Why Am I Reacting This Way?

It was just another day at home in quarantine with the kids.  Jen had been trying to establish some semblance of a routine (mealtimes, playtimes, art times . . .), but the days felt so looong.  

Her kids, Peter and Avery, were feeling the length of the days, too, especially Peter, who was rather sensitive to Jen’s own stress over the past several months.   

And now, Jen could see Peter’s kettle starting to boil.  The burden of feeling mom’s stress coupled with his own loss of routine and normalcy made Avery’s simple act just too much to bear.  

With Peter already feeling on the verge of a blowout, Avery tapped him on the shoulder to get his attention.  Without thinking, Peter turned around immediately and pushed her with all his might.  Avery fell backward hitting her head on the hard floor, causing her to let out an ear-piercing scream.  

Jen immediately came running to find Avery screaming with an already large bump growing on her head and Peter crying next to her.  And upon encountering the scene, a flood of heat raced from her stomach to her head and straight out of her mouth.  

Without thinking, Jen began yelling at Peter.  “What did you do?!  How could you do this to your sister?!!!”  

Peter sat with his knees pulled to his chest and arms wrapped around his legs, rocking back and forth as Jen helped comfort Avery and tended to the bump on her head.  

Both Peter and Jen had very common and predictable reactions to their own differing circumstances.  

While predictable, Jen’s reaction was not what Peter needed in that moment.  He knew it and she knew it.  

What was it that made Peter just snap like that?  And what made Jen react like she did, yelling at Peter?

There’s something at play here that, if you understand how it works, can turn your uncontrolled reactions into more thoughtful, loving responses.  

What I’m talking about is something I like to call your “threat radar”.  You have it, your child has it, we ALL have it.  

And by threat radar, I mean an automatic process in the brain whereby your brain constantly scans your environment for threats, big or small.  Once your brain detects a threat, your threat radar says “DING DING DING!!!  THREAT!!!”.

Now that your brain is shouting threat, your entire body gets ready to take it on.  Your muscles tense, your heart rate increases and you are ready to rage.  Or you become completely numb and shut down, retreating away from the threat.  

Because your brain is so busy getting ready for the threat, your thinking, reasoning, problem-solving, and abilities to have any sort of moral compass are now completely offline. You simply cannot be your best self.  All of your energy is going toward responding to that threat.

The technical name for this threat radar is “neuroception”, a process and term noted by famed university scientist, Stephen Porges, as a part of his polyvagal theory.  

The interesting thing about our threat radar is that it can be quite sensitive.  It’s a lot more likely to detect a threat if we’re tired, irritable, hungry, or many, many other reasons that can be unique to each one of us.  And all of a sudden, the slightest little thing can feel HUGE and overwhelming.  

Back to Peter and his mother Jen.  

Given Peter’s underlying stress and worry about his mother and his own lack of routine that brings him a sense of safety and security, his threat radar was on high alert.  So, when Avery innocently tapped him on the shoulder, his overly active threat radar said “THREAT!!!” and immediately went into action, pushing Avery over.  

Peter’s threat radar went off without him even trying.  Due to his low reserves and already stressed out state, Avery’s simple tap felt like a punch in the face.  

While it may have looked like a malicious act toward his sister, do you think Peter thought about this or deliberately planned to hurt Avery so badly?  No he did not.  He reacted to the threat instead of responding with his thinking brain.  

Now when Jen heard Avery’s terrifying scream coupled with the sight of her daughter in so much pain after weeks and weeks of being confined at home with her kids, her threat radar immediately went up and said the same thing as Peter’s:  “THREAT!!!”  

Jen’s threat radar went off just like Peter’s and she reacted to it as if she WAS threatened instead of seeing Peter’s reaction for what it was.  He was reacting as well, but thanks to his still maturing brain, didn’t have the resources or skills to notice this and do something different with his behavior.  

When you see that both Peter’s and Jen’s threat radars were driving them to react in ways they didn’t want to, you can also see that there is another way to handle it.  By understanding this automatic neural process, you can understand your child’s behavior more compassionately and gain more control over your own reactions as a parent.  

“Do the best you can until you know better.  Then when you know better, do better.” 

Maya Angelou 

Simply knowing what is going on in your brain is extremely powerful and empowering as a parent as you can then make positive changes to respond to your child with more support and compassion.

Now that you “know better”, in the next post, I will talk about how to “do better”.  I will give you some concrete ways that you can respond in the moment the next time your threat radar goes off.  I will also give you some long-term strategies that will make your threat radar less reactive in general.

By understanding what your brain is doing you are empowered to change its course and develop new patterns and habits that connect you and your child, making you a more effective parent. 

How To Handle Your Toddler’s Big Emotions

Do you remember the time when your child was first learning to walk?  Do you remember how you helped her place one hand on the couch or held one of her hands as she struggled to stay upright?  Do you remember how many times he fell down and had to get up again until one day, he was walking on his own without your help?

Just as your child needed your support to learn to walk, he also needs your support and guidance to learn about all those big feelings he is experiencing and give him a healthy and productive way to express them.

Let’s give you an understanding of your toddler’s social-emotional development at this age and then some concrete strategies for helping your child understand how she feels plus some healthy ways to express those feelings.

“People are disturbed not by things, but by the view they take of them.” 

-Epictetus (Greek Stoic philosopher)

If you view your toddler’s emotional expressions negatively, bracing yourself for every emotional outburst, then you are going to be rather afflicted each and every time he expresses himself.

If, on the other hand, you saw your child’s emotional expressions as a normal, healthy part of child development and welcomed any and all of the wide-ranging displays of emotion, you might have a completely different response to the all-too-common outburst.

Let’s learn a bit about where your toddler is at in this stage of his development.

Your child, from about one to three years old is absorbed with his own learning, is possessive, is searching for independence, and isn’t developmentally ready to share or to understand another’s perspective. He has now discovered that he is no longer one with his mother, but has his own separate self.  AND, he has just realized that he has the ability to assert control in some ways (i.e. with his possessions, with his words, with his actions).

It is this drive for independence and need for control that runs into the natural wall of the many limits that are placed on toddlers that results in a lot of feelings for your little one.  And all of those feelings are INTENSE.

So how do you help your child understand what he is feeling and then help him express those big feelings?

It begins with you.  If you’re not aware of your own emotions, how can you teach your child about his?  Take note of your own emotions.  Where do you feel them in your body?  Take the time to really feel those feelings and note them.

Express your own emotions.  Talk out loud about how you’re feeling as you feel things.  (i.e.  “I feel disappointed that we didn’t get to play outside today.”)  This is especially helpful when you are getting frustrated with your little one.  If he sees you talking about your own feelings and taking steps to regulate those feelings, he will eventually learn to do the same as well.

Attempt to understand and label your child’s emotions as they are feeling them.  Don’t ask them what they are feeling as they won’t know.  You can ask them what they feel in their body as this is often more tangible for a toddler or preschooler.  Focus on labeling both positive and negative emotions, not just negative.

Be a safe container for your child’s feelings.  Hold your child, if he will allow you, and encourage him to feel his feelings, reminding him that it is okay and healthy to do so.

Play games, sing songs, read books that talk about feelings.  Cut out faces of different feelings and put them in a jar.  Take one out and talk about it.  Try imitating the face together.  Use songs like “Happy and You Know It” and replace “happy” with another emotion.  For ideas on books that will help your child learn about feelings, check out these great ideas!

Play, play, play!!!  You can model so many healthy social interactions like sharing, waiting, giving a compliment, taking turns, and asking for help.  Don’t force your toddler to share or be upset if he ignores your prompts to share. This is normal and means that your child is absorbed in his own discoveries. Instead, model the social behavior yourself.  Keep in mind that toddlers are a “work in progress.”

Set firm limits with gentleness, kindness, and respect.  IF there is pent up emotion about something, this encourages it to come forth and that is okay.  Actually it is GOOD.  We WANT that to happen so that your child can express themselves.  It is through the limit-setting that we enable our child to positively express their emotions.

While this age can be a challenging time for you as a parent, understand that this is also very challenging for your child as well.  Imagine all those new and unfamiliar feelings coming over you, not knowing what they are or where they came from nor how to deal with them.  This experience can be frightening and overwhelming, but with your loving support and guidance, you can enrich your child’s life with a newfound understanding and awareness of his feelings.

How To Help Your Child Control Their Behavior

Milo is a very active 2-year old and is almost always in motion.  He loves throwing things, especially his toy trucks because of the sound they make upon impact.  His parents have a rule, though, that he may not throw his trucks as they keep breaking.  As Milo brings his truck up above his head to throw it, his father warns him sternly not to throw it.  Milo throws it anyway and it breaks the wheels off.  His father can feel the blood pulsing in his head and exclaims “I told you not to throw it!  Now look what you’ve done!”.  Milo cries with disappointment and his father is fuming.

An hour later, Milo’s father reflects on the interaction and decides that next time he’d like to try something different.

Sure enough, Milo soon found another one of his MANY trucks and his father could see it happening.  Milo raised it again above his head, looking to his father.  His father could feel his blood pressure rising again, but this time noticed that and instead of giving into his feeling, made a point of lowering his voice, softening his expression, and remaining calm.  Even though he was calm, he still jumped in right away, gently grasping the truck and bringing it back down to the floor.  “Trucks on the floor.” he told Milo, yet Milo wanted to throw!  At this point, his father would have normally lost it, but he decided again to do something different.  He gently grasped the truck, set it down, and brought Milo outside to the backyard to the pile of rocks in the back corner.  He picked up a rock, threw it, and said “throw”.  Milo quickly picked one up and did the same, smiling at his father.

This story illustrates the most important parenting tool in action:  self-regulation.  First for the parent, then for the child.

As he became upset, Milo’s father took notice of his escalating frustration and reined it in, remaining calm and collected, while gently guiding Milo toward a more constructive way of channeling his behavior.  Seeing this, Milo was able to stay calm himself while being redirected to another, more constructive activity.

What is self-regulation?  It is the ability to control one’s behaviors, thoughts, and emotions.

How does it develop?  It begins in infancy as a baby learns to predict that when he cries, he will be soothed.  And surprisingly, the ability for a child to exhibit self-control does not even appear until age 3 at the earliest.  A child’s ability to self-regulate then continues to develop slowly throughout the lifespan into the 20’s.

How can you help your child learn to self-regulate?  The first step is by learning to do it yourself.  Prior to the age of 3, children actually borrow their self-regulation from you as a parent.  Your child’s brain is not developed enough to be able to control his behavior on his own.  He needs you to help control it for him by remaining calm for the both of you and setting limits via calm, supportive, and loving interactions.

As your child escalates and his behavior triggers a response in you, take notice.  What are you feeling in your body?  Is it a pulsing in your head, a tightening of your chest?  Simply notice.

Once you notice what your body’s doing, identify how you’re feeling.  Most people will say angry, but usually there is something deeper going on.  Maybe you feel frustrated that you’re still dealing with the same behaviors again and again.  Maybe you’re feeling defeated that you can’t seem to get through to your child.  Whatever it is, notice and label it, even by saying it out loud.  “I feel . . .”

Take a deep breath.  Intentionally breathe in deeply, then, as slowly as you can, breathe out.  Do this one or two more times.

You can even tell your child about the whole process.  “Oh, I feel my blood pumping in my head.  I’m feeling frustrated.  I’m going to take a break and take a few deep breaths.  One . . . two . . . three.”

By doing this, you are doing two things:  you’re calming yourself down AND you’re modeling to your child how to do it for himself.  It’s a real win-win!

Everyone wants their child to grow up and have self-control.  It doesn’t come naturally for your child nor for you as a parent.  But, with a bit of focus and a lot of practice, both of you can learn.

Now, I know that this is not easy.  You were not meant to go it alone.  That’s why I am here, to support you.  If you would like more support in learning to self-regulate or in learning how to respond to your child’s behaviors, please reach out.  I am here for you.  Let’s get on the phone and talk about it.  Send me an email at jeff@thedeeplyrootedparent.com and schedule a free session to see how I can help.

Getting Your Child to Cooperate When You Have an Agenda

Have you ever been out shopping with your child and he decides that it’s just not happening? Maybe he drops to the floor, refuses to let go of that candy bar, or has an all out meltdown right in the middle of everything. Of course it’s when everyone’s out and you’re trying to get a list of things accomplished. How are you supposed to gain your child’s cooperation when you have something to get done, but your child has a different idea?

Most parents are surprised when I tell them that discipline actually derives from the Latin root disciplina and means “teaching; learning”. So when you think about helping your child through difficult behavior, it’s important to think, not simply of stopping unwanted behavior, but more importantly, teaching her a life skill and how to behave in a given situation. Unfortunately, discipline is not one size fits all. Instead, it requires that you carry a toolbox full of strategies to help your child make better choices. Different situations call for different approaches, so let’s look at just a few ideas to add to that toolbox . . .

Give Choices

Just like an adult, your child has a strong need for autonomy. If your child feels powerless in a situation, you will often see more resistance and unwanted behavior. Try giving as many choices within your activity as possible. “Do you want to hold Dad’s hand or ride in the cart?” “Would you like to stand up on your own or do you want Mom to help you?” Follow this up by saying, “You choose”. This puts the power back in his hands even though you have given pre-defined choices. Not only are you avoiding potential behaviors, you are teaching the power of making good choices. But what if he refuses the choices??? Simply tell him in a calm voice that you will choose for him and calmly and firmly help him do what it is that needs to be done. Allow him to be upset as you do this, even telling him a word for what he might be feeling. Then do what you need to do to help soothe and calm him. It is very frustrating for your child when he is required to do something against his will and he needs your help to get through it.

Get Your Child Involved

When your child contributes usefully to what is happening, she is less likely to feel the need to get attention by acting out. Next time you go shopping, try creating a simple list of 3-5 items for her to look for while you go shopping. She can even help you find pictures of the items to put on the list so she can see what she’s looking for. You can also allow her to carry items to the car, place things on the conveyer belt, etc. Even the smallest task can feel like an important job to your little one. In doing so, you are giving her a sense of competence and confidence, that she can contribute something valuable to the family.

Tell Your Child What To Do

How often does your child hear “Don’t touch that!” or “Stop running!”? We all do it! But, when you tell your child what not to do, it brings more attention to the unwanted behavior instead of what you actually want him to do. Also, your child has to translate your negative statement into a positive action. Why not simplify it and give him a clear statement of what is expected? If he is running, try “Please walk”, if he is screaming, try “Quiet voice” (using a quiet voice yourself really helps with this one). By doing so, you will guide him toward better behavior by explicitly telling him what is expected.  I have found, too, that telling your child this before you even get out of the car is really helpful. I recommend using simple pictures or drawings to show your child what to do so that he knows what is expected.

Now of course, these three strategies alone are not going to fix all of your child’s behaviors. What you will find, though, is that you are actively teaching some very important skills that will help lessen the need for these outbursts. And remember, as you use these strategies, remain calm and model this to your child. Her brain is wired to copy you so when she sees you calm yourself, she will begin to calm herself, too.

Photo courtesy of Thomas Hawk

4 Ways to Use Your Weakness as a Powerful Parenting Tool

My wife and I have been taking dance lessons for the last several years and love it! For a while we would have lessons twice a week and our daughter would come along for every one of them. She sat in the corner with a book (she is a voracious reader), looking up from time to time to watch us dance.

One of the toughest things about learning to dance for me has been that every now and then it makes me feel completely inadequate. When you are learning a new step it is nerve-wracking. I would watch my instructor with a deer in the headlights sort of look as she demonstrated the move for me. I would then try it out and mess up, time and time again. And all of this was in full view of our daughter. She watched me stumble, step on my wife’s toes, and sweat with that feeling of incompetence that comes with learning something new. Heck!  My teacher actually had to push me to get my body to move in the right direction so that I could grasp the new movement pattern for the step.  Talk about embarrassing!  I hated feeling so vulnerable and incompetent, especially in front of my daughter. But, I also think it was important.

For some reason, if you’re like most parents I know, I’m sure you’ve been given the crazy idea that as a parent you are supposed to always exhibit and exert control over yourself and your child, presenting a mirage of I’ve-got-it-togetherness that is not only unsustainable and unrealistic, but downright unhealthy. This unrealistic ideal also completely misses out on a powerful connection tool in your relationship with your child. Instead of being a sign of weakness or frailty, learning to be vulnerable with your child is actually a powerful relational tool to produce profound and lasting connection with her.

If you haven’t already, you need to set aside 20 minutes to watch this powerful talk given by Dr. Brene Brown on “The Power of Vulnerability”. In it she explains that very idea and why it is so important for us to practice being vulnerable with each other.

So, if you’re like me and every other parent out there, despite your best intentions, you often screw up with your child.   But if you never let your child see you screw up, you rob her of an important opportunity to really SEE you and learn something valuable. That’s right, your mistakes and screw-ups can actually be your best asset toward teaching your child the life skills she needs. But, it requires your vulnerability. The way that you show up to your child teaches her about how she needs to show up for life. So, I wanted to share with you four ways to use vulnerability as a powerful parenting tool.

1. Admit that you messed up

That’s right. You have to admit it.  With your child, this can be as simple as saying, “Ya know, after I yelled at you for leaving your toys out, I realized that I was wrong.” You can also sit down and draw out what happened.  Go ahead! Admit it! What you will actually find is that you will be able to see your child visibly soften to this overture. Most often your child is always at the ready with warmth and compassion when you actually own up to your mistakes. Not only are you modeling the practice of confession, but you are also offering her the chance to demonstrate kindness, compassion, and understanding toward you.

2. Ask for forgiveness

You’re not done yet. Once you’ve admitted that you messed up, it is really important to ask forgiveness of your child. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. I messed up when I yelled at you. Will you forgive me?” It’s quick and simple. It doesn’t need to be complicated, but it does need to be heartfelt. Our kids are some of the best BS detectors around and can see straight through us if we’re not being genuine. So really put some thought into it.

3. Let her see you feel

There is a range of human experience both rich and varied that is totally enhanced by our emotions. Our emotions are a compass leading us to make good decisions and guide us down the right path. Our kids also need to see us feel. This gives them permission to do the same. Learning to express and identify feelings is central to your child’s development, impacting all other aspects of her growth. It is okay to cry, get angry, or become exhilarated in front of your child.  So help her by showing her how to do it by talking to her about it. “I am feeling so happy/sad/frustrated/disappointed/etc. because . . . ” Through your example, she will learn how to do it for herself and grow in her connection with you.

4. Let her see you struggle
What?!!! I know. But, honestly, there’s no use in hiding it. Your child can already see it. Stop fighting it and just go with it. When you don’t know how to do something or you can’t seem to figure it out, let her be around and even talk about it with her. “This is hard, but I’m going to keep working until I can figure it out.” You are teaching some very valuable life skills here, like tenacity, patience, and hard work.

Vulnerability can be tough. But nothing worth fighting for ever comes without challenge or struggle. So I challenge you to take the leap into vulnerability and to use it to deepen and strengthen your connection with your child. As you do so, your child will notice and your connection will grow. You will be living more authentically and you will find that you are a more effective parent.