Pretty much every parent I’ve ever met, including myself (yes, I have met myself on a couple of occasions now…), has in one instance or another thought about how to combat the problem of our children getting upset — “all the damn time”. Some of us want to stop it for our own sakes and sanities (which is perfectly reasonable, don’t get me wrong…), others for the sake of our poor children who certainly appear to be suffering when upset and crying and lashing about. And further, we’re surrounded by a parenting mythology and more parenting experts than you can shake a stick at all extolling the virtues of this or that method of affecting our children’s behavior in order to avoid “tantrums” and “manipulation” and “acting out” in all its various and insidious forms. From the get-go as parents we’re inundated with the notion that if our children are upset there’s either something we’re doing wrong or something our children are doing wrong.
It’s a cultural phenomenon brought about largely by our further and further removal from the natural processes and realities of child rearing. You can tell by the mere fact that your co-passengers on any flight in America will say “Oh what a good baby…” when your baby doesn’t cry too much on the flight. You can also tell by the palpable rise in the general tension level of the entire passenger cabin if your baby isn’t “good”. There are actually families who have been thrown off flights in the US for a crying baby — no joke! We’ve lost touch with what every dog and sow on the planet knows instinctively — babies cry out a lot, it’s how they get everything from a bath to sustenance to connection; and the proper response is attention and assistance and nurturance, not behavioural modification! Every mammal under the sun knows, without having or even being able to consider it, that the action of their baby calling out is just a sign of a particular feeling (somewhere between bliss and duress) and that certain feelings as expressed by certain actions refer to particular needs that require meeting. And the most natural response for them then is to meet that need. That’s all. Receive the emotional signal, respond with connection, interpret/meet necessary needs.
Somewhere along the ascent to our current greatness we forgot this simple chain of interactions, and the underlying psychological structure they represent. And because we’d become so smart that we could manipulate other people’s behaviour with certain controllable stimuli, we set ourselves on a course of dealing almost exclusively with the actions of our children, forgetting, of course, everything that lies underneath those actions, driving them and feeding them from behind the scenes. This line of thinking dominated the entire parenting paradigm superstructure, changing everything from how we birthed our babies and how we cared for them immediately and in the weeks and months following birth to how we raised and educated them throughout life. We thought we’d found the holy grail of scientifically developing moral, strong, bright, successful progeny. Amen.
How ridiculously wrong we were, eh? After “being born” with a pristine and wildly effective gift for nurturing our young — and that in many ways being the thing that has allowed our species to achieve such astounding heights — we almost completely chucked it in the span of just a few short paragraphs of our recent parenting history. Nowadays, most of us have been un-supported emotionally for our entire lives; we don’t know how to process our own emotions (for when would we have learned and from whom? Mr. Belvedere?!); and our stress response systems are wired for overreaction. We are triggered by our babies cries (partly as we should be) to our very neural core, and because we were never given the neural tools or taught to use them, we don’t know how to respond to this basic and natural signal. As a result, generations of us have been raised without even the most rudimentary kinds of emotional nurturance. We grow up violent and victimized, depressed and re-pressed, mentally and physically ill, and habitual in our self-destruction. And the culture has the nerve to blame every example of it on the parenting!
My whole historical diatribe aside… I think you can understand why not only is there severe cultural pressure to control all of our children’s behaviours (especially the ones to which those airline passengers give the thumbs down…), but also why so many of us are so — well, upset — by our children getting upset. It makes perfect sense that we would be sent over the edge — we’re lacking the basic brain wiring to handle what is happening to us, let alone the little screaming person over there. Many of us go into survival mode — we have to stop it, or run away, or stop it. Others go dictatorial — we have to master it, to control it, to keep it from getting out of line at all times — both with our kids and ourselves. Again, it makes absolute perfect sense — we’re just acting from the feelings we have coming from our met and/or unmet needs both historically and in the moment; we’re just acting out the mechinations of our own neural programming from our own childhoods. For us to act any differently without first addressing our own feelings and needs and programming would not only be unlikely, it’d be downright anti-biological. In fact, we’re lucky that we can change our neurobehavioral parenting habits at all.
Fortunately for us, we’re one of those new-fangled mammals. Herstorically, we got so good at being nurturers — that is, before we got so bad at it — that we developed the super-cool ability to change our neural parenting-programming. We don’t have to be doomed to continue the downward generational spiral; or to continue to suffer now from the crappy programming we got in our own upbringing. We can change not only how we respond to our upset children, but even how we perceive it, and how we feel about it when it (inevitably, always, any moment now…) happens.
Well, Nathan, for meeting their kids’ upset feelings with love, connection, and empathy — they’ll get:
- A richer, more securely-bonded, and more influential relationship with their children!
- A fuller understanding of what their kids need, and a better chance to meet those needs!
- Happier, more-grounded, and more co-operative children!
- Far and away fewer major upsets and an easier time dealing with them when they do show up!
- A quicker return to peace and calm after upsets occur!
- And how about — less fighting!
- Not to mention — more hugs!
- They’ll get to model how they want their kids to handle themselves and others during emotional stress; training their kids’ brains to empathize!
- They’ll also get the opportunity to enhance their kids’ neural development, by reducing stress hormones and increasing neurotransmitters for joy and learning!
- They’ll get to help train their kids’ brains for optimal, healthy emotional processing!
- And — if you can believe it — they’ll even get a rare, unparalleled chance to reprogram their own emotional stress response systems to better handle their kids’ and their own feelings!
- And if that isn’t enough, they’ll also get… a new car!!!
- Ok, not really a new car, but a new lease on parenting life, at least!
Now, of course, you home-players may be asking, “Well, great, but when’s he going to tell us how to deal with our upset children? What’re we supposed to do?”. And those of you who know me will say, “Oh no, here he goes again… He always says the same damn thing!”. And you’d be right. But before I say that “same thing” again, I just want to mention, that the question of what to do really lies with you and with the moment and with the needs of the people involved. While it’s important to have strategies in your tool box, it’s more important to hone your perspective about what you’re doing. The whole point is — and if you get nothing else from what you’re reading here today, get this — we don’t need to be afraid of our children getting upset. It happens. And in many ways it is supposed to happen — getting upset is part of how they get help dealing with the neurological overwhelm of their emotions and elicit assistance meeting needs — it’s designed to happen. A lot. And rather than thinking we need to fix every-little-thing in their worlds — whether it’s the contents or events of their daily lives, or their behaviors, or our approaches to “handling” them — in order to avoid their being upset, we should look instead to meet the opportunities presented us in the moment to help them process their feelings, meet their underlying needs, and share the connection that they require in order to safely discharge their emotional energy and get back to feeling balanced. It’s time for us to stop cowering from or fighting with the specter of our children’s upset emotions.
- The ideal starting place is actually well before any upsets occur. It helps considerably if we are working consciously to create an environment (including the home culture, relationship, and media input) to foster emotional safety. We want to make it perfectly simple and psychologically inexpensive for our children to have their emotions and to express those emotions to us. We want them to know that they can come to us no matter what they are feeling and we will accept and assist them. For more on this subject, check here.
- Hand-in-hand with the above, and also as a preemptive mechanism, it is vital for us to regularly and significantly connect with our children in a loving, relationship-focused manner. Be it for play or reading or hugging or chatting or anything else that allows us to focus solely on sharing with each other — the entire family does better in direct proportion to how much time we can spend genuinely connecting with our kids. When we make time to do it every day it quickly becomes obvious how it changes the general tenor of our family life.
- Following suit, and absolutely indispensable, is to facilitate the family’s physical health. Being conscientious about getting adequate sleep and exercise, eating healthy whole foods, and avoiding too much sugar, allergens, and TV all go a long long way toward easing emotional stress responses, aiding psycho-emotional resilience, and encouraging optimal cognitive and non-cognitive functioning — for all parties involved!
- Now, when the lightning does strike — as we all know it will, regardless of how many preemptive measures we take to ensure everyone is feeling as balanced and connected as is possible as much of the time as we can; stuff still happens, and kids especially are easily overwhelmed by any emotional upsurge — our first response is to remember our role as parents. Remember that, biologically speaking, young mammalian offspring require adult care-giver assistance to mitigate emotional stress. When our children go into emotional upset, they lose access to the executive parts of their brains — they can’t access their developing self-awareness, or empathy for others, or precise motor-function regulation, or creative problem-solving, or logic, or effective decision-making, nor can they process our rational explanations about the subject at hand; but more importantly, they can’t access the part of the higher brain that tells the rest of the brain to calm down during emotional duress. Early in development, the brains of human children rely exclusively on their caregivers to trigger the discharge of emotional content and the return to a calm and balanced state. It’s our job to step in and help our kids’ brains teach themselves how to process emotion in a “top-down” fashion (meaning, from the executive/reflective/rational part of the brain, rather than from the primal/instinctual part).
- If we’re regularly triggered by the emotional outbursts of our children, or by any particular one, then it’s helpful to take a moment to self-empathize. If every meltdown our kids have sends us into our own meltdown, then it’s clear we have some reprogramming to do in our heads regarding emotional processing, and the single best way to do that in the moment and over the long haul (a two-fer, woohoo!!) is to tell our higher brains what we are feeling. You may think this is a superfluous step — “We should all already know what we’re feeling, right?” — but that is neither always true nor the point at present. The reason it helps to call out the emotion we’re having is because the simple act of giving it a label tells the brain to think about it more and feel it just a little less intensely; a label is also the gateway to getting back to our higher brain functioning where our own empathy, creative problem-solving, and restraint lie, and where we keep that trigger for calming down our own emotional stress response systems. This simple act will help us cool down in the moment, and will help us reprogram our brains for better emotional processing in general — bonus! It’s worth noting here that we want to avoid getting caught up in the story that goes along with our feelings in the process, and commit instead to just naming them — the former grows our upset feelings, while the latter helps us harvest their bounty and move on.
- Then just as soon as we are able, we want to stop all other activity and connect with our kids in the moment. We want to empathize with our children intellectually and emotionally; to take a moment to identify with his/her/their perspective(s), imagine the situation from their point(s) of view, and understand where our little ones are coming from — irrespective of what has transpired, or what actions or emotions they are displaying.
- As we identify with the experience of our upset child(ren), we also want to express our empathy in a palpable manner. Whether through open-postured proximity, touch, hugs, words, facial expressions, and /or demeanor, we want to make it clear that we accept our upset children, that we understand their upset, and that we agree to assist their process. We aren’t condoning actions we don’t like, but we are connecting, offering neuro-emotional assistance, and communicating understanding — again, regardless of actions.
- At the earliest possible opportunity in the interaction, we want to make sure to offer physical comfort. Sometimes, if it’s all I can get, I will put my index finger tip on my upset daughter’s ankle. Even that is enough (though a good solid snuggle is perhaps the ideal way…) to help trigger the young brain to begin calming down (and, if necessary, by further, deeper release). And if we’ve done the work to calm ourselves down first, then, through an amazing process called cingulate cortex entrainment, the parent’s neural network will actually guide the child’s brain back into balance. (!)
- As our children open up or lean into our help, it is quite common for this to give them license to let out more, perhaps even tapping hidden veins of suppressed upset that needs to be let out, too. That’s fine, getting it out means feeling better. As Pam Leo, author of Connection Parenting, puts it — the crying isn’t the hurting, the crying is the healing. By letting our kids release in as full a manner as they can during any particular episode, we allow them to discharge other stuff that may be hanging around in their psyches, and afford them the opportunity for deeper, fuller healing of old emotional hurts that are still tender. Sometimes, as my daughters are nearing the end of a good cry, I’ll lean in and say, “Go on — let it all out, honey,” and often they do push a few more tears out before they feel finished.
- Then when they’re ready, we let them shift. It is almost impossible for kids to hold onto upset feelings once they have been given some genuine empathy and a chance to express those feelings. Even if they wanted to try, they can’t do it. So after you give your kid(s) space and opportunity to process the emotional content, allow the rebound to occur without interference. As adults, we get tricked into thinking that if the upset goes away quickly and entirely, then it wasn’t a “real” upset; and we therefore can tend to expect our kids to stay upset a long time when they may just need two minutes of total freaking out before buoying back up to luminous joy. We don’t need to hold them to an emotion any more than we need to rush them through it, and once they are through it, we don’t need to wonder why they are feeling so much better so soon — it’s because they got help!
When kids get help with their emotional processes, they do tend to feel better and enjoy more and act in ways that we grown-ups like more often. And when we address upsets in each instance that they occur, then we save time by avoiding emotional build-up and the uncooperativeness associated with not feeling happy/good/connected/loved. By managing our fear of their upsets, we offer ourselves and our kids a whole range of other possibilities that we would otherwise never know. And by making those upsets our family friends, we change everything about raising our children — for the easier and more joyous. What parent could ask for more?!
Now, I know it’s a big deal. I know it isn’t a walk in the park to change how you parent, let alone how you see parenting. Believe me. No offense to my loving family and care-givers, but I grew up with a crappy temper, which grew into heavily suppressed anger-urges and utter disassociation from my emotional self, then depression, then a clouded perception of all life and all living beings as doing nothing but suffering. I know that how our brains are trained to process emotions and see the world is heavily set by the time we are adults trying to raise our own kids, and that the notion that we can change how our brains respond to emotional stress can seem absurd. But I’ve also lived through it. I know it can be done. And I know you can do it too!
The three things I’ve seen and felt work best, in the lives of my clients and in my own parenting are:
1) Practice. You’ll go through a long period of catching yourself after the fact. Then you’ll start to catch it in the moment, but still not be able to do anything different. Then you’ll start seeing it coming and be able to make the right move just in time. And by then you’re well on your way to new brain habits.
2) Self-empathy. You really can “trick” your brain into being triggered less by saying what you are feeling. Say it to yourself or out loud if need be, but say it no matter what! And let your brain start to help you from there.
3) Getting Support. I say it a lot, but we were not meant to do this parenting thing in isolation. We need quality assistance. Get a book that speaks your parenting language. Start going to yoga with a friend. Form or make use of a preexisting community of like -minded parents. And/or hire a parenting support pro, like me! Do whatever it takes to make sure you’ve got some help in being your best parenting self. You and your family deserve it.
And remember — one breath, one moment, and one day at a time. It’s a big deal, but you got this.