What Not to Say & When Not to Say It

When there’s a crisis, there are a set of rules that could fill a small library – a small, complex library with plenty of hidden shelves for the rules whose existence you have no idea about, until they are broken.

There’s a brilliant theory that deals with the unwritten rules around responding to people in a crisis. It’s one of those life tools that makes you grateful you were in the right place when it came your way – which I was, and which you now are now, if you want to be …

The theory is the brainchild of Susan Silk and it came about as a result of the way people responded during her own crisis. After surgery for breast cancer a colleague wanted to visit her. When Susan mentioned she wasn’t up to visitors, her colleague’s response was ‘This isn’t just about you.’

Perhaps right now, as I am, you are taking a sharp breath in. True, this response is ‘out there’ but there are plenty of subtle and not so subtle versions of the very same thing – people drawing on those more affected by a crisis than they are for support or a sound-off. One that happens far too much is the parent who leans on the child after a divorce or separation.

As Susan Silk explains, her theory – the Ring Theory – ‘… works for all kinds of crises: medical, legal, financial, romantic, even existential.’  Here’s how it works.

  1. First, draw a circle. This is the centre ring and in this circle is the person at the centre of the crisis (let’s call them the ‘centre-person‘). They can say anything they want – cry, complain, fall apart, lean on or break down – to whoever they want.
  2. Next, draw a circle around the centre ring, and another circle around that one and so on until you have a number of concentric circles, like a target. 
  3. Everyone in the centre-person’s life is then placed in one of the circles around the centre circle, depending on how close they are to the crisis. Those who are are closer to the centre-person will be in one of the circles closer to the centre ring. Less intimate relationships will be in the outside bigger circles. So in the next circle to the centre-person are the next most affected people and so on. 

There are no boundaries on what anyone can say. Just who they can say it to.

To use the separation example, the children have no control over the decision or the outcome and they will have trouble understanding their broken hearts and the changes happening at light speed around them. They are affected the most, so they are placed in the centre circle. In the circle around them are the parents. Next, maybe grandparents, or children who live with another parent. Next, maybe friends or siblings of the parents. You get the idea. 

In this instance – and remember it’s just an example – the parents must never look to the children for support, but they can look to the grandparents, siblings or friends – anyone in a circle that’s bigger than their own. The grandparents in this example must never look to the centre children or the parents for support but they can go to other siblings or friends. 

Everyone in the circles can say what they want to, whenever they want to, but only to people in the larger circles – never to people in the circles closer to the centre-person than theirs.

When speaking to anyone in a smaller circle, the goal is to comfort, love and support – whatever is needed. It’s important not to look to them for support though. They’re busy supporting themselves and those in the smaller circles to them. Don’t say anything even in the same land mass as ‘I’m really struggling with this,’ or ‘I’m just crying myself to sleep over this,’ or ‘This is really upsetting to me.’ Just. No. 

Also best not to give advice unless it’s asked for. Though the advice may be well-intended, people in a crisis don’t need to hear what they ‘should’ do. They’ll be having enough trouble doing very much at all until the crisis starts to clear. Until that point, let them know it’s fine if all they do for the time being is breathe.

If, when supporting someone through a crisis, you want to cry, scream, talk about the unfairness of it all or the awful things it’s dragged up for you, that’s absolutely fine and completely normal and healthy. Just do it to someone in a larger circle than yours.

The idea is a simple one – ‘Comfort in, Dump out’.

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Whenever the brain registers threat, it organises the body to fight the danger, flee from it, or hide from it. 

Here’s the rub. ‘Threat’ isn’t about what is actually dangerous, but about what the brain perceives. It also isn’t always obvious. For a strong, powerful, magnificent, protective brain, ‘threat’ might count as anything that comes with even the teeniest potential of making a mistake, failure, humiliation, judgement, shame, separation from important adults, exclusion, unfamiliarity, unpredictability. They’re the things that can make any of us feel vulnerable.

Once the brain registers threat the body will respond. This can drive all sorts of behaviour. Some will be obvious and some won’t be. The responses can be ones that make them bigger (aggression, tantrums) or ones that make them smaller (going quiet or still, shrinking, withdrawing). All are attempts to get the body to safety. None are about misbehaviour, misintent, or disrespect. 

One of the ways bodies stay safe is by hiding, or by getting small. When children are in distress, they might look calm, but unless there is a felt sense of safety, the body will be surging with neurochemicals that make it impossible for that young brain to learn or connect. 

We all have our things that can send us there. These things are different for all of us, and often below our awareness. The responses to these ‘things’ are automatic and instinctive, and we won’t always know what has sent us there. 

We just need to be mindful that sometimes it’s when children seem like no trouble at all that they need our help the most. The signs can include a wilted body, sad or distant eyes, making the body smaller, wriggly bodies, a heavy head. 

It can also look as though they are ignoring you or being quietly defiant. They aren’t - their bodies are trying to keep them safe. A  body in flight or flight can’t hear words as well as it can when it’s calm.

What they need (what all kids need) are big signs of safety from the adult in the room - loving, warm, voices and faces that are communicating clear intent: ‘I’m here, I see you and I’ve got you. You are safe, and you can do this. I’m with you.’♥️
I’d love to invite you to an online webinar:
‘Thriving in a Stressful World: Practical Ways to Help Ourselves and Our Children Feel Secure And Calm’

As we emerge from the pandemic, stressors are heightened, and anxiety is an ever more common experience. We know from research that the important adults in the life of a child or teen have enormous capacity to help their world feel again, and to bring a felt sense of calm and safety to those young ones. This felt sense of security is essential for learning, regulation, and general well-being. 

I’m thrilled to be joining @marc.brackett and Dr Farah Schroder to explore the role of emotion regulation and the function of anxiety in our lives. Participants will learn ways to help express and regulate their own, and their children’s, emotions, even when our world may feel a little scary and stressful. We will also share practical and holistic strategies that can be most effective in fostering well-being for both ourselves and children. 

In this webinar, hosted by @dalailamacenter you will have the opportunity to learn creative, evidence-informed takeaways to help you and the children in your care build resilience and foster a sense of security and calmness. Join us for this 1 ½ hour session, including a dynamic Q&A period.
 
Webinar Details:
Thursday, October 14, 2021
1:30 - 3:00 PM PST
 
Registrants will receive a Zoom link to attend the webinar live, as well as a private link to a recording of the webinar to watch if they cannot join in at the scheduled time.

Register here:
https://www.eventbrite.ca/e/thriving-in-a-stressful-world-a-heart-mind-live-webinar-tickets-170348045590

The link to register is in my story.♥️
So much of what our kids and teens are going through isn’t normal - online school, extended separation from their loved people, lockdowns, masks. Even if what they are going through isn’t ‘normal’, their response will be completely understandable. Not all children will respond the same way if course, but whatever they feel will be understandable, relatable, and ‘normal’. 

Whether they feel anxious, confused, frustrated, angry, or nothing at all, it’s important that their response is normalised. Research has found that children are more likely to struggle with traumatic events if they believe their response isn’t normal. This is because they tend to be more likely to interpret their response as a sign of breakage. 

Try, ‘What’s happening is scary. There’s no ‘right’ way to feel and different people will feel different things. It’s okay to feel whatever you feel.’

Any message you can give them that you can handle all their feelings and all their words will help them feel safer, and their world feel steadier.♥️
We need to change the way we think about discipline. It’s true that traditional ‘discipline’ (separation, shame, consequences/punishment that don’t make sense) might bring compliant children, but what happens when the fear of punishment or separation isn’t there? Or when they learn that the best way to avoid punishment is to keep you out of the loop?

Our greatest parenting ‘tool’ is our use of self - our wisdom, modelling, conversations, but for any of this to have influence we need access to their ‘thinking’ brain - the prefrontal cortex - the part that can learn, think through consequences, plan, make deliberate decisions. During stress this part switches off. It is this way for all of us. None of us are up for lectures or learning (or adorable behaviour) when we’re stressed.

The greatest stress for young brains is a felt sense of separation from their important people. It’s why time-outs, shame, calm down corners/chairs/spaces which insist on separation just don’t work. They create compliance, but a compliant child doesn’t mean a calm child. As long as a child doesn’t feel calm and safe, we have no access to the part of the brain that can learn and be influenced by us.

Behind all behaviour is a need - power,  influence, independence, attention (connection), to belong, sleep - to name a few). The need will be valid. Children are still figuring out the world (aren’t we all) and their way of meeting a need won’t always make sense. Sometimes it will make us furious. (And sometimes because of that we’ll also lose our thinking brains and say or do things that aren’t great.)

So what do we do when they get it wrong? The same thing we hope our people will do when we get things wrong. First, we recognise that the behaviour is not a sign of a bad child or a bad parent, but their best attempt to meet a need with limited available resources. Then we collect them - we calm ourselves so we can bring calm to them. Breathe, be with. Then we connect through validation. Finally, when their bodies are calm and their thinking brain is back, talk about what’s happened, what they can do differently next time, and how they can put things right. Collect, connect, redirect.
Our nervous systems are talking to each other every minute of every day. We will catch what our children are feeling and they will catch ours. We feel their distress, and this can feed their distress. Our capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

Children create their distress in us as a way to recruit support to help them carry the emotional load. It’s how it’s meant to be. Whatever you are feeling is likely to be a reflection what your children are feeling. If you are frustrated, angry, helpless, scared, it’s likely that they are feeling that way too. Every response in you and in them is relevant. 

You don’t need to fix their feelings. Let their feelings come, so they can go. The healing is in the happening. 

In that moment of big feelings it’s more about who you are than what you do. Feel what they feel with a strong, steady heart. They will feel you there with them. They will feel it in you that you get them, that you can handle whatever they are feeling, and that you are there. This will help calm them more than anything. We feel safest when we are ‘with’. Feel the feeling, breathe, and be with - and you don’t need to do more than that. 
There will be a time for teaching, learning, redirecting, but the middle of a storm is not that time.♥️

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