Did you know that during high-stress interactions with your child, your breathing pattern, your facial expressions, your voice, and your body influences your child’s physiological state and their sense of well being? That’s right, our emotions, behaviors, and the words we choose play a critical role in the level of fear, frustration, and stress that lie at the root of our kids’ challenging behaviors. When we tune into our own physiological state, we can start to consciously de-escalate conflicts and increase connection.
It’s common for parents to focus on eliminating challenging behaviors without considering their underlying cause. Child development expert Dr. Mona Delahooke describes bad behaviors as the tip of an iceberg peeking out of the water. What you can’t see beneath the surface is a child’s internal perceptions and sensations, their thoughts, emotions, memories, ideas, and intentions. Other contributing factors not often considered are the child’s developmental capacities and cognitive abilities. So, looking below the surface of behaviors can give you clues to what’s going on for your child.
Searching for Safety
Dr. Stephen Porges describes the physiological underpinnings of challenging behaviors in his Polyvagal Theory. At all times, and without conscious awareness, parts of the brain are constantly scanning our internal, external, and interpersonal worlds for signs of safety, danger, and life threat. Based on the information it finds, it will send signals to our bodies to be in one of three states: social engagement, fight-or-flight defensiveness, or shutdown. Dr. Porges refers to this subconscious surveillance as neuroception, and while it evolved to keep us safe from predators, some people have faulty neuroception that leads to the perception of threat when there is none, or to the perception of safety in dangerous situations.
When your child detects a lack of safety in their environment, they go into survival mode and have a stress response in the form of self-protective behaviors like fighting, fleeing, or shutting down. Rather than focusing on eliminating the child’s difficult behaviors, have compassion for their struggle, show acceptance, and turn up the volume on relational and emotional safety. This can help your child move from survival-mode back into socially-connected mode.
When your child detects a lack of safety in their environment, they go into survival mode and have a stress response in the form of self-protective behaviors like fighting, fleeing, or shutting down.
Let’s look at how this works.
Defensive behaviors like lashing out physically or verbally, withdrawing or checking out are often viewed as intentional misbehavior in children. But, unless the child is physiologically regulated, flexible and alert, able to calmly engage in connected social interactions, it means that they are having an involuntary reaction in response to a perceived threat, and are not in conscious control of their actions. In this state, many kids just aren’t capable of switching off their challenging behaviors – not even to get the rewards adults might desperately offer in exchange for calming down.
Furthermore, using threats and punishments, ongoing patterns of shaming, belittling, and harsh words from adults, can damage a child’s emerging sense of self-worth – leading to more challenging behavior instead of less. So what can you do if your child loses control?
First you need to feel safe, so it’s important to regulate your own nervous system, or you can’t help your child regulate theirs. Your own nervous systems will go into fight/flight/freeze mode in response to your child’s. But allowing yourself to act automatically out of anger, fear, or despair will make you the perceived threat, prolonging your child’s meltdown. Your survival response is automatic but you can send signals of safety to your own brain by taking control of your breath.
Inhale through your nose for 4 counts. Hold it for 4 counts. Exhale for 8 counts. Repeat 3 times. Long exhales slow down your nervous system, and let your subconscious threat-detector know that you are safe, putting the brakes on your fight/flight response. Because, if you were in actual life threatening danger, you wouldn’t have time to take intentional control of your breath, or focus on anything else but staying alive.
Inhale through your nose for 4 counts. Hold it for 4 counts. Exhale for 8 counts. Repeat 3 times. Long exhales slow down your nervous system.
Next, say to yourself internally, or quietly out loud: “This is a moment of suffering” and give yourself some grace. Noticing you’re triggered can keep you from acting in ways you later regret. Remind yourself that your child is not giving you a hard time, your child is having a hard time. What looks like anger is often fear. When you view your child as dangerous, and their behavior as intentional, you’re inclined to act defensively rather than helpfully. Remind yourself that a stressed and fearful child is not in voluntary control of their behavior, and that the logical part of their brain has been overtaken by their survival system.
Lastly, use language sparingly, and use a gentle tone when you do. Let them know that you are there for them, that you care and want to help. Become aware of your body language. Relax the tension in your body and facial expressions, continue to breathe slowly so that you appear calm and present – this is a cue of safety to your child’s nervous system. Make gentle and intermittent eye contact so as not to overwhelm your child in this state, and give them some physical space if it’s safe enough to do so.
Try to show as much tolerance for your child as you can as you wait for their system to re-regulate. In this state your child sees the world as unpredictable and chaotic, but you can communicate emotional safety through your warm, calming presence which helps them feel safe and calm again. These are the first steps in the process of what’s called co-regulation.
Filling Your Own Cup
Co-regulation requires at least one nervous system that feels a sense of safety. I’m reminded of a quote by ADHD expert Dr. Russell Barkley: “Children who need the most love will ask for it in the most unloving ways.” Like most parts of skillful parenting – co-regulation takes effort and requires that we be proactive about regularly taking care of ourselves so that we have the internal resources to self-regulate. I discuss some mindful self-care tips in the episode 3 Strategies for Becoming a Better Parent, so check that out if you missed it or revisit it if you’ve forgotten!
As human beings it’s normal for both you and your child to cycle through a range of positive and negative emotions on a daily basis. But if you find that you are persistently overwhelmed by stressors in your parenting life, and are unable to identify soothing and calming self-care strategies that allow you to replenish the stores of resilience you need to co-regulate your child, consulting with a mental health professional can help you explore your triggers and get you on a better path.
Thanks so much for listening!
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.