This one shift can expand your response to big feelings and behaviour.

blonde kid looking at camera in the one shift can expand your response to big feelings and behaviour

We all do or say things sometimes that wouldn’t happen if we felt calmer, more seen, more heard, more regulated, less stressed. Kids too. How many times have you yelled or responded in ways that weren’t your finest (‘That’s it! Christmas is CANCELLED!) when the young person in front of you was behaving in ways that were about a universe away from ‘adorable’.  Ugh. Too many times. Me too. This doesn’t happen because we’re terrible people, or because we’re no good at this parenting thing we’re all trying to get better at, or because we’re confused about how to self-regulate, or because we truly believe that the best way to put at end to tricky behaviour from this day on is best achieved through the cancellation of Christmas. 

A different way to think about big behaviour.

Big behaviour happens because in that moment, your child doesn’t have the resources or skills to deal with the situation or meet an important need in a more polished way.

Big behaviour doesn’t come from ‘bad’. It comes from ‘unskilled’ (an unskilled attempt to meet a need, to regulate, to be seen) and/or ‘under-resourced’ (given the demands of the moment, and that the rational, calming, clear thinking part of the brain won’t be fully developed until their 20s). 

When a young person’s behaviour is out of control, it’s ‘out of their control’. They don’t have the emotional or physiological resources to deal with the situation in more polished ways. Big behaviour is like an emergency beacon. Think of it as your child sending out a message to let you know, ‘I can’t deal with this right now! I need your help!’ (And yes, the message will often shouty, spicy, full-force, ‘undelicate’, and uncomplicated. It will rarely involve the banning of Christmas.)

Big behaviour is a sign that the thinking part of the brain at the front has shut down and handed over control of the brain to the impulsive, instinctive back of the brain. The back of the brain will get the job done – it will give your young one (or you – we’ve all been there!) the energy and the ‘I don’t care what happens next’ to let everyone know things aren’t okay right now – but geez it can be messy. The back of the brain doesn’t care about niceties. It just wants what it wants, and it doesn’t care about the consequences.

But they know not to do that!

Of course your child or teen knows spicy words aren’t okay. Of course they know big behaviour isn’t okay. This isn’t about not knowing what to do (which is why reminding them in the moment that they shouldn’t hit/ yell/ swear often falls short). It also isn’t about being a bad kid. It’s about the demands of the situation, in the moment, outstripping the skills or emotional or physiological resources they need to deal with the situation with finesse. 

The lack of skills or resources doesn’t make the behaviour okay. Part of the job of growing up is learning how to handle big feelings and situations in ways that don’t cause breakage. This will take time though. In the meantime, we need to recognise that when a child is out of control, their behaviour is ‘out of their  control’. They are being driven by the impulsive, instinctive part of the brain that just wants a result, and doesn’t care how bumpy things get along the way.

Ok. So what’s the shift?

When young people are in the midst of an emotional storm, we need to shift focus away from what we need them to do (manage their behaviour), and on to what we can do to keep everyone safe and bring the situation back to calm. We don’t have an option, because at that moment they don’t have the capacity or the skills to steer the ship back to shore, so we’ll need to take the lead.

This means shifting the focus from their behaviour (what we want them to do), to our behaviour (what we can do to take charge of the situation). The problem with focusing on their behaviour is that we’re putting them in charge of leading themselves out of the situation. They can’t, so we need to manage the situation to bring their nervous systems back to calm and felt safety.

Rather than focusing on what we want them to do, which, in the moment, they can’t control and neither can we, we need to take the lead. This means focusing on what we can control – our behaviour, our capacity to bring them back to calm and felt safety, and our capacity to lead, guide, teach (which can only be done when they are calm).

What if they’re hurting someone, or me?

Whenever big behaviour is ‘bigging’, the priority is to keep everybody safe. This is going to fall to the adult in the room. Rather than asking your young person to do something they don’t have the skills or resources to do right now (such as ‘don’t hit’), we need to take over.

This might sound like, ‘No. I’m not going to let you hurt their body’. Then, we move the child who is hitting, or the child who is being hit, away. We then quickly turn our attention to preserving the connection. ‘I’m right here. We’ll get through this together.’ 

When the storm passes, separate them from their behavior, and make space for repair. ‘You are such a great kid. I know you know it isn’t okay to hit. How can we put this right? Do you need my help with that?’

The questions to ask ourselves to guide the ship to shore.

The questions we need to be asking ourselves are along the lines of:

  • ‘How can I keep everyone safe right now?
  • ‘What does this child need from me to feel safer, more seen, more cared for right now?’
  • ‘How can I respond so this child doesn’t feel threatened, or as though I’m about to disconnect from them, or that they’re about to get into trouble?’ 

When we shift our lens, we widen our capacity to respond.

The key is to recognise that this is not a bad child, but a child whose nervous system isn’t feeling ‘safe’ and calm right now. Everything they are doing is to bring themselves back to regulated. The shouting to be heard, the defiance to assert independence, the tantrum because they aren’t ready to stop playing – these are all valid needs and unskilled, under-resourced attempts to meet them.

The skills and resources (including strong neural ‘self-regulation’ pathways) will come over many years of co-regulation and conversation. Co-regulation builds the neural pathways for self-regulation. The conversation opens up options and choices they can take – eventually.

None of this is about permissive parenting. Absolutely not. It’s about steering the situation through the storm and waiting until you’re on solid, safe ground to teach and talk about different choices and repair.

6 Comments

Pip

Another excellent article to read when needed most.
Thanks heaps Karen, keep up the great work!
Pip

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Di

Fantastic article that we could all learn some tips from, and which could lead to better growth and relationships for all concerned. Thank you

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The need to feel connected to, and seen by our people is instinctive. 

THE FIX: Add in micro-connections to let them feel you seeing them, loving them, connecting with them, enjoying them:

‘I love being your mum.’
‘I love being your dad.’
‘I missed you today.’
‘I can’t wait to hang out with you at bedtime 
and read a story together.’

Or smiling at them, playing with them, 
sharing something funny, noticing something about them, ‘remembering when...’ with them.

And our adult loves need the same, as we need the same from them.♥️
Our kids need the same thing we do: to feel safe and loved through all feelings not just the convenient ones.

Gosh it’s hard though. I’ve never lost my (thinking) mind as much at anyone as I have with the people I love most in this world.

We’re human, not bricks, and even though we’re parents we still feel it big sometimes. Sometimes these feelings make it hard for us to be the people we want to be for our loves.

That’s the truth of it, and that’s the duality of being a parent. We love and we fury. We want to connect and we want to pull away. We hold it all together and sometimes we can’t.

None of this is about perfection. It’s about being human, and the best humans feel, argue, fight, reconnect, own our ‘stuff’. We keep working on growing and being more of our everythingness, just in kinder ways.

If we get it wrong, which we will, that’s okay. What’s important is the repair - as soon as we can and not selling it as their fault. Our reaction is our responsibility, not theirs. This might sound like, ‘I’m really sorry I yelled. You didn’t deserve that. I really want to hear what you have to say. Can we try again?’

Of course, none of this means ‘no boundaries’. What it means is adding warmth to the boundary. One without the other will feel unsafe - for them, us, and others.

This means making sure that we’ve claimed responsibility- the ability to respond to what’s happening. It doesn’t mean blame. It means recognising that when a young person is feeling big, they don’t have the resources to lead out of the turmoil, so we have to lead them out - not push them out.

Rather than focusing on what we want them to do, shift the focus to what we can do to bring felt safety and calm back into the space.

THEN when they’re calm talk about what’s happened, the repair, and what to do next time.

Discipline means ‘to teach’, not to punish. They will learn best when they are connected to you. Maybe there is a need for consequences, but these must be about repair and restoration. Punishment is pointless, harmful, and outdated.

Hold the boundary, add warmth. Don’t ask them to do WHEN they can’t do. Wait until they can hear you and work on what’s needed. There’s no hurry.♥️
Recently I chatted with @rebeccasparrow72 , host of ABC Listen’s brilliant podcast, ‘Parental as Anything: Teens’. I loved this chat. Bec asked all the questions that let us crack the topic right open. Our conversation was in response to a listener’s question, that I expect will be familiar to many parents in many homes. Have a listen here:
https://www.abc.net.au/listen/programs/parental-as-anything-with-maggie-dent/how-can-i-help-my-anxious-teen/104035562
School refusal is escalating. Something that’s troubling me is the use of the word ‘school can’t’ when talking about kids.

Stay with me.

First, let’s be clear: school refusal isn’t about won’t. It’s about can’t. Not truly can’t but felt can’t. It’s about anxiety making school feel so unsafe for a child, avoidance feels like the only option.

Here’s the problem. Language is powerful, and when we put ‘can’t’ onto a child, it tells a deficiency story about the child.

But school refusal isn’t about the child.
It’s about the environment not feeling safe enough right now, or separation from a parent not feeling safe enough right now. The ‘can’t’ isn’t about the child. It’s about an environment that can’t support the need for felt safety - yet.

This can happen in even the most loving, supportive schools. All schools are full of anxiety triggers. They need to be because anything new, hard, brave, growthful will always come with potential threats - maybe failure, judgement, shame. Even if these are so unlikely, the brain won’t care. All it will read is ‘danger’.

Of course sometimes school actually isn’t safe. Maybe peer relationships are tricky. Maybe teachers are shouty and still using outdated ways to manage behaviour. Maybe sensory needs aren’t met.

Most of the time though it’s not actual threat but ’felt threat’.

The deficiency isn’t with the child. It’s with the environment. The question isn’t how do we get rid of their anxiety. It’s how do we make the environment feel safe enough so they can feel supported enough to handle the discomfort of their anxiety.

We can throw all the resources we want at the child, but:

- if the parent doesn’t believe the child is safe enough, cared for enough, capable enough; or

- if school can’t provide enough felt safety for the child (sensory accommodations, safe peer relationships, at least one predictable adult the child feels safe with and cared for by),

that child will not feel safe enough.

To help kids feel safe and happy at school, we have to recognise that it’s the environment that needs changing, not the child. This doesn’t mean the environment is wrong. It’s about making it feel more right for this child.♥️
Such a beautiful 60 second wrap of my night with parents and carers in Hastings, New Zealand talking about building courage and resilience in young people. Because that’s how courage happens - it builds, little bit by little bit, and never feeling like ‘brave’ but as anxiety. Thank you @healhealthandwellbeing for bringing us together happen.♥️

…

Original post by @healhealthandwellbeing:
🌟 Thank You for Your Support! 🌟

A huge thank you to everyone who joined us for the "Building Courage and Resilience" talk with the amazing  Karen Young - Hey Sigmund. Your support for Heal, our new charity focused on community health and wellbeing, means the world to us!

It was incredible to see so many of you come together while at the same time being able to support this cause and help us build a stronger, more resilient community.

A special shoutout to Anna Catley from Anna Cudby Videography for creating some fantastic footage Your work has captured the essence of this event perfectly ! To the team Toitoi - Hawke's Bay Arts & Events Centre thank you for always making things so easy ❤️ 

Follow @healhealthandwellbeing for updates and news of events. Much more to come!
 

#Heal #CommunityHealth #CourageAndResilience #KarenYoung #ThankYou

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