Quietening the Lizard Brain-tips for intake

As FDRPs and professionals working with family disputes, we come to recognize those clients who are stuck in the reptilian part of the brain, where fight, flight and freeze are the automatic responses. Neuroscience tells us that working with clients in this state is extremely difficult, and rational thinking and problem solving are unrealistic expectations. It is not easy to get clients out of this entrenched position, but it is possible to “quieten the lizard brain”. Current research provides some clues, and I have adapted these to develop some tools for intake. These assist to assess ability to participate in a process, as well as strengthening capacity and brain functioning to lead to better decision-making.


After allowing the client to tell their story and to satisfy them that they have been heard and understood, the next step is to encourage the client to set some goals. These are often very hard to imagine from inside the trenches of the reptilian brain, but I have had some success with positive and active encouragement to look for the “future perfect” or where they would like to be when all of the current chaos is over. Having a future end point for the current journey can make it much easier to imagine that things might be different at some stage in the future and allow for hope for a better future. This is the “chink that lets the light in!”


The next step is to explore with the client, not how they are going to get to this “Future Perfect”, but to ask them to consider what actions and supports would make it easier for them to move towards this goal. I find that suggesting ideas and options is always helpful, as being in the reptilian space can be so overwhelming that even simple suggestions have not come to mind. Options vary in every situation but might include:

  • professional supports,
  • a mentor or life coach,
  • protective measures,
  • respite so that they can focus on their own needs
  • support groups
  • referrals to websites to provide information and resources
  • financial counseling or advice
  • legal advice.


Part of examining these ideas involves a consideration of what aspects of their current circumstances are holding them back. Sometimes it is easier to identify the blockers that are making their life harder, rather than what they could do to move these from their path. Again assistance in breaking down the areas to investigate, can assist to see through the fog and into the light. The blockers might involve their own actions, or the behaviours of others, perhaps those very close to them, or others impacting on those near at hand. Identifying these obstacles can make it a shorter and easier step to determine how to get around these hurdles and move beyond them.


One of the most useful tools is to unpack what is happening to reveal the underlying needs, concerns and interests. I have found that those stuck in the reptilian brain are immobilized by fear. An understanding of this is crucial for them to be able to consider their goals, the obstacles preventing them from achieving these and what supports they need to cope in their current circumstances. Fear is generally tied to one of the universal needs that we all as humans share, and I have found that an approach based on what are the core needs that are being challenged in the current situation, can reveal the particular fear that is associated with each of these. Bringing these out into the open can allow for investigation of the supports needed to deal them, and following on from this, exploration of the assumptions that these fears are based on, and how best to mitigate the risk associated with each fear.


Neuroscience tells us that the use of the motor cortex is a good way to move the focus from being stuck in the reptilian space up to the frontal cortex, and with it the more rational and problem solving parts of the brain. Focusing on what action could be taken, what small step could be taken, what could be done, activates the motor cortex. I have had some success with this approach in the dispute resolution setting, by asking the client to write something down, make a list, note their ideas, put pen to paper. The hope is that this will move the client to a better place in the brain with better abilities for executive decision-making.


So the questions I might ask them to answer in writing might be:


  1. What are your goals?
  2. What actions or supports would help you achieve your goals?
  3. What actions/behaviours are making it hard for you to achieve your goals?


An example of how this might work is as follows:


Goals Supports required Blockers
Sort out the parenting arrangements so that the children have a relationship with the other parent Information about what would be the best arrangement for pre-school children Difference in parenting styles and understanding of what is best for the children at this time
Make sure that the arrangements ensure the children are safe, comfortable and secure Protective measures and emotional supports Belief that this is more about responding to the adult issues rather than the needs of the children


Further questions might be:


  1. What do you fear most about taking action today to achieve your goals?
  2. What are the needs underlying your fears?
  3. Looking at your fears, what are the hidden competing commitments preventing you from getting your needs met?
  4. What assumptions are you making, and how can you mitigate the risk?


Responses might look like:


Fears Needs Competing commitments Assumptions Risk mitigation
Worried that allowing the children to spend time with the other parent will impact on role as mother Need to be valued as mother and not have role undermined Responsibility to facilitate children having both parents in their lives That the other parent does not have respect and will create conflict and confusion which will impact on children Allow the children to spend some time with the other parent but in circumstances where can be satisfied they will be safe
Worried that the children will be harmed Need for children to be safe Doubt that other parent knows what is required for children to be safe and secure The other parent does not have the experience and knowledge to meet the needs of the children Accept some type of education to acquire required knowledge



My recent experiments with this approach have been positive. This has allowed an opportunity for some level of control in what must appear to be chaos and crisis. My sense is that the clients can then imagine a pathway to a brighter future, with hope that the current space is only temporary and that they can take steps to improve this and move beyond. The aim is for them to extract themselves, with support, from being stuck in the reptilian brain and see that light at the end of the tunnel. With this in mind they can then move on to explore how they might get there with dignity and respect, that will result in greater peace, and do no harm.


If you have had similar experiences with your clients and would be interested in comparing ideas, please contact me at Creative Family Law Solutions.

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