divert the emotional energy away from the heated conversation, but the diversion may help bring a fresh perspective on the situation. It can even be helpful to plan a “walk and talk” for conversations you know could be stressful.

There are many simple practices we can use to stay calm. We cannot fully eliminate our physiological responses to stress, but practicing techniques like these listed can help us maintain control of our brain. And, as you can imagine, keeping your cool even when feeling stressed can benefit everyone. Try out one (or all) of these tactics or, even better, let us know what you do to “keep a cool head.”

Thanks for joining the conversation.

–Jonathan Pettigrew and Diane M. Badzinski

* The views of any CCSN columnists are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of the CCSN. We invite and embrace a wide range of views and critiques on important communication and cultural issues. The CCSN is a community of Jesus followers who study communication. We do not support or promote a particular social, political, or denominational agenda. 


American Psychological Association. APA Dictionary of Psychology,

Ellie Lisitsa, The Research: Physiological and Affective Predictors of Change in Relationship Satisfaction Part II. Gottman Institute,

Stephanie Manes, Making Sure Emotional Flooding Doesn’t Capsize Your Relationship. Gottman Institute,

Jonathan Pettigrew and Diane M. Badzinski, Family Communication and the Christian Faith: An Introduction and Exploration (Pasco, WA: Integratio Press, 2023).

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