What is a nervous system to do?
Our children feel it, we feel it. When under stress our thoughts tend to take us into the future with worry. Right now, during the pandemic children all over the world are in a variety of new learning situations for school. Parents are worried. Parents of young children are worried about the impact of online school due to the lack of socialization and learning through play and sharing. Parents of older children are worried about how this will affect their child’s ability to get into college or be successful in life after graduation. We are all worried and wondering if our child is really learning what they need to learn and questioning if they are missing out. We are living in the year 2020, yet we are bringing the worry about some future event into the now.
The stressors you are under cause you to become emotionally dysregulated, and if you are dysregulated then your children may also be feeling dysregulated.
My clients often ask, “What am I supposed to do when I am feeling so dysregulated and I still have to parent my children?”
Essentially, they are asking, when I am dysregulated, how can I show up for my children?
This question applies to all life stressors not just the pandemic, online school and the current ways we have had to significantly alter our day to day lives.
It is up to you, the parent, to first regulate your own nervous system. Once your nervous system is regulated then you can show up for your children and help them by becoming their co-regulating partner. You do this for and with them, no matter how old your child is. Let’s explore how to do this through the lens of Polyvagal theory. Polyvagal theory gives a framework to understand your autonomic nervous system.
What is the autonomic nervous system?
The autonomic nervous system is always behind the scenes working and taking in the environment. Assessing what we see, feel, hear, and sense for cues of safety and cues of danger. This is called neuroception. The autonomic nervous system is always perceiving what is going on in our lives, in each and every moment. We react or respond based on whatever is coming into our autonomic nervous system through neuroception.
Based on our experiences, we respond through a hierarchy of one of three autonomic states when outside information comes into our awareness.
The 3 autonomic states are:
- The Ventral state. We feel safe and connected here. When we are in this place we respond, we do not react. We feel good, balanced, calm and connected. We also feel safe in our environment. When we are in this feeling of safety and connection we can pause, look at the situation with some objectivity and then thoughtfully respond.
- The Sympathetic state. Mobilization, fight or flight. Mobilization gets us moving and taking action which can be a good thing. However, many times mobilization is fueled by anxiety and/or fear. Not enough to cause collapse but enough to cause us not to function at the highest level we can function at, usually we react. Many of the times these reactions are not in our best interests or the best interest of our child. These reactions can look like yelling, punishing or other reactions that make no sense and much of it comes from a place of fear.
- The Dorsal Ventral State- Feeling immobilized or collapsing. We shut down because outside influences are way too much for us.
These are the three states of our Autonomic Nervous System. Our children have these 3 states as well. We are born with them and they develop over time. When we learn how to regulate our nervous system, we can be a co-regulating partner for our child’s nervous system. That is the key.
Become a co-regulator.
Tips and tricks, you can use to regulate yours and your child’s autonomic nervous system.
- Begin to be aware of your own nervous system by asking questions like: What is happening within you when you become overwhelmed or triggered by your child or an outside event? What happens within your body when you think about how you feel in relation to the trigger? You may feel or experience fear, confusion, anxiety. You may feel like a victim and may wind up shutting down or becoming very anxious. These reactions bring us into either a dorsal or sympathetic state. We do not function optimally when in those states. The goal is to move up the hierarchy into a ventral state.
- When you feel these big feelings of anxiety ask yourself these questions:
“In this moment that I am in, what is the response I need in order to begin to feel better? “
“Where am I feeling it in my body?”
“What does my body need to do right now to feel more calm and balanced?”
– Maybe you need to take a few breaths, grab a glass of water, take a walk, sit in quiet, stretch or anything else that helps you move into a place of balance inside.
-You are now tuning into and taking care of your nervous system. When you take care of your needs you can move from anxiety into the calm place of safety, the ventral state.
- Once you are back in safety then you can ask: What does my child need, in this moment, right now from me?
If you respond to your child from a place of anxiety, fear or uncertainty without taking care of you first, your child will respond to your anxiety, fear and uncertainty. Your child will mirror back to you the state you are in.
Your child’s nervous system reads your nervous system.
Autonomic nervous systems communicate with one another. This is why we need to take care of our autonomic nervous system first, before interacting with our child. Once we become aware of this, we can regulate ourselves, this sends our child cues of safety. In other words:
Your calm nervous system calms their nervous system.
Ways to create autonomic safety for your child’s nervous system:
- The tone of your voice– Prosody- when we speak in a calm, soft tone of voice your child’s nervous system will calm down. The research has shown that the tone of your voice actually matters more than what you are actually saying.
- Non-language sounds like hmms, ahhs and ah-ah allows your child to know they are being heard. This non-language sound is called a vocal burst and it lets your child know I hear you and you are safe telling this to me.
- Tilt your head– when you are listening to someone, tilt your head to the right or left. This creates safety. This goes back to our primitive brains and our basic needs for safety. If the neck is exposed, you are at risk. If you show your neck to another you let their nervous system know there is no risk here.
- A soft stare or soft eye contact. A soft gaze
- A welcoming facial expression. Smile with your eyes.
Three essential elements to help your child’s nervous system feel safe:
-Our nervous systems need these three elements to feel safe during uncertain times.
- Context: Information- We need answers to the questions of who, what, where, when and why. Giving this kind of explicit context and information gives our nervous system enough information that lets us know we are safe.
- Choice: Choice helps our nervous system feel safe. We need to find creative ways to create choices. This will be different for each child based on their needs and learning abilities. If your child is old enough, include them in coming up with creative choice.
- Connection: This is key, and it goes hand in hand with conscious parenting. Connection over correction. Keep coming back and ask yourself how I can be most connected with my child right now. We want to have connections to help them feel safe to decrease anxiety and strengthen the relationship.
Examples for creating safety:
-Have a dance party on a break.
– Give a hug.
– Give a cue of safety: sing a song softly into their ear that you used to sing when they were a baby while you rock and hug them. This works to calm their nervous system because the subconscious mind will remember. This will help them feel safe and help their nervous system regulate. What are the things you can bring forward from the past that used to be a cue of safety for your child and use it in the present?
-You are only limited by your imagination.
Have compassion for yourself and your child. This is a learning process. The more you learn about your own nervous system and how to regulate yourself, the better you will be to help them regulate theirs. You are your child’s co-regulating partner.
“What does conscious parenting mean?”
“Who is a conscious parent?”
“What does it mean to be a conscious parent?”
These are the questions I was asking myself as I began to delve into the world of conscious parenting. My own journey into this subject began quite by chance from a book recommendation. The book, The Awakened Family by Dr. Shefali Tsabary, felt like it was speaking directly to me. One of the first sentences that I read was: “We awaken when we become aware of who we truly are.”
To me, that message was that our essence, our true self is important. And while I was intrigued by the desire to find my true self, I also immediately wanted to know how this related at all to parenting.
As a clinical psychologist who merges the world of Western psychology and Eastern philosophy, Dr. Shefali has a totally different approach to parenting than anything I had ever encountered or experienced. She talks about our job of parenting our children as raising a spirit and honoring their essence—that the children who are delivered to us are done so for a reason. According to Dr. Shefali, conscious parents implicitly trust their child’s intuition to recognize their own destiny.
But here’s the part that might really blow your mind: They are brought to us to mirror back to us the parts of ourselves that we need to pay attention to and to heal. This aspect of Dr. Shefali’s approach to conscious parenting gets me so excited. It is why I have become so passionate about the subject, and why I feel a calling to teach and share this philosophy with as many people as possible.
This premise is also the foundation for understanding the reasons why we yell and provides us with the tools to learn how to stop yelling and start connecting.
Coming back to my original questions about what is a conscious parent and how we can become one: Conscious parenting uses ordinary, moment-by-moment interactions with our children to enable an authentic connection with them.
By being present, conscious and aware in the moment, overtime, a new family dynamic emerges which can dramatically impact families. When a parent changes their own reactions, behaviors, responses, and interactions the child’s behavior changes. This leads to a behavioral shift in relationships. How we respond to them, not react, becomes our own inner barometer of how conscious we are.
A conscious parent is something that is learned. It is learned through the actual experience of relating to our children, things we cannot learn by reading all of the many “how to” parenting books that are out there.
As we learn to become conscious parents some questions arise:
- Can we accept our children in their “as is” state in each moment?
- Can we get our entire heart and mind involved and in agreement to the process?
- Can we also accept the kind of parent we need to be for our particular child
- Can we be the parent our child needs us to be as opposed to the parent we think they need?
- Can we allow them to exist without the snares of our own expectations?
These are some of the challenges that we have to navigate in becoming a conscious parent. Conscious parenting spoke so deeply to me because of my many years of clinical work as a social worker and as a hypnotherapist. I understand the way our deeper mind works and how unresolved, unhealed childhood conflicts impact us in our adult lives. These unresolved issues will and do directly affect the way we parent and we probably don’t even realize the degree to which this happens. Being unaware of those issues is one of the reasons we wind up yelling.
Dr. Shefali teaches us that when we react to our children’s emotional reactions, tantrums, defiance, etc. we are reacting from our own child inside of us who is now triggered and is fighting back. She asks us to tune in and pay attention to our own inner landscape so we do not react from the place of our wounded inner child but instead can respond to our child from our adult loving self.
I know we can all heal our inner child; I am living proof. If our child is shining light onto the issues that we—as parents—need to address, acknowledging it is the first step. The next step is actually addressing it so that we can heal. We then can be in a healthier place with ourselves, and with our children. We will finally be able to connect with them and develop stronger bonds. This is your invitation to begin to peel back the layers to a better self-understanding, to yell less and to connect more.
Janet Philbin is the author of the book, Show Up For Yourself- A Guide to Inner Awareness and Growth. In this book she takes the reader on a journey to heal their own inner child. When we heal our own pain of the past it no longer will have control over us in the present. If this article speaks to your heart, the book will give you a framework to help you heal the pain that your heart has been holding. You can get a copy of the book here: https://amzn.to/3cgxKCp.
Janet works with clients worldwide, helping them to heal the wounds their inner child carry. You can reach her through her website, https://janetphilbin.com/. She is also available to come speak at your event, business or school.
This is part two in a series about the gift of emotions when parenting consciously.
5. “Mistakes” are really learning opportunities
Instead of the word mistake lets rename it a learning opportunity. There really are no mistakes. Everything that we experience in life happens for us. And not just the good stuff, but the not so good stuff too. Can you begin to look at these learning opportunities as avenues for growth?
There are many ages and stages of learning while raising our kids. As parents we have many learning opportunities.
How can we learn to do it if we had not done it wrong first? We learn what works from what did not work. As adults we remember moments we would rather forget, did we learn from those experiences, you bet we did. And we learned from them because no one saved us from the consequences.
Our children also need to learn the natural
consequences from their learning opportunities. If we rush in to save
them every time, or prevent a “mistake” from happening what do they learn? They
learn, “I don’t have to feel my uncomfortable feelings because mom or dad will
do, remember, or fix this for me.” How is your child going to learn to
remember to bring his homework home if you drive him back to get it? All he learns when you drive him back is mom
will take care of it for me, I don’t have to be responsible, or they may begin
to feel they are not trustworthy.
What if you don’t drive back to school? Then he will learn from the discomfort when he has to go back to school without it the next day. Feeling this discomfort will allow him time to process what he needs to learn. He may express anger at you for not rescuing him, and that is ok. He is allowed to be angry for not being rescued. He is then given a chance to become self-reliant.
Becoming self-reliant will enable him to feel proud of himself for what he is doing for himself. This will help him develop a sense of worth and self-efficacy.
As a conscious parent it is up to you to look at what feeling comes up for you when you want to rescue your child from a potential problem. It is those feelings, usually anxiety and fear, which drive parents to: bring them back to school, give too many reminders or do it for them.
It is time for you, the parent, to recognize it is your own feelings you want to make feel better when you do not allow your child the room to learn from their own opportunities. Our children came here to teach us. It is time to wake up and recognize our own emotions which call out to us for attention.
Our children need compassion and understanding for their plight not to be handicapped by never letting them learn to deal with the consequences. I am not speaking of a life-threatening situation or one where there can be serious harm but one where the consequence is fitting to the learning opportunity.
There are learning opportunities that happen all the time from the toy breaking because they played with it roughly to the teenager forgetting a doctor appointment because they refuse to look at their calendar. It is up to you to take care of your own difficult emotions and allow your child, and you, room to grow.
Striving to be perfect is just another way to create anxiety.
Let them mess up, let yourself mess up. Learning opportunities give all of us emotional freedom.
6. Patience is an exercise of relinquishing control
These words apply to all areas of your life not just parenting. However, since parenting is the focus right now that’s what I will address. Four years ago, my oldest was applying to college. This became a huge lesson in patience for me. I am the type of person, when given a task, will get it done as soon as possible. Especially a task which is time sensitive, I need to check it off my list and know it is done.
The thing about applying to college is that YOUR KID is the one applying, not you. As a parent, you must sit back and let them do it. If they want your help, support or guidance then be there, sit with them while they fill out the applications, help them gather the necessary documents, but only if they ask.
I had a conversation with a mom recently. She has twin boys who are about to begin their senior year in high school. We began talking about college and she shared that she was already worried but at least “WE got the essays done.” And I thought, this is not a “we thing,” it is something HE must get done. This is a great example of a parent who is too personally invested in their child’s process and is owning it as hers since it seems it was “their” essay.
This speaks to allowing the child to learn from doing it. When the parent does it for or with them this eases their own emotions. Remember, your child’s timeline for getting things done is theirs, not yours. You will have more patience and less stress when you can separate yourself out of their responsibility. This applies to all areas of life; from applying to college to learning to tie their shoes. When you step back and let your child do it, it also lets him know you trust him.
If I thought learning patience was hard in the application phase I was wrong, my greatest lesson in patience was waiting for the acceptance letters to arrive. My daughter applied to her perspective colleges by December 1st. The colleges do not send back anything until March, unless you apply early decision which she did not. Your child hits send and then you wait. And you wait. And you wait. As a parent you have no control, there is no one to ask about the status of the application and your child is emailed their acceptance letters, so checking the mailbox does not help either.
For me, learning to be patient, was an exercise in relinquishing control. And, man, I love being in control. Luckily, I was able to have enough self-awareness to know that this was an exercise in patience for me. A life lesson which needed to be learned and then applied. And I had the opportunity to practice it again, the following year, with my son. I think I did better the second time around, but you would have to ask my kids to find out.
Here is what I learned. Slow down and be in the moment with your child. Nothing is that urgent. Ease into the seat of the patient observer and allow space for the unfolding of what needs attention in each present moment.
And most important of all, detach from the belief that their responsibilities and the outcomes of those tasks are also yours.
7. Presence and Connection
in the here and now. We cannot be anywhere else. Fighting reality
is what causes us pain. The moment we are in, is the moment we are
in. We must be in it until we move to the next moment.
When we are present there is no better place to be. In the awareness of being present we can feel connected to another. This connection can come from a hug, eye contact, sitting with another, playing a board game, coloring together, laughing, rough housing, a shared meal. Connection happens when we are with another, without distraction, and we are fully present in that moment.
Being connected builds trust and safety within the relationship of parent and child.
When you put down your phone, turn off the TV and computer, this speaks volumes to our children. It lets them know they are the most important thing to you in the present moment. Our children only want to feel connected to us. When they feel this then they know they are loved, important, worthy, and that they matter. Can you think of a better gift? I know I cannot. We all want to feel this in our lives no matter how old we are.