I had lost him.
Somewhere between my beginning, middle, and end, my son and zoned out and tuned me out. I imagine for him it must have felt something like Peanut’s teacher - Wah wah woh wah wah - which is a total bummer because what I had to say was good … like, I had thoughtfully crafted a beautiful response.
The message was on point. The delivery was clutch.
But I guess that’s the funny thing about an adult brain vs a child’s. We move from our logical parts and they function from their emotional elements.
I have realized a trend in my years of being a mom. Sometimes less is more. Sometimes zipping it or using fewer words is actually more beneficial.
This seems to be excruciatingly hard for those of us with fully functioning frontal lobes - aka all adults - because we just have to teach the lesson or make our point or fix those hard emotions.
And that’s where communication gets lost. Children translate and process concrete information. Their ability to process abstract constructs and long narratives (aka lectures) is barely there, if online at all.
It’s not that they don’t want to keep up or are willfully not keeping up. It’s that their frontal lobe - the one responsible for executive functioning and emotional regulation - is as young as them and won’t reach maturation until about the age of 25. So, if you do the math, they still have some serious growth to do.
Right now, your toddler, tween and teen are all functioning in varying levels from their amygdala. They detect threats, feel feelings, and respond with a behavior.
- Your toddler feels a big emotion and doesn’t know how to regulate it so they hit their brother.
- Your teen feels a big emotion and doesn’t know how to regulate it so they yell, “I hate you!”
- Your child experiences sensory overwhelm and doesn’t know how to manage it so they run and hide.
- Your child is hungry, tired, or off routine and doesn’t know how to balance it so they meltdown.
- Your child wants your attention, some agency, or to share their desires and don’t know how to ask for it so they escalate.
All of these children are lagging some developmental skill and have some valid need they are seeking without the know-how to communicate and manage it.
It is up to us to respond to their lower brain with our higher brain so that, in time, they can learn the skills to access their own higher brain. This is how co-regulation works.
When our children lose it and we stay in our body - our calm - to notice their dysregulation, and validate feelings, we send a very important message to them. Namely, Your feelings are not contagious. You can feel big and I will be here for you.
Raise your hand if you needed that as a child? I know I could have used a bit more of that and a bit less of the blame, shame, and lectures.
This doesn’t mean we are passive. There is a time to teach. Your child’s dysregulation just isn’t it.
A dysregulated nervous system cannot access the parts of the brain required to listen, process, and integrate parenting monologues, questions, and directives. The best time to help your child learn tools to manage emotions and behaviors is actually when they are regulated in the presence of small moments together, like when taking a Time-In.
Three Words Our Kids Need To Hear
While our parenting agendas to teach the lesson, make our point, and fix it are good agendas, they have more to do with us than they do our kids. That’s our stuff.
Sometimes all our children needs is connection. And sometimes that only takes three (or fewer) words. Below are some of our favorite three-word sentences to use with our children in various moments.
1. You are safe.
Children act the way they feel, so if they are acting out of control, it is because they feel that way. Feeling out of control also feels scary. When your child is melting down, get eye level or below and offer these three words.
2. I am listening.
Oftentimes, as parents, we are the ones doing the talking, but parenting is a relationship. As with all relationships, there is a time to talk and a time to listen. Actively hear what your child is saying not just above the surface, but also what their behavior may be saying too.
3. I love you.
This one sounds like a no-brainer, but these three words are not always easy for us to say or receive. I find myself saying this not only when my kiddo and I are jiving but when he is feeling big, messy emotions, too. Our children are loved and love 24/7, and nothing changes that.
4. I appreciate you.
This is a way to recognize your child and direct gratitude towards them. Not just for when they do something desirable but also a hey, I appreciate you for being you kind of thing.
5. I am sorry.
We will not be perfect parents. I repeat, we will not be perfect parents. We will yell or say or do something regrettable. This isn’t the goal, and yet, this does yield the opportunity to model another important skill: repair. We can’t expect our kids to genuinely offer apologies when we are unwilling to do so ourselves. Let your child see your humanness, and make amends when needed. This shows your child that you mess up sometimes too, and also, that you care about your relationship.
6. I support you.
Our children are wildly whole and complete from day one. We don’t have to make them anything. There is nothing to do so to speak when it comes to carving out their essence. Let your child know that you support them as they navigate big feelings and tricky situations and as they follow their bliss and become more of who they are and are meant to be.
7. Your thoughts matter.
Imagine how powerful this statement would be to hear as a child. Everyone is physically bigger than you, commanding and demanding you, and seems to have more power than you. But then, you hear this, and suddenly, you don’t feel so small and powerless. Instead, you feel seen and develop a knowing that you are an important part of your family system.
8. Your feelings matter.
Most of us grew up with our feelings ignored, swept under the rug, or gaslighted. As parents, we may not like the behavior we see from our children yet it doesn’t mean that we can’t respect and honor the feelings beneath it. All emotions are valid and sacred. We need to know that. And so do our kids.
With so many parenting scripts and advice out there, it is nice to know that what we say to our kids doesn’t have to be some memorized monologue. The best thing you can do is to be in the moment with your child and speak from your heart.