#truthbomb I am a child development specialist, a parenting mentor and early childhood educator. I have lead classrooms of children, with various needs, and never yelled or lost my temper. As a parent though….. I screw up all the time. I get frustrated, annoyed, impatient, I yell, I threaten to take things away and then apologize for all of it. You know why? Because I’m human. These are MY children, living in our home, 24 hours a day. Like many parents, despite my greatest efforts and intentions, I cannot maintain that calm persona, all day, every day. Quite frankly, I’m not sure I should. Children need to see a range of emotions, but that does not mean we get to use them as our emotional dumping ground. It is about modelling emotional intelligence, not releasing our emotional baggage on our children. The struggle to achieve this balance is how children show us what parts of ourselves still need healing. The things that we just can’t let go of, no matter how hard we try, are messages. What we can do is reflect on our interactions with our children (and others) and try to find ways of responding, instead of reacting.
The tendency to react, instead of respond, to emotionally charged situations, is not just a parenting challenge, it is a human challenge. We were made to react to threats. We perceive threats through our senses. Therefore, if we sense any emotion that we perceive as threatening, we tend to react, instead of respond. I think this is something many of us (myself included) get frustrated with and tend to beat ourselves up about. Understanding fear, and how it impacts our automatic response system, can help us to see why we struggle to follow through with choices we have made, when faced with strong emotions. Once we understand what is going on in our brains and bodies, we can develop a plan to respond, instead of react, in these moments.
Someone mentioned once in our group that if you do something again, after you know it could hurt someone else, you are a sociopath. I was taken aback by that perception, but it got me thinking, “what is the difference?” I believe, the difference is intent, and the thing that distracts us from our intentions, is often triggers. Triggers, are called triggers because they trigger feelings, which then trigger a pattern of behaviour (please excuse the 5 “triggers” in that poorly formed sentence). Because triggers are fear based, they don’t begin in your frontal lobe, where logic resides. Fear is triggered by your mammalian brain. Your fear response system is activated, by your long-term memory, and your sympathetic nervous system. Just as animals can and will bite someone they love, if they are scared enough, humans do to (metaphorically speaking, for the most part). We need to consciously activate our parasympathetic nervous system in order to fully process an emotion and return to a place of peace and security.
The Impact of Anxiety
So many people are suffering from anxiety for a variety of reasons. I heard anxiety explained like this in “Tapping with Brad”, and I must say, it has given me so much clarity: Anxiety is the fear of something that could happen, not something that is happening. READ THAT AGAIN. Anxiety is our fear response reacting to a trigger. It tells us there is something to fear because an aspect of our current situation reminds us of a time when we felt fearful. Fear is such a primal sensation, that it is very difficult to control. Basically, you cannot stop yourself from feeling the sensations of fear, but we can learn how to process those emotions differently.
Patterns of Behaviour
When we focus on responding, instead of reacting to the sensation of fear, we can develop different behavioural patterns in our brains. Another favourite analogy for these “patterns of behaviour” is to think of your brain as the earth or a big piece of land. At birth it is essentially a forest with no pathways or roads. Every time we do something it creates a new pathway in our brain. Every time our thoughts and actions connect, we are either making a pathway or taking one of the paths we already took. Every time we take a path we already took, it becomes easier to go down that path. It gets cleared a little more, until over time, some become highways. Our brains are actually super-efficient (sometimes referred to as lazy). Most people will always take the pathways, roads or highways that are the easiest to go down. This is why we repeat the same behaviours over and over. For the most part, this is a good thing, because we save our brains energy for more important stuff, if we don’t have to think too much about how to brush our teeth or put on our shoes.
Trauma Creates Super Highways
Experiencing trauma (or even extreme fear for children) is like a super-powered road construction team came in and built you a highway (behaviour pattern) in one night (experience). To start responding instead of reacting, you will have to consciously choose not to take the highway, and create a whole new path that has not even been cleared yet. That is why it can be so hard to change these patterns. How do you choose the new, more difficult path, when you are already overwhelmed and outside the window of tolerance? Often we can’t start there. We need to practice these self-regulation and emotional processing tools, during times when we are calm. Bit by bit we will wear down a new path in our brains, until one day, we’ll be triggered and about to turn onto that super highway of fear, when we will stop. We will recognize the sensation of being triggered and we will look over and see the forest with our path we’ve been working on. We will pull over, get out of our car and try the path instead. Every time we make that conscious choice, the path becomes more worn and we are more easily able to choose that path, instead of the super highway of fear.
Calm Down Before You Respond
This is a mistake I often make. I try to “respond” but my nervous system is reacting. This can come off as irritability, annoyance, frustration, etc. If we can learn to recognize the sensations of being triggered, we can more effectively attend to our own need to self-regulate or process something, more easily. The goal is the stay within the window of tolerance. If we find we are outside of that window, we should take time to try and deescalate, prior to trying to work things out with someone else, including our children. Meditation, music, time outside, tapping, yoga, mindfulness exercises, breathing exercises, exercise in general, can all aid in helping us to return to the window of tolerance. The first step is to make a plan for when this happens.
Making a Plan
Only you know how you would like to respond to your child’s needs. Start there. Write it down, talk about your struggles with others, discuss with your partner and trusted friends. Support can be incredibly empowering and can help us to feel more capable, if we do not feel alone in our struggles. Every time you react instead of responding to a situation, reflect on how you wish you would have responded. Try to think about what you learned and how you can support yourself more, if a similar situation was to arise again. Simply telling ourselves not to lose our patience, just does not work, for most people. It often leads to the pop bottle effect. We need to acknowledge and process our emotions, not stuff them down until we explode. This is often the hardest part of responsive parenting, as many of us were taught to suppress our emotions in childhood.
When you feel overwhelmed and you are not sure how to turn things around, try and focus on the 4 C’s.
Calm: Have a calm down plan for yourself. Model this for your child and they will likely also develop their own calm down plan, as they begin to take more ownership over their own emotional health.
Compassion: Ask yourself, “how can I offer compassion right now? To my child and myself.”
Connection: Ask yourself, “how can I connect with my child right now?” Often getting down to their level, looking them in their eyes, physically connecting and speaking softly and quietly, helps repair the bond. Our children want our acceptance, we just have to offer it.
Control: Then ask yourself, “how can I offer my child more control over this situation?” Offering them control will let them known that you are not trying to overpower them and force compliance. I have a couple simple ways to offer control to a child:
“How many more hugs do you need before I/you can go?” (before saying goodbye)
“How many more minutes do you need?” (before a transition)
“What do you need to make yourself more comfortable?” (in a situation where the child seems overwhelmed)
Focusing on what we can do helps us stay in a growth mindset. When we punish ourselves for the mistakes we make, our children may also feel like they need to practice self-punishment. Creating an environment that is free of judgement and punishment is often harder than it seems. The way we treat ourselves can be one of the last changes we make, as responsive parents, but it is one of the more crucial aspects in adopting this approach. The goal is to be as free of guilt and shame as one can be; for our children and ourselves. In order to not react to feelings of shame and guilt, we need to reflect on why those feelings exist and work through the triggers that make us react. We can learn all the calming strategies we want but until we process the emotions at the root of those triggers, we will continue to struggle in these moments with our children. Having a plan to respond, instead of react, can aid in developing new, more emotionally fulfilling strategies, that create a more peaceful home for everyone.
If you want to join me, and our community of responsive parents, on this wonderfully complex journey of parenting, please join my parenting support group on Facebook https://m.facebook.com/groups/806727139517086