Did you ever notice how contagious hysteria is? For instance, did you ever walk into a room where your children were in the midst of roughhousing, and feel immediately and intensely agitated? And, if so, what did you do at that moment? Did you, like most parents, start screaming at your kids to calm down? It’s kind of funny how we do that—especially considering how much that technique doesn’t work.

Heart Rate Variability

In case you’re wondering why we scream at upset children, there is a scientific explanation for it. Our hearts produce an electromagnetic field in and around our bodies that extends out into the room (and probably, although we don’t have the equipment yet to measure it, into the universe). The changes in the heart rate from beat to beat produce a measure called heart rate variability (HRV), which both reflects and Did you ever notice how contagious hysteria is?induces an emotional state. A calm, loving, appreciative emotional state produces a harmonious HRV pattern, while an agitated, angry, frightened or otherwise negative emotional state produces a chaotic, choppy pattern. Whatever pattern is being produced is literally contagious, affecting the HRV of other people in the room through a process called entrainment. When you are sitting in a room with a very tense person—whether or not that person is saying a word—you may start to feel tense as well, as your heart entrains (synchronizes) to theirs.

Likewise, when you walk into a room with emotionally charged, upset children, your own heart gets immediately dysregulated, and you start to feel as if you are in a threatening, dangerous, awful emergency—when in fact you’re just in your playroom at home with your kids. Nothing terrible, awful or horrendous is going on; it’s just the usual squabble over a toy. The world is not about to collapse. There is no urgent need for everyone to calm down (unless one child has a knife in his hand). And, in fact, due to the rush of adrenalin in each child’s bloodstream, immediately calming down is not an option—it just isn’t physically possible. You are the only one in the room who can be calm at that moment—if you know how to utilize the entrainment process for your own purposes.

Get Them to Entrain to You

So, here’s the secret: When you hear a blood-curdling scream, followed by threats and more screams, and you know that this is the sound of your children “playing” as they normally do, take a moment to stabilize your heart rate variability pattern by purposely breathing a little slower for a minute or so. Then get up and walk—don’t run—calmly to where your children are and gently, slowly and quietly ask, “Hey, guys, what’s happening here?” Continue to breathe slowly. Stand near your kids so they can feel your calming presence and entrain to your heart rhythm. Even if they continue to escalate for a while, just stay there without saying anything, just concentrating on Continue to breathe slowlyyour breathing. (If someone is actually getting hurt, you can say in the same quiet and calm way, “Please move apart now, so you can tell me what happened.”) Normally, the kids will calm down quickly as their own breathing settles down, the adrenaline begins to diminish and their systems reset. You can use this same approach whenever conflict is occurring between members of your family, and enjoy the same positive results.

Wisdom of the Torah

Although we now understand the science behind the effectiveness of a calm bystander, our sages advised us centuries ago to use this approach. King Solomon taught, “The words of the wise are heard when calmly spoken.” And Nachmanides instructed, “Accustom yourself to speaking gently to all people at all times.” The ability to stay calm when confronted by chaos is a primary Torah value, one that allows us to maintain the bigger picture, to enlist our own higher self and to trigger the higher selves of those around us. With intention and practice, this skill will become “second nature,” eventually overtaking our original inclination to scream when the kids scream!