Dear Parents: Please Stop Trying to Control Your Children

Ok, look. I’ve broached this subject over a 100 times in various forums, blogs, journals, social media posts — you name it. And I usually spend a lot of time coddling us all as we navigate the tender history of our own parenting and our parents’ parenting, and I do my best to make an honest but gentle critique of this major flaw in our current child-raising paradigm. But it’s gotten to the point where when I see another credentialed practitioner espousing the merits of “praising the right way” or “employing natural consequences”, I start banging my forehead on my palm.

We have got to get this tired notion out of our heads, friends. We’ve got to quit our addiction to Behaviorism.

It should be pointed out, for those of you who’ve never heard the story, that Behaviorism — a pseudoscience based on the notion that human behavior is a malleable commodity to be controlled and harvested for economic advantage — was designed to make subjects do whatever they were told. Not simply to do what was preferable, or intelligent, or kind, but anything that was commanded and associated with reward and/or punishment. And frankly, it’s very effective in certain cases, to a certain extent, and more so with adults than children. But it just so happens to have us all focussing on the least important thing about us humans.

We are not just what we do. Nor are we merely valuable for what someone else can make us do.

Consider the implications of that, if you will, for just a moment…

When it comes to raising our children — we want them to know, and understand, and feel it in their bones, that we love, and value, and cherish them for no other reason than that they are. That they exist. Not because of what they do, or will do if we turn the right screws. And because we want them to never even question their worth to us, and to develop a healthy sense of self-worth — we absolutely have to stop dealing with them solely on the level of how to make them do just what we want.

We have been tricked into thinking that A+B=C, when in fact, A+B only ever equals (A+B). When we take a child (A) and add Behavioristic manipulation (B), we do not automatically get cooperation (C) and we certainly don’t guarantee getting a controlled or “good” child. All we ever assure ourselves under that equation is that we get a manipulated child. That child not only learns to manipulate others in her life, she also learns that none of us matter except inasmuch as we allow ourselves to be what someone else wants us to be. I hope as you read it to yourself, you hear/d how dangerous that is.

The raw truth is that we don’t actually want our children to grow up to be easily controlled. So we had better stop training them for that way of life and that variety of perspective on themselves.

“So then,” you may wonder, “how the H do we get our kids to do what we want??” And the answer is we ask. That’s it. That’s all there is to the magic of cooperation. That’s our only (dignified, nonviolent) tool for getting what we want with anyone else in the world. Why would we use any other method with our kids? Why should we? Unless we screw it up by trying to manipulate them all the time, our children are the most likely humans on the planet to cooperate with us — far and away more willing to do what we ask far more often than anyone anywhere ever. And while we’re at it, maybe we want to have more reasonable expectations in terms of how much we ask them to do and how much they’re willing to do.

No one on Earth ought to live life being willing to do whatever we ask of them regardless of what it is or how they feel just because we ask. Not even our own kids.

If we want cooperation from our kids — because why would we really want more than that — then we would do well to focus on co-operating with them. When we co-operate, we’re not just complying or expecting compliance, we’re actually working together — operating in company. No one is trying to make anyone else do stuff all the time, and no one is just doing for the other all the time either. We’re doing together — we’re meeting needs together, we’re accomplishing goals together, we wading through all the things that come up for each of us together. The idea that we should rely on our children to be or do more than that is simply an unreasonable expectation that Behaviorism has hoodwinked us into chasing.

And when we ask, and they say “No,” or whine and stall, or throw themselves bodily onto the floor — and they will just because they are human and they are young — our job is not to double-down on trying to force or bribe them into respectfully performing our will. As leaders in the co-operative field of the family, our job is to work together in order to be able to work together! If one part of the unit is having trouble functioning normally, we help it! We don’t override it, or ignore it, or coax it to just go ahead and operate as is.

In order to address breakdowns in co-operation, we get curious. We look for the feelings beneath what our children are doing or not doing. We look to see if there are underlying needs they are attempting to meet.

And when we find something down there below the behavioral surface — because when they won’t do what we ask, it’s almost always due to some uncomfortable emotion(s) or unmet need(s) they’re feeling — we pause the “-operation” and focus on the “co-”. We connect. If there are feelings blocking our children’s ability to work with us, then we look at those together, and offer our children empathy and touch as we hear and make room for their emotions. If there are, as yet, unmet needs lurking below the disquieting feelings, then we look to help our children address those. Before we expect that they will be able to operate again.

When we address feelings — whether it is manic exuberance or riling anger or tender anxiety — we remove the burden blocking our children’s emotional drive to work with us. And when we focus our efforts on helping our children meet their needs — rather than on securing their unflinching compliance — we remove the obstacle(s) to their willingness to help us meet our needs. When we co-operate with them, then they naturally cooperate with us. C+C=(C+C)! It’s as simple as that.

If you find yourself needing more convincing on how terribly behavior-focussed parenting serves us all (parents and children alike), I encourage you to delve into the works of Alfie Kohn. Unconditional Parenting and Punished by Rewards are his two most notable tomes on the subject, and should be enough to convince even the most empirically-minded among us. You can also order a DVD of Kohn delivering an excellent address on Unconditional Parenting at the UP link above, for those of you who can’t stand to ever read another parenting book in your life.

The bottomline of all this is simply that we don’t need to control our children’s behavior to make them “good” people. We just need to understand them and support them in being their best selves.

So please, my dear fellow parents, let’s all decide to be done with critiquing and manipulating how our children behave. And instead, let’s get laser-focussed on co-operating to meet needs and to process those underlying feelings, before we ask our kids to do anything else. We’ll all get much further if we agree to go together.

For those of you who want more information or who want support while navigating the subtleties of co-operation, I happily invite you to come and get it!

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Be well.

 

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Purpose

Patience masters resolve:
From under the wheels of time,
she pulls a carbon miracle:
Right there
in front of God and Everyone:
Unfailing the wrinkle(s)
of her circumstances;
Biding moments;
Bracing and braving
her tender fortitude.
And then comes the day:
Then comes the instant:
Then comes the action
that she can’t take back:
The leap off the edge
of comfort:
The thing we sometimes call
the opening…

One unfurled,
the bees will have their way
with her;
The season will undo her;
The wind and rain and sun
will all gang up
to destroy her:
But that is not her concern.
She only lives
to courage her bloom through
the opening:
She only lives
to be her true
unbridled self.

Kinda like you and me,
I guess:

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There is NO Misbehavior

A New Way of Seeing our Children’s Emotionally-Triggered Actions


Mis + Behavior  

Here’s something with which all parents everywhere have to deal. Just for signing up as a parent, we’ll have to face this little concept. We’ll be asked to pick sides, to align ourselves with certain strategies, and to commit ourselves fully to waging all-out war. We’ll be told we have no choice. That anything else would be, well – permissiveness.

But we’ve made a huge imaginary Mis + Take…

The word “misbehavior” means: “an improper, inappropriate, or bad manner of acting”, and of course this means in terms of social norms, family rules, etc.. In use, though, it’s commonly applied to any action that we grown-ups don’t like, and never fails to imply some nefarious intent on the part of the “misbehaver”. The truth is, however, that children (especially young ones) who are experiencing powerful emotions aren’t choosing actions — they’re compelled by their feelings to act in ways that they can’t regulate. They aren’t misbehaving. They’re doing exactly as their biology intends. And whether we like it or not, it couldn’t be more appropriate for where they are developmentally and what they are experiencing physio-emotionally.

The Safety System or Ain’t Misbehavin’

When children experience intense emotion, they lose contact with the executive part of the brain. That means, just like someone with Alzheimer’s can’t access the brain machinery for memories, so too, an upset child can’t access the brain machinery for thinking clearly, or acting carefully. When emotion strikes, that emotion has to be dealt with first in order for the executive brain, which controls thinking and motor impulses (among a host of other higher functions), to come back online. This happens in one or more of three ways:

  1. Like every healthy mammal, the child calls out for help and receives the empathetic support that she needs in order to let out the emotion, and/or get other needs met, and then returns to a calm state and higher-brain function.
  2. The child’s nervous system obliges her body to some action to discharge the intensity of the uncomfortable feeling. Her brain is on it’s way to reverting to a survival state, and punching her sister is a tiny release, a minor, incremental improvement over the jealousy and powerlessness, etc., she was feeling just before.
  3. The child stuffs the feeling and tries to move on, though encumbered more and more by accumulating, painful feelings; until 1. and/or 2. above happens.

What we’ve been trained to call “misbehavior” is actually a neural survival mechanism…

When our kids cry for help, it’s easier to see, but we’d do well to become skilled at recognizing the call for assistance in their disagreeable actions as well. Their brains are driving them to do something to which we’ll attend, so that they can get the emotional support they need in order to return to higher functionality. And what’s more — they can’t stop it without our help because their impulse control is in the executive brain where they’ve lost access. It’s honestly unrealistic for us to expect that they’d be able to act in any other way! They’re doing exactly as is normal and best for the human brain. Period. And if we want to help them “act right” and “make good choices” then we have to help them get “back in their right minds”.

When children are behaving in ways that don’t fit in with the herd, it’s actually a very fortunate signal that there’s something wrong with how they feel. And if there’s something wrong with how they feel, it’s usually a sign that they have a need that is going unmet. So the next time your kid “acts up” you can thank him for being so clear with you!

Working in Reverse

Fortunately, this system is a two-way street. We can have a massive effect on how our kids act simply by how we attend to their feelings and their needs.

When a child is engaged in an activity that we would normally call misbehavior, we have an enormous opportunity before us…

Instead of just punishing or guilt-tripping our way into smoldering, temporary compliance, we can turn this rift in the family joy into a boon for the relationship and invite our children to a whole range of other more agreeable types of actions, just by being with them in empathy. Here’s a few ideas to start:

  1. Respond to the signal for help – recognizing that our children are being forced to “act up” and can’t “put on the breaks”; and recognizing their suffering and need for assistance.
  2. Get curious – instead of trying to hammer in a lesson on etiquette (for which the higher brain is necessary to hear and remember), we can look under the surface of the behavior for the uncomfortable feeling(s) driving it; and find out if there is an(other) unmet need associated with it. Ask, “What’s going on for you, love? Are you upset?” and wait and listen. Remember that when we parents feel disrespected (or saddened, or enraged) by the behavior, that’s a good indication of what feeling it is discharging for the child, too.
  3. Assist children with the feelings involved and struggling to get out – they need our help to let out those big emotions and calm down and “think straight” again. The shortest distance between our children’s disagreeable actions and ones we’d rather see is through the co-managed off-loading of their painful feelings. Be with them in empathy in whatever manner(s) they like best for solely the feelings piece. And wait.
  4. Then if there is an(other) unmet need fueling the uncomfortable emotion, we can help meet that as well. Look for a need to meet in every action that annoys, and find a more agreeable way to meet it. We can almost always find ways to meet our children’s needs in a manner that works for us as well, but if for some reason we can’t, then it’s a clear indicator that our work right then lies in assisting with the feelings associated with that disappointment instead – remaining firm while focusing on being kind.

This process restores family peace, reaffirms the parent-child bond, and makes way for more ideal actions and better, higher-brain choices to follow. Every time.

Now, don’t get hung up on whether or not to “give in” to your child’s ill-conceived or worse controlled plans to have his or her needs met…

Assisting with feelings and meeting needs is separate from condoning actions. We can do all of the above, and then when they can hear us, still talk about what we’d prefer they do in the future. And because of how we’ve handled them, we’ve made it easier and more attractive for them to handle us with empathy, too. And when it comes right down to it, that’s all we hope to teach them about how to “behave” anyway! Once we translate “misbehavior” as “having feelings and trying to get needs met” then we can see, we don’t have to wage war on what they do, we just have to meet them where they are.

Losing “No” and Finding “Yes!”

nurturing

I have written directly about a portion of the discourse I want to take up in this post in some detail before, and referred to this notion multiple times. Thus far, however, I have only closely considered the “no” side of the equation. I want to spend some time today talking more about the “yes” side of parenting. I’ll explain more what I mean by that in a minute, but first, I want to lay a particular foundation of perspective on the role of the parent in child-rearing.

I don’t want to waste your time with remedial parenting concepts, but for those of you who haven’t thought about it, or have been taught the opposite, or once knew but have forgotten — there are two basic perspectives/approaches to raising children. One idea is that we as parents have to continually curb and redirect the otherwise negative impulses of the pretty little chaos balls affectionately called kids (which is the same thing we call baby goats). The other version is that people are born essentially good and kind, and they just need to be educated in how our current society manages the expression of those natural drives. One path is dominated by containment, control, and demand for compliance; the other by empowerment, trust, and cooperation. One is the domain of “No.”. The other is the land of “Yes!”. Depending on which side of this proverbial coin we find ourselves, we will either be more inclined to be a force for narrowing our children’s scope of experience (and therefore the scope of their development as well), or a force for broadening their horizons (and thereby increasing the potential of their development).

Now, don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of good reasons for a decisive “No”. The problem is simply that too often, if you’ve been brought up or taught to think of the first camp as the superior one, the “no”‘s can quickly get completely out of hand and become a habitual and unnecessarily common response. The main issues with too many “no”‘s are that they get weaker and weaker the more often they are employed, and they put us on the losing end of our children’s biology. Our children have a serious, almost insuppressible urge to experience — to explore, to create, and to enjoy being. That is their prime directive, and this drive must be honoured — the mind-body system won’t let them be daunted in this task. If we fail to meet this need and/or continually subjugate it to our preferences for control and homogeneity and social etiquette, then with or without our kids’ knowledge of it or ability to control it, that biological impulse will find other expressions. Period. This is why so many parents, once headed down the “no” road, find themselves in an endless echo of self-parroting — “No, no, no-no-no-no-no, no, NO!”. They’ve inadvertently stopped-up the normal flow of exploratory impulses so much that it is springing leaks all over the place, and generally the leaks are much worse (i.e. messier, less socially acceptable, and/or otherwise harder to handle), and take more work to stop — both, because there is “pent-up’ force behind them, and because the methods of stopping them simultaneously get less and less a/effective.

Wilhelm Reich (a well-known student of Freud’s in his day) theorized in depth about this mechanism of human biology, and although he is sometimes discounted because of his other theories (see “cloud busters”), I think he got it absolutely right on this one. In his estimation, when the normal impulse drives of a child are repeatedly thwarted and/or repressed, then the child forms an energetic block in a corresponding part of the physical body that in the eventual becomes what Reich called “neuro-muscular  and character armor”. The armor then takes over the repression of the corresponding impulses and thereby creates neuroses. So it is a potentially serious trespass against our children to regularly thwart their need to experience and let their natural impulses flow freely.

The bottom line for the moment is that if we choose, or have been duped into choosing, the  parenting approach of constantly controlling our kids’ behaviors, and wind up getting caught in the habit of “no”-ing our way through every day — we are doing our children a life-long disservice. The parenting mythology that presides over much of what we think of as “normal” and “right” for how to raise our children would have us think that if we don’t control them they will be out of control — but the reality is that the more we try to control them, the more they shift toward a systemic lack of self-control.

But enough about that at present — let’s flip that coin over and take a look at the other side, shall we?

If we adopt the second of the two general parenting perspectives I listed above, and seek instead to reside in an attitude of acceptance, allowance, and empowerment of our children’s natural drives toward exploration and experience, then pretty much the entire terrain of raising our children is altered for the better (that is, for the easier and the more developmentally productive). If we make “yes” our habitual response, look for ways to meet our children’s needs (in this case, a need for information about/interaction with life), and work with our children toward finding mutually satisfying means of honouring their inner drives, then we not only make it easier for them to do exactly what they have come here to do, but we also make it easier for us to get cooperation from them when we need it. Put another way, if we aren’t constantly thwarting their impulses, then fewer of those impulses will need to find side-exits and/or other (less desirable) avenues of expression. And remember, the secondary and tertiary avenues of expressing these repressed drives are almost always less desirable — both to us and to our children’s developing psyches.

Now let’s be very mindful here, I know we are treading dangerously close to that dreaded chasm of Permissiveness… I know we have quite a bit of cultural fear and mythos built around what happens if you just let these lawless half-pints run free. I know there’s even some decent research that seems to show that “kids with no boundaries” turn out worse than “kids raised under an iron thumb”. So, I want it to be clear — both for those of you who do carry some fear of permissiveness and those who don’t — I am not talking about turning a blind eye to what your children do, giving them the green light to run recklessly amuck, or ignoring issues when they arise. And further, I am not even trying to tell you to blindly agree to everything your kids want or begin.

My point here is really only to argue that our job as parents is to nurture growth — that is, to give what is needed to grow. We want them to grow strong, well-rooted, and full. The seed of the oak doesn’t need to be held back from becoming a thorn bush — it just needs to be allowed to become the tree it was born to be. Our children are born to become healthy, happy adults, and they are destined by their own biology to mature in flawless fashion — so long as we don’t blow the whole operation with mistrust, anxiety, disconnection, or ill-concieved plans to dominate the natural processes of development with 50’s Behaviorist psycho-babble.

Therefore, and in order to best serve the natural progression(s) of our children’s development, I believe in the following:

• When our children want to explore, want to try something out, want to taste CD’s, or draw on themselves — we let them. If isn’t a big deal and — as Alfie Kohn so eloquently charges in Unconditional Parenting — if we don’t have a reason to say, “No,” then we say, “Yes!”. We make room, make way, and make nice about it — we don’t try to make our children feel guilty about it, or gross, or in any way unacceptable — when we allow their impulses, we do it with a smile.

• When we can’t, or (the virtual equivalent) we really don’t want to agree to or allow the current experiment, we don’t immediately or automatically refuse. Instead, we do one or more of these:

  1. We empathize — as much as we are able while rooted in our own shoes, we try to get a sense of what it’s like over there in the kid-shoes. They just want to do stuff, and they unconsciously know that it is in their best interest to do stuff and lots of it. They’re driven — without being able to ascertain why — to just go for it. And it’s hard to fit that into a prim, ordered, almost mechanical adult world. It’s really hard to be all jazzed about some idea and have the overlords blare “NO” in your face without any good reason. It’s really really hard to just suck it up, when you get blown out of the water time and time again. When we can get in touch with those feelings — it softens our rigidity, and reminds us to be more allowing, and to make room for healthy development.
  2. We defer — generally by saying something like, “Yes you can do that tomorrow,” or “After lunch,” or we offer some other version of delaying the timing so that we can get on board with the idea, and/or finish what we are doing in order to assist, etc..
  3. We negotiate — we look for a way or ways to honour our preferences and boundaries while still making room for honouring their preferences and drives. Sometimes it may only require a simple tweaking of arrangements, other times it takes a delicate and empathetic finesse. Either way, it is worthwhile in the moment, and in the long-term for the modeling and bond-maintenance it offers.
  4. We address the root need — we may not like the original plan of drawing on the dining room wall with a Sharpie, but we can find a wall that is acceptable to draw on, or another surface, or something just as fun. Under any particular impulse or interest is a more basic one, often we can address and allow that without allowing something we don’t want.
  5. We explain and comfort — we do say “No” multiple times a day: when we have a good reason, when safety is an issue, and when we are just too darned tired or currently juggling too many things to accommodate. When we have a good reason (and our girls are highly trained to look for one when they hear “No”), we tell them about it. We let them know why it doesn’t make sense to us for them to rearrange the entire living room and build a fort right before the grandparents fly in for a visit. We  explain, and then, if and when they have feelings about the denial, we offer them genuine empathy and consolation if they want it. Tonight, I just held Echo and petted her head for 15 minutes, identifying with and validating her feelings because she was upset that she preferred not to wear the headphones to listen to her audio story and we weren’t in agreement to let her play it outloud in the living room because it disturbed Xi’s concentration on the homework she needed to finish. I wasn’t going to change my mind about it, and she wasn’t ready to move on or negotiate a settlement, so I just held her where she was. After awhile her feelings calmed, and she wanted to go talk to Mama about it — they got her set up with headphones and she listened happily until dinner. That scenario is so common that we often say empathizing with our children’s feelings evaporates 80% of the issues that arise without ever addressing or redressing the issue itself.

• For everything between the two poles of what we can immediately allow and what we cannot allow at all — we þεη∂ and strrrreeeeeettcchh and lean in the direction of becoming more open and more allowing and more condoning of our children’s natural impulses and drives to connect with and root themselves in this world and this life as it truly is — not just as is readily convenient for us. It is among the many blessings of this journey as parents to learn to be more compassionate, more understanding, more accepting, and more trusting  of the natural flow of life. Some of us may have been thwarted so much in our lives that it literally hurts to open ourselves to more allowing and more faith in the benevolent process of becoming, but if we can be that brave and remain dedicated, it will surely heal us in ways we cannot even imagine (yet!) — and it will certainly mean that we’ve offered our children the best chance at lifelong health and happiness that we can muster.

And in truth — that’s all we have to do as parents — just give them the best possible chance that we’re able to provide for them to grow to their fullest potential. That means empowering them to follow their natural drives for input and experience, trusting the miraculous design of their biology to do what it was built (tested, reformulated, rebuilt and retested, in perpetuity) to do, and cooperating with, both, the natural processes of maturation and with the little beings we are hoping to help mature. In a word nurturing. To me, that all means saying a whole lot more “Yes!”‘s than “No”‘s, and allowing a whole lot more than barring our children’s being children. After all, it’s always children who do the growing up, whether we adults try to control it or not…

May we all become skilled at nurturing the natural in our children with courage and grace, and plenty of “YES”‘s!

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Be well, my fellow people-growers.

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Want support? Come check out our offerings for parents at the Center for Emotional Education:  http://www.centerforemotionaleducation.com/engage/ ❤

Making Friends… with Oxytocin!

 Oxt

I bet you’ve heard rumors about it already. I bet word has already gotten upwind of you and drifted down to your eyes and ears about the effects of “that ‘love’ brain chemical”. Maybe in your prenatal class, in a prenatal mental haze, you remember hearing something about “a hormone involved in birth and nursing”. You might have even seen the latest fad of nasal spray and perfume designed to “increase trust” and “feelings of love and contentment” in whomever gets a nose-full.

There is a fair amount of hype going on at present in the weedy fields of developmental- and neuro-psychology, and parenting support circles around the globe concerning the neuro-transmitter Oxytocin. Some are calling it “the moral molecule”. Some say triggering it increases empathy, trust, and relational cohesion. Some say doses administered to certain people on the autism spectrum can increase their social cognition. Some champions even herald it as the biochemical end to all human warfare.

Me? I just think it’s an integral part of parenting our children the way our biology intends.

Oxytocin is one of the chemicals women’s brains release during labor. It helps make uterine contractions stronger — which is why chemists somewhere invented the synthetic drug, Pitocin, to administer to women struggling to have productive contractions.Oxt4 After the baby is born, Oxytocin is vitally involved in both milk-release and “the nursing buzz” that many women get when they breastfeed. It’s also the main neurotransmitter we are experiencing when we have those fuzzy, warm, connective moments with our babies, when it feels like the world dissolves and time stands still and you feel so much love for that little being that you could just die in the immensity of it all, and you never want to tear your gaze away…     ❤ ❤ ❤

Hey… Hey! I’m still trying to tell you something here! Quit triggering Oxytocin with your baby memories and pay attention! 😉

Oxytocin is the primary harbinger of trust and love and cooperation in our brains. We feel it when we fall in love. We feel it when we experience love. We feel it in all the ways we express love — from simple thoughts of those who mean the most to us, from just being in proximity to each other, from gentle, meaningful touch, from hugs, kisses, and sex, and from getting married, sharing things that matter to us, having fun together, and expressing trust in one another.

Actually, there is a host of beneficial responses the brain has in the presence of Oxytocin:

Microsoft PowerPoint - Fig.1 OXT schema2.ppt

Oxytocin is, interestingly, also different for different brains. We don’t understand a lot about it yet, but what we do know is that different people in differing contexts experience Oxytocin in variable ways. The current thinking seems to be that for the individual, the way in which one has developed plays a role in how she processes Oxytocin, effecting even whether she has as many receptors in place for absorbing the neurochemical once it’s released.  Daniel A. Hughes, PhD, and Jonathan Baylin, PhD, in their important book, Brain-Based Parenting, put it this way:

So, if in your parental brain, the activities of parenting light up your nucleus accumbens through a chain effect involving both oxytocin and dopamine [the learning- and craving-focus neurotransmitter], then you are going to experience being a parent differently from someone’s brain who does not do this, or doesn’t do it as strongly as your brain does. Furthermore, the density of receptors for both oxytocin and dopamine in a parent’s brain depends, in part, on how that parent was parented, on the quality of care he or she received early in life. Good care promotes the “expression” of the genes for oxytocin and dopamine receptors, and this means that a child’s well-cared-for brain makes more of these receptors.
(p32)

If a person doesn’t get sound, secure, nurturing parenting, her brain doesn’t develop as many receptors for Oxytocin, and won’t process it the same way, and, therefore, may not have as much access to the feelings that it otherwise engenders. That is, she will likely feel less connection in social relationships, less joy in loving moments, and less empathy and care for her own children — and likely more stress and feelings of inadequacy in all of the above.

The other major factor in how Oxytocin expresses itself in an individual brain seems to have to do with the social environment in which the person finds himself. If he’s not with an in-group with which he can readily identify, or the event involving the group is one in which the subject feels stress and/or competition, then other neurochemicals can thwart, subvert, or derail the Oxytocin effect. Cortisol, the primary stress neurotransmitter can totally shut down Oxytocin release. Testosterone can also trump an Oxytocin cascade. Paul J Zak, author of The Moral Molecule describes a test he did at a colleague’s wedding measuring Oxytocin levels in the blood of various people at the wedding both before and immediately after the ceremony:

[The bride] Linda’s own level shot up by 28%. For the other people tested, the increase in oxytocin was in direct proportion to the likely intensity of their emotional engagement in the event. The mother of the bride? Up 24%. The father of the groom? Up 19%. The groom himself? Up 13%…and on down the line. But why, you may ask, would the groom’s increase be less than his father’s? Testosterone is one of several other hormones that can interfere with the release of oxytocin, and the groom’s testosterone level, according to our blood test, had surged 100%! As the guests admired Linda in her strapless bridal gown, he was the alpha male.
(The Wall Street Journal; 4.27.12; “The Trust Molecule”)

You may, of course, now be wondering why this matters to you. As a parent, we’re just trying to get through our days without losing it, right?! We’re just trying to get from point A to B with kids in tow and our wits about us and nothing catching on fire! We’re just trying to keep our sh!t together, and help our kids keep their sh!t together — and still keep liking each other. So why would it matter how any one of us is prepared to or how any particular scenario would effect the manner in which we release, receive, and process brain chemicals?!

Well — here’s the deal. In any relationship scenario, all humans are navigating a brain dance between attraction and repulsion. In attraction states of mind, we are drawn to approaching, open to being approached, and interacting in a socially conducive manner. In repulsion states of mind, the opposite is true, we seek to avoid, to be avoided, and to create aversion. We balance these two states on both a conscious and unconscious level. Our Amygdala, resting but always alert in our limbic systems, uses “neuroception” to perceive before we can consciously know we’re perceiving whether or not we are in danger. This is why, when startled, we leap before we know why. In terms of our relationships, we have the option to use our conscious knowledge of these mechanisms to keep our brains from tricking us into triggering defensive, or even o-ffensive, states of mind.

In terms of parenting, and borrowing from Hughes and Baylin again:

“The goal, then, is to stay in the open state of social engagement as much as possible… This is quite challenging for all parents because the process of interacting with children is inherently stressful, and inevitably, at times, triggers defensive feelings that are not consistent with the caring feelings we want to have. The social engagement system is only activated when we feel safe enough being near another person.”
(p16-17)

As it turns out, the Amygdala, a structure we don’t have much conscious control over, can tell if we’re in danger and either activate or inhibit our fight, flight, or fright reactions.

If the neuroception system does not detect any real threat, it activates our social approach system, engendering a sense of safety and promoting trust between people… When we are able to activate this basic “approach” system as a parent, the rest of the parenting process, including the ability to experience intense pleasure from being with our children, turns on and fosters the development of enduring bonds with our kids.
(p18; my italics)

The Amygdala inhabits a starring role in the play between how open and approachable we (and our kids) feel, and how closed and defensive we feel. But as the directors of our minds, we don’t hold a heckuva lot of sway over this lead character. The Amygdala is, however, a/effected by — you guessed it — Oxytocin:

The medial [that is, the central interior portion of the] amygdala… is involved in rapid, automatic switching between these two responses of approaching versus avoiding. One of the ways that this switching is orchestrated without the involvement of higher control process is through the release of oxytocin into the medial amygdala by pleasant experiences with other people, including “good touch” and warm, friendly voices. The amygdala has receptors for oxytocin and when these receptors are “occupied”, this has a quieting effect on the amygdala. In this way, oxytocin helps to inhibit the defensive, avoidant reaction system, enabling the social engagement system to stay on.
(p20; my italics)

And the Amygdala’s is not the only brain function readily malleable to the warming effects of Oxytocin:

Oxt1

“All right already — wrap up all the neuro-babble, and tell us what the heck you’re getting at, Nathan!!” you may be saying…

There’s a few things, not of all of which are mentioned explicitly above, that I want you to be able to walk away with today:

  • Our brains can either help or hinder us in this whole parenting gig. If we’re working with our biology and with our children’s developing biology, our brains are built to help us work together, and feel great about it in the process. If we’re working against our biology, our brains can make it nearly impossible to do the delicate dance of parenting conscientiously.
  • Parenting effects brain development. The individual’s receptivity to Oxytocin has a lot to do with the conditions under which the brain was developed. Our brains wire Oxytocin reception (including those receptors used to quiet the Amygdala) based on feedback from the brain’s assessment of the environment and the care-givers. Safer-feeling surroundings, more nurturing parenting, and greater emotional assistance in times of duress, tell the brain to wire for greater Oxytocin reception, and thereby, better overall resilience. Since we want our kids to feel connected to us, and further, as they develop, to feel socially safe and open (and not paranoid and avoidant) — we want to help them grow a healthy Oxytocin reception system. This means using it — sending out those waves of love, showing them we trust them, helping them have those warm feelings of connection — and keeping their environs safe-feeling enough that their brains don’t have any reason to hold back from developing in an optimal manner.
  • We can use Oxytocin to assist us in parenting:

    By soothing our babies’ and toddlers’ and young kids’ social systems with warmth, touch, nursing, rocking, connection, empathy, and emotional-processing assistance when they are upset, we can help them turn off their defensive system and return to feelings of calm and trust and the mutual identification that primes them for feeling greater connection with us in the future. This can help us both feel more like working with each other in the moment, but also fosters a deepening sense of ongoing “co-operation” and “same-team-ness”, as I like to call it.

    By soothing ourselves in times of personal turmoil — whether it’s feelings of inadequacy as a parent, feelings of disconnection from our children, or even non-parenting-related feelings of stress about money or work, etc. — using techniques like self-empathy, intentional optimism, and redirection; and/or restorative measures like meditating, mindful exercise, massage, sex, fun, laughter, etc.; we can use our own neurological systems to empower us to be better, more caring, more empathetic, more creative and resilient parents.

  • We can start from right where we are. We can’t go back and completely redevelop our brains, though there is much that we can do immediately. So far as we currently understand, we can’t naturally grow ourselves more Oxytocin receptors. We can, however, help rewire our habits around releasing Oxytocin and our sensitivity to it. We can practice getting calmer before parenting interactions, thinking positive thoughts, remembering happier, more connected parenting moments. And we can use what we know about our approach and avoidance systems to choose paths to being more open, accepting, and connective with our kids. We can also help them to grow healthy brains that are nurtured toward working happily with us, and feeling good about it while they do — just by using Oxytocin release!
  • And here’s how:
    1) Touch — hold your baby, skin-to-skin is best, smooth her cheeks, massage his limbs; pet your kids, hug them often (especially before potentially stressful events), and cuddle them for no reason, 30 seconds is generally enough for a hug to trigger Oxytocin release in both participants; then also snuggle them when they are upset and/or need a good cry, because you’re supporting healthy neuro-processing, even before they are calm enough to begin releasing Oxytocin again.
    2) Play — having fun together has too many benefits to list here, but the point for the moment is that it works double to release Oxytocin in the moment, and prime the developing brain for better reception in the future.
    3) Empathy — using it with our kids is Oxytocin triggering Oxytocin. When we employ empathy to understand each other, we create an Oxytocin circuit. This increases mutual empathy and paves the way for more empathetically-oriented brain wiring in both participants. In times of emotional upset and/or disagreement, use empathy to understand, express your felt empathy as understanding, and let the Oxytocin take hold of you both before proceeding.
    4) Create Safe Space — dedicate your household and your parenting to instinctual and emotional safety. Make it feel safe for your kids to trust you, to bring you their woes, and to rely on your stalwart connection. Make it feel safe (in all aspects) for your kids to be in the world, or at least the home-space, as they are, no matter how they are being at the moment, and regardless of who else is sharing the space. Make certain they know that they are significant in your eyes, that they belong, and that their needs will be met.
  • And if you feel like you need some Oxytocin yourself:
    1) Enjoy — pick anything/anyone you love and really pay close attention to what you love there. Take time to be there. If it’s a subject, study it. If it’s an object, hold it. Take someone you like to dinner or coffee and chat with sustained eye contact. Stare into your baby’s face. Get into whatever/whomever it is.  If all you have is your thoughts, they will do just fine, just use them to imagine the above. It only takes a minute or so for your brain-chemistry to join in, but the longer the better.
    2) Touch — get some! Go get a hug from someone you like (for 30 seconds at least!). Encourage your partner to snuggle you. Schedule a short massage. Give yourself a vigorous foot rub. Or any other self-pleasuring… It’s all for the sake of helping you be a better parent! 😉 And so you feel better, yourself, for that matter.
    3) Sex — if you can, do. If you don’t have someone to do it with, as above, you can still release a healthy dose of Oxytocin taking care of yourself. Remember, this is to help you be the best human you can be!
    4) Media — use your social and entertainment media time to feel good. Pick movies and shows and books that make you laugh or feel sexy or remember the power of love. Go to all your social sites and have fun with distant friends and connections (though less at the expense of interacting with loved ones in proximity…). Don’t just get online to get pissed about how awful everything in the world is, balance your input wisely, for Oxytocin’s sake!
    5) Pet your pets — it’s as simple as that. Every time you spend a couple minutes giving rubs to your favorite furry friend, you give yourself a healthy shot of the good stuff.
    6) Tell loved ones that you love them — use the words, look deep into their eyes or at a picture while you have them on the phone, and say it loud and proud — I LOOOVE You.

If you want more of the how-to, both in terms of Oxytocin release and using other brain mechanisms for better parenting, skim through the posts I linked to above. And these two.

80386-70981

I love knowing that our brains are designed to help us be the best, most successful parents we can possibly be. I love knowing that although we can’t change everything about how our brains were grown, we can change how we relate to what our brains are capable of doing. And I love knowing that we can use our brains to help our children grow theirs to be even more capable than we are of both leading healthy happy lives, and being gentle, nurturing parents!

One day, one moment, one interaction at a time, using our helpful brains, and dear, sweet Oxytocin, we can expand our abilities to feel exceptionally loving, happy, and thriving in the experience of parenting. And at the same time, in those same moments and tiny interactions, we can help our kids grow more joyful, connective, and cooperative brains, too! What a nice package, eh?

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Be well, my fellow brain-arborists. I [Oxytocin] you!

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http://www.mindfulmamma.co.uk/2012/11/birth-oxytocin/

Feeling as jazzed as I am about Oxytocin and burning (via Dopamine release) to know more? Check out the links below for an Oxytocin-primer:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=URpuKgKt9kg

http://psychcentral.com/lib/about-oxytocin/0001386

http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304811304577365782995320366

http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-moral-molecule/201311/the-top-10-ways-boost-good-feelings

http://www.medicaldaily.com/oxytocin-love-hormone-fuels-romance-how-your-brain-works-when-youre-love-269067

http://io9.com/5925206/10-reasons-why-oxytocin-is-the-most-amazing-molecule-in-the-world

http://www.mindfulmamma.co.uk/2012/11/birth-oxytocin/

http://www.amazon.com/Oxytocin-Parenting-Susan-Kuchinskas-ebook/dp/B0081T8AAO/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1413426886&sr=1-1&keywords=Oxytocin+Parenting

http://www.apa.org/monitor/feb08/oxytocin.aspx

http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~zaki/bartzEtAl_2011_revOXT.pdf

Argue for Your Un-Limitations

If you’re like most humans, you’ve probably spent most of your life either being told and/or telling yourself that you are limited.

You’ve been hearing from both the outside and the in that you can’t do this and you can’t do that (“Can’t you read the siiign?”). You’ve been told that life is hard, life is a struggle, and that you have to overcome nearly insurmountable odds and obstacles in order to achieve the things you want because nothing is free. Even love is (supposedly) a battlefield.

The result is that most of us are so couched in our limitations that we can barely see anything for what it really is, especially ourselves.

Everywhere we go and everything we see and everything we do is colored by the limits through which we’ve been taught to perceive the world and ourselves. From this cloudy perspective the world can look pretty rough, and our station in it can seem like nothing but the space between rocks and hard places. What’s worse – we are often such good owners of our limitations that we believe we can’t even move through this brambled landscape without dragging those weights around with us. And even worse still – these ideas have always been handed to us as though it was a favor we were being offered; as though someone was saddling us with all this doubt, and fear, and limitation in order to “save” us from the brutality of life.

This is why sooooooo many of us have lives full of things that we don’t want, and why so many of us feel unable to whittle away these obstructions in order to have the lives we do want. This is why so many of us simply feel like we can’t. We are so encumbered by these heavy halters that any move, change, or goal seems nearly impossible.

Many of us are so limited that it’s a wonder that anything happens to us at all.

And the most insidious part about all of this is that it’s all a bunch of hogwash. It’s not even really true. And it’s not helping us. Not one iota. We’re not being safely kept from getting “too big for our breeches”. We’re not being awakened from some self-destructive, self-delusional fantasy life. We’re not being sheltered from embarrassing ourselves with our ignorance of how life works.

We’re just being caged.

 So I’ve got a new challenge for us all. Since we’re holding the keys to our own destinies, and since we are what we believe we are, let’s make a promise to each other. Let’s promise to get ourselves out of these prisons of limitation. Let’s promise to leave these bound beliefs behind us and never retrieve them.

And instead of arguing for our limitations and thereby owning them (as the old adage explains), let’s give them up. Let’s argue instead for our limitlessness. Let’s claim and discuss and prattle merrily on about how empowered we are, how easy life flows for us, and how peacefully we move through everything that comes.

Let’s never talk about what’s wrong with us, why we can’t do this or that, or why we’re unable to achieve, be, or have whatever we want – ever again. 

No more complaints. No more fear-mongering (even to ourselves). No more disastrous outlooks. No more foreboding predictions of imminent failure. No more “owning my issues”. No more “saving myself from disappointment”. No more holding ourselves back. No more self-depricating, self-loathing, self-abusive bullsh*t. NO. MORE.

From here on out, let us use our words, both inside and out, exclusively for empowering ourselves and others. Let us dedicate ourselves to looking exclusively at how, where, and when we and our world are unbound. Let us train ourselves to be exclusively aware of all the places and ways that we are, do, and have whatever we want. From here on out, let us argue only for our un-limitations – and sure enough, they’ll be ours.

Want help finding your limitation locks and using your keys to get free? You can hire me as your Life Coach – powerful un-limiting is one my favorite parts of the job!

Be well.

Digging a Little Deeper than “Misbehavior”

emotionalstructurepostersmallSo — there’s this dirty little parenting myth that started decades ago and that lingers still in the rarely mentioned corners of the current social parenting contract corrupting the ears of those who listen, and driving opposition into the hearts of families everywhere. I make it sound sinister, because — well, it is. No one set out to make it so. No one started the parenting shift toward managing positive and negative behaviors as a strategy for instilling character and making our children become good people in order to hurt anyone. No one made Behaviorism the predominant psychological model underpinning all of Western Society’s parenting in order to be mean. We’ve just wound up justifying being mean in order to make our kids good people.

Over time, and according to the predominant mythos, we’ve adopted the habit — the behavioral trait, if you will — of dealing with our kids on the level of behaviors almost exclusively. We’re constantly mowing down behaviors we don’t like (only to have others crop up in their stead), and desperately watering and nurturing and pruning to cultivate the behaviors we do like. Culturally, especially in America, we’re obsessed with “halting misbehavior in it’s tracks!” and just as vehemently if not more so with “catching them being good”, in order of course to make them do whatever that good behavior was more. We’ve been coaxed into believing that if we do these things — if we make them do more good actions and not do as many bad actions — that our children will then in due course (and with due diligence on our parts) become good people. They’ll choose to do the good things we’ve made or bribed them into doing because we’ve made it habitual for them to do so (especially if there’s a reward or punishment around to be the parent in our stead…). They may hate us for it, but they’ll be good people with a strong sense of discipline the myth assures us.

Now, honestly, it would be one thing if this were a viable method. If it worked (particularly, if it was, as the myth portends, the only thing that worked), then it’d be worth considering as an approach to at least ponder from time to time, to pepper in, so to speak. But it doesn’t even do what it set out to do. The scientifically proven method that works so well on so many other species, that even works quite well with adult humans, when applied to human children over time fails utterly at both instilling the behaviors it sets out to instill and inhibiting those behaviors it sets out to inhibit. It furthermore creates resistance to, both, the preferred behaviors and to the system by which the behaviors are manipulated; it also creates a preference for the prohibited behaviors or others of their kind. If you need convincing go to the man who burned down the Behaviorism tower, himself, Alfie Kohn. His quintessential books, Punished by Rewards, and Unconditional Parenting, collect and elucidate the reams of psychological research uncovering the inability of the Behavioristic approach to control our children’s actions — especially in the long run, and especially if there isn’t a reward-and-punisher standing over them.

You know why it doesn’t work? Because we humans are funny. We’re simpler and more complex than Behaviorism pretends. As it turns out, there’s a whole lot that goes into why we choose, or subconsciously move toward, certain actions and not others. Whether we are going to be rewarded or punished (if we’re caught) doesn’t always enter into the equation when humans are embroiled in their amazing interactions with each other. Most of the time we’re acting because of something we think or feel that motivates us — often in spite of almost all the consequences, as we tend to pay way more attention to the outcomes that agree with what we’re motivated toward. Good feelings — which biochemically tend to also invoke good thoughts, resulting in more good feelings, and so on, — inspire actions that most of us like. Less comfortable feelings, especially those ones we’d pretty much all call “bad”, make us biochemically uncomfortable in our minds and bodies; and one of the most common ways of discharging this discomfort is in destructive, disharmonious, uncooperative, even violent action. And if strong emotion is involved, particularly with kids, then there is a loss of higher brain function, and a diminished ability to make “good choices”, to feel empathy, to act compassionately, to even be self-aware, or able to control impulses, or calm down.

This is one reason it’s unfair to expect a child who is feeling awful to do anything other than “misbehave”. They are almost incapable of choosing another course because their feelings are interrupting their brain’s ability to control itself. They are out of their minds. They plead temporary insanity! Give ’em a break judge! 😉

If we really want to effect how our children are behaving, we have to get down underneath the actions themselves, and take a good look at the feelings involved. If it helps, think of their actions as physical code for their feelings. Usually if the feelings are uncomfortable, if the kid is acting out because she feels so rotten, it’s because she has a need (perceived or not) that is going unmet. It’s a further “complexity” in human psychology, but a simple truth, that those “uncomfortable feelings” I describe above, that lead to what we might generally call “disagreeable actions”, most commonly spring from needs that are lingering, causing unsafe, disconnective, unworthy, untrusting feelings or the like which then spring into other feelings of anger and rage and antagonism in order to protect the brain from fear.

It goes like this: unmet needs lead to uncomfortable feelings and out of those come disagreeable actions. And the opposite is how we respond: if we don’t like the actions, then we attempt to assist with the feelings informing the actions, and afterward (because co-processing feelings should always come first) if necessary, we address any underlying unmet needs involved with the uncomfortable feelings (recognizing that often just letting out some uncomfortable feelings and/or getting the connection that comes from doing the process together is enough and no other needs have to be addressed right then). In my opinion, all of parenting is distilled into managing the two directions of this flow.

As Jane Nelsen of the Positive Discipline movement boils it down, “When children feel better, they do better.” I’d go further to say, when children feel better, they think better, they function better, and they’re more capable. At the level of neurochemistry, we empower our children to be “on their best behavior”, simply by being connected to them and helping them get their needs met.

As it turns outs, when we shrug off the Behavioristic shroud obscuring everything our children do, when we take a look underneath their actions, connect with them through empathizing with their feelings, and help them meet their underlying needs, then we get a chance to know what’s below all that, we get to know the truth — namely, that our children always already are good people. They’re like all of us — when our needs are met, and we feel good, we shine. If we give our kids the chance to act from a place of feeling good and connected and supported and with their needs met, then they will surprise us with the kind, compassionate, empathetic choices they will naturally make.

We don’t have to wonder how to make them be good, we just have to give them the chance to be the good people they already are. Yes, we’ll have to show them the ropes — teach them action codes that display feeling good in a socially conducive manner, as well as, how to get their needs met without destroying anything — and it takes time for them to develop their behavioral-linguitic abilities, and the synaptic integrity to manage their emotions and still make good choices under duress. But the goodness (and by that we all really just mean the capacity for human tenderness, social concourse, and cooperation), no matter what it takes to develop it, is always there. If we help them get their needs met, and process their emotions in healthy ways, then their goodness will blossom. And when they’re doing things that we don’t like, it’s just a sign that they need our help to keep the garden healthy.

We don’t have to be stuck spinning our wheels in the behavior-mowing game. We can get passed all that kind of maintenance. And when we do, when we nurture the soil, when we meet the garden’s needs, then the goodness comes flowering out; and we can sit back and enjoy the roses!

HS3

Now, maybe you’ve never gardened this way and you think I’m making it up… Maybe like an industrial farmer, you’re skeptical of this kind of “permaculture”, or you’re not sure how to get started. Feel free to contact me if you want to discuss it more, or if you want help converting your garden. I can show you the best tools and how to dig under those weedy actions, as well as how to build up the soil so it produces the good flora that you’d rather see. Don’t hesitate to get in touch — I’m here to help! ❤

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Be well.

Meet Your Emotional Brain — or — Whose “Tantrum” *is* This, Anyway?!

Today we’re going on a journey to the center of our brains! I’d like to introduce you to the Cingulate Cortex. Cingulate Cortex, this is the people. People, Cingulate Cortex.cingulate_gyrusThis is one heck of an amazing structure handling a number of  functions that just so happen to share processing with regions of the neocortex (all the white above) — though at less-to-more conscious levels, respectively. It is one of the primary areas in the brain which is activated in both infants who are in distress and crying, and in the adults who are hearing and responding to those infants (Louis Cozolino, The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, pg 106); and its development is experience-dependent. Today we’ll take a look at why our cingulate matters to our abilities to parent and handle emotion (in ourselves and our kids); why it matters to our children’s emotional, cognitive, sensory, and motor development; and how to grow healthy, resilient, and fully empowered cingulates in the brains of all our future generations for a more peaceful and empathetic world.

Here’s a weird factoid. Did you know we’re one of only a thimbleful of species capable of parenting in a way that is anything but virtually identical to the manner in which we were parented. That is, of all other species on Earth only humans, and arguably the higher primates or dolphins, can parent differently than their parents did. All other animals repeat exactly, or as nearly as they can physically muster to exactly, the same parenting choices, maneuvers, and nurturing processes as their parents and their parents’ parents, and so on into the historical predawn.

It is this one fact alone “that got us the wound and will get us well” in our parenting. Because we can change our parenting with our thinking, humans have changed parenting from its natural, “out of Eden” state — with whole family clans raising the progeny year after year including them in the society by rite and ritual in a timely and natural fashion as it was done before them and before them — to its postmodern postindustrial equivalent — single-parent or “nuclear” families living in relative parenting isolation far from relatives or other like-minded parents, kids are sent away from their parents and/or other loving care-givers far too soon, for far too long each day, and at great internal duress for financial reasons and/or misguided intellectual pursuits, learning is placed over experience and development, “socialization” via isolation with ones peers has replaced actually being socialized to the broad spectrum of society. Being able to change our parenting with our thinking f*#%ed up the whole beautiful nurturing system that our biology had perfected into sheer glorious magic. But. Because we can change our parenting, we don’t have to be stuck with parenting how we were parented; and even if we were (somehow, miraculously!) parented well in our own upbringing, we can still improve on that mold based on what we learn about parenting our own children.

Remember this when you find yourself doing exactly what you never wanted to do as a parent; when you find yourself being your Dad, or your Mom; when you find yourself having to leave the room because your child’s emotions are simply too much for you. Remember it every time you (re)act from the programming you got as a kid instead of from your parenting ideals. A big hunk of your brain just can’t help itself because if you weren’t parented through your emotions well as a kid (and let’s face it, who the hell was…), your brain built fewer connections to the parts you need to be able to parent your children through their emotional processing. By the time you get to parenting, hopefully, you have had other opportunities in life to re-parent yourself a bit, and/or develop other healthy neural and functional process-habits, but you never get a chance to redo those that one gets when one is parented with the “full measure” of emotional as well as physical nurturing. Remember, though, that we can change the way our brains function in response to our children being upset, and while we’re parenting them just happens to be an ideal time to do so.

Before I go on, I want to go back just a moment and underscore that when you hear your kid(s) scream, your cingulate cortex lights up just like your kid(s). Your brains are having the same meltdown. Automatically. This means: 1) You’ve got to cool out to be able to function, and 2) You can use your own cool-out and the same techniques you use on yourself with your children to cool out their brains and help them get back to higher brain functionality as well.

For those of you who’ve yet to see it, this a chart that we (at the Center for Emotional Education) created, which we aptly titled the Brain Tree. Ain’t it pertty, y’all?! 
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When stressful emotion strikes (whether it is high or low emotion), our kids especially and to a lesser extent, we ourselves, lose access to the upper limbs and branches of the brain tree — that whole neocortex where all of our executive functions (like making a compassionate choice, or creating a solution to a perceived problem, regulating impulses, even calming the brain itself) take place — and the energy of the tree recedes into the trunk for protection, if protection doesn’t come (in the form of emotional connection), then the brain tree’s energy recedes further into its primal roots. The cingulate cortex is in the trunk of the tree. Because of the way our brains mirror the cingulate reaction our kids are having when they are upset, and because we lose access to our children when they slide further down into root survival reactions, I think of the cingulate cortex as an important neuro-emotional link between us and our children. It’s here, where, from early on and throughout development we can return together when there is trouble, when executive functioning fails, or emotional stress derails things — we do anyway since we mirror our upset kids, and we ought to intentionally since that is what helps them get back up to higher brain functioning. Which is why most of us need to reprogram our own processing around emotion…

Let’s get a little more intimate with the cingulate cortex for a second, here, too. The cingulate is a mind-boggling component of the brain — in part, because it is at the center of so many important top-down brain processes, being “involved in cognitive, emotional, sensory, and motor processing, integrating input from the entire cortex with subcortical structures” (The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, p106). If there is damage to this area or incomplete development, then consequences can range from “decreased maternal behavior”, “emotional instability”, and “increased response to stress”, to “decreased empathy”, “decreased expressiveness”, “inappropriate social behavior”, and “impulsiveness and increased motor activity”, not to mention “mutism” (p107). One notable part of the development of the cingulate is that “early neglect, stress, and trauma may negatively impact the development and organization of [its] cells, resulting in deficits in the abilities organized by the cingulate” (p108), thereby creating a life-long effect on cognitive and emotional functioning. Another note-worthy part of the cingulate’s development is a kind of entrainment with the parent’s emotional and cognitive states, such that, even without saying or doing anything (that we’d be conscious of) in particular, we provide input which unconsciously shapes the infrastructure of our children’s social brains. All of this neuro-speak basically just means that our kids are picking up what we knowingly put before them, but they are also picking up, and developing based on, the stuff we think we’re keeping to ourselves. Our emotional states, our outlooks on life, our ways of handling our emotions — all are being sensed and mimicked by our children’s brains, particularly the cingulate cortex.

Returning to the brain tree, then — when kids go into the trunk, so to speak, and lose their executive abilities, during “emotional winters, droughts, and heat-waves”, then we have to meet them with calming touch, soothing countenance and approach, out-loud empathizing, hugging, nursing, and/or listening in order to assist them in emotional processing and offloading, and eventually inspire their brains to reach back up into the neocortex long enough to trigger the message to the limbic-trunk system to stop sending out stress brain chemicals and start sending out ones that make our kids feel better and more connected with us and further able to calm down, think more clearly, and act more compassionately, etc., etc.. When we do it a lot over time, we give our kids better coping skills in the moment and a brighter developmental future — we can make those branches flourish just by making sure to nurture that trunk whenever necessary (and the roots, of course, too, earlier in development and more generally). And the wonderful thing is, we get plenty of opportunities to help them process their emotions!

Back to us for a moment, because, remember our brains can’t tell (at least at first) just who is having these emotions. Emotion is a trigger for a lot of us, right? It’s bad enough to have my own without having someone else’s! If we got good programming from our parents and/or picked up skills along the way, then we can process our emotions in a top-down kind of fashion, we manage duress in creative ways and keep our brains from emitting more than a necessary amount of stress hormones. We mellow out our cingulate response, we link with our kids and mellow their cingulates out, we model empathy and tenderness and compassion and their brains mirror it back. They get back to growing branches, and actually, so do we!

I think if we were parented well, then we have an easier time neuro-psychologically speaking than other parents who were not. If we’ve been emotionally nurtured then we have brains better trained to deal with emotions and upset, and we not only experience the benefits of that, but we can pass it on to our children by being fully, totally, and how-ever-long-it-takes-ly present with them while we assist in their emotional processing. To help ourselves build better neural pathways for making ourselves better emotional support for our children, we can practice empathizing on them (we’ll get neurally better at it after awhile), we can self-empathize (yes, actually recognize and look at our own feelings while we are having them), and wait (because patience will help). So basically the same steps we use to help our children process their emotions is what works best for helping us process ours in the moment, and develop better neural capabilities for helping ourselves and them in the future. Cool, ain’t it? It’s such a nice package, in fact, that I tend to think our kids express their emotions as they do, and require our help to process their emotions as they do in order for us all to get neurally better at it.

Now we just have to remember to count on it…

When, my partner, Natalie was in labor, one of the few things I whispered into her ear (besides I love you so much…) was that if she wanted to she could think of the contractions as guests that she was welcoming at the door, all coming to bring her our baby. Reading back over it now, it’s a wonder she didn’t hit me, but the effect at the time was that she leaned into the idea. She began to see each contraction as something to bring on, rather than shy away from, and she kept her mind on the goal. I think the brain changes we all go through in parenting are much the same. Even if we were parented well, becoming a parent develops us in ways we can’t possibly imagine beforehand. We grow parts of our brains that were hitherto almost unseen. Some of the terrain we cross to get there is a revisiting of places we crossed during our own upbringing, but much of it is new. We can welcome it, and get on board with the process, or go down kicking and screaming about how hard it is or how awful our parents may have been… I think we’ll get further welcoming the process of our own development — further for ourselves, and further for our little developing progeny, too.

So, I say go for it!

  • When your kid’s emotional sh!t hits the fan, and you get all caught up in the cingulate cortex entrainment, give yourself some empathy. Say in your head or out-loud: “I feel so triggered by this!” or “I am so pissed right now!” or “I get stressed out when they/you are upset!”. Get some neural-psycholgical distance from your own emotional upheaval, and give yourself a chance to get back to your own higher brain functioning — that is, your empathy (for others in this case), your creativity, your calming brain processing, etc..
  • Practice making space for your child(ren)’s emotional processing. Realize that the expression of their emotional upheaval is often a biological attempt to get connection and help with emotional processing. Approach them with empathy and tenderness and touch and (if it’s still part of your parenting tool kit) nursing. All of these help the emotional process, and get higher brain functioning back on line.
  • And, again, model empathy. This how we teach what we want our kids to do for themselves and others; and this is how we trigger their brains into mirroring empathy for themselves and others.
  • And, also again, wait. Empathy, when done fully and honestly, will make room for and then settle feelings and help get “issues” “solved” with a kind of ease that I can only call magic. Not always, but often enough to mention, when we give our children full space to have their upset feelings about particular situations, scenarios, interactions, or issues, those so-called “problems” vanish as the feelings subside. But also, teaching empathy is a process, both neural and functional. Wait for it to develop and nurture it as it does.

Now that we’ve met the cingulate cortex, and become familiar with each other a bit — let’s get down to making peace with emotional processing and growing amazing brain trees! For more on how to do that, look here.

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Be well, my fellow brain arborists.

Rediscovering… YOU

In the last post, I discussed the idea that we often are the ones holding us back from being our most magnificent selves. We do this in many different ways, depending largely on methods we were taught to use by our parents, caregivers, siblings, and early friends. We have loop reels of negative self-talk rolling in our heads most of the time, we tend to doubt ourselves regularly, we self-deprecate to our friends, and underestimate our prowess to any audience who’ll listen. But one of the more subtle techniques we frequently use to disempower ourselves or keep us stuck is our own self-awareness.

Now, I know – you’re thinking, “Damn. I thought ‘knowing myself’ was supposed to be a good thing!” And generally speaking, I’d say you are more right than not right about that. Exploring yourself, and discovering the you that you carry with you (often too closely to sense) is a necessary project for almost all humans. Otherwise, we spend too much time bumbling around and being dissatisfied and blaming it all on forces outside us.

However, there is a difference, between knowing yourself and canonizing yourself. To know yourself is to look within, and explore who you are, and how you work, and to be present in your own processes. To canonize yourself is to make a claim (based on “knowing” or not) for how you always already are. To know yourself is to take note of your movements in relationship to the events of your life. To canonize yourself is to write in stone how you will respond in every foreseeable situation, and to manipulate the events of your life to confirm and conform to a static version of yourself.

Knowing yourself has some real advantages, but almost all of them are lost if you only use that knowledge to limit yourself.

You might be holding yourself back with how well you “know” yourself if you’re saying any of the following:

  •  “I always… [get sick, get taken advantage of, etc.]”
  •  “I never… [win, get to do what I want, etc.] “
  •  “I’m just a… [neat freak, addictive personality, etc.]”
  •  “I can’t…”
  •  “I don’t…”
  •  “I won’t…”
  •  Or any other “universal truth” about how you are and always will be, or about the way life works for you.

You in a nut shell…

But, lucky you – today you have brought yourself a brand new opportunity to reacquaint yourself with yourself. That’s right folks, today, you can give yourself a get-out-of-self-free card any time you feel the desire to look at yourself from a fresh perspective. Today, you have been given full license to rediscover yourself – forget your biases, make no assumptions, and take nothing for granted.

Pretend you have no habits and see how long you can get away with it. Act as if you have never met yourself but have always wanted to. Forget everything you ever knew about how you respond to life. Take yourself in for the first time. Give yourself an exclusive interview with You. Experience your being-ness from a place of wonder, and exploration. Be a novice to your own existence. Chances are you’ll discover that there is more to you than you were previously allowing, and more to life than you had yet been willing to allow.

Try it for a day and you will change your thinking about yourself. Practice it everyday and you will change your life.

Be well.

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Want to turn up your experience of ecstasy in life? Pretend you are an alien trying everything on Earth for the very first time. Allow yourself the richness of every sensation in all of your experiences. Be open to everything as a sublime gift. For example — eat a single raisin as slowly as you can; peel a grape; watch a bee pollinate a flower; savor a sunset; wish on the first star you see tonight…

Today, You are a New You

What are you bringing into your life today? What are you drawing toward you with your focus, intention, and emotional state? What are you creating in your immediate future?

Everyday, we are building our stories. Everyday, we are attracting and manifesting the things we focus on, and intend, and feel. Everyday, whether we want to or not, whether we believe it or not, whether we make an effort to do so or let it happen passively, we are creating our lives.

The present we are experiencing today is the result of what we have been making up to this point. Everything you see in your world is the result of your focus and intention in all the days before now. Most likely you have (as most of us) spent the majority of your life in ignorance of this fact, and therefore, have witnessed a lot of your life with wonder and confusion, not realizing from where it has all come.

But today?  Today you know what you are bringing toward you. (And if not, then I am here to tell you.) Today you are being given the opportunity to focus on, intend, and delight in realizing the life you know is right for you.

It exists already inside you. You feel it and know it as if it were your own hand. You always have.

You’ve just been too afraid to believe it.You’ve just been duped by the naysayers preaching into your ear since you were born. You’ve just been deceived about who and what you are, and what you are capable of doing, and how life works. You’ve been lied to. And now, today, you are in the right place and time to say, “No more lies.”

You can be who you are now. You can do what you dream now. You can have your life now. You simply have to believe it. And know it. And feel it in your bones that you are your most magnificent you. You are the creator of your life.

When you believe that – as a beyond-any-shadow-of-a-doubt belief – then, and only then, will you begin to see it. Look where you are and realize that it is all the result of what you have believed until now. And recognize that if you want to see something different, you will have to change what you believe.

Today is when you begin to believe in what you will see next. SO get busy, you’ve got some focussing, and intending, and feeling good about your life that you’ve got to get to. Your time is now!

Be well.

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Want help changing the beliefs that inform what you’re seeing in your life? Get in touch  with me to set up your complimentary strategy session today!

Co-Operation Beats Compliance Every Time

deaf“How many times do I have to tell you?!” “When are you going to learn?” “If you don’t listen to me…!”  If you’ve ever been around kids for more than a minute, you’ve likely heard some of their parents say at least something like these phrases. If you’ve been a parent longer than a couple years, you’ve likely said one or more of them yourself. At the very least, almost all of us have had similar lines lobbed at us from time to time by our own parents when we were growing up.

The fact is, we parents often find ourselves repeating what we say in a barrage of stuttered phrases, “like a tobacco-auctioneer”: “Come here. Come here. Come’ere. C’mere. C’mere. Here! Here! HERE!” or “No. No. Nonononono! NO!” or “Stop it. Stop it. Stop it. Stoppit. Stoppit. STOPPIT!”. It’s not uncommon. It’s easy to slip into. And part of it is the nature of being the only (supposedly…) rational, full-brained person in the room. But the other fact is, it’s easy to get carried away thinking that our little ones need us to act that way in order to get them to comply with, or even hear, our requests, and “behave!”.

Biologically speaking, our kids are designed to follow our lead. Period. If we don’t screw that up by being too demanding all the time, too inflexible, too authoritarian, too retributive, too exacting, or too permissive (which is actually rarer than we’re taught to think…) — then our kids grow into adolescence trusting our leadership, relying on our authority, and doing (mostly) as we’d prefer. Yes, if we’ve raised them right, they’ll learn to question authority along the way, and we’d do well to entertain those questions in more than a perfunctory manner; but by and large, even when they have questions, they’re still respecting whose role is whose, they’re still looking to our leadership, and they’re still more geared toward following us than not. All we have to do is honour our own roles as leaders by being informative guides, confident captains, and loving parents. I’ve written some on all of those topics before (see the links), but today I want to spend a little more time on the last piece — leadership through love.

The truth is, almost every kid is by nature more compliant than almost every adult (read that again if you need to); it’s just that we’ve been taught to expect them to do every-single-thing-we-ever-say — and that’s not reasonable, no one will ever live up to such a ridiculous ideal, not without losing their own identity anyway… So we have this skewed notion of what’s normal for children — what signifies normal cooperation, and conformity (what we all call “compliance”) — and we expect way more of it from them than makes sense. Even so, expecting that our kids will follow our lead is waaay more productive for everyone involved than assuming the opposite. Mostly, this is because kids rise to meet our expectations of them. If we treat them like convicts, they act like convicts. If we treat them as cooperative, rookie members of our family team, and expect that most of the time, they’ll “eventually get it” (if they don’t already), then 8 times out of 10, that’s what we’ll see.

The single best way to increase cooperation (both, ahead of the game and in the moment) is to turn up the connection. Because they’re born to follow us, and because they’re by nature more likely to do what we say than anyone else ever would be; the only thing we really need to do to get more of that (aside from not screwing it up!) is lean into the natural bond we already share, and that our biology has tuned to perfection for just such a purpose, and let the relationship do it’s magic. By connecting with them, we prove their significance to us, we show them that they belong with us, and both the neurobiology and the psychology of that connection are so compelling that they almost can’t not do what we ask. And all it takes is spending a little time, giving out some hugs, maybe doing a bit of playing, reading, and wrestling — and voila — you’re connecting!

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The bottom line, for the moment is, if your kid isn’t listening to you — I mean really not listening to what you say or request or expect — instead of checking the behavior, maybe  check in with the relationship. Look for ways to communicate significance and belonging to your child, and practice making time and space to connect. Take him on a date just the two of you — his choice. Take her to the park and play together — her lead. Take ten minutes and just snuggle on the couch — and try to be the last one to let go. Leave love notes (even if they’re just crappy pictures). Give free kisses. Hold hands. Smile freely. In a word — relate!

I promise you, it is surprising how much easier it is to get cooperation from a deeply-connected kid. And when we get practiced at throwing our own cooperation into the mix, too (for modeling and bonding purposes, at least!) — well, the difference is hard to believe. In fact, I’m personally convinced (by my own 16, 14, and 10 year-old) that if we get really skilled at co-operating with them (i.e. using our natural leadership, connecting, and working with them to find mutually satisfying solutions to issues as they arise) then we no longer need to worry about enforcing compliance or insuring conformity. When we’re working together to meet needs, be empathetic to feelings, and get things done — we’re working together! We don’t have to demand compliance, because we’re working together. We don’t have to punish them for noncompliance in order to instill obedience, because we’re working together. We don’t have to do anything to them to make them do what we say, because we’re working together.

If we’re not working together with our kids to get everyone’s needs met — that is, co-operating — well, then we’re working too hard. And that’s all there is to it. If we want more cooperation from them, then what we need to do is give more of it to them. If we want them to care about us enough to do what we ask even when they’d rather not, then we have to show them how much we care about them. It’s a direct proportion and a turn key operation. And if you aren’t already — it’s high time you and your family started cashing in!

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To get you started and/or keep you going, here’s some “working with” phrases you can try out that engender an atmosphere of and invite co-operation:

• “It seems like, right now, you are wanting X, and I am wanting Y. How can we make it  work for both of us?”
• “I’d like to help, can you tell me what you need?”
• “I’d like your help with something real quick.” and/or “Can you help me for a minute?”
• “How can we make it a game?” or “What’s the fun version?!”
• “We have to go in the next 10 minutes. Is there anything you want to do before we leave?” then “We’re going to be leaving in about 2 more minutes. Any ‘last things’ you need to do or get?”.
• “I was thinking I’d like to ______ before we leave the park/playground/exploratorium today. What’s one thing you want to do before we leave? Which do you want to do first?”
• “What’s the funnest/#1-super-secret/safest way to get to the car from here? Go!”
• “Since we have to interrupt your game, what part of this do you want to bring with us?”
• “What do you want/need before we _______ ?” or just “What do you need?”
• “How do you want to handle that/this?”
• “What can we do about _________?”
• “What’s your idea…” or “Do you have any ideas for…”
• “Well, we’re in this together. What’s our plan?”
• “This (situation, scenario, dynamic, interaction, etc.) isn’t working for me. Can we/ I’d like to/ I’d prefer we/ Let’s try/ What if we…”
• “That wasn’t what we agreed…/ That wasn’t what I asked for… Do you need more information/time/hugs?”
•”I’d like us to follow-through on what we discussed.” or “I think we should do as we agreed.”
•”We still have to _______ . How can we/I make it easier for you/us?”
• “Will you help me figure out what to do here?”
• “I’m willing to _______ . What are you willing to do?”
• “We can’t ________ . Do you have any other ideas?”
• “Honey, will you please bring me that ______ ?”
• “Will you/everyone please ______ ?”
• “Can we/we all agree to _______ ?”
• “What’s your vote?”
• “What would help?”
• “Do you have a preference?”
• “My favorite way is to… What’s your favorite way?” then if necessary, “Which one sounds more fun/better/easier to you right now?”
• “We have to _______ . What part do you want to pick/choose/make-up/design?”
• Or (no matter the topic) use singing, “We gotta ______ right now. Or I’m gonna have a cow! We gotta do it right away. Or I’ll have to buy some haa-aay!”
• And, of course, don’t forget the NVC classic, which, being a classic, is always in style — “I’m feeling ________ . I need _________ . Will you  ______?”

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If you want (or desperately need!) help turning your current family dynamic around to a more connected, co-operative version — don’t hesitate to reach out. No matter where you are, or what style of parenting you’ve been using up to now, we can get you on a better feeling course faster than you’d believe possible. Contact me and let’s set up a complimentary consultation to discuss your situation right away.

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Be well.

Friend of Foe: Turning Children’s Upsets into Assets for the Family

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Love is the only force capable of turning an enemy into a friend. — MLK

Pretty much every parent I’ve ever met, including myself (yes, I have met myself on a couple of occasions now…), has in one instance or another thought about how to combat the problem of our children getting upset — “all the damn time”. Some of us want to stop it for our own sakes and sanities (which is perfectly reasonable, don’t get me wrong…), others for the sake of our poor children who certainly appear to be suffering when upset and crying and lashing about. And further, we’re surrounded by a parenting mythology and more parenting experts than you can shake a stick at all extolling the virtues of this or that method of affecting our children’s behavior in order to avoid “tantrums” and “manipulation” and “acting out” in all its various and insidious forms. From the get-go as parents we’re inundated with the notion that if our children are upset there’s either something we’re doing wrong or something our children are doing wrong.

It’s a cultural phenomenon brought about largely by our further and further removal from the natural processes and realities of child rearing. You can tell by the mere fact that your co-passengers on any flight in America will say “Oh what a good baby…” when your baby doesn’t cry too much on the flight. You can also tell by the palpable rise in the general tension level of the entire passenger cabin if your baby isn’t “good”. There are actually families who have been thrown off flights in the US for a crying baby — no joke! We’ve lost touch with what every dog and sow on the planet knows instinctively — babies cry out a lot, it’s how they get everything from a bath to sustenance to connection; and the proper response is attention and assistance and nurturance, not behavioural modification! Every mammal under the sun knows, without having or even being able to consider it, that the action of their baby calling out is just a sign of a particular feeling (somewhere between bliss and duress) and that certain feelings as expressed by certain actions refer to particular needs that require meeting. And the most natural response for them then is to meet that need. That’s all. Receive the emotional signal, respond with connection, interpret/meet necessary needs.

Somewhere along the ascent to our current greatness we forgot this simple chain of interactions, and the underlying psychological structure they represent. And because we’d become so smart that we could manipulate other people’s behaviour with certain controllable stimuli, we set ourselves on a course of dealing almost exclusively with the actions of our children, forgetting, of course, everything that lies underneath those actions, driving them and feeding them from behind the scenes. This line of thinking dominated the entire parenting paradigm superstructure, changing everything from how we birthed our babies and how we cared for them immediately and in the weeks and months following birth to how we raised and educated them throughout life. We thought we’d found the holy grail of scientifically developing moral, strong, bright, successful progeny. Amen.

How ridiculously wrong we were, eh? After “being born” with a pristine and wildly effective gift for nurturing our young — and that in many ways being the thing that has allowed our species to achieve such astounding heights — we almost completely chucked it in the span of just a few short paragraphs of our recent parenting history. Nowadays, mostof us have been un-supported emotionally for our entire lives; we don’t know how to process our own emotions (for when would we have learned and from whom? Mr. Belvedere?!); and our stress response systems are wired for overreaction. We are triggered by our babies cries (partly as we should be) to our very neural core, and because we were never given the neural tools or taught to use them, we don’t know how to respond to this basic and natural signal. As a result, generations of us have been raised without even the most rudimentary kinds of emotional nurturance. We grow up violent and victimized, depressed and re-pressed, mentally and physically ill, and habitual in our self-destruction. And the culture has the nerve to blame every example of it on the parenting!

My whole historical diatribe aside… I think you can understand why not only is there severe cultural pressure to control all of our children’s behaviours (especially the ones to which those airline passengers give the thumbs down…), but also why so many of us are so — well, upset — by our children getting upset. It makes perfect sense that we would be sent over the edge — we’re lacking the basic brain wiring to handle what is happening to us, let alone the little screaming person over there. Many of us go into survival mode — we have to stop it, or run away, or stop it. Others go dictatorial — we have to master it, to control it, to keep it from getting out of line at all times — both with our kids and ourselves. Again, it makes absolute perfect sense — we’re just acting from the feelings we have coming from our met and/or unmet needs both historically and in the moment; we’re just acting out the mechinations of our own neural programming from our own childhoods. For us to act any differently without first addressing our own feelings and needs and programming would not only be unlikely, it’d be downright anti-biological. In fact, we’re lucky that we can change our neurobehavioral parenting habits at all.

Fortunately for us, we’re one of those new-fangled mammals. Herstorically, we got so good at being nurturers — that is, before we got so bad at it — that we developed the super-cool ability to change our neural parenting-programming. We don’t have to be doomed to continue the downward generational spiral; or to continue to suffer now from the crappy programming we got in our own upbringing. We can change not only how we respond to our upset children, but even how we perceive it, and how we feel about it when it (inevitably, always, any moment now…) happens.

But before we send you off on that adventure, let Rod Roddy tell you all what you’ll get for playing along!RodRoddy

Well, Nathan, for meeting their kids’ upset feelings  with love, connection, and empathy — they’ll get:

  • A richer, more securely-bonded, and more influential relationship with their children!
  • A fuller understanding of what their kids need, and a better chance to meet those needs!
  • Happier, more-grounded, and more co-operative children!
  • Far and away fewer major upsets and an easier time dealing with them when they do show up!
  • A quicker return to peace and calm after upsets occur!
  • And how about — less fighting!
  • Not to mention — more hugs!
  • They’ll get to model how they want their kids to handle themselves and others during emotional stress; training their kids’ brains to empathize!
  • They’ll also get the opportunity to enhance their kids’ neural development, by reducing stress hormones and increasing neurotransmitters for joy and learning!
  • They’ll get to help train their kids’ brains for optimal, healthy emotional processing!
  • And — if you can believe it — they’ll even get a rare, unparalleled chance to reprogram their own emotional stress response systems to better handle their kids’ and their own feelings!
  • And if that isn’t enough, they’ll also get… a new car!!!
  • Ok, not really a new car, but a new lease on parenting life, at least!

Thanks Rod!

Now, of course, you home-players may be asking, “Well, great, but when’s he going to tell us how to deal with our upset children? What’re we supposed to do?”. And those of you who know me will say, “Oh no, here he goes again… He always says the same damn thing!”. And you’d be right. But before I say that “same thing” again, I just want to mention, that the question of what to do really lies with you and with the moment and with the needs of the people involved. While it’s important to have strategies in your tool box, it’s more important to hone your perspective about what you’re doing. The whole point is — and if you get nothing else from what you’re reading here today, get this — we don’t need to be afraid of our children getting upset. It happens. And in many ways it is supposed to happen — getting upset is part of how they get help dealing with the neurological overwhelm of their emotions and elicit assistance meeting needs — it’s designed to happen. A lot. And rather than thinking we need to fix every-little-thing in their worlds — whether it’s the contents or events of their daily lives, or their behaviors, or our approaches to “handling” them — in order to avoid their being upset, we should look instead to meet the opportunities presented us in the moment to help them process their feelings, meet their underlying needs, and share the connection that they require in order to safely discharge their emotional energy and get back to feeling balancedIt’s time for us  to stop cowering from or fighting with the specter of our children’s upset emotions.

Child_hugged_by_father_2So here’s my go-to list of strategies for assisting our children’s healthy emotional processes:

  • The ideal starting place is actually well before any upsets occur. It helps considerably if we are working consciously to create an environment (including the home culture, relationship, and media input) to foster emotional safety. We want to make it perfectly simple and psychologically inexpensive for our children to have their emotions and to express those emotions to us. We want them to know that they can come to us no matter what they are feeling and we will accept and assist them. For more on this subject, check here.
  • Hand-in-hand with the above, and also as a preemptive mechanism, it is vital for us to regularly and significantly connect with our children in a loving, relationship-focused manner. Be it for play or reading or hugging or chatting or anything else that allows us to focus solely on sharing with each other — the entire family does better in direct proportion to how much time we can spend genuinely connecting with our kids. When we make time to do it every day it quickly becomes obvious how it changes the general tenor of our family life.
  • Following suit, and absolutely indispensable, is to facilitate the family’s physical health. Being conscientious about getting adequate sleep and exercise, eating healthy whole foods, and avoiding too much sugar, allergens, and TV all go a long long way toward easing emotional stress responses, aiding psycho-emotional resilience, and encouraging optimal cognitive and non-cognitive functioning — for all parties involved!
  • Now, when the lightning does strike — as we all know it will, regardless of how many preemptive measures we take to ensure everyone is feeling as balanced and connected as is possible as much of the time as we can; stuff still happens, and kids especially are easily overwhelmed by any emotional upsurge — our first response is to remember our role as parents. Remember that, biologically speaking, young mammalian offspring require adult care-giver assistance to mitigate emotional stress. When our children go into emotional upset, they lose access to the executive parts of their brains — they can’t access their developing self-awareness, or empathy for others, or precise motor-function regulation, or creative problem-solving, or logic, or effective decision-making, nor can they process our rational explanations about the subject at hand; but more importantly, they can’t access the part of the higher brain that tells the rest of the brain to calm down during emotional duress. Early in development, the brains of human children rely exclusively on their caregivers to trigger the discharge of emotional content and the return to a calm and balanced state. It’s our job to step in and help our kids’ brains teach themselves how to process emotion in a “top-down” fashion (meaning, from the executive/reflective/rational part of the brain, rather than from the primal/instinctual part).
  • If we’re regularly triggered by the emotional outbursts of our children, or by any particular one, then it’s helpful to take a moment to self-empathize. If every meltdown our kids have sends us into our own meltdown, then it’s clear we have some reprogramming to do in our heads regarding emotional processing, and the single best way to do that in the moment and over the long haul (a two-fer, woohoo!!) is to tell our higher brains what we are feeling. You may think this is a superfluous step — “We should all already know what we’re feeling, right?” — but that is neither always true nor the point at present. The reason it helps to call out the emotion we’re having is because the simple act of giving it a label tells the brain to think about it more and feel it just a little less intensely; a label is also the gateway to getting back to our higher brain functioning where our own empathy, creative problem-solving, and restraint lie, andwhere we keep that trigger for calming down our own emotional stress response systems. This simple act will help us cool down in the moment, and will help us reprogram our brains for better emotional processing in general — bonus! It’s worth noting here that we want to avoid getting caught up in the story that goes along with our feelings in the process, and commit instead to just naming them — the former grows our upset feelings, while the latter helps us harvest their bounty and move on.
  • Then just as soon as we are able, we want to stop all other activity and connect with our kids in the moment. We want to empathize with our children intellectually and emotionally; to take a moment to identify with his/her/their perspective(s), imagine the situation from their point(s) of view, and understand where our little ones are coming from — irrespective of what has transpired, or what actions or emotions they are displaying.
  • As we identify with the experience of our upset child(ren), we also want to express our empathy in a palpable manner. Whether through open-postured proximity, touch, hugs, words, facial expressions, and /or demeanor, we want to make it clear that we accept our upset children, that we understand their upset, and that we agree to assist their process. We aren’t condoning actions we don’t like, but we are connecting, offering neuro-emotional assistance, and communicating understanding — again, regardless of actions.
  • At the earliest possible opportunity in the interaction, we want to make sure to offer physical comfort. Sometimes, if it’s all I can get, I will put my index finger tip on my upset daughter’s ankle. Even that is enough (though a good solid snuggle is perhaps the ideal way…) to help trigger the young brain to begin calming down (and, if necessary, by further, deeper release). And if we’ve done the work to calm ourselves down first, then, through an amazing process called cingulate cortex entrainment, the parent’s neural network will actually guide the child’s brain back into balance. (!)
  • As our children open up or lean into our help, it is quite common for this to give them license to let out more, perhaps even tapping hidden veins of suppressed upset that needs to be let out, too. That’s fine, getting it out means feeling better. As Pam Leo, author of Connection Parenting, puts it — the crying isn’t the hurting, the crying is the healing. By letting our kids release in as full a manner as they can during any particular episode, we allow them to discharge other stuff that may be hanging around in their psyches, and afford them the opportunity for deeper, fuller healing of old emotional hurts that are still tender. Sometimes, as my daughters are nearing the end of a good cry, I’ll lean in and say, “Go on — let it all out, honey,” and often they do push a few more tears out before they feel finished.
  • Then when they’re ready, we let them shift. It is almost impossible for kids to hold onto upset feelings once they have been given some genuine empathy and a chance to express those feelings. Even if they wanted to try, they can’t do it. So after you give your kid(s) space and opportunity to process the emotional content, allow the rebound to occur without interference. As adults, we get tricked into thinking that if the upset goes away quickly and entirely, then it wasn’t a “real” upset; and we therefore can tend to expect our kids to stay upset a long time when they may just need two minutes of total freaking out before buoying back up to luminous joy. We don’t need to hold them to an emotion any more than we need to rush them through it, and once they are through it, we don’t need to wonder why they are feeling so much better so soon — it’s because they got help!

When kids get help with their emotional processes, they do tend to feel better and enjoy more and act in ways that we grown-ups like more often. And when we address upsets in each instance that they occur, then we save time by avoiding emotional build-up and the uncooperativeness associated with not feeling happy/good/connected/loved. By managing our fear of their upsets, we offer ourselves and our kids a whole range of other possibilities  that we would otherwise never know. And by making those upsets our family friends, we change everything about raising our children — for the easier and more joyous. What parent could ask for more?!

Family Fun

Now, I know it’s a big deal. I know it isn’t a walk in the park to change how you parent, let alone how you see parenting. Believe me. No offense to my loving family and care-givers, but I grew up with a crappy temper, which grew into heavily suppressed anger-urges and utter disassociation from my emotional self, then depression, then a clouded perception of all life and all living beings as doing nothing but suffering. I know that how our brains are trained to process emotions and see the world is heavily set by the time we are adults trying to raise our own kids, and that the notion that we can change how our brains respond to emotional stress can seem absurd. But I’ve also lived through it. I know it can be done. And I know you can do it too!

The three things I’ve seen and felt work best, in the lives of my clients and in my own parenting are:
1) Practice. You’ll go through a long period of catching yourself after the fact. Then you’ll start to catch it in the moment, but still not be able to do anything different. Then you’ll start seeing it coming and be able to make the right move just in time. And by then you’re well on your way to new brain habits.
2) Self-empathy. You really can “trick” your brain into being triggered less by saying what you are feeling. Say it to yourself or out loud if need be, but say it no matter what! And let your brain start to help you from there.
3) Getting Support. I say it a lot, but we were not meant to do this parenting thing in isolation. We need quality assistance. Get a book that speaks your parenting language. Start going to yoga with a friend. Form or make use of a preexisting community of like -minded parents. And/or hire a parenting support pro, like me! Do whatever it takes to make sure you’ve got some help in being your best parenting self. You and your family deserve it. 

And remember — one breath, one moment, and one day at a time. It’s a big deal, but you got this.

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Be well.

Parenting Doesn’t Have to Suck

I’ve written and talked about this before in some detail elsewhere, but when I read Glennon Melton’s article, “Don’t Carpe Diem“, about how hard she thinks parenting is, I was thrown once more into a theoretical tizzy, and tantrum-like even stomped my foot on the floor as I said, “Parenting isn’t hard.” And then adamantly, as if the computer screen wasn’t listening closely enough to me, I added, “Raising a kid is easy! It’s being ‘parents’ that makes it hard!”. But neither the computer nor the author of the article were answering (especially since the comment option was closed on the article, and she’s gone on to write a book…).

Now don’t get me wrong on at least 3 counts (on all others, feel free to get me wrong if you must… 😉 ) —   1) Of course there are situations in nearly every single day of parenting any child that have emotional intensity, or involve disagreement, or that require negotiation, or that ask us to look more deeply at ourselves, or that leave us questioning. And 2) there are, also of course, many families out there who are actually dealing with a developmental or congenital condition that makes all of the normal types of child-growing processes more difficult. And finally, 3) I know, regardless of the situation, or how it arose, if you’re struggling in parenting, the next to last thing you need is someone giving you a hard time about it — the very last thing is to get down on yourself.

So with those disclaimers firmly in place, I do want to share a couple of thoughts with you about how we’ve been taught to make things harder on ourselves and our kids, and how we can make it all a bit easier. Today, though, instead of launching into a lengthy diatribe about all of the different facets of my philosophy of enjoying parenting — especially since I have done so at length already more than once — I just want to talk about the general concepts and then direct you to further reading as your interest inspires. I hope you’ll forgive the redundancy — I am mostly here to soothe my own thoughts about it, but I’m also feeling a great deal of empathy for you parents out there that are just suffering through unnecessarily, everyday. My heart goes out to you. You deserve to feel good and have nice kids.

So, beginning somewhat in the middle of things… Here’s the central thesis that I want you to at least have trouble forgetting about for a day or so: if you are struggling through your parenting days, especially if you are doing so alone, and you feel as though this whole operation of raising your kids is basically hell with a mythical silver lining — It. Doesn’t. Have. To. BE. Like. THIS. If parenting had been as difficult as modern society has made it for our whole history, our species would’ve died out ages ago.

Simply put, there are strategies that make raising kids easier and more enjoyable, and others that are currently more popular that do the opposite. Generally speaking these strategies break into groups over whether they are strategies that are designed to “work with” our children and their biology, or strategies that are designed to “do things to” our children to control them. I don’t mean that to sound sinister, just simplifying for the sake of time — I’m sure there aren’t more than a few parents who’ve actually thought, “How do I control them? I know! By doing things to them! Bwahahahaha….”. Nevertheless, until quite recently (and believe me there is a rising tide already), the predominant thinking on parenting since at least the 50’s has been that the best way to get children to behave like adults is to attempt to control and modify the behaviours themselves by doing things to kids to make them want to behave in certain ways. This Pavlovian approach means we give rewards and punishments of various sorts to try to reinforce or discourage certain behaviors, and there’s little room in this approach for any of the feelings anyone is having or the relationship between the parents and children.

Here’s the thing, though — and modern history is replete with examples of this scenario — in stepping into the process of child-rearing, B.F. Skinner and the wave of Behaviorists traveling in his wake, interrupted a process that Nature had already spent epochs perfecting. We humans arrived at where we are, not by controlling our children’s behaviours, but by nurturing their development. We became the preeminent species on the planet, not by using CIO, or catching our children being good, not by star charts, and time-outs (“…from positive reinforcement”, as it was originally called), not by any means of reigning in what children do — but by caring for who they are. There weren’t any theories on how to get kids to behave and do what you say and be good — there were just little families and villages welcoming new members, caring for their needs and teaching them about living. There was already a natural flow of maturation and becoming, before we got so smart that we f#cked it up.

Now, we are the living legacy of that nonsense. Many of us were parented so poorly — not necessarily without love or decent intentions, and purely by accident, really, but poorly for what humans need, nonetheless — that we don’t have what millennia of parents before us took for granted in terms of a natural balance of our own, a natural sense of self-assurance, natural attachment to the Earth, natural parental instincts, inherent trust in the natural process of which are a part, or naturalized experience with how our species nurtures babies. We’re social test-tube humans — manipulated by our own science into this unnatural and alien state of dissociation with what is normal even for ourselves. But don’t worry — we aren’t too far gone yet, and as I already mentioned, there are many of us who are already daring to not swim upstream, and who instead are learning to go with the natural flow. And I’m here to reassure you — you can come right on in, the water is fine!

Too good to be true, you say… Full of canal water, am I? Did someone call me a snake-oil peddler?! A blasphemer?!!

Well the honest truth is that if we can get all of the BS that we’ve been asked to swallow about how parenting is “supposed” to be out of our proverbial systems, and get back to parenting in line with our biology and in line with our real intentions for our children’s development — the whole thing really is easier, even though we’re all coming at it somewhat handicapped. And it doesn’t have to involve any of the sort of strategizing, surveillance, or coercion of certain behaviours with which modern parents get so distracted and distressed today. I don’t just say that based on theory, or clinical research — though there is plenty of both — I say that there is a better, easier, happier way in parenting because I live it.

Before you get mad at me for that, remember my disclaimer(s)… Even we, in our better, easier, happier experience, have issues arise everyday, struggles to get passed, and stupid-crap-that-sucks dropped into our metaphorical laps. I’m not saying that there is a way to parent that doesn’t involve different humans living life together and trying to figure out how to stay alive. I’m not even saying, “I enjoy every minute of that precious, precious time because I know I’ll never get it back…” or anything of such sappy sort. The sh!t does hit the fan in our house, too.

The difference in our home — and the difference that makes all the difference — is that, rather than working on our kids to make them do good, we’re working with them to help them be well. That may require certain intentions, and I think it does prescribe certain actions, but they aren’t difficult, and once habitual, undoubtedly have the ability to improve your quality of life. That doesn’t sound so bad does it?

The basic epicenter of this work — both what you are working with and what you are working toward — is the relationship. This is the magical key that Nature gave us to make us her current pinnacle. Everything about us is built to accommodate relating. It is the way we succeed in life, and in infancy, and everything in human maturation depends on it utterly. So if you remember nothing else, remember that the key to a happier parenthood is to act in service of having a warm relationship both now and forever with your children, by and for relating with them. That’s how you help them learn everything they need to know about being here. That’s how you guide them. That’s how you make it easier. AND that’s how you enjoy it more.

Of course, and again, there are certain actions that are more and less in line with serving the relationship. Letting our children walk all over us and have everything always and only the way(s) they want it without regard or respect for our (own) feelings, and/or repeatedly ignoring it when we are mistreated, and/or withholding information about how people, things, and life work from them — do not serve our relationships with our kids. Throwing them screaming into time-out because they have some feeling(s) and need(s) driving them to get help in the ways we’ve shown them we’re available to “help” — that is, “traditionally” doling out punishment, taking things without asking, disrespecting them, making them perform politenesses, judging and scolding, being physically rough — also not too cool for an enduring relationship. If we want to relate with them in the long run (think: getting to see our grandkids…), then we would do well to make that easier by how we relate with them in the short term.

There’s a great long list of various things parents can do in order to make relating with kids better, easier, and happier for every one in the family. Just click here to find my current more detailed list(s).

But off the top of my head and roughly in developmental order, I’d say:

  • We ought to consciously nurture inutero development and calm, have as gentle and natural of a birth as we can manage, and do all the groovy AP bonding stuff — chest-to-chest time, extended baby-wearing, extended nursing, extended co-sleeping, immediate responsiveness, tender and empathetic nurturing, etc. — first. Those are our first main tasks, and they all center around making baby feel welcome and safe. If we can do those with close attention, then we will have already made everything that we want to do in parenting exponentially easier for everyone involved. Srsly.
  • Inform inform inform. Give our growing humans lots and lots and lots of information. Read, and talk, and process, and teach, and share, and explain, and repeat. I would add a little common sense caution here, though, about right timing and right presentation — we do want to consider our audience. The point here, in terms of this current discussion, is to teach them about how people like to relate and be related with. They need all the information ever recorded about harmonious human interactions because they’ve never had any before us.
  • Be how we want them to be. This goes with the above, but refers specifically to what we show. Despite the old adage, children will not comply with, “Do as I say, not as I do”. The mirror neurons in their brains, simply won’t let them. So let’s just do everyone a favor and as much as we are able, and as often as we can muster it: be kind, empathetic, polite, helpful, interested, attentive, affectionate, honest, authentic, human, and everything else we hope for our children to be. Their brains will learn it just by being around us.
  • Recognize our own worth. Somewhere shortly after early parent-infancy, or a little later if we’re “lucky”, most natural moms/dads/caregivers start thinking and/or being told that being a parent is not quite enough. That we ought to be getting back to the career, taking on a hobby, cleaning the house more, focusing on our “self” more, or starting a revolution. “Sure parenting your wee ones is great, everyone needs do that, but send ’em off to pre-school as soon as you can so you can get back to…” as they often tell us. But the truth is, parenting is the single most important endeavor on the planet. Period. We can’t do anything more important, especially if we have kids already… It is absolutely enough to be doing our best at raising our children (which includes taking good care of ourselves, too, of course!). Tell anyone that you need to tell, including yourself, this.
  • Use empathy. Every time with everyone involved. It will soothe us in our dealings if we can empathize with ourselves and the little one(s) we’re dealing with at the moment. And it will soothe them as well to know that we identify with what is going on for them. We can call out those feelings in our heads and/or out loud to our children, so we have a full-brained response and/or they hear, and let ourselves and/or our kids know when we understand their feelings. If, and especially when, we cannot or wish not to comply with our children’s preference(s), we can be with them through their feelings, genuinely and as unhurriedly as we’re able. We can say no and still hold them while they cry about it. Doing so helps natural feelings get processed more smoothly, models caring for others’ feelings to our children, and nurtures the relationship that inspires teamwork and cooperation.
  • Look for how to use that teamwork and cooperation rather than coercion and manipulation to solve issues. When something needs fixing, it is the team’s mutual issue, and it get’s worked out by working it out. This again strengthens the relationship in multiple ways, not the least of which is engendering and maintaining trust.
  • Get some community. We honestly weren’t designed to parent in single family homes, or in an isolated SAHM or SAHD situation — that’s not the natural model for raising humans. To some degree we’re stuck with what we’re stuck with, in that most of us can’t go back to village life where we wore our babies to the fields, and had village and family child-care. Most of us don’t have anything like that, so we have to reach out and take hold of any like minded community we can when it presents itself. If you don’t feel like you have any options, it may be important enough to make some. You’ll be glad you did… If you do have community — then by all means, do what you have to do to commune — capitalize on your good fortune and share the bounty of a tightknit village.
  • And don’t for get to have fun! Laughing and playing with our kids is not only good for our relationships with them, it’s also good for reducing our own stress and increasing our resilience. We ought to be looking for it, using it to salve potentially rough moments, enjoying it when it comes randomly, and letting it guide our choices. We can trust in the process, we know our value, we can afford to relax a little and have a good time. After all, isn’t that what we’re talking about here?!

If you want more of my thoughts on the subject of how to stop having a crappy time parenting, and how to start having a lot more fun — check out these posts: the last post of the “Choose Your Own Adventure Parenting” three-post series here; more information on how to work with the little people here; some thoughts on making leadership easier here; and a few more thoughts on using information to improve the quality of your parenting existence here.

I sincerely hope you have the time of your lives. I hope you can honestly say, parenting is so fun! You deserve that…

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Be well.

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PS — If you want support getting into the groove of having a stellar, fulfilling, rewarding,  joyful, and easy parenting life — get in touch with me, it’s what I do for a living, and I’d like nothing more than to help you!

Empathy Schmimpathy — Why Bother?!

There’s a change occurring in the world of parenting today. A gradual shift is taking shape and gliding toward new ways of envisioning and inhabiting the parent-child relationship. The old adages we grew up with — of children being seen and not heard, of sparing the rod risking spoiling the child, and of doing as I say not as I do — are loosing their mental grip on Western society and new thoughts and ideas are filling in that space. No one had Attachment Theory when our grandparents were being raised — though some of them of course were still experiencing deep parent-child bonding — there wasn’t a way of referencing it or of disseminating it as an approach to parenting, it wasn’t studied, it more than likely wasn’t even present in the intellectual mind of any parent using its like (much the way that something like “sexism in the workplace” wouldn’t be present in their thinking). Beginning with our great-/grandparents, most people in “developed countries”, until quite recently and statistically speaking still, parent/ed using at least some version (however mythologized it may have been) of B.F. Skinner’s Behaviorism and/or it’s antecedent and decedent modes of cultural thinking. When his work actually came out and was spread through the scientific community it shone as the loan example of science’s approach to parenting and so it rang as the tune of truth — unchallenged.

Today, we’re seeing what in many ways has reached the critical mass to be called a sweeping movement away from behavioral modification techniques, and toward methods of relating with our children that honour the biochemical and emotional bonds and the neural design of connection and social development that most humans naturally carry and express and share. Put another way, we’re realizing as a species that what works best in raising our young is to respect our nature as nurturers. We are exploring the antipodes of our parenting minds only to find our-instinctual-selves waiting for us upon those foreign shores. We’re now doing the research and now able to peek inside some of  the neurological processes involved in child development, and it is becoming clearer and clearer that we are hard-wired to connect and work socially together, but the manner in which we are connected with directly relates to how well we develop our innate predilections. The other thing that has now been researched quite a bit more since the days of Skinner’s rise to popularity is just how deleterious behavior modification techniques can be to development, to the parent-child relationship, and to the emotional life of the child (throughout development and into adulthood), as well as how ineffectual behavior modification itself is as a tool in parenting — both in reproducing preferred behaviors and in reducing the ones that aren’t preferred. Having the current perspective that behavior modification doesn’t work and has negative repercussions on development and emotional stability on the one hand, and strong neuroscience displaying both the apparatuses for social(-izing) connection and the developmental effects of healthy attachment on these neural structures on the other hand, presents humanity with the grand opportunity to give ourselves over/back to our natures and our natural nurturing drives and instincts. And we seem to be doing just that.

One of the fastest growing subtitles of parenting advice is Attachment Parenting and its various offshoots — Positive Parenting, Natural Parenting, Connection Parenting, Gentle Parenting, Authentic Parenting, Aware Parenting and Empathy Parenting, among others. Natalie and I call the constellation of points we specialize in — Parenting on the Sameempathy Team — and while it is Attachment-based, we include aspects that go beyond the establishment and maintenance of attachment itself and focus on using the bond to build relationship and using that relationship to enhance our children’s development and inspire co-operation in both the long and short terms. And we, along with a whole host of other parenting thinkers, theorists, and mentors, happen to believe that Empathy is the sharpest tool in the proverbial shed of parenting.

So what’s all the hubbub, Bub? What’s the big freaking brain deal?! Why is it so  important that we bother using Empathy (with a capital blinking E) when wrangling our  particular (packs of) ankle-biters? And how the heck is all this snuggling supposed to help teach kids how to be good?!

Well here’s my current list of reasons why Empathy is the most important parenting technique we can learn:

  • First and foremost — Empathy is the root of all social guidelines. Every decent law ever written, every code of moral conduct, every rule we try to instill in our children, all center on and originate from empathizing with others. That’s the end and it therefore ought to be the means of every direction or re-direction or interaction involving behavior(s). Teaching empathy is the shortest distance between  our noble savage infants and the consistently caring, compassionate, “more civilized” adults that we hope to help them become.
  • Second and secondmost — Empathizing is what our brains were meant to do. We are neurologically built to automatically internalize the experience of others we see around us. One of the processes/structures for doing that is the mirror neuron system — which, if you’ve been around this blog at all yet, you’ve endured me going on about before and with some frequency. When we see or even hear a smile, our brain runs a quick simulation of the neural-motor-process of making the same expression, and then gets an internal feel of the expression and it’s correlative emotion(s), in order for us to interpret the emotion(s) of the person smiling. When they are developed in a normal healthy manner, we use mirror neurons all day long to neurologically imitate and decipher the intent of what we experience others doing around us. In order to be able to interpret those sometimes very subtle movements and isolate those interpretations from our own feelings and even in order to understand what we ourselves are feeling and be able to regulate our emotions — we need empathy input during early development.
  • Offering Empathy (en)trains our children’s brains to develop and express it themselves. Aside from the mirroring aspects of emotion, and of empathy, and of both individual and shared identity intimated above, and the manners in which modeling empathy helps teach our children’s brains to respond in kind; there is another brain structure involved here that is worth noting. It’s the cingulate cortex and I’ve mentioned it before as well. One of the interesting things about this area of the brain, largely devoted to the regulation of our emotions, is that it is one of the earliest developing (and oldest evolutionarily) structures in the so-called neo-cortex where our executive functions originate and later brain-structure enhancements reside. This old part of that new area, kicks in and begins running while the more specialized mirror neurons are adding programs (and more programs and even more programs…). So even before the infant brain is able to mirror all of what we are modeling in terms of the uses and expressions of empathy, the cingulate is aligning and harmonizing mother-infant emotional states. When a child cries out, the cingulate in his brain erupts into action, and in gearing up the mother’s brain for instantaneous responses (of various kinds across her entire nervous system), her cingulate is lighting up in much the same ways as the child’s. Interestingly, her immediate and calm response and the internal machinations of her own system’s calming itself down, help the mother to calm the child just by cingulate entrainment with him. Over time, the mother’s and other care-giver’s responses and cingulate harmonizing enable the child’s brain with  (unconscious) self-soothing capabilities — and real ones, not the mythical self-soothing abilities that are supposed to appear out of nowhere to help infants put themselves to bed — as well as engendering a stronger cingulate response and fuller expression of empathy when they go to respond to others in need. Put more simply, when a mother responds empathetically to her child, she empowers the child’s brain with greater capacity for empathy. This all happens without a single lesson on why it’s important or on how to act with empathy.
  • Responding to our children’s emotional processes with Empathy assists them in full neural development and access. You’ve surely heard, and I’ve of course mentioned before that we have three basic levels to our brains. The reptilian brain is the oldest most basic set of structures, governs all the bodily functions necessary to stay alive, and is shared among all living vertebrates. The mammalian brain governs our emotions and social behavior, is newer than, built on top of, but is superseded in developmental and functional priority by the reptilian portion. The rational brain is the latest set of neural structures and governs our abilities to problem-solve, think creatively, make decisions, and choose to express kindness among others, and its development and our access to  it on any given day are contingent on the lower brains’ stability. If humans are emotionally upset, especially children, we lose access to our higher functions, and increasingly so as we get more upset. The reptilian and mammalian brains can just jump in and take control until their needs are met. If we happen to get truly upset, the reptilian brain will send us into fight-or-flight mode, temporarily usurping even our ability to process our emotions or access “mammalian processing” at all. So in order to help kids survive infancy, we have to take care of the reptilian brain. In order to give them access to social functioning, we have to care for the both the reptilian brain’s and the mammalian brain’s needs. And in order to develop and have access to the executive functioning in the rational brain, we have to tend to not only it’s needs but also the needs of it’s predecessors (in development, priority, and access). Sharing Empathy is the single best means for helping children process all emotions and get access to, and over time better develop, their executive capabilities. When we empathize with our little ones, and help them move through emotions they are processing, we help naturalize this process for them, we help make room for rational brain development, and we deepen the connections that make them feel safe and secure enough to continue developing and eventually spending more time in an executive-able state. When they “regress” during emotional episodes, we can use empathy to help them get through the feelings, and return to their (more) rational minds.
  • Empathy feels good to us and safe to our children. When humans empathize, we feel the connective consciousness that comes with it. We feel closer to ourselves (if we’re self-empathizing) and to others (when offering empathy outward). When our children feel us hold them with our empathy, and can lean on us when they are “incapacitated” by emotional processing, they feel safe — in the world and even from the overwhelmingness of themselves and their own emotions. That safety is good for their brains, good for their emotional regulation, and good for our shared relationship with them.
  • Empathy gives parents super powers. With empathy, and when we employ it, we can melt huge hairy arguments and evaporate giant gnarly issues. When we help kids manage the big feelings that come up when issues arise for them, we often find that the issues themselves disappear as the feelings shrink and shift. Empathy “covers us” when we’re going into the fray, restores order, and mends  relations. When we use it on ourselves it can recharge our batteries, help us avoid potential disasters, and calm our own emotions enough to find patience and fortitude that we never knew we had. And, furthermore, empathizing (whether with self or others) can help reprogram our own brains to better deal with all present and future emotional stress, to choose more compassionate (re)actions, and to heal from past emotional suffering we experienced but didn’t get to release. Holy Single-Compartment Utility Belt, Batman!
  • Empathy turns upsetting moments, issues, and episodes into opportunities to connect, to deepen and fortify the parent-child bond, to heal, and to prove (over and over) to our children’s brains that they are secure and welcome to develop here. By using empathy — when problems happen, they end in hugs, neural harmonizing, emotional healing and bonding, and psychological co-stabilizing. We help our children know that we can be trusted when they feel vulnerable, and we show them that relating is the way we work this life. This combination is ideal for helping to inspire co-operation in present and future endeavors, because our children wind up deepening the intellectual identification they have with us, feeling closer to us, and wanting to be caught up in the relating of the relationship all the more.
  • Empathy is often all that we’re looking for when we ourselves are upset. I think 90% of the time, most of us don’t really want someone else to “fix” anything when we’re upset, we really just want to feel allowed to be upset for a moment, and feel our feelings, and process through them. Often when I see people argue, or have been involved in arguments, a good portion of the tension and discourse comes just from one person trying to justify why they feel the way they do… Sound familiar? Well, that’s because empathy is what we’re all seeking! What better reason to offer it to others than because it is what we ourselves would want in that or some similar moment? What better reason to empathize than because we  empathize with how good it feels to get some empathy?!

I know there’s more I could come up with for you if I took a little more time, but at this point, I’m thinking maybe it’d be wisest not to take up any more of yours

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Be well my natural born empathizers. “Take the time it takes [to empathize] and it will take less time.” And don’t forget to breathe.

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P.S. Want some ideas on how to do the empathizing? Here’s some, and here, and here some more! And there’s an excellent video on what empathy looks like here.

The END of All Tantrums

A tantrum is generally defined as “a violent demonstration of rage or frustration; a sudden display of bad temper”. When you dig deeper, you’ll discover that a so called “bad temper” refers to a “persisting angry mood”. And if we put that back together, it becomes a bit easier than usual to see that what we call tantrums are literally our children showing us that they are having enduring angry/upsetting emotions — that is, they are “sudden[ly] display[ing] [their] persisting angry mood”. Over time and as a result of societally-induced semantic diffusion, we have come to call any expression of unsettling emotion a “tantrum”; and we regularly intend a derogatory connotation to go along with it — even going so far as to use the term when speaking of adults to mean “any childish fit of rage or outburst of bad temper”. It’s a catchall term, to put it mildly, for any time we don’t like the emotional expression of someone else, especially if we want them to stop it.

You might be thinking — “Um… So?” — after all, who’s to say it’s a big deal that we overuse a word like tantrum, or even if we culturally decided to add some negative import to it as well? The trouble is, though, that as long as the word comes with the heavy judgement now associated with it, any use of the word carries that judgement. I’m sure you can think of other examples of the same thing in our collective word history… The point is, our intentionally negative and over-use of the word “tantrum” is overtly involved in formulating and maintaining the perspective that our children’s emotive expressions are “bad behavior”. Prejudice of that caliber will never do us any favors in parenting our kids, especially since it’s part of our job as the parents to help them learn how to manage those emotions, but it can, and I’d say that socio-historically it certainly has, made our parenting work more — well, work. 

The truth is that I think we’d do best to chuck the term completely, but rather than get embroiled in an argument for that at present, I’d like to spend a little time pointing out what’s really happening when kids have what we call a tantrum:

  1. All tantrums are just expressions of emotional processing. Period. Without the kind of judgment that gets slapped onto them when we use the word “tantrum” to describe them, emotions and their expressions are just what they are. And again, it’s one of our main parenting jobs to help our kids process their emotions and learn socially-conducive manners of expressing them, in the first place — if we don’t like the emotion(s) or the expression(s), then we need to take responsibility for both, not blame our kids for being emotional and showing it. In truth, we should thank our kids every time they have an emotional outburst, because of its potential to beneficially guide our parenting.
  2. If and when a kid has an actual tantrum — a by-the-book “violent demonstration of rage or frustration” — s/he has  suffered a neuro-emotional meltdown. It may seem intense from the outside, but it is emotional hell for them on the inside. The ability to access the higher, executive-functioning portions and mechanisms of the brain is almost completely lost to a young kid having intense emotion. First, the emotional portion of the brain takes over — in order to secure the kid some assistance through emotional-connection mechanisms — and if that doesn’t work (either in the moment, or habitually), and/or if the kid gets too stressed-out during the emotion, then the instinctual, fight-or-flight, survival portion of the brain usurps control and begins it’s “violent demonstration”. The brain only drives the kid toward such a display in order to get help.
  3. St/age-specific periods of “tantruming” are common and even less controllable for our little ones. It may coincide with a particular brain development stage that interrupts or complicates emotional processing — the so-called “terrible twos” represent a version of this, wherein the brain is simply going through a developmental shift that unsettles the evolving balance between the lower (more instinctual, emotional) portions of the brain and the higher (more rational) portions that will later be in charge of the lower portions (if development goes properly). These periods can be long, short, and/or episodic, and during them it simply doesn’t make sense to try and hold our young kids accountable for consistent rational functioning, or being immediately able to control themselves during upset; later st/age-specific types of “tantruming” — see any teenager anywhere — are no less overpowering to children’s brains, but if we’ve helped them manage emotion earlier in life, then they will have a much easier time handling themselves as they mature (not to mention that by helping them process their emotions throughout, we are nurturing that ever precious parent-child bond).
  4. Serious, chronic “tantruming” is a clear sign of a systemic emotional processing issue. There are different versions, but essentially, something in the manner in which the child has been handled — maybe during the first days, weeks, and months after birth when the instinctual brain desperately needs to be placated with a resounding broadcast of safety and security; or in the months or years that followed, when the emotional brain just as desperately needs connection, consolation, and empathy in order to navigate the intense overwhelm of nearly every emotional process. When there is an interruption in and/or to whatever degree there is a lack of support in those periods and circumstances, then the child’s ability to deal with future emotions and instinctual-fear responses is thwarted. The volume gets turned up on the emotions to inspire greater connection, better parental address, and fuller release of emotional baggage from previously under-addressed episodes.

One of the bottom lines here is that all emotion and emotional expression, “pitching a fit”, “being a fussy pants”, “having a hissy”, or “throwing a tantrum” have the same ends — the development and maintenance of an optimal neural network — one that can manage a wide array of tasks, critical thinking, and problem-solving, as well as process the moment-to-moment experience of life in the best possible way for the current circumstances. That is, think rationally through emotional times and even in times of fear, unless it’s safer to just instinctually react — a decision that the healthy brain makes flawlessly without our conscious involvement, but an unhealthy brain will habitually incorrectly make in favor of fight-or-flight type responses. Early on in development, one of the main ways children’s brains manage this process is by using emotional expression to get connection so that the child can get external assistance in stabilizing during emotional upset — this assistance (coming from us) helps the child’s brain form neural habits of top-down processing, and the ability to cope with future emotional processing and mitigating instinctual fear in healthy ways. If we do our part in this well, then as our children age and become more and more capable of higher executive functioning and self-managment, the neural habits we’ve helped them shape will serve them in processing and regulating their own mental states with greater success and flexibility. In later parts of their development they either capitalize on our efforts, or suffer from them (taking us along for the explosive emotional ride…).

In honour of the importance of all of the above, and again because I think that the judgement that tends to come along with it is problematic in terms of what we want for our kids — I have given up using the word “tantrum”. I don’t think we can afford to project that judgement toward our kids’ emotions — or anyone’s. I don’t think it does us parents any good to see normal emotion in that light, nor do I think it does our parenting lives any favors, nor does it offer anything beneficial to our children. So I’m chucking it completely… with one notable exception.

My fellow virtual villager and stupendous blogger, Karyn Van Der Zwet, has just come out with a book that has the last and only good use of the t-word. All About Tantrums  is out now, and though I don’t have my copy in hand yet, I have been scanning sections on Amazon — and let me tell you, it looks to be the best information available on what’s happening and how to handle it at any stage and with any specific kind of emotional expression you can imagine, all the way through the teen years! She writes:

Reaction Tantrums happen when our [whole, coordinated brain and body system, which Van Der Zwet calls the] Mega-System is hijacked by one of our brain systems. This causes our other brain systems and our body systems to either somewhat disengage or completely shut-down. In most circumstances (for those of us who are neuro-typical) Reaction Tantrums can be prevented or easily relieved. When these have habitually been prevented, or well managed, we have a strong foundation from which we can develop excellent physical health, wisdom, and maturity.

Processing Tantrums happen when our Mega-System is forced, due to circumstances or new information, to radically change how it assesses and relates to the world. They can involve rewiring our brains and can be excruciating circumstances. Processing Tantrums are essential experiences which, when well managed, end with people who behave with increased wisdom, maturity, and for whom excellent physical health is their natural state.

As Van Der Zwet points out — and without the usual judgment associated with the word — “tantrums” offer developmental opportunities and if “well-managed” (I love that term) lead toward physical, mental, and emotional health, maturity, and even wisdom. It doesn’t even sound like something to avoid when she puts it that way! It also makes plain that we have a vital role to play in those moments when our children are experiencing intense emotion — managing it well.

In current parenting mythology we still have these doltish ideas that babies and young children can manipulate us with their emotional expressions, and the best way to keep them from doing this is not to give in to these nefarious displays of defiance and coercion. We’re supposed to ignore them, punish them, or threaten them with “you want me to give you something to cry about?!” in order to make them stop exhibiting such unacceptable behavior and go back to being the compliant, pretty rag dolls they are supposed to be. As it turns out, though, as far as the child’s brain is concerned — none of the these methods contributes to a “well-managed tantrum”. The plain facts are these: 1) Young children don’t have even the remotest capability of planning and executing any manipulation whatsoever. That is high brain functioning, which isn’t even available in the sort of capacity necessary to pull off such a deception, even if young children were capable of thinking about doing it — which they aren’t. They can’t learn bad habits of getting their way just by being assisted in times of turmoil either. Seriously. 2) Ignoring their feelings and emotional expressions (however they show up), or threatening and punishing our children for displaying their emotions in ways that we dislike don’t do a single thing for getting rid of that “bad behavior”. In truth, all of those methods only make matters worse for everyone. They may even cause children significant neurological damage.

Margot Sunderland, in her compelling book, The Science of Parenting, pooling data from several sources, makes a potent case for systemic and potentially permanent mis-development of the brain when children’s emotional expressions are ignored or negatively addressed. In one passage, Sunderland lists some effects of leaving a baby to cry without comfort: “high levels of toxic stress hormones wash over her brain; there is a withdrawal of opioids (chemicals that promote feelings of well-being) in her brain;  pain circuits in the brain are activated just as they would be if she was physically hurt; the brain and body’s stress response system can become hard-wired for oversensitivity” (pg 38). Sunderland goes on to describe some of the possible effects of an “oversensitive stress response system”.

It’s a bit like having a faulty burglar alarm in her head, which keeps going off at the smallest thing. Her brain can react to small stressors — ones that other people take in stride — as if they were big and threatening. Also, being wired for stress early in life can leave a child vulnerable to depression, anxiety disorders, stress-related physical illness, and alcohol abuse later in life. This is particularly the case with children who were left to cry as babies and then experienced a childhood of strict discipline with little warm physical affection to compensate. (pg42)

And further,

Essential systems involving the emotion chemicals opioids, norepinephrine, dopamine, and serotonin, which are still being established in an immature brain, may be badly affected, resulting in chemical imbalances in the brain. Low dopamine and norepinephrine levels make it more difficult for a child to focus and concentrate, which can lead to learning difficulties in comparison with other children. Low serotonin levels are a key component in many forms of depression and violent behavior. Opioids are vital to diminish feelings of fear and stress, so deactivation of opioids in parts of the brain leads to increases in negative feelings and stress, and decreases in positive feelings. (pg43)

The bottom line on all that is simply that if we don’t address our children’s upset emotions, or if we withhold our comforting (to keep them from “getting spoiled” or “learning to manipulate us”), then we necessitate their turning up the emotional volume in the short term (to get the help they desperately need) and risk training their brains to have bigger, more volatile, more “unconsolable”, and more frequent explosive emotional displays in the future; we may even be pushing them toward later substance abuse (of various kinds) as their brains still try to secure access to the chemicals naturally produced  during parental comforting. In case you’re wondering, when we do comfort our distressed little ones, the opposites happen instead. That is, we help them feel safe and secure and therefore calmer (even if they are still crying), so they don’t have to turn up the potency of their emotional expressions; and instead of training their brains to be oversensitive to stress, we train them to mitigate it themselves; and instead of leaving them vulnerable to addictive relationships with external sources of brain-calming chemicals later in life, we help them have a well-balanced, healthy brain, adept at maintaining it’s own ideal chemical stasis. In short — when we help our kids deal with upsetting feelings, we ensure that emotional processing doesn’t turn into “tantrums”.

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Need help figuring out what to do with your upset child? Or help figuring out how to reprogram yourself and your kid(s) in the face of over-sensitive stress response systems? You can start by checking out this post, and/or picking up a copy of All About Tantrums orThe Science of Parenting. And if you really want to start making some serious changes — get in touch with me — I can help you figure out how to do it differently, and support you while you are working through it.

In the meantime, I hope you’ll come to/easily be able to see your children’s emotional expressions as just the calls for help that they naturally are; and perhaps more importantly, I hope you’ll join me in setting the story straight on “tantrums”.

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Be well.

The Myth of the Self-Soothing Infant

crying-baby-001I can sum up today’s post in one sentence. That wasn’t it though… 😉 It’s simply this (and it may sound familiar if you’ve read many of my posts at all): The human brain is born without the ability to manage emotional content without support; if we get help early on, then we can develop that ability, but only if (and only as much as) we are assisted in developing it. Period. That’s just all there is to it. No infant anywhere ever was born with the ability to soothe himself, calm himself down when he is upset, or cry freely and safely to completion in a healthy manner without caregiver support. And if you don’t want to read the rest of my pontification about it, that’s enough for you to know at present. If you’re like me, though, and you always want to know a little more, then by all means read on!

I’ve done a little looking around, and it was apparently around 100 years ago in his book,  The Care and Feeding of Infants, that Dr. Luther Emmet Holt publicized the notion that we should allow our infants the opportunity to practice self-soothing, say when they are upset, or when they’ve been left to fall asleep alone. “Ferberization”, “respecting babies’ right to cry”, “controlled crying”, or the less friendly Holtian terminology, “cry it out”, are all ways that parenting “experts” have referred to the practice of leaving children to manage their own emotions. We’re coached by such pundits to ignore the crying, and/or to sit nearby and not help or make eye-contact, and/or to only intervene if the child is making himself sick with the emotion or is in danger. We’re told that “giving in” to the crying, giving them attention for tears, or not allowing them the opportunity to practice self-soothing trains them to be too dependent on us and teaches them how to manipulate us with their emotional displays.

And I can’t mince words here, I have to say, that’s all a bunch of utter and complete nonsense.

I don’t mean to be rude about it. I know that how we treat our kids is so close to our own hearts, and so subconsciously tangled with our own upbringings, self-identities, and triggers. I know that many of us are so full of disinformation about parenting, and children, and the process of maturation, that it’s tremendously difficult to weed out the good- and right-feeling options from the piles and piles of bullsh!t. I know, firsthand, what it’s like to struggle with ineptitude and inexperience when there is a living breathing tiny human depending on you to keep her alive, and well-cared-for, and healthy, let alone happy. I know the kind of reassurance it carries when someone tells you, “babies are resilient, he’ll be fine…”, “sometimes they cry like that no matter what, just let her get it all out…”,  or “eventually, they just stop on their own, if you don’t mess with them…”. And I have actually witnessed an unassisted baby cry until giving up, until stopping. I now feel certain that a baby left to cry without help, doesn’t (eventually) quit because she is “self-soothing”, but rather because her brain has shut itself down from overwhelming panic and stress. Her system is riddled with Cortisol and Adrenaline and everything but minimal homeostasis and the primitive survival mechanism of quiet “fright” is totally. switched. off. This catatonic baby isn’t soothed, it’s instinctually playing dead.

2c3495cb65031ed7615d89e62a13d908To be fair, there are kernels of truth in the myth of the self-soothing infant. Babies do sometimes cry and cry and cry, even after we’ve addressed every potential need we can think of — fed them, changed them, burped them, napped them, checked them for something causing pain or illness, etc.. Sometimes they have pressing emotional hurts that we can’t see; or need to heal lingering, even old, dormant hurts; and crying is the only way they can deal with it. Crying can be healing to be sure — but it absolutely has to be supported, “in arms” crying, in order to work in that respect.

Another kernel of truth is that infants do have some reflexive mechanisms for soothing. One is of course, suckling, which I think more than anything else refers to and/or drives the infant toward the comfort that comes from nursing, which is another major reflexive soothing mechanism. Suckling, however, and the infant’s ability to eventually get her own fist to her mouth in order to use it for that purpose is not, as the “experts” tell us, evidence of the baby willfully self-soothing. Again, suckling is an instinctual reflex — and primarily a reflex built for breastfeeding — not a conscious, “Oh, I’m feeling upset, let me calm myself down” response to upsetting stimuli. And while offering a baby a pacifier to suck on in times of duress can help calm the baby’s brain in a “bottom-up”, primitive manner by attempting to induce positive feelings instead of the painful ones, it does not help wire the brain to manage future duress in the way(s) that assisting baby with our touch, rocking, soothing words, safe arms, and empathy do (which is all called “top-down” emotional soothing).

Leaving a baby to try and “suckle it out” on her own, is akin to only letting her ever ride bikes with training wheels. She won’t be able to balance herself nearly as well if she isn’t given the opportunity to feel what that’s like (first through experiential training, then through instruction, guidance, and support from us, and then through her own practice). The same analogy can be used in the opposite way, as well, in that if we just throw her on a bike all by herself and say, “You got this, I’m going to respect your right to bike!”, and shove her off down the road, she’s going to crash just as surely as you’re reading these words. And by the way, riding a bike is comparative child’s play to mitigating our own upsetting emotions. We all know plenty of adults, or are ones ourselves, who struggle or still can’t get the hang of self-soothing…

So while the brain does come with a rudimentary reflexive positive-feeling-generating mechanism to balance out mild unrest, it is still wholly incapable of successfully employing such a mechanism when the emotional state has reached overwhelm. For one thing, the stress hormone, Cortisol, blocks the release of Oxytocin, which otherwise calms the baby and helps him feel good. An infant’s suckling is not powerful enough to manage a Cortisol cascade like that which being left to cry without support will induce. For serious upset, especially as the infant ages into toddlerhood and the reasons for upset become more complex and personal, every child needs caregiver assistance to safely discharge the feelings, calm down in the moment, and wire the synapses for being able to consciously process and regulate emotion in the future.

If, for whatever reason, we don’t provide emotional support for our upset babies and children, then we set in motion a different version of development for them — a thwarted version. This version is more hyper-reactive to stress, is more likely to respond reflexively to upset (read: more like a primitive animal than a thinking human…); and is less likely to be able to process difficult emotions, maintain impulse control, manage creative problem-solving, or consciously calm down when experiencing duress. That’s not how the brain is supposed to be wired, but it’s what has happened to whole generations of humans, and we have all suffered for it. Our prisons, hospitals, mental health centers, shelters, and “safe-places” are brimming with people who cannot manage their emotions. Current research is linking the onset of major neuro-psychological conditions like Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder with epigenetic factors including the stress-levels and access to emotional processing support one has in early childhood.

Mom-holding-her-baby-to-help-it-stop-cryingThe bottom line is that true self-soothing is a complex and learned habit of emotional processing guided by specific neural wiring achieved through the experience of being soothed. One of the many reasons for humans’ long childhood is to give us lots of opportunities to experience being supported while we cry and then being assisted in calming down. If we don’t get help in infancy and early childhood, then we never have a chance of developing that neural real estate as fully. If we have to do it on our own, as adults, it can take years and years of arduous therapy and/or conscientious self-work to reprogram our synapses for better emotional processing. And the current thinking is that (as with, for example, foreign languages) if we miss out in early development, it’s not only harder to learn later in life, we also never get the chance to master those skills as well as we would have if given proper exposure in early development (the optimal neural window for developing the proclivity for those faculties…).

Intentional, conscious self-soothing is not childs’ play. If we want our kids to develop healthy habits, and strong synapses, for it in the eventual, then we have to be serious about assisting them. It’s our job to “teach” them how to self-soothe: to make room for their emotional processing, to allow them to cry safely in our arms, and then (through our continued empathy and touch) to trigger their return to calm, and higher brain functioning. Only by doing so — over and over again, time after time, throughout early childhood — can we train their brains to do it, and do it well, for themselves. And only after years of this process, can we expect them to truly self-soothe. Anyone who tells you differently, is trying to sell you something.

So, I mentioned most of them above, but here’s the quick list of ways to wire your child’s maturing brain for eventual self-soothing prowess (remembering, of course, that these are generally for use after you’ve attempted to address any needs s/he might have):

In infancy (and with minimal upsets) —
• Warmth: it can be as simple as helping him 63981_823189107704356_1005985079256205307_ncozy up, and often the best spot is under a blanket, naked on your bare chest; it might seem perfunctory, but try it, and you’ll see magic (especially if you also use chest-to-chest time in between upsets…).
• Rocking/Movement: you know what this looks like; and if you’re like me, then you spontaneously start doing it even just looking at babies…
• Suckling: see if you can help baby find her fist to chew on; if the emotion is a little more intense, and you are ok with them, try a binky (I only encourage the use of pacifiers for upsetting moments, not a general chew-toy); or offer to breast- or bottle-feed (and yes, I am suggesting nursing for comfort — from an infant’s perspective, that’s all it ever is…).

And continuing throughout development (and/or during more serious upset) 
• Touch: gentle caresses, hugs, even just a finger on his toe helps make way for him to discharge the painful feelings and begin to change his brain chemistry, releasing Oxytocin and breaking the Cortisol grip; and remember chest-to-chest time just for fun, since it helps wire his brain for better Oxytocin release and reception.
 Taking Time: slow way down when upsetting emotion overwhelms her, make room for her feelings; and when you know she’s having a day when she needs to release, provide time for it instead of trying to coax (or threaten…) her out of it; allow for emotional processing because once it’s out and the brain chemistry shifts, then everything is easier — the birds come tweeting out, the sun warms the shimmering hills over which the rainbow arches, and all is gloriously well in the world after every major storm…
• Talking it Out: another thing that helps, especially as children age, is “using our words” — I usually hate when I hear parents robotically whine that at their kids, but — there’s good brain science that says talking about our feelings helps us process them in that “top-down” manner that once wired-in makes it easier for the brain to have tough feelings and still not lose control and go “all ape-sh!t” as they say, so let your kids talk about the feelings involved; and you, too, can use words to help you process your own feelings more easily when you’re triggered — just try naming the feelings (without blaming them on anyone…).
 Empathy: the number one way to help, especially but not only verbal kids, is to actively empathize, and here I don’t just mean to try on the perspective (although that is a necessary first step), but to (also) actually express your genuine understanding of your kid’s predicament; get down on his level and look him in the eye and let him know that you get it — when you really successfully communicate that to him, he’ll transform in front of you (he may crumble into you and weep, and then/or his pain may melt away, and then/or he will bounce out of the upset emotion into a happier state than was previously available to him).

And for you visual types who maybe haven’t see it before, here’s a lovely graphic that Natalie and I created (and which you can get here) to help illustrate all of the above:brain-small

 So now you know, if you didn’t or only suspected before, and you can tell those “experts” when they encourage you to let your infant self-soothe herself to sleep, or try to get you to stop reacting to his emotions so that he’ll learn to self-soothe — “Well, actually ‘self-soothing’ is a very complex neural process that takes years of support and guidance to properly develop. And that’s exactly what I’m doing by responding quickly and calmly to my child’s cries, and helping with my child’s emotional processing, and physically triggering the neural processes my child’s brain has to learn to do so that it can begin to do it on it’s own. Thanks though!” Feel free to print that out to have on hand and read aloud if need be. 😉

Here’s more supporting links for you:
• A parent’s video guide to skin-to-skin contact with their infants
• Great article on recent research into effects of mother’s touch on infants
• Another great article (with scientific notation!) on various aspects of emotion regulation
• One of my favorite blogger’s posts called, “What you Need to Know about Crying-it-Out”
• A great basic description of brain areas involved in emotion.
• A scholarly chapter from Stanford on conceptual foundations in emotion regulation (nice overview of some contemporary science in this arena).
• Another, even better scholarly article from Emotion and Motivation Vol. 27, No. 2 on emotion regulation (with loads of citations as well)
• An article from Genevieve Simperingham on some beneficial effects of stress-release crying as well as a little of her own experience with Aware Parenting, made popular by Aletha Solter, Ph.D.
• An article from Solter herself on “assisted crying”; also my historical source on Dr. Holt… (also with citations)

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Be well.