CWTI Trainings

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Emotional Intelligence


Emotional Hijacks

What happens when coping strategies are not effective and our emotions take over?  We can be disabled by an "emotional hijack".  Most people can think back to a time when someone they know “snapped.”  These emotional explosions occur suddenly and in response to the brain’s perception of stress, fear or danger. 

Consider the following example of an extreme emotional hijacking.  You might see a similar situation in the field of child welfare. 

It is another hot and humid day in August.  Bob arrives home after an unsuccessful afternoon looking for work.  His girlfriend, Judy, isn’t anywhere to be seen and their 2-month-old son is in his crib, crying.  Bob calls for Judy to come take care of the baby.  She calls back from the other room that she is busy and tells him to take care of things himself.  The baby cries louder.  Bob grabs the baby and shakes him violently yelling, “Stop crying!  Stop it! STOP IT!”  Later, when being interviewed by a Child Protective Services caseworker at the hospital, Bob says, “I don’t know what happened … I just wanted the baby to be quiet.”

Bob’s example shows a hallmark of an emotional hijack – once the moment passes, the person has a sense of not knowing what came over them.  An emotional hijack results from the “emotional” brain overtaking the ability of the “rational” brain to regulate behavior.  Essentially, the emotional brain declares an “emergency”, which triggers the rest of the brain to react before the rational brain has a chance to intervene.  The commonly known “fight or flight” response is a good example of this type of reaction. 


Emotional Triggers & Blueprints

This emotional alarm system can go off instantaneously, often in response to such triggers as fear of imminent danger.  The drawback of these alarms is that they can be out-of-date, leading people to respond to past triggers that are no longer threatening (Goleman, 1995). 

People store many potent emotional memories from infancy and early childhood that shape their responses to perceived stress and danger.  The relationship between caregiver and child in the first few years of life teach the child many of the emotional lessons they will carry into adulthood.  These lessons are stored in the brain as “emotional blueprints” before a child has words to describe their experiences. 

Abuse and neglect in a child’s early years can impact these blueprints, leading to reactive emotional triggers later in life.  For example, an adolescent who was verbally abused by his birth father as a toddler throws a punch at his foster father when he hears what he perceives to be an insult. 



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