Before even interacting with our children, before saying a single word and prior to figuring out what is going on inside of them there are several simple actions we can take as parents that can transform our relationship with our children, help them thrive and allow us to grow alongside them.
One of the most powerful realisations we can have as parents is that, in spite of what our behaviour-centric culture tells us, there is nothing “wrong” with our children. They’re not broken, they don’t need fixing and we don’t need step-be-step strategies to be the parent our children need.
Because parenting isn’t about DOING. It is about BEING. It is about relationship.
A conscious parenting approach means that we work on ourselves first, not on our children. That we heal the parts of ourselves that are wounded. And through the process of uncovering our own authenticity, we are unlocking one of the most powerful tools we have as parents, which is modeling.
Among all the parenting experts one consistent theme is present; the need for self-regulation, self-compassion, and self-awareness. Focus on the self, and not on the other.
These concepts provide the basis for respectful parenting to be a success. Because, while we can consciously know that we don’t want to yell at our kids, that we don’t want to resort to threats and rewards and that we don’t want to repeat history if we’re pouring from an empty cup or burying our own unmet needs the path of gentle parenting can become rocky.
So, here are five ways we can help our families thrive, by first helping ourselves.
1. Managing our own worries
Does your child tend to be anxious? Are they a worrier? Managing our own anxieties can be one of the best places to start to help signal to our children that the world around them is a safe place.
When we become conscious of how we interact with worries, doubts and fears, we can model healthy ways to regulate emotions. As a by-product this will help our children moderate their own anxieties when they surface.
Does this mean we need to always be in a zen-state? Of course not, it’s more about the way in which we interact with and regulate our emotions that matters.
Dr. Lawrence Cohen, a licensed psychotherapist, and author of multiple books including “The Opposite of Worry,” tells us that “anxiety is contagious – when you calm down, your calm spreads to those around you.”
Any parent can tell you the escalating effects of a less than calm presence on their children. Often, when we search and delve deeper into times of familial dysregulation, we find at its core our own anxieties and worries. We cannot help children learn to self-regulate if we add our emotions to the mix.
“When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it’s our job to share our calm, not join their chaos.”
Dr Cohen asks: can we become this calm presence from which we give our child a gentle nudge in the right direction?
So, here are some practical ideas for helping children with anxieties according to Dr Lawrence Cohen:
- Instead of laying our anxieties at the feet of our children, Dr Cohen suggests we start by looking at ourselves. Begin by considering what is our own anxiety – think about whether we’re pushing our children too hard or rescuing them prematurely based on our own levels of worry.
- Practise self-regulation and do everything we can to stay calm and centred in the moment when our child’s alarm system is alerted. By doing this we can demonstrate to our children that they are safe.
- Model ways of modulating anxiety such as moving our bodies and deep breathing. When we do this our children are witnessing healthy release, emotional regulation, and expression of worry. When they come up against a challenging situation in their own lives, they have these same tools to draw upon to better regulate their own worries and fears.
- Accept occasional anxiety and worry as normal, passing emotions. When we become able to accept states of anxiety and worry within ourselves, we invariably become adept at being with these feelings within our children. We welcome these feelings as a natural part of human existence, and this becomes our children’s narrative too.
- Avoid unconsciously passing our own anxieties to our children in the small moments we intervene with a well-meaning “be careful” which is really about trying to manage our own worries.
When we as parents trust in the power of our calm and regulated presence our children feel safe and they can rest in their attachment with us.
This consistency teaches children they are safe; they can handle this, and they are not alone.
2. Practising self-compassion
We all long to be able to hold our kids more compassionately, to have infinite resources available for our children. Yet it’s easy to become lost in pouring so much of our compassion into our kids that we forget to take care of ourselves.
Kristin Neff, Ph.D, a pioneer in the field of self-compassion tells us that“research clearly shows that the more self-compassion we have, the more resources we have available to give our kids.” By practising compassion firstly with ourselves only then can we hold our kids more compassionately.
In her research, Kristin explains the significance of mirror neurons in our brains. These neurons allow us to feel what other people are feeling. We can harness the magic of these mirror neurons as a tool to help regulate our children’s feelings by first regulating our own.
Parents, and more so women, have been socialised to say yes to others and no to themselves, which Kristin teaches is not compassion at all. This societal role of pleasing others can lead a mother to consistently say no to herself.
This saying no can cause anger and resentment to bubble beneath her people-pleasing persona. This lopsided compassion models to our children that we forsake ourselves for the sake of others, which isn’t a healthy way to be.
Compassion is a skill learnt through modelling; if we model self-compassion ourselves, our children will naturally follow suit.
Kristin describes how self-compassion shares the same principles as compassionate parenting, it is simply about how we parent ourselves. If we can first learn to be compassionate to ourselves, we will notice an increased capacity for compassion for our children.
I had the opportunity to chat with Kritsin recently during an interview for the RG Online Summit and she said that we need to balance our own needs with the needs of others.
That we need to balance fierceness and tenderness.
That self-compassion is a radical act.
Self-compassion is saying, “In addition to others, I also care about myself, and therefore I’m going to be my full, complete, authentic, balanced self and nurture all parts of myself, not just the ones society says I’m supposed to have.”
For our children, witnessing our own healthy relationship with the self is one of the most powerful ways to teach our children how to have a healthy relationship with themselves.
3. Understanding a little about brain development
As parents, we can become more adept at helping our children grow into emotionally mature adults by having a strong understanding of the way their brains develop.
Our babies are born extremely immature with only 25% brain development – it isn’t until our mid-late 20’s that our brains are fully developed. That means that our children may not always be capable of the things we think they are!
Experts in childhood brain development Dr Tina Payne Bryson and Dr Dan Seigel, authors of “The Whole Brain Child”, tell us that how a child’s brain develops is heavily influenced by experience. A Whole Brain Child is one who, as development unfolds, has the kinds of experiences that allow for their brain to become fully integrated as it develops.
If we deeply understand the idea that our child’s brain develops through experience, we as parents can work to provide the experiences that allow for healthy brain integration to occur. We can guide our children into adulthood as they begin developing their higher brain functions. These functions include things like emotional regulation, body regulation, insight, empathy, sound decision-making, response flexibility, attuned communication, executive functions, intuition, and morality.
By becoming “Whole Brain Parents” we can work to prevent ourselves from reacting to our children from the primitive areas of our own brains. Instead, if we become deeply connected to our own emotions we can, through mirroring, give our children the experiences they need to integrate these higher brain functions.
If we understand that brain development takes time, and continue to engage with our children empathetically, we can provide the experiences necessary for the healthy integration and growth of their prefrontal cortex; a process Tina and Dan explain must first start with ourselves and the healthy modeling of emotional regulation.
In understanding the nuances of brain development, parents can become a passionate ally in their child’s journey to adulthood.
4. Believing we are the answer
According to Dr Gordon Neufeld, a Clinical Psychologist with over 40 years experience of working with children, believing that we are our child’s answer is the most necessary step in allowing secure attachment to take care of itself.
When we believe we are the solution for our children, and allow the attachment relationship to develop, nature allows the rest to happen spontaneously. When we do this, our confidence grows and we’re able to hold onto the belief that we can guide our children organically into adulthood.
Dr Neufeld tells us when we start to understand the power of attachment, we begin to realise that we are hardwired for it. That closeness and togetherness are integral to what it means to be human.
We begin to understand that conventional discipline techniques involving separation can damage the attachment relationship.
Dr Gordon Neufeld is a strong proponent for the power of play in children’s lives and is concerned about the loss of it from modern childhood. Simply playing with our children provides an emotionally safe experience that gives them time to process emotions. If we as parents approach play with trust and openness we naturally create this safe space that allows for all our children’s feelings to be welcomed.
In our society, Dr Neufeld explains, “we have put behaviour before feeling. But feeling our emotions is what makes us human, it is what heals us, feeling is everything”.
So, if we allow and trust in the natural development of attuned attachment with our children it will help us to help them. Over time this belief will allow them to grow and separate from us to become well-integrated individuals.
5. Paring back our schedules
The idea that simply cooling off our schedules and auditing our current lives to help kids build resilience seems too simple to be true.
Yet, Kim John Payne, a counsellor for over 29 years whose interest lies in how to give children a childhood, uses this suggestion for parents of bullied tweens and teens.
In his work, Kim noticed that reactive kids are usually over-scheduled, over-stimulated by screens and have a lack of predictability and routine in their days. By quietening schedules and bringing back slowness and connection to these children, allowing time to be together with their parents, ride bikes and play board games they were able to decompress from the pressures of the world around them.
In his work with bullied children, Kim John Payne encourages parents to slow down for 3-6 months, spend more time with their child, go to bed earlier and come alongside their children to empower them to be part of their own problem-solving.
While his work focused on tweens and teens who were being bullied or bullying others, the benefits of slowing down can help all children. If we allow for this decompression in our child’s schedule it can make space to break cycles of reactivity giving them perspective and allowing them to move into a place of power.
Creating space in our family’s schedules can help us as parents to move from what Kim coined “harmony addiction’ of wanting everything to be ok for our children to one of perspective. We move to understanding that our children need these social situations to learn to navigate themselves and life.
In slowing down, in pairing back our schedules we allow our children an empowered developmental experience which has huge effects on their growth and development.
Providing our children powerful lessons through self reflection
There is so much we can do to help our children by working on ourselves, our own unmet needs, our own need for compassion, and introducing more simplicity in our families lives.
By looking inwards and developing our own resilience, compassion and understanding we can notice wide-reaching positive effects on the development of our children. As we begin to understand ourselves and practice self-regulation. We are giving our children some of the strongest lessons that will take them thriving into adulthood.
To find out more ways in which we can harness the compassion and understanding within ourselves to help our children thrive join Tracy as she has honest and open discussions with all the experts mentioned in this post as well as other game changers in the world of conscious parenting in the Raised Good Online Summit, September 22nd-26th.