‘The House Model’ – A New Way to Think About Anxiety, Regulation, Relationships and Connection (Video)

‘The House Model’ is a way to think about our interactions and relationships, and how best to connect with the important people in our lives, including our children, to calm anxiety, regulate big feelings, move towards calm, and expand the capacity for brave behaviour.  

Transcript

I just want to share with you a way to think about anxiety and self-regulation and co-regulation. This model will work, not just for us and our children, but us and anyone in our lives really. It’s based on the nervous system – the three states of the nervous system. Our nervous system affects how we feel, how we interact with people, and our view of the world, our mood, every second of every minute of every day.

If you can imagine your nervous system as a three-level house. On the top level, that’s where we are when we’re feeling calm and safe and connected to the people around us. That’s where we want to be most of the time. Then we walk down the stairs. On that middle level, that’s where we are when we’re feeling anxious, when we’re in fight or flight. Or when we’re stressed. Then, when there is no opportunity for fight or flight, we might walk down the stairs, and that’s where we come to freeze. Now that level will look like withdrawal, stillness, but not a contented stillness, more like a numbing stillness. If we spend too much time on that level, it will look like depression. And withdrawal from everything.

No level is all good or all bad. In any one day, we might go up the stairs, down the stairs, up the stairs, down the stairs to all the different levels and spend some time on each level. What we want to do is be able to visit each level but then be able to find our way back up the stairs, back up to that top level. It’s also unhealthy to spend all of our time on the top level because we want to be able to feel what we feel. We want to be able to feel those big feelings of the second level. Sometimes we will need to withdraw and find that stillness away from the world while we regather and reset, and work our way back up the ladder to the top level.

When we’re talking about our children – we’ll talk about our children, but you can imagine this in terms of everybody – one of the things to do with this model is imagine where in this house you are. What level are you on? And what level are your children on? What level are the people around you on? Let me explain. If our children are feeling anxious, and they’re on the second level, it won’t work for us to stand on the top level and try to call them up the stairs from that top level. This is where validation comes in. So if we’re on the top level, talking to them from the top level to the second level, it might look like, “Hey, don’t worry, it’s all fine. Don’t worry about anything. Just relax. There’s nothing to worry about.” That’s what it looks like. That can actually make it feel even more isolating on that second level, especially they don’t want to be there either, but they just can’t find their way to the stairs to get back up to you.

What we need to do is make our way down the stairs and we need to go and get them. That doesn’t mean going there and hauling them back up the stairs. It just doesn’t work that way. What it means is creating enough calm and stillness and safety so that they can find the stairs themselves, and sometimes we might need to walk up with them.

We need to be careful when we come back down those stairs to get them that we don’t catch their anxiety. Anxiety is very contagious. It’s meant to be. That’s how we are able to respond to their needs and mobilise ourselves to give them what they need to feel calm and safe. Or if they are distressed, if there is a threat, when our children are distressed and anxious, we catch their distress and anxiety and that mobilises us to keep them safe. The problem is when they’re distressed and anxious when they don’t need to be, it triggers distress and anxiety in us when we don’t need to be either. We need to be really careful when we go down those stairs that we maintain our sense of calm and strength and safety within that. Because what we are doing is sitting with them in a way that feels calm, but also in a way where we can see and feel what that second level is like for them. That’s validation. “I can see how big this feels for you here.” “I can see what it’s like for you here.” I can see the world the way you see it, through these second-level windows, these second-floor windows, and it’s okay. And I know you can find your way to the stairs. How can I help you do that?” So that’s what it looks like from there. It’s not dismissive. We actually get in and we feel their experience from that second level, but we stay regulated. So we bring our first level calm and clarity with it.

Something else that can happen, is we can find ourselves fully in that second level, so we are stressed, we are anxious. We might be really angry or feeling the fury or really sad while our children are on the top level. If we are speaking to them, or interacting with them from that second level too much or for too long, we run the risk of dragging them down the stairs. We pull them down the stairs to that second level. And you know that, you know what it’s like when you’re interacting with someone who is stressed and anxious. You catch it. Eventually, you catch it. And we will find them on that second level. They will come eventually to be where we are.

Now that doesn’t mean we never feel stressed and anxious. What it means is that we stay close enough to the stairs when we’re stressed and anxious that we can go up there and speak to them from that top level – with calm, with clarity, with strength. Our non-verbals will travel to the brain much quicker than anything we say. So we need to watch that. We need to watch how we’re speaking, our tone of voice. Is it that flat, low monotone voice which can register as threat? Or is it this voice, that feels melodic and has that up and down in it. That registers as safety. Are we open to them? Is the way to us clear? Or is it cluttered with our own anxiety and our own stress? Are we speaking to our children from the top level or from way in the middle of the second level or are we able to, even if we are stressed and anxious, are we able to climb the stairs enough so that we don’t drag them down? The risk is, if we pull them to that second level, and if we are in a constant state of stress and anxiety, we might be snappy – we will do it some of the time, that’s not going to break them – but I mean if this is constant. If they aren’t able to connect with us, if we aren’t able to create that connection and safety, we run the risk of sending them down to the bottom level. Even if it’s just for a visit, we want to avoid that where we can – if you can be aware of your own state and where you are in the house.

If you are on that bottom level, if you are completely withdrawn and hopeless, or feeling hopeless and helpless, if you are in that state where you are depressing yourself and your needs, where you’re on that bottom level, we run the risk of pulling our kids from that top-level to that second level. They’ll fall down the stairs and they’re going to be stressed and anxious as well. What we don’t want to do is pull them down even further. So this doesn’t mean we have to spend all of our time on the top level. It doesn’t mean that at all. We want to be really respectful of where we are. We will feel things, we’re human, but we want to be able to own that, and let that move and give ourselves what we need to find our way back to safety. Also, to be able to find our way to our children or our loved people when we need to go down the stairs to be with them, to create enough of a sense of calm and safety so that we can shine a light towards the stairs and help them, move with them back up the stairs to that place of calm and safety where they’re feeling strong and connected. So it’s just a way to visualise in your interactions with your children, with your important people. Where are you? Where are they? And what needs to happen so that you can be the person you need to be for yourself and for the people around you.

 

 


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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.
When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.

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