‘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.
“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.“