Wouldn’t it be amazing if there were a Parenting Fairy Godmother that came to rescue us during tricky parenting moments? With a wave of her wand, she could grant us the strength to pause before yelling, the wisdom to know what to say, and the power to follow through with all the things. Poof, and just like that, goodbye power struggles, meltdowns, whining, and chaos.
This is where I pinch myself to wake up, because there isn’t any Fairy Godmother coming to save us. Seems kind of harsh, but actually it is a blessing.
I spent far too long looking outside of myself for the answers to all of my parenting struggles, desperately searching for the perfect script and checklist for raising my strong-willed unique learner. The race to “figure him out” and “make behaviors stop” was literally sucking the joy out of being his mother. The outline of him got blurry and it became hard to look past my own frustration.
I began to feel like I was in over my head. This parenting gig is for life, huh? I wasn’t sure that I could make it that long at the rate we were going.
Sitting on rock bottom, I called a friend of mine to vent and seek advice. And that’s when she told me the most peculiar thing. But it was this one thing that saved me.
“Quit looking,” she said.
I know, I was confused, too. But she was so right.
Here’s the thing, parenting is like a cross country event. It’s about the long game.
It isn’t a perfect script or one-time checklist. The real magic is you … your child … together, connecting in the minutiae of the day.
Parenting isn’t something we do to our children. It is much more relational than that. Parenting is something we have with our children. This is in the way we survive challenging moments, support big emotions, teach skills to soothe or alert the nervous system, and help nurture our child’s developing brain (and our evolving brain).
It’s a way to be … a mindset … a lifestyle, not a one-time sprinkle of parenting fairy dust. There will be ups and downs, hard and joyous moments, but when you create a home ecosystem where you and your child feel safe and connected, you create something much more powerful than the perfect tale: a strong parent-child relationship where both you and your child feel seen, validated, and supported.
Teaching Emotional Intelligence
The month of October is all about nurturing emotional intelligence. This isn’t just for our children, but for us, too. As we re-parent our inner child and grow the shadowy parts of us that have been suppressed since our own youth, our children watch, absorb, and repeat.
According to Elizabeth Sautter, M.A., CCC-SLP, licensed speech and language pathologist, author of Make Social And Emotional Learning Stick, and co-founder of the Make It Stick Program, “Emotions happen all day long, so using situations to become aware of them, label them, and teach skills for coping and managing them is where the learning happens. Our children are watching what we say and do and, like mirrors, they will reflect back the social and emotional skills we model.”
So, what does this mean?
There are teachable moments in all moments, and it is how we choose to face our triggers and tune into our bodies that our children will emulate. Let’s break this down in a real-life example:
Your child comes home from school and they are clearly dysregulated. They are stuck in that fight protective response, and because you are their safe place, they unload the stresses of the day. But, they don’t yet have the skills to logically process their emotional and sensory overwhelm, so it comes out as big undesirable behaviors. Attitude, stomping feet, slamming doors … all right before telling you that you will never understand and that you’re the worst mom ever in the world of moms! (Welcome to the parenting club)
You have two choices:
- Option one: Feeling hurt yourself, you take your child’s behavior personally. Their words begin to fuel your feelings of not enoughness. Your own triggers grow - annoyance, frustration, then anger. As you escalate, you storm into your child’s room and tell them that they better show you respect, better get it together and that they can stay in their room until they calm down and are ready to apologize.
This is a teachable moment, except nobody wins here. You walk away feeling further from your child. Your child, who is left in their aloneness, learns that their feelings are unsafe to express and that these parts of them threaten their attachment with you.
When you and your child feel unsafe and disconnected, the part of the brain that operates higher-level functions such as impulse control, empathy, problem-solving, emotional regulation, and repair is suppressed. Simply put, we miss the mark to model and teach the skills we desire our children to assimilate.
- Option two: Pausing a moment to check in with yourself, you notice how you feel: confused, curious, concerned, and maybe even a little hurt. You feel your triggers rising up inside of you but, instead of reacting to them, you imagine them as little bubbles, closing your eyes to breathe in and out. With every breath, you pop your trigger bubbles and allow your body to relax a bit more.
In doing so, you realize that your child’s behavior is not about you, that their behavior is a symptom of dysregulation, and that, despite their attempt to shut you out, they really need you to lean in. With that, you gently knock on your child’s door and let them know that you recognize that something feels hard, and you are here for them when they are ready.
This is a teachable moment. You begin to rewire faulty belief patterns about yourself and about your child’s behaviors. Your child notes your calm and sturdy presence and feels safe, which allows them to regulate just enough to let you in. You learn about his horrendous day - the low grade he got on the test, how he was left out of recess dodgeball, and how his teacher called him out in class when it felt hard to sit and focus. Under his anger was pain and, eventually, lots of tears. Before bed, you revisit the situation with your child, and together, brainstorm ideas for future hard moments.
Teachable moments unfold in real-time, and we have so many tools. It is important to remember that the tools live in us, and it is our love that brings them to life. This is how we teach and guide through example.
In her Make It Stick Program, Sautter shares resources for parents that help them meet their child where they are and build upon their strengths, ideas for modifying the environment, modeling and co-regulating, and using mindfulness in small ways that add into, not on to, the day (which is great, because, don’t we all have a long enough parenting to-do list already?!)
“While the program gives the basis for ideas and tools, how they show up in your home will be unique to you and your family,” Sautter says. “Every family is different, and so is every moment. Parenting is fluid, and when we embody that, we can hold firm in our boundaries while also validating and connecting with our children.”
Tools To Teach Emotional Intelligence
In her book, Make Social and Emotional Learning Stick, Sautter shares several tools to help adults and children develop emotional intelligence. With Halloween coming up, we thought it would be fun to share a few festive ideas.
1. Pumpkins Can Show Feelings
Invite your child to pick an emotion that they want to draw or carve on a pumpkin. Choose various facial expressions, and encourage your child to identify and act out how the pumpkins might be feeling and what they might say depending on how they look. Bring on the silly and together mimic the expressions, and maybe even create a story around each feeling face.
2. Notice Emotions In Self
A powerful way to help your child notice body sensations is to invite intentional pauses and random feeling check-ins throughout the day. This can be a casual and quick check-in or something more playful.
Everybody freeze! Family feelings check-in! How do you feel right now?
You can also go further. Ah, you feel happy … sad … frustrated. What does that feel like in your body?
You can also measure their feelings. How big is your happiness … sadness ... frustration? This big … this big?
If your child is experiencing unpleasant emotions, playfully invite a calming strategy. With a nod to Halloween, perhaps your family stomps like Frankenstein, flaps like a bat, howls like a werewolf or does Mummy wall pushups.
Remember, this isn’t just for our kids. The check-in is for you, too!
3. Notice Emotions In Others
While reading a book with your child, take intentional pauses to stop and notice what the character may be feeling and discuss possible calming strategies. Think ahead to problem-solve possible solutions to the character’s conflict. This simple, fun connection activity bridges the emotional and logical parts of your child’s brain so that they can access them in their life, too.
In our children’s dysregulation, it is hard not to follow them there. Social-emotional learning happens over the course of a lifetime, not just in the silo of one day or one lesson, for both us and our children. The good news is, neither of us has to do it alone.