As parents, there are times when we are completely perplexed by our child’s behavior.
“Why did she hit another child?”
“Why did he just explode over that?!”
And even, “Why did I just lose it over that?”
Then, most importantly, “What can we do that will really, truly help?”
When we remember that All Behavior is a Communication, it’s a starting point to understanding and helping our children to learn. We don’t always understand what our child is communicating through their behavior or what the real needs underneath the behavior are.
Our kids don’t usually say, “You know, I’m feeling really uncomfortable and squirmy and I really need you to just hold me for a few minutes and my nervous system will settle.”
Instead, they hit someone else, and we’ve learned to make them feel worse in the name of trying to teach them appropriate behavior.
How can we take those situations and connect?
What can we do in those moments to help our children to really learn what’s appropriate?
How can we help everyone reconnect?
Join us for this episode of The Consciously Parenting Podcast as we explore the first guiding principle of Rebecca’s book, Consciously Parenting: What it Really Takes to Raise Emotionally Healthy Families.
Resources from this episode:
Book I of the Consciously Parenting Series: Consciously Parenting: What it Really Takes to Raise Emotionally Healthy Families
Download the first 3 chapters for free when you sign up for our newsletter!
Dr. Bruce Perry: http://childtrauma.org
Notes from this episode:
Imagine a little child about 2 years old who is really sad. Her eyes are brimming with tears and her lower lip is pushed out. She’s looking at you, but not coming toward you. She’s far away and not seeking comfort. What does this feel like for you? What’s your impulse? What do you want to do for this child? Take a moment and just be with those feelings.
For me, I want to run over to her and scoop her up into my arms, curious about why she’s having a hard time. Others might feel a need to run away or to make her tears stop by distracting her. There’s no right answer here. It’s part of the way we’re wired based on our own early experiences. Just notice.
Now imagine an older child. Maybe he’s about 8 or 9 and he’s angry. He’s getting ready to throw something or hurt someone. His body is tense, his brow is tight, his lips turned down on the edges. His voice is raised. What comes up for you now?
In the past, I would have wanted to overpower this child, to make him stop. To make him feel bad for what he was about to do. What about you? Maybe you’d feel compassion for this child who is clearly upset and needs some help to step away from whatever just happened. Or maybe you just want to leave and not be a part of it. Just notice.
What’s happening for these children is how they’re communicating their own internal state. Wanting or needing to throw something, crying alone, hitting someone else, stomping off alone… or laughing, smiling, singing, playing nicely… these are all communications of how our children are feeling in this moment. We can easily roll with it when our kids are happy, content, peaceful, joyful. It makes us happy. We’re all getting along. There’s PEACE in the house! They’re communicating then, too. But when they’re dysregulated, we often only see the behaviors- or the expressions of how they’re feeling- and we miss the communication.
These children may also be communicating something about the state of your relationship. The child who climbs over into your lap when upset is communicating something very different than the child who won’t look at you. The little girl who was upset but staying far away may be communicating that she’s not feeling safe or that she doesn’t know if she can be supported if she comes over to her parent.
Begin by being curious about what your child is communicating. Is this communication about them and how they’re feeling? Is it about the state of your relationship? Be curious about what you’re communicating about your own internal state by what you’re doing in response (or in reaction) to your child. And how do you feel about your relationship in this moment? That’s being communicated, too.
Today I’d like to talk about how all behaviors are a communication. I’d like to share some terms to help you shift the way you’re looking at your kids (and yourself) and how they’re acting so that you can find new ways of being with them and supporting them that will strengthen your relationship. Even if you don’t get it every time or even most times, it makes a difference. We’re going to talk about the terms regulation and dysregulation. I find it is much easier to shift into a place of “How can I support my child?” than it is when I’m thinking of my child as being a brat or intentionally misbehaving. Our goal here is to find new ways of connecting and understanding what’s happening for you and for your child in these moments so you can learn a new dance together. One that feels better for everyone.
So let’s get started!
A dysregulated child is one who is not in a state of calm in their body and nervous system. Being overly excited over something super fun is dysregulated. Being upset because he can’t have the lollipop is dysregulated. And they’re communicating their internal state.
When a child is dysregulated, they’re not able to learn new information. And we learn to regulate, or calm our nervous systems, in connection with others, not in isolation. When a young child is sent off to “calm themselves down,” they often return only to have something else happen- another upset, another time they’ve hit someone else. The underlying need wasn’t addressed. They did the best they could with the resources they had, but they didn’t really regulate.
What I often see when parents can really connect with how their child is feeling, rather than addressing the behavior in that moment, kids move from angry or frustrated to sad or afraid. And then they regulate.
Difficult behaviors are a communication that your child is not regulated. What does a child who isn’t regulated need? They need help to regulate. We want our children to learn when they’re dysregulated so that they can ask for what they really need instead of acting on their impulses. We want them to be able to say, “I’m really feeling squirmy in my insides right now and I need you to hold me tight so I feel better because I know that helps me” instead of hitting his sister.
This is learning from the inside out. This is helping our kids to learn what they’re feeling before they act on it and to ask for what they really need instead. And this is also how we can teach them to reconnect, to make things right, when they do make mistakes or handle something in a way they didn’t want to handle it. We all have those moments! Ideally, we want them to learn this when they’re young so that it is automatic when they’re big. But honestly, I didn’t learn how to do this until I was in my mid-30’s. It’s never too late to start!
We want them to know that others can be there for them when they need help. And we want them to know that they have the resources within themselves to move through big feelings by themselves or in connection with others. That’s healthy.
When we’re upset, the kind of learning that we’re able to really learn is very primitive. It’s the same kind of learning that keeps us alive and from touching a hot stove. This kind of learning is important to keep us alive and from running into streets with traffic, but It isn’t the only kind of learning we need.
When we want our kids to really learn lessons, we need them to be in their thinking brains and maybe even a little bit in their emotional brains to make an emotional connection with the learning. When they’re hitting, throwing things, or even overly excited, they aren’t processing and they aren’t really able to learn.
A child who is taking a standardized test and is super anxious won’t test well because she’s not in her thinking brain.
A child who is hitting someone else isn’t in a place to learn about appropriate behavior. This child is communicating that he’s dysregulated. He needs to be kept safe and others around him need to be kept safe. The conversation about appropriate behavior needs to happen another time.
Kids get into these patterns of misbehaving when they’re dysregulated, having us react to their bad behavior, being isolated, repeating the behavior when they come back out, feeling more disconnected and not knowing how to really reconnect.
Here’s an example from my real-life parenting when my son was 5 and I was just beginning to really understand this shift in my perception. I refer to my Brain Stoplight in this story, which is based on the work of Dr. Bruce Perry’s work on the brain. Green light is that place of calm when things are feeling good and regulated. Yellow light is the emotional brain where we can really connect deeply with one another heart to heart. It’s also the warning sign of approaching red, which is our survival brain. Red light is when our fight, flight, or freeze reactions are activated. We don’t learn on red. We can only repeat old patterns here. But we can learn to recognize when we’re heading toward red and make changes there. We can also go back after we’ve been in red and work on strategies (both for ourselves and our kids) for what we could have done earlier or what we really were feeling or needing that could have gone differently.
Excerpt from Consciously Parenting, page 36:
Here is an example of regulation and dysregulation in action. Our family was spending the weekend with my husband’s parents on their sailboat. We arrived at a little island to hunt for shells and needed to ride on a shuttle wagon that took visitors across the island to the beach. The shuttle wasn’t there when we arrived, so we decided to walk across the island because it was less than one mile to the beach from the dock. My youngest, who was five years old at the time, had a very big meltdown because we had changed our plans. He went from a green-light state (excited, yet regulated) to a yellow light when we suggested not taking the shuttle, then on to a red light, in which he became completely overwhelmed, dissolving into a puddle on the sandy road.
Ideally, we would recognize the yellow-light state and create an opportunity for our child to express what is happening, or we might simply slow down in the same way we might for a flashing yellow light. When a child is in a yellow-light brain state, he needs nurturing and connection rather than rational explanations and discussions. When we can connect with our child in a yellow-light state, many times we can avoid the red-light state. Avoiding the red light is not about avoiding conflict or difficult situations for ourselves or our children, but rather helping to create patterns of being that enable everyone to return to a state of calm.
I realized my son was dysregulated, unable to calm himself down in that moment, and that meant that he needed help to regulate himself. And to regulate, he needed connection with someone who cared about him. Just this simple shift in my thinking helped me to be present with him instead of judging his behavior as wrong, as I would have done in the past.
My understanding his situation didn’t mean that we were going to do what he wanted to do, but it did mean that I was going to respect his feelings. We didn’t turn around and go back to wait for the shuttle wagon, even though that was what he was saying he wanted to do.
Instead, I got down on the ground next to him and spoke to him softly. I told him that I knew he wanted to ride on the shuttle and it was hard when things didn’t go the way he thought they would go. I repeated this over and over again, calmly and patiently, yet feeling his frustration with him. More important than the words was the tone of voice I used.
My words simply reflected my own understanding of such frustrations from my own life, along with my emotional connection to him. I knew he was going to express his feelings (move through the energy that was coming up for him), return to a place of calm, and then be able to go on with us to the beach. He was also going to learn that I was there for him and that I trusted that he would be able to handle this situation with my support.
Within a few minutes, he had returned to a near green-light state. He was relatively calm and ready to continue across the island, and we did so by making a game out of moving across the sand path, pretending to be animals that moved in different ways. This game also helped him to move through the rest of the energy that had just come up for him. In the past, his dysregulated state might have lasted for twenty or thirty minutes, and he probably would have continued struggling with every change for the rest of the day. But because he felt heard and supported in his feelings, and he moved through the energy that came up for him, he was able to arrive at the beach a few minutes after the others and had a wonderful time exploring and collecting shells.
As a side note, in the past, when I didn’t know that he would move through the feelings and then calm down, I was often upset right along with him, feeling totally out of control and most likely in a red-light state myself. I experienced my own upset, in part, because, when I was growing up, I did not have the experience of moving all the way through my own feelings and back into regulation. As an adult, once I’d had my own supported experiences of moving through my own feelings, I was more able to support my boys’ expression of feelings much more often.
We can allow the energy of our children’s emotional upsets to move through us without it overtaking us, but allowing our child’s emotional expression may be a new idea if, in the past, we haven’t experienced moving through our own feelings. (For more about exploring emotional expression, see chapter seven.)
I want you to think about when you were a child and you were upset. What did your parents do? How did it feel for you? Making your own emotional connection with how it felt and what you really needed will help you to remember to consider what your children really need when they’re upset that may have been different than what you received or than you’ve been giving them.
We’re all finding our way through this and doing the best we can, so please be gentle with yourself here. We learn to parent by the way we were parented. And our parents did the best they could do with the information, support, and resources they had at the time. We know more now than we did even a decade ago about what’s happening in our children’s brains and even in our own. And we know how change happens. This isn’t about blame or shame, but about acknowledging that we come into the world and have experiences that show up for us especially when we become parents. As we begin to explore these ideas, they may feel overwhelming or like they’re just too difficult. But know that as you make changes, it gets easier. As you feel more connected in the places you weren’t feeling so connected before, you’ll want to do this more.
Over this next week, I just want to encourage you to notice yourself and your child. Are you regulated? How does your body feel when you’re regulated? How does your body feel when you’re dysregulated? What do you do when you’re dysregulated? What about your child? What does he look like when he’s regulated? How do you know? And what does he look like when he’s dysregulated? What helps you to regulate? What helps your child to regulate? That’s a very different question than, “How do I make this behavior stop!”
Thank you for listening to our podcast! Next week, we’ll be starting a conversation with Scott Noelle about building community and The Continuum Concept.