Guest blog post by Codie Surratt, MA, LPC, LMT
This past year has been one for the books. Like all the books – the record books, the medical journals, the how-to-survive-a-pandemic-while-raising-kids-without-losing-your-mind books! One thing we know for sure from the last year is that those who could pivot despite uncertainty fared better. Pivoting helped ease stress, anxiety, and fear. That is because the ability to pivot is a fundamental aspect of resilience – and resilience is the key to happiness.
Certainty vs Uncertainty
But before we got there, let us back up for a minute. Our brain wants and craves certainty; it’s evolutionary. When we were cave people just trying to stay alive, it was critical to identify every single threat out there. It was our biological mandate.
So that mandate forced our brains to develop a keen system of self-regulation to keep us on our little cavepeople toes. The central nervous system alerts us to anything out of the ordinary, and the brain develops a plan of attack delivered through instinctual impulses.
Unfortunately, our brains haven’t precisely out-evolved our evolutionary “mammalian” brain. And when we are in constant states of uncertainty, this can cause all kinds of problems. Stress is not necessarily a bad thing. However constant stress and strain on our nervous system (being in a constant state of fight, flight or freeze) can create a toxic stress environment that our body and minds begin to adapt to in some rather unhealthy ways.
Stress Management Techniques
So back to where we started. What does this state of constant stress on the nervous system mean for your kids and their resiliency? When you as a caregiver are in this toxic stress atmosphere, dealing with tantrums or school closures, the pandemic feels almost insurmountable. You can’t think straight, you forget things, and you become overwhelmed. It becomes increasingly difficult to regulate your own nervous system, much less that of your children.
Related Reading: How to Teach Your Child to Cope with Anxiety
The good news is that the key to helping yourself and your children through these stressful times is right under your nose. Literally. It’s connecting to the breath, intentionally taking some deep belly breaths, essentially “tricking” your nervous system into understanding that there is no threat and you are in charge.
I know, another person telling you to “just breathe” is annoying, isn’t it? I get it. But let me drop some science on you. Connecting to your breath as the first step to helping yourself and your children navigate rough waters ahead helps your evolutionary brain get a little less triggered. Not convinced yet? Keep reading.
Belly Breathing for Kids
What does intentional breathing mean? Research suggests that when we intentionally activate our parasympathetic nervous system, it calms the triggered (or activated) sympathetic nervous system – our fight, flight, or freeze response – and we are more able to think with our entire brain. This means that taking deep belly breaths, focusing on a long and extended exhale, invokes the calming parasympathetic response to whatever is happening in that moment.
In my years of teaching breath work (yes, there’s a class for that), I’ve noticed the natural tendency is to breathe shallowly when the sympathetic nervous system is activated. So taking an intentional, long, deep, calming breath counteracts that short, shallow, fear-induced breath. See, science!
Breathing, deep intentional breathing, can be a key foundation for your work of helping raise resilient kids. In fact, co-regulation is the name of the game: when you can calm your own nervous systems actively, you are well on your way to helping calm that of your kiddos.
Why Resilience is Important
Now we want to look at the interpersonal neurobiology of resiliency. Yep, we’re going deep into the brain here and learning how something as simple as your connection and communication style can alter how your children behave and react to uncomfortable emotions and situations. Your job as a parent is to make sure your kids can handle the challenges that will inevitably show up throughout their lives. Heck, we’re living through one of those challenges now! Think about how you have had to remain calm, connected, and communicative to help yourself and your kids throughout this pandemic. When you do that, you help your child build that key resiliency.
So what is resiliency anyway? What does it mean to raise resilient children? Resiliency is the ability to recover somewhat quickly from difficulties or challenges. Think about the last time your child wanted something and didn’t get it. Maybe a part in the school play, a place on the soccer team, to go out with their friends, to have a few more hours of gaming online. How did they react? And more importantly, how did you respond?
As I mentioned previously, interpersonal connection is one of the most important aspects of raising resilient kids. When kids have the containment that your emotionally-regulated connection with them provides, they can handle disappointment, struggles, and difficult times without devolving into an hours-long tantrum or sinking into deep depressive and anxious states.
I recently had a mom ask me how she could tell her child that she needed some alone time without hurting the child’s feelings. My response was, let’s reframe that to “how can I tell my daughter I need some alone time and help her with whatever feelings come up from that.” We then worked on what that scenario might look like.
We did a little role-play to practice:
Mom: Honey, mom is starting to feel a little overwhelmed. I’m going to take a break to help myself feel better and spend some time reading this book alone, so I’ll be up in my room with the door closed for about 30 minutes. Dad is here if you need anything ok. (stop at that, and take some deep breaths)
Child: No! I want to play barbies! You said we could play barbies!
Mom: (continue breath work) You’re feeling hurt. You really wanted to play barbies right now.
Child: It’s not fair. I don’t want you to read a book.
Mom: (breathing) It feels unfair to you, and you really wanted to be with mommy right now. I can understand that, and you’re allowed to feel upset. But mommy is going to go upstairs, and dad will be here for you until I come down.
Related Reading: 6 Rules for Helping Your Kids Fight Fair
In this scenario, mom was able to model boundary setting and self-care by stating that she was overwhelmed and going to care for herself. She also validated and mirrored what her child was feeling without needing to fix it for her. She simply allowed space for her child’s feelings to be felt. So with help from you, your child can build that key resiliency by internalizing the big uncomfortable emotion they are experiencing. So follow these steps:
- See what your child is experiencing
- Name the feeling your child is experiencing
- Validate that experience
- Allow your child to have that experience and emotional response without needing to replace it with something positive
Practicing what Dr. Dan Siegel in his book The Whole-Brain Child, explains as the 4 S’s can help instill confidence, balance, resilience, and self-awareness in your child. Those 4 S’s: allow your child to feel Seen, Safe, Soothed and Secure.
So validating your kiddo’s experience, ensuring they know it’s safe to express the emotion they are feeling, and co-regulating with breathwork helps your child feel soothed. As they experience this cycle with you, your child learns to soothe themselves. It creates a sense of security for them, knowing they are accepted. All this leads to some extremely resilient children!
Resilience is the Key
Of course, we all want to take our children’s pain away and have them feel joy forevermore. But that’s neither possible nor healthy. To live a full and rich life where they feel confident, self-accepting, and in touch with their wise minds. They need to navigate challenges. They need to feel what it’s like to be disappointed, hurt, sad, and know they are still whole and acceptable and that they’ll be ok. This bone-depth knowledge is key for their resiliency.