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Parenting with Body in Mind

May 28, 2023

Nothing can feel more urgent, desperate, and frustrating to a caregiver sometimes, than the total non-compliance of a child who refuses to...

Select from the following:

  1. Brush their teeth
  2. Get dressed (appropriately!)
  3. Eat their dinner
  4. Do their homework 

Nothing can unravel us faster than what appears to be a totally helpless or defiant response to a seemingly reasonable request especially when it comes at the end of a long, tiring day. A non-response might look like your child shuffling, head down, glazed eyes, ears closed, away from us or in the complete opposite direction to where we need them to be. Or it might look like hyped-up agitation, wailing, yelping, writhing on the floor; if there's a sibling around, perhaps a fight?

This feeling of utter powerlessness in the face of a non-compliant child when I am tired, or overwhelmed, (or hormonal!) can trigger a deeply visceral reaction. It’s almost as if my body goes into survival mode and needs to fight for its life; my child being the ultimate enemy!!  

That may sound extreme but ‘in the moment’, that perception can feel very real. My brain – which I’ve lost communication with -  knows that I’m dealing with a child that has most likely been triggered too, and that the moment will pass. But my body - like my child's, depending on whether they're feeling the need to fight or shutdown - is being flooded by adrenaline and cortisol. So what happens…? The ‘thinking’ part of my brain goes offline and the ‘not so cuddly mama bear’ comes raging out of her cave. 

Of course there's no excuse for ‘bad-bear behaviours’, but it can be helpful to understand such a response from a neuro-physiological perspective. Let's call this being ‘body-aware’. This awareness can show us how to support our child, and ourselves, in times when our sensory system is too overloaded to respond rationally. Or at times when our higher-order thinking is compromised due to lack of sleep, maybe we're even hangry!

But why do some parents or children seem to be triggered easily by some things, not others, and some not at all? There may be many reasons but one key aspect to consider is that we all possess a unique sensory profile according to our life experiences, particularly those interactions we had with parents or siblings in the early years.

Think of a baby – newborn or in utero. Babies are all about sensing. They will pick up on the chest-tightening sensation a parent experiences in response to a particular relative who's just arrived unannounced. With enough of these bodily sensations transmitted from caregiver to child, usually unintentionally, an association or memory is created which may get translated as behaviour. The child will find ways to protect or compensate for the discomfort.

To give a somewhat oversimplified yet pertinent example...if, when I was a young child, every time I spilt my milk or made a clumsy mistake, as children are prone to do, my caregiver showed frustration, or yelled at me, I would have had an unsettling physiological response. Eager to avoid this feeling, as an older child I might struggle to try new things or I might overdo it, working hard to please and perfect. Both behavioural responses would betray an anxiety about avoiding a sensation we had no help or capacity to understand when we were younger.

The good news? This awareness helps us to notice what things our bodies respond well to, eliciting more connected and co-operative behaviours, and we can build on those. Here are some things we already know soothe the sensory system and increase our capacity to tolerate 'surprises' in the environment, or from others!

  • Non-Verbals Matter – the vast majority of the messages we are primed to receive are non-verbal. Facial expressions, tone of voice, bodily gestures and movement really do matter. Our children pick up on these signals all the time. They are also giving us cues to how they’re feeling through their physical behaviours. Having a sensory lens helps us better interpret their actions and use our non-verbal gifts for bringing a sense of safety and calm. It's also worth considering the impact of the environment on their sensory systems, whether it's the enclosed space of a car or the overly-dazzling grocery store.
  • Self-Compassion is Key – experiences and feelings are deeply embedded in our bodies and drive how we behave towards ourselves and others. The majority of our internal conditioning happens in the time between birth and the age of 6. When you react in a way that you’re not proud of, it might help to know that your reaction came from somewhere. It's a physiological response to something you experienced when you were too young to understand. What you need in that moment is a hand on your heart and the courage to reflect on what you need to do to respond differently the next time…and the next!
  • Play builds Resilience – as I’ve written in pervious blogs  ‘play’ is hugely important for all of us. When we are having fun we are more likely to be in the ‘present’ moment, free from the echoes and experiences of the past. We can re-write our internal wiring, and soothe the anxiety we experience physiologically. When we’re at play we are giving our nervous system a chance to recover and build internal resilience. That’s because play-situations usually engage all of our many senses in ways that are socially connecting. And when we're socially connected, we're more relaxed.

There are many times when we respond in ways that help bring calm, things that we have emotional patience for, and automatically know how to respond to constructively. But we all have some areas of struggle and being aware of our bodies and sensory capacities, helps us find tools to become more effective carers. Knowing we can gradually build our resilience, and help our children increase theirs, is a gift. We don't have to stay stuck. We don't have to be afraid of physical sensations or feelings.

The views expressed are based on the author's personal experiences, observations working with children and families and understanding of current research on neurobiology and attachment theory.

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