Depression As Adaption: When the Symptoms Make Sense.

Depression: When the Symptoms Make Sense

We humans can be so spectacularly different, but we do share some common ground. We’re driven by relatively similar needs and have within us everything we need to fulfil those needs. That doesn’t mean we always meet our needs well. In fact, sometimes our attempts to meet our needs can be breathtakingly disastrous. Who hasn’t been there?

For many reasons, the energy and resources needed to fulfil our needs aren’t always easy to access. Sometimes they can be buried under history and heartache. They can also be cast out of reach by the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ that we learned long ago – the ‘rules’  that at some point became so real and so unquestionable as to almost feel a part of our DNA.

When the needs left unmet are important ones such as love, validation, respect, visibility, acknowledgement, intimacy, connection, belonging, safety, nurturance, recharge, we will struggle, sometimes deeply. From time to time we all would have struggled in some way with the fallout from unmet needs, even if just for a short while. It’s part of the human condition. 

One of the truths about being human is that sometimes despite our best efforts to meet an important need, nothing works. When this happens we have three options – and only three. We can change the environment (from one that doesn’t support the need to one that will), we can relinquish the need or we can push the need down – depress it – in an almighty attempt to remove it from our awareness. 

If it’s too important, the need won’t disappear. It can’t. If everything has been tried and nothing has worked, the learning around the need will be that nothing makes a difference. The need won’t go and its presence will be a painful reminder that something important is missing. One way to stop that need from causing pain is by burying it – quite literally, by pushing it down (‘depressing it’) as far out of awareness as possible. Anything to shut it away and stop its constant reminder that there’s a yearning there that nothing can change. I’m talking about the most important of needs – the ones that, if left unmet, have the potential to break our hearts and leave us feeling like we’ve been stripped back to bone.

Things can get dangerous when the learning that ‘nothing makes a difference’ in relation to one need becomes generalised to all needs. If the unmet need is around connection, say, the learning might start with, ‘Don’t try to connect with people – it won’t work,’ but it might end with ‘Don’t rely on the environment for anything at all – there’s no point.’ 

When looked at in the context of need fulfilment, the symptoms of depression can be understood as a way to respond to the world when it feels as though there is no alternative. They can be explained as adaptive ways to blunt the painful awareness that something too important to let go of is missing.

The Symptoms of Depression: Why They Make Sense

In a perfect world, the process of needs fulfillment would look something like this:

  1. a need arises
  2. we become aware of the need
  3. we physically prepare to do whatever is required to meet the need
  4. we take action
  5. the need is met
  6. we reach a state of balance.

That’s the perfect world version. The world we live in can be a good one, but it’s certainly not perfect. Our needs won’t always be met with the greatest precision. In fact, despite our best attempts, sometimes our needs can remain painfully and unmistakably unmet. When understood in the context of the stages of need fulfilment, the symptoms of depression start to make sense:

Stage 1: A need arises and gives clues that it’s there.

The first clues as to the existence of a need comes through the senses. This includes the physical senses (sight, sound, touch, smell, taste) as well as what’s called proprioceptive sensations, which are thoughts and dreams. At this stage, it might be clear that a need is there, but the actual need might not be sharp enough to distinguish (for example, a growling tummy, difficulty concentrating, thinking about food).

If a person has learned through previous experience that a need (or needs) won’t be met, they may shut down to sensations that indicate the presence of a need. This might be experienced as:

•   numbness,

•   hollowness,

•   a sense of nothingness.

Stage 2: We become aware of the need.

The more we pay attention to thoughts and physical sensations, the more we become aware of the need behind them that’s pressing for fulfilment. This often happens automatically, particularly for physiological needs such as hunger, thirst, warmth. (For example, as you pay attention to your thoughts that keep wandering to food, your growling tummy and the difficulty staying focused, it becomes clear that you need something to eat.)

If the belief is that needs won’t be met, and that attempts to meet needs will end in pain and disappointment, it makes sense to continue to work towards blunting the growing awareness of the need. This may be experienced as:

•  diminished ability to think or concentrate,

•  indecisiveness,

•  impaired memory.

Stage 3: Physically gearing to meet the need.

This stage involves readying ourselves with the energy and physical resources  to meet the need. This happens automatically, but if a need has been continually unmet, the learning is that there is no point reaching into the environment in an attempt to meet the need, and that doing so will only lead to disappointment. Remember that this learning may have been established in an earlier environment (childhood, adolescence, previous relationship) or a different environment (work, school, peer group) and generalised into all environments, including the current one (relationship, family, home etc)

The energy that’s been mobilised to meet the need has to go somewhere. Energy doesn’t just disappear. The alternative to putting it into the environment is to depress it, to push it down. This will feel like a safer option than using that energy to interact with the environment for satisfaction of the need – something which, according to history, only leads to hurt or heartache.

At this stage, there are signs of depressed and disrupted energy – energy that’s been ‘depressed’ rather than extended into the environment:

•  a depressed mood;

•  insomnia or hypersomnia (sleeping too little or too much);

•  psychomotor agitation or retardation (movement that speeds up or slows down)

•  fatigue or loss of energy;

•  there are also likely to be ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ leftover from long ago learnings that have outlasted their usefulness and are getting in the way of need fulfilment: ‘I should just deal with it,’ ‘I should toughen up’, ‘I shouldn’t ask for help.’

Stage 4: Reaching into the environment – taking action to meet the need.

Once energy is mobilised, there’s an active reach into the environment to meet the need. Depending on the need, this might be fixing something to eat, starting a conversation, asking for help, organising a catch-up with friends. When there is a belief that nothing will make a difference and the need will not be met, people learn that approaching the environment to meet a need is a potentially empty, painful, frustrating experience. This isn’t necessarily because the immediate environment (such as family or relationship) isn’t supportive but because some aspect of the environment now or in the past has resulted in pain and disappointment. 

A decision may be made, usually out of awareness, that it is easier to avoid the environment rather than to risk the pain that comes from important needs not being met. This may be experienced as:

•  loss of  interest in almost all aspects of the environment;

•  markedly diminished interest or pleasure in things and activities that were once interesting or enjoyable;

•  withdrawal from people and relationships;

•  projecting thoughts and feelings about the self onto the environment (the person who doesn’t like themselves believes others don’t like them; the person who is angry at themselves, believes others are angry; the person who feels hopeless, believes that others see them as hopeless.)

Stage 5: Has the need been met?

No. It hasn’t. Again. Despite the best intentions to keep the need depressed, it will still press for fulfilment, disrupting the way the person interacts with the environment. The continuing failure around need fulfilment will be further proof that reaching into the environment is pointless, painful and frustrating.

The effect of this may be experienced as:

•  withdrawal from the environment (from relationships, activities).

•  thoughts or attempts at suicide – the ultimate withdrawal.

•  feelings of hopelessness (‘Nothing makes a difference.’)

•  feelings of worthlessness (‘I don’t make a difference.’)

 

But Isn’t Depression a Chemical Deficit?

Yes. Absolutely. Depression has absolutely nothing to do with character. It’s a deficiency in chemistry, not personality and the sooner the world wakes up and realises this, the sooner we can be rid of the breathtaking ignorance that has many believing otherwise. Depression can happen to anyone.

The mind and body are intimately connected. A change in one, if significant enough, can lead to a change in the other. The effect can work both ways – mind on body and body on mind. It’s true that some personality traits can create a vulnerability to depression, but those same traits make those people sensitive, capable, funny, successful and strong – so strong – the strength that’s needed to carry on the world when something important is missing is enormous.

And finally …

Depression is not a dysfunction or a deficiency in character. Rather, it can be seen as an adaptive way to respond to a world that hasn’t been able to, or allowed to, support the fulfilment of important needs. This way of responding often happens out of awareness and when there is nothing else left to try. 

If you are someone who is struggling with depression, you need to know that what you are doing makes sense. It’s not crazy or dysfunctional and in no way is it because of weakness or flawed character. Depression is hurting you, but it makes sense. There is a very good chance that it’s an intelligent, adaptive response to a world that has limited your options, or has given you reason to believe that your options are limited. Understanding where it comes from can be the first step in moving towards something better.

If you love someone with depression, it’s likely you’ll feel an exhausting degree of helplessness at some point. Despite our very best efforts, sometimes all the love in the world just isn’t enough to give those we love what they need in the way they need it. Sometimes all you can do is to be there – but don’t ever underestimate the importance of that. Depression is as hard for those in its undiscerning, perilous grip, but it’s also awful for those of us who love them. 

The more we can understand about depression, the closer we come to understanding ways to ease it and to removing the stigma that just doesn’t deserve to be there. 

 

For ways to support someone with depression, see WHAT TO SAY (AND NOT TO SAY) TO SOMEONE WHO IS DEPRESSED.

10 Comments

Sharon H

Great article succinct.

I am blessed I have an amazing loving husband. I like to track he likes to stay at home. So we split the year into travel and non travel. He likes his electronics and times on his own and I reckon that is very much fair enough.

It is also when my wheels on my bus fall off. I am a shy extrovert obviously missing some point or other about making friends. Ihave loads of people who say they are friends. I have to organise coffee outings, they never do. I do all the asking, they do all the talking. I go to activities such as walking. I will be walking along with say Lisa she chatted away about her recent holiday and someone else sidles up next thing they are yacking and I’m left out. Happens all the time,

I have tried workshops and craft things but I can’t seem to understand. Or the teacher picks me out, literally everytime, and used my piece to work on to show the class. Or belittles what I have done.

I have a sister nearly nine hours drive away. She doesn’t want me either. I drive down there at a time that suits her and something always is to busy. I wait around in parks waiting hours for her to show up. She dies, then says she is tired and sleeps for an hour or so in my rv.

So hubby and I discuss all of this, we research we try and figure it out. I be been to over 17 psychologists I don’t know what a psychiatrist does that is different but I’ve seen stew of those too.

In summary I don’t feel depressed just that it would be better for the world if I wasn’t here. Is someone gave me an exit pill I’d grab it .

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Susanne

This article mirrors my situation with long term (fairly) mild depression. It’s very validating to read something that ‘gets’ what is at the root of my depression.

While I have been medicated (20mg daily of Lexapro) for longer than I can remember, it’s never really ‘fixed’ it. If I try to wean myself off (very slowly, of course), I usually can tell the difference within a few months and find myself headed back up to the original dosage.

I know my depression is because I have unmet needs. I am a wife and mother and have always put the needs of others first . . . which they were more than happy to let me do.

Because I didn’t feel my love reciprocated (and still often don’t), I sank into depression. More than five years ago I decided to develop a backbone and started insisting more of my needs be met, and that helped a LOT.

There are still things I want and need that are out of my reach, though, so the underlying depression remains. Thankfully, it doesn’t run my life, I do. 🙂

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Hey Sigmund

Hi Susanne, Your story makes so much sense to me – and I’m sure it will to others as well. It’s so easy to lose ourselves looking after our family. Anything you can do to meet your own needs is so important, though I know that as a wife and mother than can be so hard at times. You deserve the life you want and you deserve to be the person you know you can be. I hope that in time you are able to find a way to have what you need – and deserve. In the meantime, it’s such a credit to you that you are living your life in strength and courage and doing all you can to take charge of your life. Thank you so much for sharing your story.

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Paulette

I am a counsellor and of course many of my clients are depressed. I also have been depressed chronically as far back as I can remember. It is better now. I have had trials of SSRI medications over the last twenty years. I currently am taking Bupropion XL which also has an off label usefulness to people with ADD.

I am not going to fling myself out of the life boat and only some friends know that I carry a silent sadness around with me. I cover it with irony and humor or talk about it but not for long. IMO people get fed up with depressed people. In spite of the fact that we live in an addictive society and many of us are trying to plug a hole in our hearts with junk, food, drugs, alcohol, distractions, etc. A pandemic of unmet needs of the heart.

I offer compassionate listening and do not belittle their stories of struggle. And yes I suggest good self care, avoiding alcohol, and setting limits on what one will and will not do for others.

I guess what I’m saying is, in my own life experience, I carry the blues with me. And yes, counselling for me was something I have done and still do.

I’d like to believe in the new “instant trama treatments” (just went to a workshop last week in which we dutifully tapped and said “I deeply and completely accept myself as I am”.) I knew I was lying and surcoming to the expectations of the instructions to continue tapping and professed complete self acceptance. I won’t be using that technique.

Does depression just “go away”? Maybe. I’m open to that. It certainly doesn’t rule me anymore as ruthlessly as it once did. I’m 66 now and married 10 years ago to a kind man. The emotional storms of my youth are just memories.

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Hey Sigmund

Thank you for sharing your story. I know that many people have certainly recovered from depression, so it’s possible. Hopefully, the more we understand about depression and the more research energy goes into it, the more we’ll understand and will be able to taylor relief to each individual person. Credit to you that you are able to keep moving forward despite it.

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Nellie

Thank you for this article, it clarifies so much of what I already know but in a very succinct way.

Sadly what it doesn’t help provide me with a solution…

I can challenge my thoughts on an intellectual basis many times per day but it never seems to actually change my core beliefs.

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Hey Sigmund

I’m sorry to here that you’re struggling like this. Depression is an awful thing to deal with. We’re understanding more about it but there is still so much we need to know. Take heart that there is a lot of research being done around it to broaden our understanding and to try to find different ways to deal with it. The article was intended to explore the idea that if there’s something that’s so resistant to change, it may be that it has a good reason for being there. It might be hurting as much as it’s protecting, but it still has a good reason, specifically to protect us from the reality that a critical need will not be met. It’s only one theory of course and it may not fit for everyone. I wish you all the very best and thank you for sharing your experience. I know there are so many people out there who would also be struggling with depression and it would make such a difference to know that they are not the only ones who feel like this, even though it can feel that we sometimes.

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Wayne Burkart

I liked your article, up until the chemical deficiency part. What next, prescribe SSRIs. Listen honey, I can provide a host of anectdotals, that aren’t supportive of such a mindset.

Its not a chemical imbalance, its a life imbalance.

My depression has more to do as a result of repeated psychological traumas of a severe nature.

I would also never recommend anyone to see a practitioner in therapy unless they have at least a masters degree, and are part of a professional college or association that acts as a certifying and disciplinary governing body.

Very rarely would I recommend anyone to go to a psychiatrist.

There is an over reliance on medications, and all too often dispensed by family doctors with less than a 10 minute discussion.

GPs should not be allowed to prescribe psychotropic meds whatsoever.

I’m 50, and have a considerable past to draw upon in this regard.

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Hey Sigmund

I agree antidepressants aren’t always the answer, though I do believe they have their place. In fact, there is growing scientific evidence pointing to the effectiveness of exercise and mindfulness in managing depression. For mild to moderate depression, there is evidence that exercise can cause the same changes in the brain as antidepressants. There is also research that has found mindfulness therapy to be as effective as maintenance doses of antidepressants in managing relapse into depression, so it seems that the scientific community is exploring options and open to the possibilities of treatments other than antidepressants as an effective way to manage depression. As I said though, I do believe antidepressants have their place and that they can be effective if prescribed appropriately but I agree that they are often wrongly prescribed and relied too heavily upon.

The mind body connection is a two way one. A life imbalance will cause a chemical imbalance. In the same way an overexposure to chemicals will cause psychological changes, repeated exposure to environmental factors will cause chemical changes. The environment has such an enormous impact on the body physically – so I completely agree with you about the role the environment plays in depression.

Thank you for taking the time to comment and to share your experience. As with all those who have real experience, you have wisdom and insight that can’t be found anywhere else.

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Wayne Burkart

I am not nearly as trusting or optimistic of the pharmaceutical community, and with good reason.

All too often a prescription is the only tool used throughout the treatment of all illnesses. Very rarely is focus put on current situation, including lifestyle habits, sleep hygiene, etc. Hard to be happy, if you are in poverty only able to eat unhealthy foods, or live in unhealthy environments.

As well despite encouragement to seek help, the stigma which is thought to be imbedded mainly in ignorance, is routinely affirmed by institutions such as your employer, the justices and law enforcement communities, insurance companies, and even border protection agencies. All too often mental illness is used against the sufferer.

So take a happy pill, and keep quiet.

We don’t need meds, we need tools, and more importantly we need to examine many of the root causes and deal with that as well.

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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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