‘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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‘Brave’ doesn’t always feel like certain, or strong, or ready. In fact, it rarely does. That what makes it brave.♥️
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We teach our kids to respect adults and other children, and they should – respect is an important part of growing up to be a pretty great human. There’s something else though that’s even more important – teaching them to respect themselves first. 

We can’t stop difficult people coming into their lives. They might be teachers, coaches, peers, and eventually, colleagues, or perhaps people connected to the people who love them. What we can do though is give our kids independence of mind and permission to recognise that person and their behaviour as unacceptable to them. We can teach our kids that being kind and respectful doesn’t necessarily mean accepting someone’s behaviour, beliefs or influence. 

The kindness and respect we teach our children to show to others should never be used against them by those broken others who might do harm. We have to recognise as adults that the words and attitudes directed to our children can be just as damaging as anything physical. 

If the behaviour is from an adult, it’s up to us to guard our child’s safe space in the world even harder. That might be by withdrawing support for the adult, using our own voice with the adult to elevate our child’s, asking our child what they need and how we can help, helping them find their voice, withdrawing them from the environment. 

Of course there will be times our children do or say things that aren’t okay, but this never makes it okay for any adult in your child’s life to treat them in a way that leads them to feeling ‘less than’.

Sometimes the difficult person will be a peer. There is no ‘one certain way’ to deal with this. Sometimes it will involve mediation, role playing responses, clarifying the other child’s behaviour, asking for support from other adults in the environment, or letting go of the friendship.

Learning that it’s okay to let go of relationships is such an important part of full living. Too often we hold on to people who don’t deserve us. Not everyone who comes into our lives is meant to stay and if we can help our children start to think about this when they’re young, they’ll be so much more empowered and deliberate in their relationships when they’re older.♥️
When we are angry, there will always be another emotion underneath it. It is this way for all of us. 

Anger itself is a valid emotion so it’s important not to dismiss it. Emotion is e-motion - energy in motion. It has to find a way out, which is why telling an angry child to calm down or to keep their bodies still will only make things worse for them. They might comply, but their bodies will still be in a state of distress. 

Often, beneath an angry child is an anxious one needing our help. It’s the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. As with all emotions, anger has a job to do - to help us to safety through movement, or to recruit support, or to give us the physical resources to meet a need or to change something that needs changing. It doesn’t mean it does the job well, because an angry brain means the feeling brain has the baton, while the thinking brain sits out for a while. What it means is that there is a valid need there and this young person is doing their very best to meet it, given their available resources in the moment or their developmental stage. 

Children need the same thing we all need when we’re feeling fierce - to be seen,  heard, and supported; to find a way to get the energy out, either with words or movement. Not to be shut down or ‘fixed’. 

Our job isn’t to stop their anger, but to help them find ways to feel it and express it in ways that don’t do damage. This will take lots of experience, and lots of time - and that’s okay.♥️
The SCCR Online Conference 2021 is a wonderful initiative by @sccrcentre (Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution) which will explore ’The Power of Reconnection’. I’ve been working with SCCR for many years. They do incredible work to build relationships between young people and the important adults around them, and I’m excited to be working with them again as part of this conference.

More than ever, relationships matter. They heal, provide a buffer against stress, and make the world feel a little softer and safer for our young people. Building meaningful connections can take time, and even the strongest relationships can feel the effects of disconnection from time to time. As part of this free webinar, I’ll be talking about the power of attachment relationships, and ways to build relationships with the children and teens in your life that protect, strengthen, and heal. 

The workshop will be on Monday 11 October at 7pm Brisbane, Australia time (10am Scotland time). The link to register is in my story.
There are many things that can send a nervous system into distress. These can include physiological (tired, hungry, unwell), sensory overload/ underload, real or perceived threat (anxiety), stressed resources (having to share, pay attention, learn new things, putting a lid on what they really think or want - the things that can send any of us to the end of ourselves).

Most of the time it’s developmental - the grown up brain is being built and still has a way to go. Like all beautiful, strong, important things, brains take time to build. The part of the brain that has a heavy hand in regulation launches into its big developmental window when kids are about 6 years old. It won’t be fully done developing until mid-late 20s. This is a great thing - it means we have a wide window of influence, and there is no hurry.

Like any building work, on the way to completion things will get messy sometimes - and that’s okay. It’s not a reflection of your young one and it’s not a reflection of your parenting. It’s a reflection of a brain in the midst of a build. It’s wondrous and fascinating and frustrating and maddening - it’s all the things.

The messy times are part of their development, not glitches in it. They are how it’s meant to be. They are important opportunities for us to influence their growth. It’s just how it happens. We have to be careful not to judge our children or ourselves because of these messy times, or let the judgement of others fill the space where love, curiosity, and gentle guidance should be. For sure, some days this will be easy, and some days it will feel harder - like splitting an atom with an axe kind of hard.

Their growth will always be best nurtured in the calm, loving space beside us. It won’t happen through punishment, ever. Consequences have a place if they make sense and are delivered in a way that doesn’t shame or separate them from us, either physically or emotionally. The best ‘consequence’ is the conversation with you in a space that is held by your warm loving strong presence, in a way that makes it safe for both of you to be curious, explore options, and understand what happened.♥️
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