With the world dealing with some complicated cards lately, parents have been asking how to best support our children during this time of adversity as well as in their general growth and development toward happiness and success. As the important adults in their lives, there are many ways that we can be positive change agents for them. While some parenting skills require quite a bit of diligence and effort (which can be tough to find right now amidst the chaos), there are also many ways we can foster change in our children during our everyday activities and interactions.
Before I go into detail with the first suggestion, it’s important that I provide a small, hopefully painless science lesson. Distinguished University Scientist and psychiatry professor Dr. Stephen Porges coined the term neuroception to describe our brain’s unconscious function of detecting safety and danger and triggering neurobiological and physiological responses in our bodies. In a nutshell, our brain’s built in alarm system is ready to help us engage in either prosocial or protective responses based on what it perceives in our interactions and environments. Armed with this information, we can use our adult nervous systems to help co-regulate our child’s nervous system. Without specific words or parenting techniques, we can foster our own sense of calm to lead our children out of tantrums, fear responses, meltdowns, and general emotional catastrophes. It’s kind of like having an internal magic wand. When we learn to tune into our internal sensations and regulate our own levels of emotional activation, our child’s nervous system detects the nearby oasis of calm and follows. Many children are experiencing higher than normal stress and worry levels since the pandemic began and are needing their adults to provide some relief. Does this work every time? No, but the more we can use our own nervous systems to co-regulate with our children, we not only help them gain control over their emotions in the moment but we help grow their ability to manage distress and difficult situations in the future.
Here’s an example of what this might look like. Let’s say that your child is angry about having to turn off their video game to come to dinner. They have started yelling and are clearly losing control. You may notice that this triggers a reaction in your own body (this is normal). Your own system detects danger (yelling and angry tone of voice), and you can feel yourself wanting to respond with anger. However, you take note of these observations, take a deep breath, and maybe even walk away for a few seconds to make sure you are able to calm your own body down. With a calm body you come back to your child with some words of validation about their experience in the moment or maybe you just briefly place yourself near them and allow your physical presence to do the work. You will likely notice that instead of escalating their response, you have helped to downshift their intensity. The effect is often enough to allow for the opportunity for you to now move in with other types of support to help them calm down and move on from the situation.
If you’re looking for a more frequent way to move your child toward stress relief, positive behaviors, higher confidence, and a better sense of self worth, utilizing the power of relational energy and words is the way to go. This comes from one of the three pillars of Howard Glasser’s Nurtured Heart Approach. If you’re not familiar with his work, Glasser created a relationship-focused methodology for increasing positive behaviors and helping children recognize their inherent greatness. While the NHA books and trainings will give you the best understanding of how to utilize all parts of the approach, you can start incorporating one piece into your everyday interactions with your child right now. Look relentlessly for both small and large examples of your child making positive choices (even if they are fleeting) and focus your energy into identifying, recounting, and communicating your appreciation for them. You will find there are countless opportunities for this, and they will only increase as your child feels the energetic responses from you that their positive behaviors elicit.
To get you started, here are some examples of how this might sound: “I see you waiting for your turn without complaining, and that shows such patience,” “I appreciate that you did not yell just now when you didn’t get the answer you wanted, and that is evidence of great self control,” “I noticed you helped your brother get a snack, which proves you are both responsible and caring,” “John, you seem frustrated with your homework, and you have continued to keep working. What amazing perseverance,” “Beth, thank you for telling me about what went wrong during your zoom meeting today. You handled that situation with such honesty,” “I see you not hitting, even though you could be, and that shows that you are working to control your impulses,” and “You totally could have lied, and instead you explained what really happened. That took a lot of courage!” As you can see, the general gist is catching your child during moments of good choices, instances when they are not breaking rules, and demonstrations of positive behavior and acknowledging it along with the character quality that you see them exhibiting. Once you get into the habit of looking for these moments, you will start to see them everywhere, even during your child’s most challenging days.
One of the best ways to be an agent of change for your child is to guide them with your own behavior. Social learning theory tells us that kids (and adults for that matter) learn through watching and imitating the behavior of others. Parents sometimes feel pressure about behavior modeling because there’s an idea of needing to be perfect all the time. However, one of the best things about behavior modeling is that we can use it as a powerful way to model how to make relational repairs and fix missteps or bad behavior choices. Not only does this show our children that no one’s perfect, but it teaches a valuable social skill. In addition to social skills, we can use modeling to teach our kids life skills, emotion regulation skills, healthy living habits, strategies for managing adversity, and so much more. The opportunities are endless since our kids are always watching us. One of my favorite ways to use modeling with kids is to surprise them with a behavior they weren’t expecting. For example, if I knock over a glass of water and it spills everywhere, my child may be expecting a full display of frustration, exasperation, or panic to clean up. I can use this opportunity to model several skills. If I take a deep breath before addressing the spill, my child can see me modeling emotion regulation so that I don’t lose my cool. I can then model slow and mindful behaviors to clean up instead of a panicked, highly activated response that just creates more chaos. I can also model self talk and reasonable reactions to the size of the problem. I might say something like, “Awww man, that’s a bummer, but this shouldn’t take long to clean up. No big deal.” I’m showing my child how to use their inner coach to get through an unexpected, adverse situation. I’m also modeling how to match my reaction to the size of the problem, and how to have grace for myself when I make a mistake. Modeling is an appropriate teaching skill for kids of all ages, so it’s never too late to try it. The easiest part about it is that we don’t have to stop what we’re doing to teach a lesson, we just have to be mindful and intentional in the activities that we’re already engaged in.
As I’m sure you’re keenly aware of, especially since we’ve all been spending A LOT of time together over the past year, our children look to us to meet all sorts of needs, even when it seems like they are pushing us away (ahem, teenagers). It’s encouraging to remember that even when we’re having a trainwreck of a day, it’s never too late to make a difference in how we guide our child through the moment, either directly or indirectly (in the way that we guide ourselves). Whether we’re trying to help our child through a challenging moment or situation or just offer general support, we can make big impacts with the ways that we engage with our children on a daily basis.
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