I have parents contact me, all the time, just devastated that they keep making the same mistakes, even though they are trying desperately to change their behaviour. It’s discouraging for them as they seem to see this parenting approach as a pursuit of perfection. It is not at all. It is about reflection and connection. It is about giving ourselves as much grace as we give our children. Truly modelling grace for our children. Instead of telling yourself “I need to calm down!” Tell yourself “I need to give myself grace.” If you were to shout at your child to calm down, would you expect them to? Well then why do we expect ourselves to feel calmed by our screaming inner critic?
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Quite often when we are struggling to follow through with our plan, it is because our needs are not getting met in some way (not because we are inherently “bad” or incapable of change). When our needs aren’t met, it can be much harder to respond, instead of react, to an emotionally charged situation. I have a habit of kind of lecturing myself, inside my head; “don’t say that! Why didn’t you say it the way you wanted?” It has taken a lot of practice to stop myself when that internal dialogue starts and instead I begin the process of deconstructing that thought, instead of letting it spiral into self-loathing. “Why was I not able to follow through with my plan? Did I forget? Did I feel overwhelmed?” Usually I realize I was overwhelmed in some way and validating my feelings of overwhelm, forgiving myself, giving myself grace and making a plan to meet some of those unmet needs, has transformed my perception of these moments where reaction was my initial response.
The brain is like a forest. As a small child your forest is full of budding foliage but no pathways, no structure, no developed growth. Every time we experience something new, it creates a new pathway in our brain. 90% of these pathways are created within the first 6 years of life. When we experience something for a second or third time, the path that was create the first time gets a little more worn, a little clearer, a little less brush. Every time we experience the same thing, the path gets quicker and easier and we are more likely to take it because it is the easiest option, from our brains perspective. That is why children throw the same cup over 1000 times and still find joy in it. That’s why they get up a thousand times, even though they have fallen 999 times. It is also why experiences can have such a lasting affect on our brains and why it can be so hard to change our behaviour, even after we’ve changed our mindset.
Our reactions to stress become automatic. These are developed in childhood. Just like we develop the neural pathways to read, walk, hold a fork, we develop neural pathways for responding to stress. If our stress as a child is responded to with co-regulation, unconditional love and acceptance, for the most part, our neural pathways develop the natural response of self-regulating. If we are not responded to in a way that uses co-regulation, we are more likely to develop the typical responses to stress, such as fight or flight. These become more automatic than regulation. For a child who experiences trauma, they may develop different neural pathways that result in a tendency to freeze, fawn or submit in the face of a stressor.
Why do I keep yelling?
One of the most frustrating parts of changing our thoughts and behaviour, when we struggle to do this. Dysregulation causes our minds and bodies to go into a stress response state. Within this state of dysregulation, we are far less able to think clearly and rationally. Our ability to make choices is effected by all the emotional dysregulation occurring in our bodies. During this time, our minds and bodies prefer to revert to familiar patterns.
How can this effect you as a parent, responding to a stressed child?
⁃ You may say hurtful things
⁃ You may try to suppress their emotions
⁃ You may try to placate their emotions
⁃ You may say or do something your parents used to do.
⁃ You may feel triggered by your child’s behaviour
⁃ You may do something you have been trying hard not to do.
We want to take that new path. We want desperately to change our behaviour. Unfortunately, this requires our frontal lobe and when we are dysregulated, our frontal lobe is not functioning properly. When our minds and bodies are in a dysregulated state, they tend to go down the path’s that are most familiar. That is why it is even harder to change our behaviour in a dysregulated state. We need to learn how to hold space for ourselves, in order to hold space for our children. When we believe that processing emotions can be safe and healthy, our children start to believe that too.
Polyvagal Theory and Co-Regulation
Polyvagal Theory, which involves Somatic processing, highlights the power of co-regulation (references below). Essentially, when we encourage children to suppress or distract from their emotions, we are teaching their brains to disengage and disassociate from their feelings. In order to fully process an emotion that triggers the fight or flight response, one must feel safe enough to fully experience that emotion, with the support of someone they trust. If the emotion is suppressed, the person will not fully process the emotion and they will be left “trying to hold the beach ball underwater,” as the saying goes.
Emotions aren’t like a button, where all you have to do is take your finger off the button. Emotions are like a mountain climber trying to climb a mountain. In order to fully process an emotion you must reach the peak and then descend. Unfortunately, our society has normalized stopping the emotion at the bottom of the mountain or even somewhere in the middle. When someone begins to reach the peak, it seems rare that others are able to accept that process, so again they try to get the climber to go back down the mountain. The more the climber is sent down the mountain (suppression) the more frustrated they become with not being able to complete their mission. The mission does not go away, just because the climber descends.
Sitting with a child while they process emotions is like quietly supporting the mountain climber to make their ascent. Offering water, food and moral support. You don’t rush the climber, you trust they know how fast they can/should go. When they reach the top, they will be at the most elevated point emotionally. That’s when the support is most important and demonstrating unconditional acceptance and love is crucial to the process of co-regulation.
As we age, the more we may experience others cautioning us and trying to stop us from climbing the mountain. As a result, we become more fearful of reaching the peak. We have received the message that it is too hard and too dangerous to try and reach the top.
Some may say “why try to climb the mountain at all?” Usually, starting up the mountain is involuntary but those who do manage to never try and climb are more than likely in a deep state of disassociation. Often disassociation leads to unhealthy coping strategies and poor physical health because the body still holds those emotions that were never processed.
In short, we repeat these emotional patterns because we never fully process the emotions related to the origin of that pattern.
Here are some references. This is a complex theory usually applied to trauma but children’s brains are rapidly developing so the way we support their emotions can set the pathways in their brain, in regards to how they manage stress responses in the future. There are a couple studies done with children and other resources explaining these theories.
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