Parenting
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How can we be calm in the midst of what is going on in the world? With our economy falling apart, many grandparents and great-grandparents raising children, and concerns about terrorism, our survival system is staying on edge? How do children learn to calm and regulate their stress when the adults around them are on edge, worried, and reactive? How can adults not be reactive when the pressures to perform, adjust, and deal with an ever-growing complex world continue to grow daily? If our experiences as children were not very regulatory then, how do we teach our children the regulatory way? We can't give what we didn't get, so how do we get it so we can give it?

Our session is up and my 4 year old client doesn't want to leave. I breathe. I acknowledge his difficulties. He wants to stay and play but our time is up. I start walking to the door. He follows stomping. His mom says sternly, "Don't do that!" He looks at her and keeps stomping. Leaving is a major transition issue for him. He looks at me and says, "I am mad at you," as he stomps out of the office slamming the door. I keep breathing. I let mom know that I am not offended by his "attitude". We have talked about his transition challenges which trigger this attitude, not just with me but everywhere he goes. She sighs and gives me a weak "Okay, see you next week." She has just begun to learn this new way of working with children and still doubts its validity. I call later to see how he is doing. He is fine. He is outside playing. She didn't get onto him on the way home. He settled fairly quickly this time.

At our next session he brings a small package with two muffins in it and shares one with me. We play for a while. Before we go on to another activity he asks if his time is up. I say no, so we play longer. When it is time to go he puts down his toys and walks out the door, lingering by the snack basket and asks, "Miss Deborah, can I have a snack?" "Of course you can," I say, then add, "It would be really mean of me to put snacks there and not let you have one." He agrees and leaves. His mom stares at both of us.

How different this was compared to 7 years ago before I began to implement the stress model. Back then, as embarrassing as it is now to admit I would have used a stern voice, started putting the toys up, given him explanations about why it was time to go, and enlisted mom's support. There we would be two adults against one dysregulated scared child. His behavior would have escalated into running around the room and kicking and screaming as his mother picked him up and took him to the car. Not a calming interaction for any of us. But we adults showed him who was boss. Right?

Lessons in the stress model have taught me that the fear receptor of our brain begins developing in utero and is fully online at birth. This part of the brain is called the amygdale, and it is vital for survival. It is very sensitive to environmental changes which the body may perceive as a threat. When we perceive something as threatening, we may freeze, fight, or run. A multitude of chemical changes begin to happen in our brain and body, getting us ready to do what we need to for survival. These changes are not a conscious choice; they are our reactive survival system. If a baby is crying because it is hungry, then that need for nourishment is a threat to survival. Or, if it has been startled by something, it needs the warm, calm, and safe arms of a caregiver to hold it tight and help them feel secure again. This part of the brain is fully operational by 18 months.

Another amazing thing about how we are made is we have another part of our brain to help the amygdale calm down. We are not made to be in constant stress. The hippocampus is the part of the brain that helps us to calm down. It is open for change life-long. It helps us with short-term memory, thinking clearer, and decision making. If the amygdale hijacks us by staying threatened too long our thinking becomes confused and distorted and our short-term memory gets suppressed. We forget where we put our car keys. We learn to calm what frightens us by being calmed by another human. The challenge with this is two-fold. First, managing our stress reactivity is learned through the experience of a "regulated other" and second, this part of our brain isn't developed until the 36th month of life. The terrible twos are not terrible, they are the dysregulated twos! Children are looking at us to help them with intense feelings within their bodies. They don't know what to do with these feelings other than scream, yell, or hit. (Actually, I've seen adults do this and I admit a time or two I have, too).

Unfortunately from parents, teachers, and other professionals, I continue to hear their belief that a child is either "trying to get attention" or "trying to manipulate the adult." Yet if the adult is stressed out, has an 'attitude' toward a child, or doesn't want to do something, they have an excuse or a justification for their behavior. Aren't rewards, punishments, and distracting a child, forms of manipulation? When adults "lose it" and yell or scream or hit a child, we call it discipline? Aren't those threats of harm? Or are they told if they hadn't done what they did the adult wouldn't be giving them a consequence or punishment? From the adults' confused and distorted place, are we saying "They made me do it?" Could that be what we hear reflected on the playground or in the playroom? Where did they learn this? Sounds like the behavior of a stressed-out adult. If we learn to listen to the behavior; a child with an 'attitude' or throwing a temper tantrum is a child who can't manage their stress. To us their stress may seem insignificant compared to what we are dealing with in the 21st century. But it is relative to where we are in our development. So, what are we doing to calm children down? What do we need to do?

We all need to slow down and breathe. Not only does that help to calm our amygdale and reduce our stress, it gets us back into our bodies and out of our racing thoughts. By slowing down we can connect to what is truly important to us - relationship. It amazes me how we say our children are so important yet we spend so little time with them. If the walls of my counseling room could talk they would share the message of the absolute love that children have for their parents and parents for their children. The problem is that what we consciously say is not always followed by the actions to do. Other unconscious forces trigger us into a primitive place. This is a place where distorted thinking can make our loved ones look like an imminent threat to our survival. Especially if we are threatened and stressed out by the complexities of how 21st century life has become. Everything is moving fast but are we truly better off?

We are all experiencing the disappointments of what we were taught to believe would get us to a safe, secure place. In this place we would have time to be with our loved ones to play and love them. In this place our needs would be taken care of financially, professionally, and relationally. We wouldn't have worries. We would be content and we would have taken care of our own and maybe helped a few others along the way. Now those that have carried their own weight and reached out to others are overwhelmed by one financial, social, and political set back after another.

Though this is all understandable to our stress and frustrations, it is our children who are suffering. It is our children that are paying the intergenerational cost of our unwillingness whatever the reason to not embrace what we know now about the emotional and development needs of our children. We can't continue to use the excuse of that we're too busy, too stressed, or too worried. Children are grieving inside for the lack of feeling the emotional presence of another.

I know because everyday in my counseling office I hear children tell me how misunderstood they feel and long for more interactions and time with their parents. Adults hurt children not just through abuse. They hurt children through how they behave in their divorces, reacting by yelling, threatening, hitting, spanking, and being emotionally unavailable. (One can be physically present but if adults are emotionally absent, that is abandonment in the experience of the child). Most of all, children are being hurt from the lack of emotional connection they need to feel from their parents, both of them; but parents are too busy, too stressed, and too worried. Stress takes us out of connection, first with ourselves and then with others. Children are afraid. Children are stressed. Children are running in fear from lack of human(e) connection.

We need to write a new story of how humanity woke up and saw they were living too much from fear. We need to write a new story of how in our awakening we changed our priorities from consumers to relationship connectors. In our story, we learned to value the human need for love and connection. We began with changing how we treated our children. We added the criteria of how well our citizens were doing emotionally in relationships as well as how productive they were as a measure of our GNP. We need to write a love story of how we began to wipe away the fog from our own eyes, honor our experiences from our history, and move beyond it. We need to write a new story of how humanity began to understand they are spiritual beings who got stuck in their human experiences of fear, and forgot where they came from and that who they really are, are Love. This Love is of a greater understanding than all of our conditioning about love. We need to write a new story of how we are all in the same field of existence and we come from the same Soul. Our individualized and unique souls are parts of the same Soul, like each water droplet in the ocean as part of the same ocean. We need to write a new story of how humanity woke up and in saving our individual selves, we saved each other.

Children are a reflection of our need for a new story of humanity. They are lost in the sea of stress and lack kind and calm human interactions to help them turn things around. Until we slow down and take stock of what we are doing, we will continue to see challenging children's behavior escalate. It doesn't have to be this way because there are things we can do. One of the things I've done is to learn and practice the stress model. I also teach this to my clients and their parents. If you'd like to be the change you want to see in the world then I have the tools to help.

Blessings,

Deborah

Deborah Chelette-Wilson is a relationship coach, authoress and speaker whose powerful message for women is "It's time to stop waiting for permission to be all that we can be(without being a bitch about it)." Her inspiring message helps women harness their personal power, find peace within and become part of the shift in creating healthier and more loving relationships, beginning with the one with their self. In order to honor someone else's heart you must first honor your own.

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