Fun in the Sun (and on Mars!)

Another week has rolled by in a speedy succession of delightful (emphasis on full) days! We’ve been busy to the max, both with work and with play. Here’s a sample of the view from here:

I’ve been out in the garden! One of my favorite parts of being in Santa Cruz this time of year is that I get a break from the Montana Winter gardening-doldrums. You can’t do a heck of a lot of playing in the dirt when the dirt is under a heap of snow… So getting a break from the break, so to speak, is always welcome. One of my current projects at the Paradise Compound is cleaning up the Clivias. The shot below is from the clutch of Clivia berries I collected during the project. Each one has 1-5 little bulbs inside ready for planting — which is just what the next phase is all about!2.6.15a We hiked a new trail in De Laveaga this week. The redwoods there are always cause for marveling, but lately we’ve been appreciating the geology more as well. On the hike captured below, we talked a lot about limestone (which is featured in this ≈5′ rock wall).2.6.15b Speaking of features, you can’t go anywhere in Santa Cruz without being followed by the ubiquitous citrus. This lovely lemon tree lives right outside our front door but never fails to visually sneak up on me. I just can’t get used to fruit in the Winter, let alone these radiant easter eggs littering the landscape.2.6.15c And when it comes to landscapes of the Santa Cruz area, none so dominates the aesthetic grandeur as where the land meets the ocean. I grew up going to the Alabama and Florida sections of the Gulf of Mexico, with its sugary, flat, Saharan coastline, water temps normally in the 70s–80s, and the sun a steady year-round blaze. In Monterey Bay, the shoreline is a jagged infinity of undulating cliffs, rocks, and tawny, coarse sand; the water is often below 60˚; and the sun regularly plays hide and seek in the fog (especially in Summer).
On this day, below, we went to New Brighton State Beach to meet up with our friends from Eco Womb — The Malsons — for some sun-setting, full-moon-rising, hangout time on the shore. Here’s a view from the tidepools of the sun going down.2.6.15f And here’s the whole crew! Meeting up with the Malsons is becoming one of my favorite parts of our seasonal Santa Cruzian time.2.6.15g One of my least favorite parts has reared its gruesome head early this year. It looks unassuming enough in the shot below, but, aaaalllllllllllll of those grey vines are just waiting for some poor hapless fool to come along and get ensnared in itches! I “found” some this week in my gardening exploits and have been ruing the proverbial day ever since. Nevertheless, I laughed outloud when I saw this sign on our hike, being in the only spot along the trail where we didn’t see any obvious sign of the oily devil weed.2.6.15hThis week, one of the funnest projects has been creating our own little show called, Today Today. Here, you can see our make-up artist, Natalie, getting Xi ready for the show.
2.6.15d Finishing touches on the make-up…2.6.15eTo check out this week’s episode when host, Fred Sharply, interviews three people who accidentally went to Mars, you can go here: http://youtu.be/vBhw7lnBLiE . We hope you enjoy the show!

And I hope you and yours are enjoying your days as much as we are!

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Be well.

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Up Around the Bend…

Aaaaaahhh… Back to the woods! We’ve been revisiting our old haunt De Laveaga Park!1.27.15 One of my favorite things about the trail we often take (and it’s indicative of other trails there too) is the numerous horseshoe bends. Walking along, we cut far into a drainage ravine and then double back out of the ravine, offering these wonderful views of our own comings and goings. It feels labyrinthine and magical and metaphorical, adding to the overall reverence we feel walking through these wise, old trees.

Another fun thing about it is that we can bring family! On this hike we had our little group, but we also brought Grammy and Aunt Em (and little Levy) with us as well.1.27.15a 1.27.15b 1.27.15cFor me, there’s nothing better than a mystical stroll through an enchanted (and enchanting) forest with family. That’ll be my Heaven. And this ^ is my Heaven on Earth!

I hope you’re finding your sweet spot(s), too, dear ones!

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Be well.

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*Made* It!!

Greetings friends, family, and followers from sunny Santa Cruz, California!

1.23.15 Ok, really, these are some of our last images from Missoula before we left. Echo got to make her last two snow people of the year, and Xi got to make her first ever solo snow person! This is how they looked in the evening glow…1.23.15a As we emptied the house of our personal items (in preparation for our departure and the arrival of our renters), Echo found new and inventive ways to enjoy the extra space; including this fort she made for herself in the coat closet.1.23.15c Once we were all packed up, we were finally ready to head out!1.23.15d First stop: Voodoo Donuts in Portland Oregon! Ok, we honestly, spent the night at, Natalie’s sister, Em’s house (even though she’d already gone ahead of us to Santa Cruz), we had a lovely fire and crashed in her cozy attic guest beds, and then woke up the next morning and hit the donut shop on our way out of town…1.23.15e By the next day, we’d arrived in Santa Cruz and were headed to the beach!1.23.15f And aaaaaaahhhhhhhhh… we made it. Back to the ocean at last!1.23.15i And, oddly enough, even after a decade of coming to the very same dog beach time after time, this was the very first that we’d noticed the amazing cliff carvings along the narrow strip of sand and surf.1.23.15g Gigantic, deep-cut sculptures of sea animals, mer-people, ancient and modern symbols and geometry, and proclamations of love and partnership decorate a few hundred yards of these soft, undulating sand-cliffs.1.23.15h Em and Levy met and came with us to the beach, where these characters played a hilarious improv game called, “The 3 Idiots”, challenging, and trying to stand up to the tide in numerous ways, but invariably running cowardly away at the last second. 1.23.15j Then, of course, we had to have our inaugural trip to Top-a-Lot!1.23.15kSo, we’re officially in Santa Cruz now. The long trip, the long packing job, and the long wait for ideal renters is over. We made it.

We’ll be here if you need us!

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Be well.

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The Proof is in the… Argument?!

Looking for EvidenceWe naturally all look at how our children are being for signs of how we’re doing as parents. We measure our methods by our successes in parenting just as much as we do in any other vital endeavor — as we’ve been taught in every institution known to humanity (except maybe government…). We monitor and gauge regularly to attempt to ascertain — as if by séance — whether or not they are “going to turn out ok”…

Well, maybe we don’t all get into it as much or as consciously as that. 😉 The fact is, most of the time, most of us wind up going about our parenting lives pretty much on autopilot. And even those of us who are trying to really consider what we’re doing, and do it mindfully, must muddle through with whatever parenting programing we inherited constantly and often mysteriously pulling our emotional levers from behind the proverbial curtain. Our conscious minds have so little power over our subconscious and unconscious minds that if our parenting ideals are extremely different from our programming, we can really struggle to make change, or even stay focused on the endeavor — so powerful are the underlying consciousnesses of the human mind, that they can cause all manner of distraction and misperception in order to keep us on the pre-programmed path.

So we tend not to measure our results very often, right?

The main time we do measure them is when things aren’t going as well as we’d like. We think — “Yikes! We’d really better do something! And fast! ‘Cause this — ain’t working…”. And we flail around a bit, maybe get a book or two, ask around, get a tarot reading. Maybe we decide on a change and go for it. Maybe we decide to be more vehement with the thing(s) to which we’ve already committed — “really stick to it this time”. Either way, within a short period, we’re either no further along toward that new way of doing, or worse about it than ever. It can be tremendously challenging to affect change in our approach(es) to parenting.

Another way we sometimes measure the effect of a new method, or the tried and true ones to which we’ve (re)dedicated ourselves, is that we attribute the higher grades, or better behavior in class, or the more responsible attitude toward cleaning up, to the methodology. We point at any correlating successes to shore up our beliefs about what we’re doing.

But still not that often, right? We’re just not taught to think about it very much…

The prevailing parenting mythos asks for a blind faith in what the “experts” tell us, regardless of our experiences, our intuitions, or our own eyes. When, for example, praise and punishment fail to secure cooperation, let alone compliance, let alone conformity, or “good behavior” — we’re not taught to question the methods. No! We’re told to turn up the volume! Don’t ask if there’s something lacking in the approach, just do it more!

Well, after over 14 years of working diligently — really, every day — to reform my knee-jerk tendencies, and to calm and regulate and reprogram my sensitive limbic system, and to habitualize the practice of reaching for empathy instead of logic when things go awry for my children — I’ve come to be a little hyper-attentive to how what we do works. My partner, Natalie, and I study the effects of our chosen approach(es) to parenting our girls quite regularly. Obviously, a lot of it comes just from wanting to feel more sure that we’re safe out here in the dangerous (and reportedly “evil”) terra incognita of parenting with connection and leadership instead of with the carrot and stick. We’re reassuring ourselves that we aren’t totally f#¢≤ing our kids up with all this radical hippy voodoo touchy-feely stuff! 😉

Well, typically, we’ve been (self)trained to keep our eyes peeled for how well it’s working. Naturally… Just the other day, however, something amazing unfolded in our living room. And it wasn’t proof of how well we’ve taught our girls to “do it right” — to “get long” or to “play nicely”. It was proof of what we’ve taught them about how to handle it when things go wrong.

Here’s how Natalie put it:

6a013488670c86970c01b7c7341dd7970b

This rug is the place to be these days. Kids, cats, and Littlest Pet Shop figurines convene here for hours. Yesterday the girls were hunkered down, speaking sister language about the characters in their games – what their names are, where they live, how many babies they have. In general I tune this stuff out, it comes into my ears as “kids are content” and thus I do what all parents around the world do when their kids are happily busy, my own thing.

Parents aren’t fools. We let sleeping dogs lie, er, I mean, playing kids play.

Eventually their play changed tune and began to reach me. Their voices grew louder, higher pitched and anxious. In turn I felt my blood pressure rise. I am triggered by my children fighting. Even now, years and years down this path of parenting with empathy I still have to process my own feelings of nervousness, anxiety, and anger – called forth from sibling fighting, in order to be of any use to them as a parent.

Then I got distracted and turned away for a moment and when my attention returned I eavesdropped a little. To my utter delight they were explaining their perspectives on the situation. Each girl detailed how they came to the game with certain expectations and that now that those expectations weren’t being met things were unravelling. They took turns. They empathized, nodding heads in understanding. Basically neither was happy with the direction of the game. They didn’t reach a solution. Neither changed her mind.

They just listened.

Big sister Xi asked little sister Echo if she needed a hug. They held each other and rocked and patted backs. Giggles emerged. Then, just like that, they launched back into the game completely unattached to previous expectations, giddy and eager and open to the game going in an entirely different direction.

I didn’t even leave my chair. They didn’t even notice me snapping the photo (above).

These girls. These sisters that have fought their entire lives with tears and blood and week-long grudges, well, these sisters still fight. They are never going to agree all day, every day, and that’s fine, especially as it seems they have learned how to fight well.

Air your feelings.

Listen.

Empathize.

Touch.

Be Free.

I am so happy. I am happy for me and what this means for our daily life. I am happy to have invested years’ worth of time helping them process feelings. I am happy for the girls and what it means for them and their daily lives. And I am over-the-moon happy for the future selves of these girls – how easy they will sit in the face of emotional discomfort, how steady they will stand for the emotional discomfort of others.

May you always fight well girls.

Personally, I’m still scratching my head over it. I find their emotional intelligence, and their ability to regulate their own emotions enough to tap into such deep wells of empathy for each other at such an emotionally challenging moment nothing short of staggering. I mean, how many of us adults still struggle, or fail utterly, at this kind of delicate, often tense negotiation?! I come away from something like this thinking how absurdly fast the tables can turn — our students have suddenly transformed into the teachers, and we teachers have become the students! If only I could handle myself so well when my “expectations [aren’t] being met”!

Even now, I find myself  wondering, if we’ve succeeded in helping our children develop such prowess, as imperfect as we are in our roles as guides here — what more lies in wait for us as we continue along this path of reprogramming ourselves, of enriching our own emotional intelligence, and growing our own emotional capacity?…! What more have we to gain from our commitment to parenting with connection and leadership, and with faith in the things we’ve seen, and felt, and intuited in our heart of hearts? What other magic does our deepening empathy have in store for us?

I simply can’t wait to find out!

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Be well. And be brave on this path, my fellow pioneers! We’re getting there!

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P.S. Part of my mission in life is empowering parents like you (and me!) in doing the demanding work of turning your parenting around, teaching yourself to reach for connection instead of coercion, and learning how to lead instead of trying to control. No one should have do this work alone, and there’s no better way to ensure your success than to get support. Please don’t hesitate to reach out! I’m here to help.

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Holiday Highlights — Belated, Yes, but Beautiful!

This gallery contains 31 photos.

Greetings and Happy New Year, dear family, friends, and fellow virtual villagers! I resurfaced from our two-plus-weeks of holiday stay-cation almost a week ago, but I’ve been playing simultaneous games of catch-up and leap-frog since then, so this is the … Continue reading

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The Power of Empathy in Parenting — A Video Interview

Greetings fam-friends! The link below is to a video interview that Wendy McDonell of Compassionate Solutions did with me last week on the subject of using empathy in parenting. I hope you like it!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K_1cRqQCzE4

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Be well.

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The Myth of the Self-Soothing Infant

crying-baby-001I can sum up today’s post in one sentence. That wasn’t it though… 😉 It’s simply this (and it may sound familiar if you’ve read many of my posts at all): The human brain is born without the ability to manage emotional content without support; if we get help early on, then we can develop that ability, but only if (and only as much as) we are assisted in developing it. Period. That’s just all there is to it. No infant anywhere ever was born with the ability to soothe himself, calm himself down when he is upset, or cry freely and safely to completion in a healthy manner without caregiver support. And if you don’t want to read the rest of my pontification about it, that’s enough for you to know at present. If you’re like me, though, and you always want to know a little more, then by all means read on!

I’ve done a little looking around, and it was apparently around 100 years ago in his book,  The Care and Feeding of Infants, that Dr. Luther Emmet Holt publicized the notion that we should allow our infants the opportunity to practice self-soothing, say when they are upset, or when they’ve been left to fall asleep alone. “Ferberization”, “respecting babies’ right to cry”, “controlled crying”, or the less friendly Holtian terminology, “cry it out”, are all ways that parenting “experts” have referred to the practice of leaving children to manage their own emotions. We’re coached by such pundits to ignore the crying, and/or to sit nearby and not help or make eye-contact, and/or to only intervene if the child is making himself sick with the emotion or is in danger. We’re told that “giving in” to the crying, giving them attention for tears, or not allowing them the opportunity to practice self-soothing trains them to be too dependent on us and teaches them how to manipulate us with their emotional displays.

And I can’t mince words here, I have to say, that’s all a bunch of utter and complete nonsense.

I don’t mean to be rude about it. I know that how we treat our kids is so close to our own hearts, and so subconsciously tangled with our own upbringings, self-identities, and triggers. I know that many of us are so full of disinformation about parenting, and children, and the process of maturation, that it’s tremendously difficult to weed out the good- and right-feeling options from the piles and piles of bullsh!t. I know, firsthand, what it’s like to struggle with ineptitude and inexperience when there is a living breathing tiny human depending on you to keep her alive, and well-cared-for, and healthy, let alone happy. I know the kind of reassurance it carries when someone tells you, “babies are resilient, he’ll be fine…”, “sometimes they cry like that no matter what, just let her get it all out…”,  or “eventually, they just stop on their own, if you don’t mess with them…”. And I have actually witnessed an unassisted baby cry until giving up, until stopping. I now feel certain that a baby left to cry without help, doesn’t (eventually) quit because she is “self-soothing”, but rather because her brain has shut itself down from overwhelming panic and stress. Her system is riddled with Cortisol and Adrenaline and everything but minimal homeostasis and the primitive survival mechanism of quiet “fright” is totally. switched. off. This catatonic baby isn’t soothed, it’s instinctually playing dead.

2c3495cb65031ed7615d89e62a13d908To be fair, there are kernels of truth in the myth of the self-soothing infant. Babies do sometimes cry and cry and cry, even after we’ve addressed every potential need we can think of — fed them, changed them, burped them, napped them, checked them for something causing pain or illness, etc.. Sometimes they have pressing emotional hurts that we can’t see; or need to heal lingering, even old, dormant hurts; and crying is the only way they can deal with it. Crying can be healing to be sure — but it absolutely has to be supported, “in arms” crying, in order to work in that respect.

Another kernel of truth is that infants do have some reflexive mechanisms for soothing. One is of course, suckling, which I think more than anything else refers to and/or drives the infant toward the comfort that comes from nursing, which is another major reflexive soothing mechanism. Suckling, however, and the infant’s ability to eventually get her own fist to her mouth in order to use it for that purpose is not, as the “experts” tell us, evidence of the baby willfully self-soothing. Again, suckling is an instinctual reflex — and primarily a reflex built for breastfeeding — not a conscious, “Oh, I’m feeling upset, let me calm myself down” response to upsetting stimuli. And while offering a baby a pacifier to suck on in times of duress can help calm the baby’s brain in a “bottom-up”, primitive manner by attempting to induce positive feelings instead of the painful ones, it does not help wire the brain to manage future duress in the way(s) that assisting baby with our touch, rocking, soothing words, safe arms, and empathy do (which is all called “top-down” emotional soothing).

Leaving a baby to try and “suckle it out” on her own, is akin to only letting her ever ride bikes with training wheels. She won’t be able to balance herself nearly as well if she isn’t given the opportunity to feel what that’s like (first through experiential training, then through instruction, guidance, and support from us, and then through her own practice). The same analogy can be used in the opposite way, as well, in that if we just throw her on a bike all by herself and say, “You got this, I’m going to respect your right to bike!”, and shove her off down the road, she’s going to crash just as surely as you’re reading these words. And by the way, riding a bike is comparative child’s play to mitigating our own upsetting emotions. We all know plenty of adults, or are ones ourselves, who struggle or still can’t get the hang of self-soothing…

So while the brain does come with a rudimentary reflexive positive-feeling-generating mechanism to balance out mild unrest, it is still wholly incapable of successfully employing such a mechanism when the emotional state has reached overwhelm. For one thing, the stress hormone, Cortisol, blocks the release of Oxytocin, which otherwise calms the baby and helps him feel good. An infant’s suckling is not powerful enough to manage a Cortisol cascade like that which being left to cry without support will induce. For serious upset, especially as the infant ages into toddlerhood and the reasons for upset become more complex and personal, every child needs caregiver assistance to safely discharge the feelings, calm down in the moment, and wire the synapses for being able to consciously process and regulate emotion in the future.

If, for whatever reason, we don’t provide emotional support for our upset babies and children, then we set in motion a different version of development for them — a thwarted version. This version is more hyper-reactive to stress, is more likely to respond reflexively to upset (read: more like a primitive animal than a thinking human…); and is less likely to be able to process difficult emotions, maintain impulse control, manage creative problem-solving, or consciously calm down when experiencing duress. That’s not how the brain is supposed to be wired, but it’s what has happened to whole generations of humans, and we have all suffered for it. Our prisons, hospitals, mental health centers, shelters, and “safe-places” are brimming with people who cannot manage their emotions. Current research is linking the onset of major neuro-psychological conditions like Schizophrenia and Bipolar Disorder with epigenetic factors including the stress-levels and access to emotional processing support one has in early childhood.

Mom-holding-her-baby-to-help-it-stop-cryingThe bottom line is that true self-soothing is a complex and learned habit of emotional processing guided by specific neural wiring achieved through the experience of being soothed. One of the many reasons for humans’ long childhood is to give us lots of opportunities to experience being supported while we cry and then being assisted in calming down. If we don’t get help in infancy and early childhood, then we never have a chance of developing that neural real estate as fully. If we have to do it on our own, as adults, it can take years and years of arduous therapy and/or conscientious self-work to reprogram our synapses for better emotional processing. And the current thinking is that (as with, for example, foreign languages) if we miss out in early development, it’s not only harder to learn later in life, we also never get the chance to master those skills as well as we would have if given proper exposure in early development (the optimal neural window for developing the proclivity for those faculties…).

Intentional, conscious self-soothing is not childs’ play. If we want our kids to develop healthy habits, and strong synapses, for it in the eventual, then we have to be serious about assisting them. It’s our job to “teach” them how to self-soothe: to make room for their emotional processing, to allow them to cry safely in our arms, and then (through our continued empathy and touch) to trigger their return to calm, and higher brain functioning. Only by doing so — over and over again, time after time, throughout early childhood — can we train their brains to do it, and do it well, for themselves. And only after years of this process, can we expect them to truly self-soothe. Anyone who tells you differently, is trying to sell you something.

So, I mentioned most of them above, but here’s the quick list of ways to wire your child’s maturing brain for eventual self-soothing prowess (remembering, of course, that these are generally for use after you’ve attempted to address any needs s/he might have):

In infancy (and with minimal upsets) —
• Warmth: it can be as simple as helping him 63981_823189107704356_1005985079256205307_ncozy up, and often the best spot is under a blanket, naked on your bare chest; it might seem perfunctory, but try it, and you’ll see magic (especially if you also use chest-to-chest time in between upsets…).
• Rocking/Movement: you know what this looks like; and if you’re like me, then you spontaneously start doing it even just looking at babies…
Suckling: see if you can help baby find her fist to chew on; if the emotion is a little more intense, and you are ok with them, try a binky (I only encourage the use of pacifiers for upsetting moments, not a general chew-toy); or offer to breast- or bottle-feed (and yes, I am suggesting nursing for comfort — from an infant’s perspective, that’s all it ever is…).

And continuing throughout development (and/or during more serious upset) 
• Touch: gentle caresses, hugs, even just a finger on his toe helps make way for him to discharge the painful feelings and begin to change his brain chemistry, releasing Oxytocin and breaking the Cortisol grip; and remember chest-to-chest time just for fun, since it helps wire his brain for better Oxytocin release and reception.
 Taking Time: slow way down when upsetting emotion overwhelms her, make room for her feelings; and when you know she’s having a day when she needs to release, provide time for it instead of trying to coax (or threaten…) her out of it; allow for emotional processing because once it’s out and the brain chemistry shifts, then everything is easier — the birds come tweeting out, the sun warms the shimmering hills over which the rainbow arches, and all is gloriously well in the world after every major storm…
• Talking it Out: another thing that helps, especially as children age, is “using our words” — I usually hate when I hear parents robotically whine that at their kids, but — there’s good brain science that says talking about our feelings helps us process them in that “top-down” manner that once wired-in makes it easier for the brain to have tough feelings and still not lose control and go “all ape-sh!t” as they say, so let your kids talk about the feelings involved; and you, too, can use words to help you process your own feelings more easily when you’re triggered — just try naming the feelings (without blaming them on anyone…).
Empathy: the number one way to help, especially but not only verbal kids, is to actively empathize, and here I don’t just mean to try on the perspective (although that is a necessary first step), but to (also) actually express your genuine understanding of your kid’s predicament; get down on his level and look him in the eye and let him know that you get it — when you really successfully communicate that to him, he’ll transform in front of you (he may crumble into you and weep, and then/or his pain may melt away, and then/or he will bounce out of the upset emotion into a happier state than was previously available to him).

And for you visual types who maybe haven’t see it before, here’s a lovely graphic that Natalie and I created (and which you can get here) to help illustrate all of the above:brain-small

 So now you know, if you didn’t or only suspected before, and you can tell those “experts” when they encourage you to let your infant self-soothe herself to sleep, or try to get you to stop reacting to his emotions so that he’ll learn to self-soothe — “Well, actually ‘self-soothing’ is a very complex neural process that takes years of support and guidance to properly develop. And that’s exactly what I’m doing by responding quickly and calmly to my child’s cries, and helping with my child’s emotional processing, and physically triggering the neural processes my child’s brain has to learn to do so that it can begin to do it on it’s own. Thanks though!” Feel free to print that out to have on hand and read aloud if need be. 😉

Here’s more supporting links for you:
• A parent’s video guide to skin-to-skin contact with their infants
• Great article on recent research into effects of mother’s touch on infants
• Another great article (with scientific notation!) on various aspects of emotion regulation
• One of my favorite blogger’s posts called, “What you Need to Know about Crying-it-Out”
• A great basic description of brain areas involved in emotion.
• A scholarly chapter from Stanford on conceptual foundations in emotion regulation (nice overview of some contemporary science in this arena).
• Another, even better scholarly article from Emotion and Motivation Vol. 27, No. 2 on emotion regulation (with loads of citations as well)
• An article from Genevieve Simperingham on some beneficial effects of stress-release crying as well as a little of her own experience with Aware Parenting, made popular by Aletha Solter, Ph.D.
• An article from Solter herself on “assisted crying”; also my historical source on Dr. Holt… (also with citations)

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Be well.

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