‘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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Anxiety is a sign that the brain has registered threat and is mobilising the body to get to safety. One of the ways it does this is by organising the body for movement - to fight the danger or flee the danger. 

If there is no need or no opportunity for movement, that fight or flight fuel will still be looking for expression. This can come out as wriggly, fidgety, hyperactive behaviour. This is why any of us might pace or struggle to sit still when we’re anxious. 

If kids or teens are bouncing around, wriggling in their chairs, or having trouble sitting still, it could be anxiety. Remember with anxiety, it’s not about what is actually safe but about what the brain perceives. New or challenging work, doing something unfamiliar, too much going on, a tired or hungry body, anything that comes with any chance of judgement, failure, humiliation can all throw the brain into fight or flight.

When this happens, the body might feel busy, activated, restless. This in itself can drive even more anxiety in kids or teens. Any of us can struggle when we don’t feel comfortable in our own bodies. 

Anxiety is energy with nowhere to go. To move through anxiety, give the energy somewhere to go - a fast walk, a run, a whole-body shake, hula hooping, kicking a ball - any movement that spends the energy will help bring the brain and body back to calm.♥️
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#parenting #anxietyinkids #childanxiety #parenting #parent
This is not bad behaviour. It’s big behaviour a from a brain that has registered threat and is working hard to feel safe again. 

‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what the brain perceives. The brain can perceive threat when there is any chance missing out on or messing up something important, anything that feels unfamiliar, hard, or challenging, feeling misunderstood, thinking you might be angry or disappointed with them, being separated from you, being hungry or tired, anything that pushes against their sensory needs - so many things. 

During anxiety, the amygdala in the brain is switched to high volume, so other big feelings will be too. This might look like tears, sadness, or anger. 

Big feelings have a good reason for being there. The amygdala has the very important job of keeping us safe, and it does this beautifully, but not always with grace. One of the ways the amygdala keeps us safe is by calling on big feelings to recruit social support. When big feelings happen, people notice. They might not always notice the way we want to be noticed, but we are noticed. This increases our chances of safety. 

Of course, kids and teens still need our guidance and leadership and the conversations that grow them, but not during the emotional storm. They just won’t hear you anyway because their brain is too busy trying to get back to safety. In that moment, they don’t want to be fixed or ‘grown’. They want to feel seen, safe and heard. 

During the storm, preserve your connection with them as much as you can. You might not always be able to do this, and that’s okay. None of this is about perfection. If you have a rupture, repair it as soon as you can. Then, when their brains and bodies come back to calm, this is the time for the conversations that will grow them. 

Rather than, ‘What consequences do they need to do better?’, shift to, ‘What support do they need to do better?’ The greatest support will come from you in a way they can receive: ‘What happened?’ ‘What can you do differently next time?’ ‘You’re the most wonderful kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen. How can you put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
Big behaviour is a sign of a nervous system in distress. Before anything, that vulnerable nervous system needs to be brought back home to felt safety. 

This will happen most powerfully with relationship and connection. Breathe and be with. Let them know you get it. This can happen with words or nonverbals. It’s about feeling what they feel, but staying regulated.

If they want space, give them space but stay in emotional proximity, ‘Ok I’m just going to stay over here. I’m right here if you need.’

If they’re using spicy words to make sure there is no confusion about how they feel about you right now, flag the behaviour, then make your intent clear, ‘I know how upset you are and I want to understand more about what’s happening for you. I’m not going to do this while you’re speaking to me like this. You can still be mad, but you need to be respectful. I’m here for you.’

Think of how you would respond if a friend was telling you about something that upset her. You wouldn’t tell her to calm down, or try to fix her (she’s not broken), or talk to her about her behaviour. You would just be there. You would ‘drop an anchor’ and steady those rough seas around her until she feels okay enough again. Along the way you would be doing things that let her know your intent to support her. You’d do this with you facial expressions, your voice, your body, your posture. You’d feel her feels, and she’d feel you ‘getting her’. It’s about letting her know that you understand what she’s feeling, even if you don’t understand why (or agree with why). 

It’s the same for our children. As their important big people, they also need leadership. The time for this is after the storm has passed, when their brains and bodies feel safe and calm. Because of your relationship, connection and their felt sense of safety, you will have access to their ‘thinking brain’. This is the time for those meaningful conversations: 
- ‘What happened?’
- ‘What did I do that helped/ didn’t help?’
- ‘What can you do differently next time?’
- ‘You’re a great kid and I know you didn’t want this to happen, but here we are. What can you do to put things right? Do you need my help with that?’♥️
As children grow, and especially by adolescence, we have the illusion of control but whether or not we have any real influence will be up to them. The temptation to control our children will always come from a place of love. Fear will likely have a heavy hand in there too. When they fall, we’ll feel it. Sometimes it will feel like an ache in our core. Sometimes it will feel like failure or guilt, or anger. We might wish we could have stopped them, pushed a little harder, warned a little bigger, stood a little closer. We’re parents and we’re human and it’s what this parenting thing does. It makes fear and anxiety billow around us like lost smoke, too easily.

Remember, they want you to be proud of them, and they want to do the right thing. When they feel your curiosity over judgement, and the safety of you over shame, it will be easier for them to open up to you. Nobody will guide them better than you because nobody will care more about where they land. They know this, but the magic happens when they also know that you are safe and that you will hold them, their needs, their opinions and feelings with strong, gentle, loving hands, no matter what.♥️
Anger is the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. It has important work to do. Anger never exists on its own. It exists to hold other more vulnerable emotions in a way that feels safer. It’s sometimes feels easier, safer, more acceptable, stronger to feel the ‘big’ that comes with anger, than the vulnerability that comes with anxiety, sadness, loneliness. This isn’t deliberate. It’s just another way our bodies and brains try to keep us safe. 

The problem isn’t the anger. The problem is the behaviour that can come with the anger. Let there be no limits on thoughts and feelings, only behaviour. When children are angry, as long as they are safe and others are safe, we don’t need to fix their anger. They aren’t broken. Instead, drop the anchor: as much as you can - and this won’t always be easy - be a calm, steadying, loving presence to help bring their nervous systems back home to calm. 

Then, when they are truly calm, and with love and leadership, have the conversations that will grow them - 
- What happened? 
- What can you do differently next time?
- You’re a really great kid. I know you didn’t want this to happen but here we are. How can you make things right. Would you like some ideas? Do you need some help with that?
- What did I do that helped? What did I do that didn’t help? Is there something that might feel more helpful next time?

When their behaviour falls short of ‘adorable’, rather than asking ‘What consequences they need to do better?’ let the question be, ‘What support do they need to do better.’ Often, the biggest support will be a conversation with you, and that will be enough.♥️
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#parenting #positiveparenting #mindfulparenting #anxietyinkids

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