Think of Big Behaviour Like Smoke From a Burning Building. Here’s why, and what to do.


Think of behaviour like smoke from a fire we can’t see. The behaviour we see is the smoke. The fire is a brain that has registered threat, and needs to be brought back to a felt sense of safety. The question isn’t, ‘How do I stop the smoke?’ but, ‘What’s causing the fire, and how can I stop it burning?’

The ‘fire’ is being fuelled by a felt sense of threat. ‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not safe. It’s about what the brain perceives. For any of us, ‘threat’ might be anything that comes with any risk at all (real or perceived) of missing out on something important, separation from friends or you or their important people, judgement, humiliation, failure, disappointment or disappointing their important people, interruption, waiting, unfairness or loss. ‘Threat’ can be physically driven (sensory overload or underload, pain, exhaustion, hunger, possible physical danger), or relational (not feeling seen or heard, not feeling valued, feeling replaced, not feeling welcome, feeling disconnected from you or someone important).

Young ones have the added force of nervous systems that haven’t got their full adult legs yet. When brains have a felt sense of threat, they will organise bodies for fight (this can look like tantrums, aggression, irritation, frustration), flight (can look like avoidance, ignoring, turning away) or freeze (can look like withdrawal, hiding, defiance, indifference, aloofness). 

When big behaviour happens, we often focus on the ‘smoke’ – the behaviour we can see. This would be like noticing the air thick with grey smoke, but rather dealing with the burning building that’s feeding it, we focus on the smoke and try to disappear it with a big fan. This might get rid of the smoke for a short while, but if we haven’t dealt with the burning building, it’s not going to be long before the sky fills grey with smoke again. Something else that might happen by focusing on the smoke rather than the building, is that the big fan we’re using will actually enrage the flames and make the fire hungrier. The answer is to focus on the cause of the problem (the fire / the lack of felt safety), not the effects (the smoke / the behaviour).

Bringing this back to big behaviour, the priority is to support our children back to a felt sense of safety. We can do this most powerfully through relationship and connection. Breathe, be with, and validate. Validation can be with or without words. We can validate the need, ‘Yes, you really wanted to stay in the park. I wish we had more time so you could do that,‘ validate the feeling, ‘I know how angry you are at me. I would be angry too,‘ or if words are annoying for them, just feel what they feel but stay regulated – they will feel you with them. 

Of course, sometimes our boundaries will create a collision that also sets their nervous systems on fire. When this happens, cycle between holding the boundary, and tending to the relationship. Let the limits be on behaviour, not thoughts or feelings. You don’t need to fix their big feelings. They aren’t broken. The idea is to be an anchor presence – strong, steady, connected, and surrendering the need to ‘fix’ anything while the emotional storm passes. To do this, you might need to cycle between recalling the boundary and tending to the relationship: Flag the behaviour, ‘It’s ok to be angry. It’s not okay to call me names. I know you know that,’ and then shift focus to relationship, ‘I’m right here,’ or, ‘Okay I can hear you want space. I’m going to stay right over here until you feel better. I’m here when you’re ready.’ Think of this as love and leadership together. We can lovingly hold the boundary, and loving them should not be without leadership.

When their brains and bodies are back to calm, then the transformational chats can happen: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can I do to help next time?’ ‘What can you do?’ ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. How can you put this right? Do you need my help with that?’

But holding with love and leadership can be tough sometimes!

When our children are in distress, we might also go into fight or flight. This is a very normal response and happens for an important reason. It happens to make sure our bodies are physiologically ready to protect them, should they actually be in danger. The brain doesn’t care that they aren’t actually in danger. It will ready us, just in case. This means that rather than fighting for them or fleeing with them, our own fight or flight response might see us wanting to fight with them (which is why their anger, frustration, irritation, anxiety might drive the same in us), or flee from them (by walking away for a moment, ignoring). This is not bad parenting. It’s a really normal response from a brain that is readying you for ‘fierce protector’ mode, just in case. The problem isn’t the response, but that there is no actual threat for us to deal with – just a young brain that feels like there is.

Responding to big behaviour with relationship and connection does not mean we are ‘rewarding bad behaviour’. Far from it. What we are actually doing is bringing their brains back to a learning-ready state so they can be open to our guidance and influence. The brain can only learn when it has a felt sense of safety. Supporting our children to feel validated, seen, and loved in the moment brings them back to calm and felt safety. It lets us be guided by the true north of our parenting hearts, and brings us back to what discipline was always meant to be about – to teach, not to punish.

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Anxiety shows up to check that you’re okay, not to tell you that you’re not. It’s your brain’s way of saying, ‘Not sure - there might be some trouble here, but there might not be, but just in case you should be ready for it if it comes, which it might not – but just in case you’d better be ready to run or fight – but it might be totally fine.’ Brains can be so confusing sometimes! 

You have a brain that is strong, healthy and hardworking. It’s magnificent and it’s doing a brilliant job of doing exactly what brains are meant to do – keep you alive. 

Your brain is fabulous, but it needs you to be the boss. Here’s how. When you feel anxious, ask yourself two questions:

- ‘Do I feel like this because I’m in danger or because there’s something brave or important I need to do?’

- Then, ‘Is this a time for me to be safe (sometimes it might be) or is this a time for me to be brave?

And remember, you will always have ‘brave’ in you, and anxiety doesn’t change that a bit.♥️

#positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #parenting #childanxiety #heywarrior #heywarriorbook
The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️

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