Parents as Soothing Agents

When our little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it is our job to share our calm, not join their chaos.
— L.R. Knost

Parents and caregivers are critically important in helping children regulate their emotional states. Often, however, it is the very tantrums and meltdowns that spike parents' own anxiety reactions, leaving them unable to respond effectively as soothing agents. You might find yourself attempting to calm your child down through persuasion, coaxing, arguing them out of the anxiety, or rescuing them from the emotion. What if parents stopped trying to change behavior, and changed how they thought about parenting? Parents have the power to adjust their own thoughts and feelings about the struggles of parenting and about what a child's behavior is trying to communicate.

Dr. Dan Siegel proposes "Connection before correction." Parents need to first listen to the child, acknowledge her feelings, and offer guidance. The acronym SOOTHE (developed by Goodyear-Brown, Ashford, and van Eys) helps parents remember strategies to responding to emotional symptoms.

S = soft tone of voice, soft tone of face

0 = organize the child's experience

O = offer choices or a way out

T = touch or physical proximity

H = hear what the child is needing

E = end and let go

Elevation of a parent's voice will only feed the escalation of a child's tantrum. "If parents can choose to lower their voices, use a soothing tone, and remain calm, they will be anchoring the child's experience beneath the current level of escalation." (Paris Good-Year Brown in Play Therapy with Traumatized Children).

A lack of structure intensifies anxiety and dysregulation. Consistent schedules and soothing routines help to organize your child. Offering a narrow range of choices to a child helps to manage the emotion that arises during a decision making process, as well as provide a positive sense of control. A simple touch or physical proximity is meant to reaffirm children and keep the parent child relationship intact. Hearing what your child is communicating is discerning what the child's need is. This discernment will guide your response. Does your child's behavior communicate a need for attention? power? to feel adequate? rest? a snack? Lastly, Dan Siegel (2003) talks about the toxic ruptures that can occur between parents and children when upset occurs but it is never processed. Parents need to acknowledge their right to their own feelings of anger and exhaustion, but also let go of it, and remain responsive to their child after the meltdown has occurred.

Once connection is built, parents can move to the next step and discuss the issue. Helpful questions that encourage connection are: "What happened? How did this anger feel inside your body? How did this feeling make you react? What would be another choice for next time you feel sad?"

If you are interested in more helpful tips, we recommend "The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind" by Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson. "Peaceful Parenting, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting" by Laura Markham)

Tackling Childhood Fears, a counselor's anecdote

I have a 3.5 year old, who, admittedly, watches more TV than he should that is suitable for older children. At 2:30am I hear the quiet creaks coming down the hallway floor and a little voice say, "I'm scared. I'm scared of The Joker." My first response was "The Joker isn't real, he's just a character on TV," but I knew this wasn't enough nor was it validating.  Children need empathy and a creative reworking of their perceptions and experiences that allows them to perceive a sense of control over a fear. Fortunately I could use his imagination to guide him in managing his fear instead of falling prey to his fear. 

Me (adapting a song he has learned at school): "You are so big and strong and mighty. There's nothing your God can't do. He's on your side.   

Son: Will he fight the Joker? 

Me: He will fight for you and win! 

Son: I want the Avengers to put the Joker in jail.  

Me: And lock it with a key.  

Son: But what if Joker break through the jail? 

Me: God will put one of his angels in front of the jail to guard it. He has a big sword.  

Son: Are there enough angels to fight the bad guys?  Will they circle around them?

Me: Yes the angels are strong and mighty too and will fight to keep you safe. You are safe, strong, and mighty. 

This conversation along with some snuggles in bed tamed his worry and he was able to fall back asleep after I left his room. The following article Helping Your Anxious Child Overcome Bedtime Fears gives fantastic ideas for taming a worry brain and moving to a more regulated state. The strategies are not exclusive to bedtime fears. You can find it here.

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Freaking Out, Brain Science, and Resetting Your Body

Racing heart. Sweat. Labored breathing, Uncontrollable crying. Chest tightening. You feel like you're going to DIE. Your body is reacting to perceived danger in your brain. Your unconscious mind has picked up a signal that you are unsafe and your body needs to activate for protection. When your brain senses danger, a messenger relays that information to your amygdala from your brain stem before your cerebral cortex can process it and make sense of it logically. The message is Fight. Flight. or Freeze. 

What are "threats" or "perceived dangers" to the brain?

1. Threats to basic human needs both physiological and safety needs. Not only are traumatic experiences threatening, but physiological and love needs can also trigger a response. H.A.L.T stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired. Are you feeling any of these?

2. "Shoulds." The "shoulds" are expectations you tell yourself. I should be more...I should have done this...I shouldn't be like that...I should...I should...I should. Go ahead--start writing a list of your "shoulds" as you realize them. We all have the "shoulds."

3. The Unknown. The unknown can be frightening. The unknown of the future. Of the unexpected. Of how your body will respond. Of outcomes. Unpredictability. Really, the unknown can go on for infinity.

4. Contradictory Messages in the Environment: Mixed messages in an environment are threats to the brain. Double standards. Unpredictability. For example: A parent who either encourages or "forces" a child to do an activity, and then criticizes his effort. Or a partner who is a completely different person under the influence of alcohol. 

5. Implicit Memories. These are memories that rise to the "surface" of the brain, although are not recognized as a memory. It is when something happening now stirs up a memory from the past when you felt similarly--even though the current situation may be completely different. There is no time stamp either. For example, a scent associated with a past event may bring about an emotional response, yet the individual is unaware that scent was associated with the memory.

Dysregulation vs Defiance

This physical response to a perceived threat is called dysregulation, and it happens to both children and adults. The difference for a child though, is typically, he/she does not have the tools and skills to express this intense whirlwind. He/she often shuts down or acts out in order to release or suppress that energy. What may look like defiance is actually a physiological response to perceived danger. Defiance is intentional and motivated by a desired outcome. Dysregulation is governed by the nervous system. Try telling a dysregulated nervous system that "there is nothing to be afraid of" or to simply "calm down." Or "he just needs a spanking." It's like sending an email through the mailbox in your front yard. You're sending a message through the wrong channels in the brain. 

Symptoms of Dysregulation

We are all very much aware when a dysregulated individual is in a hyper-aroused state: Aggression, disorganized, alert, excessive motor activity, uncontrollable, irritable, anxious. 

But, a hypo-arousal state looks and feels much differently. It's easier to misperceive. Tired, automatic obedience, appears life-less, non-expressive, numb, lack of motivation, isolated, helplessness.

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Respond More Effectively

Mindfulness is key. Mindful awareness practices activate and harness the power of the prefrontal cortex in order to respond more effectively. As you repeatedly practice something, that state becomes a trait. You rewire your neurons. How cool is that?! Daniel Siegel discusses this here. 

Mindfulness is simply recognizing what's going on inside (our internal experience) in order to shift our internal experience. When we are more aware of what is happening on the inside, then we have more freedom to make a different choice in our response. This self-awareness allows people to stay connected to themselves in overwhelming moments. Self awareness allows the brain to think rationally, thus giving more choice and control over a response. Modeling is the best way to teach mindfulness. Check in with yourself throughout the day, particularly with your body. Notice what is happening to your body in regards to temperature, sensations, and movement. What parts are tight or clenched? What parts are relaxed? Notice and breathe. We want our mind to be an active participant--when we bring our attention to our body, our brain is less likely to "jump to conclusions" about what is happening in the situation or in the environment. The more we model and teach our children to be mindful of the body, overtime, patterns that we have been stuck in, will begin to soften and release.

Reset your body 

 Grounding exercises are designed to bring your awareness into the present moment which reminds our bodies that we are actually safe from harm. Adrenaline and cortisol then can be reduced.

Grounding exercises are designed to bring your awareness into the present moment which reminds our bodies that we are actually safe from harm. Adrenaline and cortisol then can be reduced.

When we change our perceptions, we change the symptoms in our nervous system.
— Lisa Dion, The Play Therapy Institute of Colorado

Lisa Dion compiled a list of activities to help return our bodies to a more regulated state.

  • Run, jump, spin, dance, bounce on yoga ball, crash into something soft, roll on the floor
  • Sit in a chair and push up by straightening arms
  • Massages, deep pressure on your arms and legs
  • Eat something crunchy
  • Drink through a straw
  • Take a bath/shower
  • Wrap up in a blanket
  • March or sing during transitions
  • Play music
  • Carry something heavy
  • Do a wall push up, or press hands together firmly
  • Run up/down steps
  • Hang upside down
  • Play sports
  • Doodle
  • Hold a fidget (koosh ball, rubber band, silly putty)
  • Dim the lights/Turn on the lights
  • Swing
  • Yoga
  • Breathe

Seek Professional Help

A healthy and effective therapeutic relationship with a counselor will provide an opportunity for you to examine and understand your perceived threats in a safe, empathic relationship and environment. For children, therapy involving play, sand, and activities will increase self-awareness, acceptance,  regulation, and self-control. A therapeutic relationship can connect at both the brain and heart levels that promotes new growth and neural pathways in the brain as well as heal any hurts in the heart.

 

 

 

Aggression or Grace?

If childhood bullying, aggression, emotions, or boundaries peak your interest, continue reading. As I read about current research, I wanted to make a connection for you about 2 articles I read. The first article about childhood aggression cites research that suggests when a child believes he or she is being threatened by a person who that child perceives is purposefully showing hostility, that child is likely to react with aggression. (Hypervigilance May Lead to Aggression) The study also indicates that the more a culture teaches children to be defensive, the more aggressive children are in that culture.

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Are we teaching our kids to react defensively or to respond forgivingly?

Perhaps we should take a look at the second article regarding attachments and boundaries. Boundaries are important to protect one's self. Children often learn boundaries from the adults in their lives. (Attachment Revisited: 7 Red Flag Signs of Poor Boundaries).

Healthy boundaries often result from healthy attachment in early life.
— Tamara Hill, MS, blogs.Psychcentral.com

Further more, healthy attachment results in high emotional intelligence (or the ability to manage emotions). If a child lacks boundaries, it will be difficult to tell others how they feel. They may begin to feel trapped or overwhelmed. As the first article suggests, if a child perceives someone to be threatening, he is likely to react aggressively.

How do I socialize my child to be forgiving?

For starters, you can model healthy attachment and boundaries so that your child can respond with grace and truth towards others. 

Grace includes support, resources, love, compassion, forgiveness, and all of the relational sides of God’s nature. Truth is the structure of life.
— Boundaries with Kids, Cloud and Townsend. Pg 67-68
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Anger Serves a Purpose

What We Know about Anger:

1. Anger is a natural emotion that varies in intensity.

2. Physiological and biological changes occur with anger (heart rate, blood pressure, adrenaline, and noradrenaline increase)

3. Some kids are more easily angered than others. This can be a result of genetics, sociocultural factors (for example, not being allowed to display the emotion), or family background.

People who are easily angered generally have what some psychologists call a low tolerance for frustration.
— Turner, Erlanger. "Tips on Helping Your Child Cope with Anger." Psychology Today, April 10, 2013

4. Subtle forms of anger in children may include pouting, sulking, and whining.

5. Anger can be a response to danger, a form of self-expression, or a declaration of independence. It can also be a symptom of being hungry, tired, or lonely.

6. Emotions under the surface of anger could be: embarrassment, annoyance, shame, guilt, grief, nervousness, insecurity, disappointment, frustration, helplessness, jealousy, regret, hurt, pressure, rejection, fear, inadequacy, or loneliness. 

Anger serves a purpose to communicate a child's unmet need. Through being aware, listening, teaching, modeling, and accepting the emotion, anger can be productive rather than destructive. Relieving rather than damaging. Insightful rather than unacceptable. Motivating rather than suppressing.

Strategies for Purposeful Anger for Children

1. Listen, Listen, Listen. Listening may include increasing your awareness prior to any outbursts of anger. What or who has changed for the child in the environment? What other feelings is the child showing? Any other physical symptoms? What is your child doing differently from his/her typical responses or routines? Listen, Listen, Listen also means the obvious for verbal kids: Listen to his/her story without any interruptions or suggestions.

2.  Teach and Model: Teach your child to identify the physical responses of anger: feeling hot? heart racing? eyes tearing up? fists clenching? grinding teeth? Put a name to feelings: decide on a feeling name for those responses and put it to use: "I am feeling so ________." Or "You're feeling really ______." Model your own anger managing behaviors by expressing the feeling, verbalizing how you will calm down, and verbalizing your choices.

3. Calm Down: Use some calming strategies when your child feels the symptoms of anger. Ideas are: taking deep breath, blowing into a pinwheel, blowing bubbles, squeezing silly putty, drinking a glass of water, playing alone, shaking sensory bottles, throwing wet sponges outside, stomping on an empty egg carton, drawing, journaling, doodling, listening to music, taking a walk, screaming in a pillow, etc. Giving your child calm down choices helps to reduce frustration, especially frustration that is a result of feeling of powerlessness or helplessness. If your child is feeling out of control and at risk of hurting himself or another person, separate her from that person or from a room/objects that aren't safe. Stop the action and restore safety. We love these 26 phrases for calming down an angry child: Click Here

4. Give Choices: This really only is helpful when a child has calmed down and all physiological responses have decreased. Look for possible solutions that may include compromising or apologizing.

5. Set Limits: Remind your child of limits to aggression. For example, "Hands aren't for hitting. If you choose to hit, you choose to not play right now." "Our family rules about cussing at people are ______. You can choose to write out your thoughts or doodle in your notebook. If you choose to cuss at your sister you choose to ___________(insert consequence)." If your child continues to break the limit, follow through with the consequence. 

6. Teach empathy and forgiveness: Children need your help with learning empathy. Without using guilt or shame, talk  about what another person's perspective might be. What are some options of expressing herself about her own perspective? Regarding forgiveness, apologies  can help kids move from guilty feelings to hopeful feelings that they can do better. Reassuring your child of your love communicates that their anger or angry behavior doesn't make him a bad kid or an unloved kid.

When Anger is Crying for Help

When anger persists and interferes with relationships with family or friends, remember that the purpose of anger is to communicate an unmet need. Are there threats to safety? Deep tensions in the family? A  developmental delay in language or social skills? Some kind of loss? If you're concerned about your child's anger, discuss this with a mental health professional. You're welcome to start with us at The Playroom Lubbock.

More on Brain Science and Resetting Your Body

Check out our other article here about the neurobiology behind anger, anxiety, and dysregulation.

 

Flipping Your Lid

Neuroscience is a 'Piece of Cake'

Flipping a lid. Blowing a gasket. Freaking out. Having a cow. Losing your cool. You've heard similar (or worse) idioms. Scientifically, what we intend to say is that our emotions are overriding our prefrontal cortex. Dr. Dan Siegel illustrates the brain using the Hand Model of the Brain and gives us insight into flipping our lids in his book The Whole Brain Child. When parents and children notice and begin to understand the brain, they can change what the brain does.

When the prefrontal cortex is engaged and hugging the limbic system nice and snug (closed fist), we are in tuned to others, flexible, and balanced. Our emotions are regulated. When our limbic system (which controls our emotions) feels threatened or when our "buttons are pushed," it overrides the prefrontal cortex. At this point, the prefrontal cortex can no longer respond because the brain stem and limbic system are reacting--which can be frightening to those around us. We lose reasoning.  We lose flexibility. This is where we "flip our lid." (See open hand). A fight/flight/freeze response is on the brink of occurring which in turn may trigger someone else's lid to flip.

Making a Repair

When we realize our emotions are creeping up and pushing on that "lid," we can make a repair. "Name it to tame it" is the secret password to "hold your horses" and engage the prefrontal cortex to respond appropriately and functionally. Both adults and children can learn to identify what the feeling is like just before their lid flips, and in turn, identify what action to take to make a repair: taking a break? breathing? counting? blowing bubbles?  Name that feeling. Name that emotional reaction bubbling up and tame it.

Find empathy

When we notice someone (perhaps your child) has "flipped his lid" it can help to understand that person's point of view. What is this person experiencing? What is this child feeling? How can I show this person that I hear and understand what he/she is saying and feeling? This shift of perspective creates empathy and a safe, nonjudgmental avenue for that person to tame the emotion and "put a leash on it."