Kind Kids are Cool Kids. Making sure your child isn’t the bully.

Kind Kids are Cool Kids Making Sure Your Child Isn't the Bully

Along the way to being the best grown up version of themselves they can be, all kids will make plenty of mistakes. It we adults are healthy and flourishing, we’ll make plenty too. It’s how we learn and grow. Mistakes just set us all up for the wisdom, insight and strength that it takes to lead a beautiful, full life, free from regret and stagnation. 

Finding out that your child is a bully can trigger all sorts of feelings – shame, self-doubt, confusion, fear. The temptation can be to hurl your parenting badge into the fire – ‘It’s not them, it’s me. I’m a crap parent and where did I go wrong and why is this happening and what did I miss?’

Maybe you missed something and maybe you didn’t. One thing is for sure though, we all miss things with our kids now and then – even the parents who look like they have it all figured out (they don’t by the way – none of us do). It one of our rights as parents to stuff things up now and then, to miss things, to get it wrong. It’s in our job description, so really, it’s a necessity that you fall short of perfect. 

Now that we’ve cleared that up, you need to know that kids who bully aren’t bad kids and they don’t necessarily have bad parents, though it will always feel that way if your child is the one on the receiving end of their cruelty. Somewhere along the way, the children who bully have learnt bad behaviour, sometimes from the bad things that happen to them or around them, but it can be unlearnt.

If yours is the child who is making life miserable for another, the most important thing is to catch it and respond to it. Feeling guilty, sad or defensive won’t help because there’s important work to do. All kids deserve to know when they’re doing something that will set them up to be miserable one day – and bullying will do for sure. The people they deserve to hear it from are the people who love them. The rest of the world tends to deliver these types of messages in a way that is pretty awful to hear.

The difference between the bullying kids who get through and grow into amazing humans and the ones who don’t lies in how their parents respond. It makes all the difference, and that’s not overstating it. Parents who ignore the behaviour are effectively steering their kids into an anti-social ditch. They are setting them up for loneliness, unhappiness and the excruciating pain of wondering why people don’t like them – because people won’t.

Here’s the kicker though, eventually, those parents who don’t make kindness a priority for their children will one day wonder why their children are awful to them. On the other hand, those who notice anti social behaviour (and let’s face it, all kids will go there at some point) and respond to it in a way the children can grow from, will be well on the way to building awesome little humans that the world will be grateful for.

Despite parents saying that kindness is one of the most important qualities they want their children to have, Harvard psychologist, Richard Weissbourd, has found that kids tend to be more focussed on how well they’re doing, rather than how they treat the people. 80% of the kids he surveyed reported that achievement or happiness was the most important thing to their parents – and the most important thing to them. Only 20% said that caring for others was their top priority.

That’s not to say that caring doesn’t matter for our kids – it does – it’s just overshadowed by the push towards good grades and personal happiness. All of these things are important, but there’s a gap between what parents report as being a top priority for their children and what the children perceive those priorities to be.

Bearing in mind that all parents do the best with what they have, there are a few risk factors that can lean kids towards bullying behaviour. If any of these look familiar, don’t feel put down, feel empowered, because nothing is permanent and everything can be turned around once you know what that ‘thing’ is. The risk factors are:

  • lack of warmth and involvement from the parents towards the child. Kids need attention, love and guidance. They’ll always struggle without it. Parents who don’t openly show that they care will have kids who don’t care. 
  • parenting that is overly permissive. Kids need to know where the edges are, and they’ll keep pushing against boundaries until they find them. The further away the boundaries, the harder they’ll push to find them.
  •  a parenting style that’s authoritarian and uses physical or emotional punishment (shaming, withdrawal of love). Parents who try to control kids by being physical, shaming or by withdrawing love (‘I can’t believe you did that. Just go away from me.’) will have kids who try to control other kids using the same measures.
  • older siblings who bully the child. Well if it works for the older ones …
  • friends who are bullies. We all want to feel a part of something bigger and kids are no different. For them, belonging to a group can be the most important thing – even more important than the approval of parents and teachers. Kids will model what they see and they’ll do what they need to do to be accepted by the people who are important to them.

The good news is that kids really do want to do the right thing. They really do. They’ll get confused about what the right thing is or the most effective way to meet their needs, and if there’s no guidance, this confusion can send them of track. Bullying behaviour can always be unlearned. With the strong presence and gentle guidance of a loving, attentive parent, kids who bully can always be steered towards being the kind, empathic and socially savvy humans they’re all capable of being. Here’s how to do that:

  1. Make kindness a priority.

    It’s not enough to tell kids that kindness is important – they need to hear that it’s the most important. Make sure that everyone in the family is held to high standards in relation to the way they treat each other. They can be angry, grumpy, stressed or tired, but speaking to anyone disrespectfully is a no-go. They’ll slip up and so will you – none of us are beacons of kindness all the time, but when you snap or hiss, apologise as soon as you can so they can see how it’s done and that it’s really okay to admit that you get it wrong sometimes.

  2. Encourage them to think of what other people need.

    You don’t want to raise a narcissist – the world has plenty – so help them learn how to turn the focus away from themselves and their own needs, to others and what they might need. Sometimes these will conflict. Knowing how to look after your own needs while respecting the needs of others is a such an important skill. Teach them this and you’ll be nurturing them along to happy, healthy relationships and a strong sense of self.

  3. Encourage gratitude.

    Research has shown that people who practice being grateful are more likely to be helpful, generous, compassionate and forgiving. Ask your kids to name three things they’re grateful for. Then let them know three things you appreciate – make sure at least one of them is about them and something they’ve done that is kind or generous. The little things are just as important as the big things. Turn it into a bedtime ritual or a dinner time ritual. Kids love hearing the things about themselves that you’re proud of, so you’ll have them well on board for this one.

  4. Provide opportunities to care about people (or pets!) they’re close to.

    Ask them to help with dinner, feed the family pet, read a story to a younger sibling, help with lunches. Then, make sure they are also looked after and shown nurturing by others in the family so they can feel the kindness coming back to them.

  5. Then widen the circle.

    It’s easy for kids to care about the people who are firmly established as members of their tribe – parents, siblings, friends – but it’s important for them to care about people outside that circle too. They need to notice the people they are close to, and then zoom out and notice those people who are more distant. It helps them to be aware of their shared humanity and it’s important. Talk to them about what’s happening in different cities, countries and cultures and about different social issues. Let them see you show concern when kids on the other team get hurt, or ask them how the new child in class is going and what they can do to help them feel included, even if it’s just making an effort to say hello. Make sure they’re friendly and grateful to everyone who helps them, whether it’s the waiter, the bus driver, the tuckshop helper or the young guy who packs your groceries.

  6. What need is it meeting?

    Everything we do is to meet a need, even if it’s a spectacularly ineffective way to meet that need. Try to understand what need your child is meeting – there will be one and it will be a valid, important one. The behaviour can’t be redirected in any meaningful way until there’s some understanding of the need it’s meeting. Needs don’t just disappear when you ignore them – they actually tend to push harder. To get to the need, ask ‘what’, rather than ‘why’. What does your child get from doing what they’re doing? What happens in them? To them? For them? What good feelings come and what bad feelings disappear when they do what they do? Is it retaliation – does your child’s behaviour even up the feeling of power? Is he or she feeling insecure or disempowered at home and is trying to make up for this at school? Are there some big changes at home – a new baby, moving school – that might be causing your child to feel as though things are a bit out of control and pushing a need to control people at school? Ask – what’s one thing you would change if you could to make your life different? But make sure you say it’s a serious question, otherwise don’t be surprised if you get, ‘well, like being allowed to sleep on the roof would be fun’.

    [irp posts=”160″ name=”How to Help Your Children Build Healthier Friendships (and Deal with the Tetchy Ones)”]

  7. Kindness is a muscle.

    Kindness is like a muscle. Use it or lose it. Kindness with strength is one of the greatest things we can nurture in our kids. That means being kind to others, expecting kindness from others, and being kind to themselves. If they can get that sorted, they’re pretty much well on their way to ruling the world, their part of it anyway.

  8. Conversation is key. And kind of magic. 

    Conversation changes things. It changes people, lives, paths. Everything. And it’s not all about the big conversations – the incidental ones you have along the way can be just as important – in the car, while you’re cooking dinner, while they’re playing outside as you peg the washing. Talk about the things you see or hear in the news that show people being kind or uncaring. Anything to get them thinking about how other people do kindness. Or how they don’t do it.

  9. Be open. They can handle it.

    Chat to them about any ethical dilemmas you might be having and how you’re dealing with them. Make sure the dilemmas are age appropriate of course, but invite them to think things through with you. Any insight you have into the way their minds are working is a great thing. Same with any insight you can give them into yours. Talk to them about people saying or doing mean things about other people at work or maybe about people taking credit for something someone else has done. What do they think? what do you think? What should you do? 

  10. Talk about you.

    Talk to them about any experiences you’ve had of people being unkind. Talk to them openly about what it was like for you. Also let talk to them about times you’ve been unkind and what you’ve done about it when you’ve realised what you’ve done. Nobody is perfect, and there’s so much wisdom and freedom that comes with understanding this. You’ll be giving your kids something wonderful if you talk to them about the mistakes you’ve made, what made you realise they were mistakes, and what you did to make things right.

  11. Be the person you want them to be.

    Role model kindness and empathy. Be careful with things you say about others, even the throw away things you say in passing. Kids pick up on everything! The context won’t matter – if you’re unkind or judgemental, it will give them permission to be the same. 

  12. So pretend you’re watching a movie …

    Invite kids to look at a situation as though they’re looking at a movie. What do they see. What are people feeling?

  13. How would they feel?

    Explore with your child what it would be like if someone teased him or her. Empathy is an important social skill and is key in relationships. Helping your child to put this into words will help him or her to identify the fact that other people have feelings which are different to theirs.

  14. Try a visual.

    Take a piece of fruit that bruises easily on the inside. An apple, a banana, a pear. Drop it a couple of times – hard enough to bruise the flesh but not hard enough to be visible from the outside. Then, open the fruit to make the bruises visible. Explain that this is what bullying does. Just because you can’t see the damage on the outside, without a doubt it’s doing damage from the inside. Explain that bullying makes people depressed (‘which is when people are so sad that they can’t stop being sad, even when they’re doing things that used to be fun for them’) and that it can make people hurt so much that they hate themselves and their lives. Tell them you never want them to be the reason someone changes in that way, because you know that they’re better than that.

    [irp posts=”161″ name=”The Proven Way to Build Resilience”]

  15. ‘Catch’ their feelings.

    Catch their feelings as though the landing in your palm of your hand, safe and sound and ready to have a look at gently and with an open heart and an open mind. If your child is angry, let them know that you can see this and hold them in the space without having to change it or solve the original problem. Just hold the feeling. ‘I can see that you’re angry. I understand that. It can be frustrating when people won’t do what you want them to do, can’t it.’ This validates what your child is feeling and takes away the need to defend or explain the feeling. It also lets them know that when they share their feelings with you, you’ll understand. This is a powerful thing, and is a wonderful way to model empathy and compassion. Children need to know that what they are feeling is okay, because it is – so okay! The feeling isn’t the problem, the behaviour is. Once they are able to accept what their feeling without having to defend or change it, they can start to either let the feeling go, or turn their attention to what other people are feeling. This in itself will encourage healthier behaviour. Feelings don’t disappear until they’ve been felt.

  16. Be consistent and attentive.

    The more attentive you are to your child, the more open they’ll be to looking at their feelings and experimenting with a different way to be.

  17. Anger never exists by itself. What’s the feeling that’s holding it there?

    Anger is the emotion people grab on to in order to avoid feeling other more difficult emotions. People use anger as a way to keep those other feelings buried. Common ones are jealousy, insecurity, fear, anxiety, confusion, grief. Look at what is happening around the child and offer some words for feelings that might be underneath, but be quick to move on if your child doesn’t grab it as feeling right for them, ‘It’s exciting having a new baby in the house but it can be a bit scary too. Is there anything that you worry might change with a new baby in the house?’ ‘I understand that it’s a big change having Daddy not live here any more. Do you feel sad about that? Are you worried about what else might change?’ Telling a child not to be angry without finding what’s driving the anger can be a bit like telling them not to breathe. Let them know that what they’re feeling is absolutely fine, but what they’re doing with it isn’t okay and that you’ll work with them to find a better way to do that.

  18. Don’t over-inflate them.

    People used to think that bullies were kids with low self-esteem, but now there is evidence to suggest that many children who are bullies actually have an inflated view of themselves. As parents we’re told to build our kids up, and absolutely we do, but this needs to be tempered with having compassion and kindness for others. Self-esteem without that is the early beginnings of narcissim. Take the focus away from self-esteem, which puts emphasis on achievement and comparison with others, and turn it more towards self-respect and self-compassion, which is behaving with grace, dignity and kindness to themselves and to others. Teach your child that they are a good person, that one of the best things about them is that they treat other people well, that they are wonderful, but not superior and that like anyone else, they have their limits and their challenges but that they also have the resources to deal with those.

There’s no shame in having a child who is a bully – no shame at all. The shame lies in suspecting your child is a bully and ignoring it. All kids deserve someone who loves them enough to steer them back on course when they start to veer off – and bullying is one of the sharpest veers of all.  With love, attention and guidance, even the harshest bully can become someone kind of wonderful.

25 Comments

Anna

My daughter just finished Kindergarten and she had problems with a boy bullying her off and on all year. We know this boy doesn’t have the best home life so we try to be understanding and I want to teach my daughter we are nice to everyone because we don’t want to make it harder on him and if we are nice to others they will be nice to us. At the same time I do not want to teach her that it is ok for other kids, especially boys, to treat her bad. Not really sure what to do on the other end of the bullying.

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Karen Young

It’s great that you are teaching your daughter empathy and compassion. The important lesson is to be kind to everyone, but be kind to yourself first. If people feel bad to be around, it’s okay not to be around them and it’s okay not to be open to them. This becomes more important as they get older when they are confronted with peer pressure or more intense bullying. Not everyone will like them, and they won’t like everyone – and that’s okay. Be kind, be compassionate and be clear about who you open up to.

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Doing Good Together

Thank you for this article! These tips complement many of the ideas we share on our nonprofit website where we empower families to raise kind and caring children. Indeed, kindness and empathy CAN be learned, and as you point out, there are ways to prevent negative behavior such as bullying. And it’s so important to teach kids that sharing kindness with others includes kindness to oneself as well.

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Mary Anne

Thanks for a well reasoned and insightful article. As an elementary classroom teacher I will include a link to this piece in my next newsletter. Not because there are bullies in my class but because my kindergarteners will naturally at times be and/or come across a bully in their school years. If all parents have your advice beforehand our children will be all the stronger and kinder.

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Karen - Hey Sigmund

Your students are lucky to have you! None of us were born knowing everything and one of our biggest jobs as the adults in their lives is to guide them gently towards being the healthy, happy, kind adults they are all capable of being.

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Jan

I have only just discovered you, but really enjoyed reading 2 of your brilliant articles. I, too am a grandmother and whilst I have 3 fantastic adult children, I wish my husband and I had this support when they were young. We have 6 grand children and as a retired teacher, I retain a keen passion for welfare and wellbeing. Will look forward to more of your great articles. Thankyou.

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Elizabeth H.

Thank you so much for this article! Are there any articles you could recommend if your kind child is getting teased or put down by a bully? My 6-year-old daughter is repeatedly treated like this by a female classmate. Seems like a competitive response to me, but I would like to read more about how to counsel my child to respond.

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Sophie

Hey Sigmund! I’m in my late 20s and afraid of being a parent and passing on the many mistakes my own parents made.

It’s websites like these that give me the confidence to know I can become a good mother despite the lessons I was taught as a child. You will give me the guidance I was lacking from my own family.

Thank you

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Hey Sigmund

Sophie I love that you’re so open to this. Every generation of parents makes mistakes that the next generation learns from. What’s important is that you are open to doing things differently, learning and growing, which is the very essence of what it takes to be a good parent. It means a lot to me that the articles have given you the confidence to be a parent one day. I am so sure you will be a beautiful mother.

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Meg

I appreciate the insight as we are seeing our daughter starting to become one of the “other b-words”, bossy – With us, her little sister and with friends, and getting very upset when she is not in charge or things don’t go her way. I read th article swapping those two words and found it quite insughtful. Thank you.

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Hey Sigmund

It’s not unusual for kids to experiment with their own independence and often it can look like bossy. It’s great that you have identified that it’s happening and are working on helping her measure her behaviour. Your gorgeous girl will be all the better for having you guide her through.

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Laughing Leopard Press

Wonderful, well written article with fantastic advice. It saddens me when people villainize children who bully, forgetting that they are hurting and still children in desperate need of guidance. Honestly, many of the tips were good reminders for monitoring my own behavior! Thank you so much for this article.

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Jo

This article is so inspiring. I have one parent who was very kind and instilled this in me. My father, not so much and sadly I now see I have chosen a similar father for my children. He has so many wonderful traits and I love him dearly but I do feel as much as I try to role model kindness and tolerance to our two girls, he undermines it. My oldest is 13 and she makes me proud every day by being kind to others. If we all made a vow to show one small act of kindness to another person every day the world would be a much nicer place.

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Hey Sigmund

You’re so right about the difference one small act of kindness each day would make. Kids will learn different things from each of their parents, and that’s okay. It’s so important that your girls can learn about kindness by watching you – you’re making a wonderful difference.

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Janine Halloran

What a wonderful article with great advice! I think it’s so important for families to connect, talk and have these types of conversations. Doing kind acts together as a family is another great way to promote kindness and caring for others, as well as having some family time together. Thanks for sharing your ideas!

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Patricia

Thanks for another wonderful and thought-provoking article. I wish I’d discovered you earlier 🙂 In spite of my shortcomings as a parent, I can see that I did a lot right. Recently our 20-something threw a tantrum in public (think bridezilla without being the bride) which precipitated guilt on my part. My husband and I agree that we should have dealt with it immediately instead of standing there incredulous, but since we didn’t, we know that we need to address it.
We were both poorly parented, and though we really did things better than our parents did, we so appreciate the checkpoints and compass that your articles provide.

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Hey Sigmund

You’re so welcome Patricia. I love that you are so open to looking at what you’re doing. Parenting is tough and nobody has it all figured out, but the good ones are the ones who recognise that and are always open to learning and trying things a different way. We’re all a work in progress!

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Julie Jessop

This is a great article. My family is grown and independent, however, I plan to use the principles with my grandkids. Wish I had had some of this direction when I was parenting my children.

Thanks

Reply

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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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