‘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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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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