My recent blog posts about Whole Brain Parenting have led to some great story sharing with parents and grandparents. It is these real life interactions with children that truly open our eyes and hearts to the positive impacts we can make.
One of my friends asked me if I could share an experience where I responded differently to one of my grandchildren, using what I am learning from Whole Brain Parenting. This is what I shared: My five year old grandson was crying uncontrollably, visibly shaken from a sudden scare. Although he was safe, he was still caught in an emotional tsunami. Dr. Dan Siegel’s framework popped into my head. I knelt down beside him, getting just a little lower than his eye level. I wrapped him in a gentle hug and said “that was so scary, wasn’t it?” He nodded between sobs. I assured him that he was now safe and I would stay with him while he cried. He told me that he wanted to stop crying but he wasn’t able to. “That’s normal” I told him. “you are just a little boy and at your age it does take a while to stop crying. It’s okay. I am right here helping you.”
It’s so natural to want to soothe and comfort a crying child, but this time I also could sense that I was in fact the “training wheels” he needed in that moment to help him regulate those really big, scary emotions. I could see how my calmness, my words and my gentle touch were taking effect – his little sobbing body full of tension beginning to relax, his breathing becoming steady, and soon the torrent of tears drying up. I offered him some cold water. After a big sip, he picked up his legos and began explaining to me the complex vehicle he was creating. All of this happened in just under 5 minutes.
As I walked to the kitchen with his now empty water cup, I took a few moments to reflect on what that experience felt like not only for my grandson, but also for me. There it was again — that word “awareness”.
That book – Whole Brain Parenting – informed my awareness about what was happening in the brain and body of a five year old. My full attention turned to meet his needs; needs that I now better understood. And all the while that I was comforting him, validating his emotions and normalizing his inability to tame them right away, I found myself feeling really connected to this new approach.
The “magic” in this integration approach is not lost on me. I didn’t have this whole brain parenting knowledge and accompanying skill sets when I was raising my own kids. I am sure that I soothed them when they were in distress. I am also sure that I inadvertently dismissed what they were feeling in the moment. My most pressing goal was to get them back to calm as quickly as possible. I am pretty certain that my old way took a lot longer than 5 minutes. There may have been a cookie involved too.
To be very candid, I wasn’t very skilled at “co-regulation” as a young parent. My own stress level was probably on high alert so its doubtful I was “cool, calm and collected” while attending to my emotional child — especially if all this was going down at the playground or grocery store. Depending on the circumstances, it’s likely I was as freaked out by a fall from the jungle gym as my child was; or awash in embarrassment watching my toddler have a full blown meltdown in the cereal aisle.
So why was I feeling so “connected” to this new approach? The answer to that question is embedded in all that I have learned (and continue to learn) through my own personal growth journey. When we are not taught the value of our emotions, healthy coping skills and emotional regulation, our life and relationships are so much harder. I know firsthand how it feels to go through life denying or hiding emotions; even being afraid of some of those very natural, human emotions. I’m well aware that stuffing emotions is very detrimental to living a wholehearted life. I’ve got the messy experiences to prove it. A lot of unprocessed emotional baggage kept me from living in alignment with my core values – especially when I was in high stress situations.
The hard work of unlearning, untangling and unearthing all the armor, the childhood behavioral patterns and the invalidating messages we were told takes a very long time. It also takes a lot of awareness, acceptance, self-compassion and courage. It takes commitment, dedication and practice. It can take a lifetime.
Did you know that the self help industry is a $13.2 billion business with average annual gains of 5.6%? Think about all the time and money we are spending to help people address the issues stemming from dysfunctional childhoods and a lack of knowledge about how our complex brains and bodies develop, integrate and regulate. What could we do with all that time and money if we didn’t create these problems in the first place? How might so many of our difficulties in life be reduced or even eliminated?
The bottom line is that we cannot teach what we ourselves do not know.
Ask anyone who has been doing their own personal growth work about how the quality of their life has changed, and they will share insights with you that are revelational. A familiar refrain is “I wish I had learned all this decades ago.”
Children are sponges for learning, so much of it occurring by example and osmosis — often mimicking the coping mechanisms and behavioral patterns of their parents. They will find a way to armor up to protect themselves when they are feeling vulnerable. They will learn how to make sense of their world with or without our help.
The real pivot point is recognizing that our kids can just as easily be taught these better life skills and tools. Dr. Dan Seigel makes it very clear in his book Whole Brain Parenting that “teaching” these skills to kids makes the lessons “stick”. It’s the integration between nervous system and brain that “pre-loads” them with the capacity to engage their upper brain as they get older, when emotions could potentially hijack them.
Proactively teaching our children has positive benefits that go both ways. As parents and grandparents, we get plenty of opportunities to hone our own emotional regulation and better life skills. Children will be witnessing how we are dealing with daily stress and the inevitable moments of emotional hijacking. We get consistent, diverse practice and our children get what we are teaching reinforced by watching us.
When we are using these better tools and skills to live within our core values and integrity, we build strong scaffolding for our children and grandchildren to do the same. They will gain confidence to ask for their needs to be met; it will be second nature for them. They will have a strong inner compass and be able to set boundaries for acceptable behavior with peers and even authority figures; they will have a well-honed sense of right and wrong. Within the safety net of their families, children will learn that we are all unique in our talents, gifts and emotional landscapes. They will come to respect and support differences in how others respond to unfolding events. Again, it will become second nature for them to “meet others where they are” and they will have a bulging toolkit of relationship resources to use for encouragement and empathy.
Think about the self-awareness and tools that we are teaching kids with the Whole Brain Parenting approach as the protection you want them to have when they are out in the world on their own. These are the “forever” life skills that are their helmets, seat belts, guardrails and values.
Parenting is hard work but maybe it has been harder than it has to because of the old parenting models we used. The lessons weren’t sticking. Author James Clear offers this insightful wisdom:
Goals are good for setting a direction but systems are best for making progress. We fall to the level of our systems. Our goal is our desired outcome. Our system is the collection of daily habits that get us there.
Remember that I shared my parenting goal was to get to calm as quickly as possible? I was focused on the immediate outcome. That old parenting approach was like playing whack-a-mole. When the lessons weren’t sticking, the game got old and I was exhausted.
Whole Brain Parenting gets the lessons to stick. I discovered that the “system” actually takes less time too. Each interaction, each intervention that begins with validation and provides integration “training wheels” becomes a much more productive and rewarding building block for parent and child…..or in my case, for grandparent and child.
Both parent and child not only “feel” more connected and in sync in these teaching moments, they both are literally making neural connections that are life-changing.
I’ve spent over seven years on committed personal growth work to unlearn all that I operated on from childhood that made my life more challenging than it needed to be. At long last, I have a life skills tool kit that serves me well and keeps me in alignment with who I really am. What I value the most these days is my calm consistency; my ability to recognize what I am feeling and honor it without letting it hijack how I want to respond to others. I will forever be a helper and a harmonizer – that’s my true nature. The difference is that I am showing up now with healthy skills and tools that support both me and those I love in much-improved ways.
Best of all, I am better resourced now to handle the hard times in life. We owe it to our kids to prepare them for those inevitable challenges. No one gets through life unscathed; there will be heartbreaks, losses, and adversities. We wouldn’t send our kids on a mountain hike without the gear they need to be prepared for any situation that might occur. We can cultivate their resilience, grit, resourceful and problem solving skills by teaching them how to breathe to calm a racing heart, how to disengage from racing thoughts to get to clear-minded rationale, to think through all potential options and choose wisely. We equip them with a mental checklist and a “system” that helps them meet these obstacles more skillfully.
One of the biggest mistakes we made in the past was ignoring how much our children need us to help them process grief. This may be one of the most pivotal changes that we can make. Grief is a very nuanced emotion that is woven into so many “every day” and “normal” life experiences. Grief is present when a cherished toy is broken, when our little souls are crushed by someone’s hurtful comments and we believe what they have said about us. Grief is present when a family has to move, when someone passes away, when we break up with a first girlfriend, or if there is a divorce. Watch the movie Inside Out to gain a deeper perspective on how children wrestle with competing emotions (including sadness and grief). Kids need us and our training wheels most during complex emotional events. We know how our emotions, and our sadness, can ebb and flow for weeks and months after life altering events. We need to be more attuned to our child’s inner emotional world during these long haul life experiences. Trauma can get lodged in us if we are unable to process it. You’d be surprised at the dramatic difference validation, normalizing, and empathy can make in these big moments.
Dr. Dacher Keltner is an emotions expert, and the Director of the Greater Good Science Center in Berkley, CA. He was a major consultant on the movie Inside Out. Dr. Keltner is a renowned resource for learning more about the important role our emotions play in the quality of our life – and especially how we can help our children understand and process complex and competing emotions.
The reason that I felt so “connected” to myself, to my grandson and to the whole brain parenting approach was that it felt so natural, so comforting and also empowering – for both of us. I was in alignment with my values and I was offering to this little emotional guy exactly what I would have loved to receive when I was a small child. He was not only receiving my comfort and support, he was taking it in and all on his own, he was able to gain emotional regulation. He quickly returned to what was bringing him joy in that moment — his beloved legos. I felt “connected” because we really were feeling what happens when we are seen, heard and valued.
“Connection allows us to explore, innovate, trust, love, create and simply be. Connection gives us the power to be who we are and to enjoy the things that inspire us.” – Brene Brown
The Whole Brain Parenting approach is the transformational portal to this magical feeling of true connection. I felt it that day with my grandson in the most tangible way. The moment of clarity about the power of connection will be in my heart forever.