This is a guest blog by Sam Cuming, from Here With You Parenting. Sam has a background as a psychologist and has been supporting parents for 8 years. She has some great tips for us on how to help our families thrive by using a connection-based nervous system informed approach to parenting.
Helping Your Family to Thrive in Stressful Times
Whether it’s a global pandemic, or the daily stresses of being a modern parent, many parents are wondering how they can weather the storm, and still provide a solid source of support for their children, so that their family is not just surviving, but thriving.
With no end to the sources of stress we are facing as parents, we need to turn our attention to how we are responding to the stress in our lives, how that might be impacting on our children, and how we can turn that around so that we can be an “anchor” for our child.
How are parents being affected by stress?
It is our autonomic nervous system, the one that controls all of the automatic processes in our body (like breathing, heart rate, digestion, sweating, etc), that has the job of responding to stress. Its primary aim is to keep us alive! And that includes keeping us safe from any potential sources of danger.
Underneath our awareness, it constantly scans the environment for threats to our safety, and no matter what that threat looks like – from running late, to receiving a tricky work email, to getting “triggered” by our child – it responds in the same way it would respond to the threat of being attacked by a lion.
Our stress responses generally fall into the categories of:
- Fight – where we actively confront the threat,
- Flight – where we run away from the threat, and
- Freeze – where we become still to avoid being attacked (and numb to avoid the pain of an attack).
While these stress responses can be completely appropriate and life-saving at times (like when we really do need to run away from a lion!), at other times, and especially when there is a source of chronic stress, it is common for our nervous systems to become “stuck” in these modes, which can make life hard.
What impact does this have on our kids?
Unfortunately, none of these stress responses is conducive to being a patient and attuned parent. Instead, we might find ourselves being really reactive and shouty with our kids, keeping constantly busy, wanting to escape, or shutting down from our kids.
The state of our nervous system is actually transmitted to our children in subtle (and not so subtle!) ways, from the tone of our voice, to our facial expression, to our body language. And our children’s nervous systems automatically pick up on these signs.
So when we are in a stress response – which we might experience as anger, fear or despair – then our children’s nervous system will unconsciously sense a lack of safety, and will go into a stress response too. The state of their nervous system can start to “match” our state.
I wonder if you’ve noticed that at times when you’ve been more stressed, your kids have become more reactive, or clingy, or disconnected from you? It can become a negative spiral, where we each start to react to the other, becoming increasingly dysregulated.
How can we turn this around?
In order to consciously change direction of this spiral, to initiate a positive spiral, we need to focus on ourselves first!
Self-regulation means finding a way back from states of reactivity or disconnection, to an inner sense of calm, where we have the capacity to truly connect with both ourselves and our child.
The first step is to become more aware of our states, and familiar with how each of them feels in our bodies, and the emotions and thoughts that are associated with them. We can use this information to make wise decisions, for example, taking time out when we notice we are getting irritated and frustrated!
Then we can learn ways to reconnect with a sense of safety in the world. One simple way, and it can be done quite quickly, is to find and focus on things that give us pleasure (or a sense of goodness, comfort, or ease)! And the key is to really tune into how that is felt in our body.
It might be tuning into the sensation of the sun on our skin, and just letting in a little bit more of that enjoyable feeling than we usually would. Or we might spend time patting a pet, or have a longer hug with a loved one, and really allow ourselves to sink into the enjoyable sensation of doing these things.
Another strategy for self-regulation is to tune into our body and get a sense of what it’s really needing. If we’re collapsed in Freeze, then we might feel like curling up or hiding under a blanket! And that’s okay! We can go with that impulse, and tune into the difference it makes in our body and nervous system.
If we’re in Fight and get shouty with our kids, or we’re in Flight and can’t stop moving and doing, then sometimes our body might be needing some movement to expend all the energy. It might just be a little bit to start, like shaking our hands, or maybe something more vigorous, like a dance party (great for the kids to join in!).
How can this support our children?
Once we’re feeling more grounded, our felt sense of safety will unconsciously be transmitted to our children – the tone of our voice will be gentle and melodic, our face will appear relaxed with a natural smile, and our posture will be open and welcoming.
Our nervous system will no longer be focussed on the perceived threat, and we will be in a better position to offer our children co-regulation, or interactions that help them to feel calmer too! We are more grounded and present, we can more easily make eye contact, offer gentle touch, listen, empathise, and be playful!
As a result, our children’s nervous system will start to sense more safety, and our children will feel more connected to us and themselves. Sometimes they might start to do the things their body needs to do, such as moving or crying. And they will start to feel more relaxed and content.
Of course, this isn’t a one-time-only event! We are constantly responding to stress, going into dysregulation with our kids, then needing to find our way back to calmness, so that we can lead them back too. The key is flexibility, and the capacity to move through those “stuck” states.
And it is these repeated experiences of having a regulated adult help them back from a stressed to a calm state (co-regulation), that helps kids to develop their own capacity for self-regulation, and therefore, to become more resilient. You’ll be enjoying a more connected relationship with your children, and your children will be flourishing!
What if parents need more help with this?
Some of us have a greater tendency to get “stuck” in these stress responses, and have a harder time reconnecting with our inner sense of safety and calm after we’ve gone into a stress response. It can help to have compassionate support to gently guide them through the process of self-regulation, so they can develop the capacity to do it for themselves.
That’s why Angela Hill and I developed our online group program, “Rewire Through Regulation and Repair”, to help parents learn more about their nervous systems, and practice a range of mind-body self-regulation strategies in a safe and supportive environment, and to learn how to co-regulate with their children.
Feedback from the first round of the program was that it helped parents to connect with their inner resources in new and different ways, to parent with less reactivity and disconnection, and also to skillfully repair any ruptures with their children when they weren’t able to regulate in time.
We are excited to be offering the second round in October 2020 (and again in early 2021). If you’d like to find more details, you can find them at rewireforparenting.com, and you can sign up for the interest list there to receive details of the subsequent rounds.
About the author
Sam Cuming, from Here With You Parenting, has a background as a psychologist and has been supporting parents with connection-based parenting for 8 years. She offers parenting support online.
Here With You Parenting is an approach to parenting that can help children to feel calmer, more content, confident and cooperative. It focuses on the sense of connection that children experience with their parents, and is supported by research in the fields of child development, attachment and interpersonal neurobiology.
Disclaimer: The information provided in this blog is intended as a general educational aid. It should not replace advice given by a qualified healthcare provider in relation to your own unique circumstances and those of your family. Always consult your doctor regarding medical or mental health concerns that you or your family may have.