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Feel, Felt, Found

A mom recently shared with me a handy mnemonic that reminds you what to do when your child is having a strong emotional reaction. The process comes from the same philosophies that I follow and teach, but improves upon them by being simple and easy to remember!

We know the most important thing to do when our child is upset is to keep or regain our own peacefulness, but once you’ve done that, how best to respond to your child? The easy-to-remember hint: Feel, felt, found.

Feel” reminds us to begin by reflecting: say out loud what you see, with empathy and warm, non-verbal body language that tells your child that you see and understand what they are feeling. It might sound like:

• “I can tell that you are feeling upset.”
• “Oh, gosh, I can really see that you are feeling angry about this.”
• “Whew, that really scared you, didn’t it!”

Felt” represents your opportunity to relate to your child in this emotional and sensitive moment, and to let them know you relate to them and what they are experiencing. The sensation of being ‘felt’ and heard and understood is one of the best feelings there is, so be sure to really be present and connected in this. It might sound like:

• “I have felt the same way.”
• “I feel upset when I can’t have my way sometimes, too!”
• “Once, I had to do that too, and I remember it felt really scary.”

Found” finally brings the moment that parents so often yearn for–the opportunity to share your experience and wisdom with your child–your chance to teach, to guide, to educate! It might sound like:

• “Can I share what I’ve found that helps me deal with this?” (I love for parents to ask for permission to give advice.)
• “I’ve found that xyz really makes me feel better.”
• “I’ve found that xyz makes the problems seem smaller/happen less frequently.”

An important part of healthy relationships is the sense that the other person respects your subjective experience–responding with ‘feel’ and ‘felt’ in those difficult moments is an effective way to assure that you are doing that for your child. Thanks, smart Mama who shared—this handy, simple, way to remember this is a help for us all!

Are you going to let her get away with that?

True personal story:

When my oldest daughter was about 8 months old, she got over-stimulated and grabbed an adult relative hard enough to cause pain.  We pulled her off, apologized, went into another room and helped her calm down.   About 20 minutes later, I apologized for my daughter’s behavior again to my relative.  Her response surprised me.  She said:

“Are you going to let her get away with that?  Shouldn’t you give her a little swat on the butt?”

At the time, I think I simply said that no, I wouldn’t be spanking my infant.  But, years later, I still often think of that brief exchange because of the stark contrast between “conventional” parenting wisdom and what–thanks to research–we now know.

To start with, did you know that when a baby or child is upset, the part of their brain that learns best is turned off?  When they are crying, dysregulated, hungry, overtired, “wired,” or “fried,” they can’t really learn.  So all the words, all the lessons, all the good advice you give them during that time?  It pretty much goes in one ear and out the other.  And it’s not their fault, either.  Their brains (and yours and mine, too!) are hard-wired to work this way.  Furthermore, in those over-stimulated situations, the part of the child’s brain that IS working is a primal, emotional, impulsive, defensive part of the brain.  You aren’t going to change the fact that the primal brain is primal, trust me… what you can hope for instead is to help your child improve their skills at managing their own dysregulation, so that they can get better and faster at bringing their more sophisticated brain functions back online.  That’s not going to happen for any 8 month old; we’re lucky if our 8 year olds can do it some of the time.

So, the next time your child is really upset, don’t try to “teach them a lesson.”  Instead:

  • Press the pause button on your own words and reactions.
  • Take a deep breath and help yourself either stay or return to calm.
  • Then, share your calm energy with your child, with the simple goal of helping them get back to their normal, higher-functioning self.
  • And for those children old enough to take your advice, save it for a later time, when your child’s brain and body are back in their normal, peaceful state.  That’s the very best time to teach!

When we rely solely on punishments to change behaviors, we either end up unsuccessful (for example: the prison system) or somewhat successful with negative side effects (for example:  poor relationships between parent & child, aggression in the child towards others, increases in lying and hiding behaviors, etc.)  To create a life-long positive relationship with our children, we have to approach shaping their behavior with gentleness, consistency, flexibility, and understanding.  Punishments don’t do any of those things—at 8 months, 8 years, or 18 years.

What we now know… is to limit our lecturing, work to understand why our kids misbehave, create an environment that supports the behaviors we want, create cooperation and mutual respect, and focus on the positives.  This creates healthy adults, better parent-child relationships, and it works.

***If you like this post, click over to this one on a similar theme that I wrote last year: If not punishment, then what?

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You say you want a revolution…

When people come to see me, it’s generally because they are seeking change.  Something isn’t quite the way they want it to be: they want to grow, or help their child grow.  That desired change?—it begins in the brain.

Scientists used to think that brains stopped growing after a certain age, but thankfully we now know better.  Modern neuroscience has proven that the human brain is “plastic”—it can change and grow throughout life.  This is great news, because it means that we can change and grow throughout life—we can change our habits, our beliefs, our expectations, our fears.  Understanding and acquiring what the human brain needs in order to learn, change, and grow is a necessary step in the revolution you seek.

Dan Siegel, psychiatrist, researcher, and one of the founders of the Interpersonal Neurobiology movement, identifies 7 fundamentals that are necessary for brain growth.

  1. Sleep.  Sleep is so important, and modern parents (and kids) just do not get enough.  I myself often remind parents that sleep deprivation is listed in the Geneva Convention as a form of torture.  It’s really important, so make sure your whole family is getting enough.
  2. Good nutrition.  You already know this one—but eating more fruits, vegetables, avoiding highly processed foods, limiting sugar and sugary drinks are all ways to help the body—and therefore the mind—work better.  Dr. Siegel also singled out getting enough of the nutrient Omega 3 as particularly important to the developing mind.
  3. Physical activity.  Adults and children need daily exercise and activity, including both weight-bearing and aerobic activity.  Exercise is proven to regulate mood and improve focus.
  4. Novelty.  Our brains are quick and smart because they look for patterns—you don’t have to discover how a water faucet works every single time you visit a new bathroom, thank goodness.  But the shortcuts our brain takes when it recognizes a pattern actually work against us when we want change.  So, try to mix things up, introduce playfulness or humor, or change the scene somehow in order to bring a little novelty into the situation.  It will make your brain sit up and take notice!
  5. Focus of attention.  What are you paying attention to?  Your focus drives energy and information through certain circuits of your brain.  More energy and information=more growth.
  6. Safety.  Without this, the brain doesn’t learn and grow well at all.  It is absolutely essential.
  7. Mindful awareness.  This is your mind’s ability to observe as opposed to reacting.  I sometimes call this the opposite of the “Whack-a-mole” mode.   Instinctual reactions are helpful when you are yanking someone out of the way of a speeding car, but in most parent-child conflicts, that’s not the part of the brain you want running the show.  Brain growth is improved when we are able to pull ourselves out of our instincts.

If you want to foster change and growth, prioritize the items on this list.  The more of the above 7 elements you can put in to place for yourself or for your children, the easier and longer-lasting growth can be.

Keeping the Calm

Parenting is really hard work. Some days are harder than others, and
everybody loses their temper sometimes. The parents I work with
acknowledge this truth, but also want to grow and change. They want to
lose their tempers less frequently, and when they do succumb-they want
the overall experience to be yet further muted. So how to stay calm is
an important, and common topic in my office-especially for those
parents who didn’t have role-models for calmness in their own
childhoods.

Today’s post is taken with permission from the newsletter of
Celebrate Calm, written by Kirk Martin. Kirk is a father who has
created a program to help families, schools, and churches better
respond to kids with ADHD. Here’s what he says about how to keep the
calm in your home:

Control yourself. Realize that we cannot control our
kids, nor should we want to. Our primary job as parents is to control
ourselves and model proper behavior. How many of us throw our adult
tantrums when something goes wrong, then expect our children to remain
calm?

Make a conscious choice to remain calm no matter what your child or
spouse does. Screaming, or withdrawing emotionally, only makes the
situation worse. When we are calm, we can problem solve instead of
creating more problems.

Have self-respect. We are not responsible for our children’s
behavior, attitudes and actions. If my son is in a bad mood, so be it.
I choose not to give in to or join his pity party. If your child comes
into the kitchen barking orders and being rude, you are not obligated
to respond. Walk away calmly, go about your business and let your child
know when he’s ready to talk and be polite, you’ll help him with
breakfast.

If my son refuses to do his homework, then he will suffer the
consequences at school. Our children need to learn that they are
responsible for their choices and I am responsible for mine.

Assume a calm posture. Each time I enter my teenage son’s room, I
ask myself, “Do I want to have a conversation or a confrontation?”
Instead of standing in his doorway barking orders, I sit down and put
my feet up on the ottoman. It is impossible to yell and lecture when
you assume a calm posture.

Take care of yourself first before trying to take care of others.
Exercise, walk your dog, pray, listen to music, whatever helps you be
calm. Make a decision that no matter what your child or spouse does,
you are only responsible for your actions. This liberates parents and
frees children to be responsible for their choices.

Be the calm. When your home is spinning out of control, draw others
into your calm by sitting down and coloring or reading a book. Let
everyone else know that you are in control. You’ll be surprised at how
your children (and spouse!) begin to calm down once you do.

I absolutely love the image of the father sitting down in a chair,
feet up, to have a conversation with his son. The tone and likely
outcome of the conversation will be so much better as a result of the
father’s proactive choices. And actually, this trick would be useful in
many different relationships-spouses included. Another trick in the
same category is to purposefully slow your physical movements-a lot.
This is especially true when parenting toddlers, as they absorb our
energy directly. If, for example, your toddler is misbehaving and you
need to pick her up-try doing it in slow-motion. It’s likely that she
will (a) not get even more wild in response to your response…, and (b)
hopefully absorb some calm, quiet energy instead.

One final thought of my own… while all of the above suggestions are
good, I suggest working on taking care of yourself first. When self
care is lacking, everything else is harder to handle. It’s almost
impossible, for example, to stick with a conscious choice to stay calm
if you’re stressed, hungry, and tired to begin with. So, getting
yourself back up to the ‘baseline’ is first, and then you can tackle
the other steps.

Good luck!