One of the hardest things I had to learn as a parent was figuring out…
I can hear all the reactions to the suggestion that we slow parenting down. “I have too much to do to slow down”, “I have a job to keep”, and the “kids have to learn to cope with the way life is” are all loud in my head as well. But what if those voices in our heads are actually one of the reasons why mornings are chaotic, dinners feel like a gong show, and we collapse in bed at night dreading the next days repeat of today.
Parenting, like all other relationships, is a dynamic. When the relationship is between adults, it is perfectly reasonable to be clear with your expectations, set boundaries, and to disengage when the relationship is not healthy or sustainable. When the relationship is between an adult and a child it’s a whole new ballgame! There is still a dynamic but one of the participant’s “self” is in development.
Children are like live wires – sensitive, reactive, and sparking all over the place. When the live wire is joy, laughter, playfulness it’s contagious and we love being around that energy. When it is frustration, sadness, anger then the live wire is less enticing and, in some moments, downright intolerable.
Children’s emotions are experienced and expressed with every fibre of their being. No matter what your age, emotions can be a full body experience but for young children it most certainly is. Everything feels over the top. They haven’t developed a protective coating to buffer their body’s experience of the world. Buffering is created over time, through development, and as a direct outgrowth of their experiences.
As parents, we relish the moments when they are composed and wise. Children can be articulate about their needs, be responsible for their behaviour, and use executive functioning before acting. A lot of the time though, they can’t. It all depends on a number of factors like age and stage of development which we have little power to rush. But one factor that we have a lot of control over and is crucial to them developing emotion regulation skills, is how we respond to their difficult moments.
When they can’t be emotionally regulated, is when they need us most. This is our opportunity to help them learn what they need to shift their state from live wire to emotionally regulated person. What we say to them in these difficult moments is what they will be saying to themselves now and in the future.
This is our opportunity to shine as a parent! Instead of seeing those gong show scenes as inevitable suffering, what if we saw it as an opportunity to get to know our children better? Even better, what if we saw it as a moment to get to know ourselves?
If it is a gong show, then no one is at their best. Shifting our own state to curiosity creates the pathway to calming everyone down. If we are reacting from the place of “this is a gong show” then we are likely saying unpleasant things about ourselves and our children. Even if these things never pass our lips there is a felt sense of these thoughts. It may be contributing to the dynamic and fuelling the gong show.
Slow down, be curious about first how to shift your own state to calm, curious, and working towards a dynamic that feels supportive, loving, compassionate. When our bodies and minds are in this state, then no matter how emotionally dysregulated our child is, they have access to an emotionally regulated adult to lean into when they are ready. That moment can’t be forced. That live wire is likely going to spark for a bit; the wire has its own energy source that needs expression. A moment will emerge when the energy can be grounded. If there is not an emotionally regulated adult around when that moment presents itself then the child’s energy will amp up. There is no one available to contain it, nothing to ground to.
Alternatively, if the moment comes where all the energy and reactivity that the child is consumed by calms and you are there with kind eyes, a soft face, and generous words, then the child can experience some relational support from your body. In the language of the nervous system this co-regulation facilitates the child’s energy to down regulate.
If in that moment they experience all the ways in which your body and mind are contorting with the “gong show”, then the child experiences this as more fuel for their own energetic activation. What they need, truly need, as much as they need food and a warm bed, is an adult who is available to help navigate them towards emotion regulation.
The fastest way to calm is slow down! Remember the old parable of the tortoise and the hare? Same thing.
Slowing down and being curious is the first step. Some questions to ask yourself in this process are:
What might be happening for my child that they are having trouble coping?
Behaviour is communication. When we are able to hear the message then we can respond in ways that settle the live wire much faster. Missing their communication is a sure-fire way to get more of the behaviour. They need to be heard and they will keep trying to communicate to us in the best ways they know how, with behaviour.
As a developing self, children (and often us adults too!) don’t know how to put into words what is happening inside. The message contained in the behaviour may be about a physical state like hunger, tiredness, illness. It may be about emotions that they are not able to make sense of like fear, jealousy, self doubt, or even emotions like excitement and desire.
As their adult, it is not our job to figure it out completely. But we can notice and share our observations to the child and be curious with them what might be happening. Mirroring back what we observe or patterns we are noticing welcomes the child into a collaborative process that helps them too sort through their internal and external world. It’s their “problem” (see https://www.rippleeffectchildrensservices.ca/blog/2022/04/20/whose-problem-is-it/) but as a team we are motivated to help them figure it out.
What does my child need to cope and how can I offer that?
Everybody is different. Some children need more eye contact; others need less. Some children need proximity; others need space. Being curious about how best to respond to the unique physical requests from your child’s body is important. What is 100% guaranteed is that in the heightened moments of dysregulation it is not a rational dialogue that is needed.
Calm bodies have rational conversations. Activated bodies can’t.
Activated bodies need another calm body.
Drop all the talk and focus on being physically present for your child. Once their bodies is more calm then their minds will be more available for the rational conversation.
How might I be adding to their struggle to cope?
Rushing to get out the door or get the troops fed might mean that we are the live wire in the moment. Sometimes, children know us better than we know ourselves. If our stress is causing us to be lost in our own reactivity, then we are not in that moment physically available for our child. Every child has a different level of tolerance for adult stress. This may even vary from day to day. Their survival depends on us being available for them; if our stress is checking us out, then children can become very dysregulated.
Obviously, we are not super human and at times we are going to be stressed. Children can learn from us in these moments when they experience us being responsible for our stress. Stating something as simple as “I have a lot on my mind right now, can you give me 10 minutes and then you can have my full attention” simultaneously models self awareness and how to ask for what you need.
What are the signs that my child is back in a regulated state?
We don’t typically shift states on a dime. Often times there is some back and forth. A little bit of calm can erupt back into full blown dysregulation fairly quickly. We want to be looking for the signals from our child that says their body is experiencing a calmer state and thus they are more mentally and emotionally regulated in the moment. At the same time, just because their body is calmer doesn’t mean they are ready to unpack what just happened. We need to continue with the slow and cautious approach to support their ability to maintain this shift.
In the aftermath of a gong show there are lots of emotions creating a swirling chemical soup in the body. Though they may be calmer, talking more easily, and making eye contact, their bodies have just been through a whirlwind. Being able to have a full discussion of what has just happened may be better left to another time. If time is of the essence, then helping children to maintain the emotion regulation they just achieved can be done by signalling to them our awareness of what they are going through. Something that sounds like this can be helpful:
“Wow, you are really doing a great job calming yourself right down, I can see how hard you are trying. I am right here to help keep you calm. Now….we still need to make that decision about what you are going to eat before going to school. Do you feel ready to make that decision?”.
Taking a Slow Parenting approach offers a tremendous opportunity to learn about our own bodies and minds as well as our children’s.