Children, teens and young adults are unfinished. Their brains develop from the bottom brain stem up and they aren’t completely mature until sometime in their early twenties with the most complicated part — the higher order, impulsivity and regulation part — finishing last. When they are younger they literally rely on our brains to bridge the gap. When they are agitated or angry the best thing we can do is stay calm so they can borrow our calm. Just like we help them by tying their shoes until they can tie them, we help them by loaning our regulated brain until they can regulate.
Dan Siegel has a great video about this; I encourage you to check it out before you finish reading this post:
Ok, that’s all well and good but what if we don’t have a calm brain to loan them? What if we are just as agitated and angry and anxious as they are?
Well, that means we’ve got some work to do.
Now it is absolutely normal to get angry when your kids are screaming at you or to worry when they’re worried. Got that? It’s normal. We are social creatures so not only are our kids built to use our brains to fill in their own gaps, we are also meant to tune into them and catch what they’ve got going on. It’s a little like building immunity — we pass our feelings back and forth and ideally we pass the immunity back and forth, too.
So. It’s not the feelings that are the problem. It’s ok to be angry. It’s ok to be anxious. The key is what happens next.
We need to learn how to regulate so that when we are all wound up we can bring ourselves back down and by doing so we are not just giving our children the opportunity to hop on our regulation bandwagon, we are also modeling the process. Before we tell them to calm down, we need to calm down. Before we remind them to breathe, we should stop to breathe. Before we send them to their rooms, we can say, “I’m taking a break to get myself together.”
If you are unable to do this then you will find yourself stuck in loops with your child. Their anxiety fuels your anxiety, your anxiety fuels their anxiety and back and forth and back and forth until you’re both a mess and someone is having a complete break down. Sound familiar? If it does know that you are not the only parent struggling with this. EVERY parent struggles with this at some point or another. Some of us struggle more, especially if we come from families where no one was loaning us their brain when we needed it.
If you had parents who said, “Stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about!” or who smacked instead of listened or burst into tears when you were crying, etc. etc. then no one was loaning you a brain when you needed it and some of this might be more difficult for you. No wonder then that your child’s tears or anger or whining hits you hard. Let’s just acknowledge that, ok?
The good news is that our brains are super powerful and can keep on learning. We can do this. We can learn to respond to agitation with calm. We can learn to sit with our child’s difficult feelings without giving into the urge to make it stop at all costs. But first we need to forgive ourselves if we struggle. We need to understand that it is normal to catch our kids’ dysregulation and recognize that it’s not our fault but it is our responsibility. We can do this. We are good at growing.