Connecting Skills for Children
Have you ever experienced this scenario....
A child's anxiety or anger is increasing, and you are trying to support and provide guidance, so you suggest that they take some deep breaths, only to hear "NO! IT DOESN'T WORK!" You might be wondering why these coping strategies are suggested if kids don't use them? I hear this a lot and it's a common frustration for both parents and children. I'll tell you a little about what's going on and then I'll tell you what you can do about it.
The amygdala is the part of the brain that gets stimulated when one is faced with a perceived threat, you might know the term 'fight or flight?' It's the amygdala that sends messages to our brains and bodies to either fight, flee or freeze in a dangerous situation. In these instances, the amygdala can override the more rational parts of the brain (prefrontal cortex), which is useful, it keeps us alive. I'll give you an example, one doesn't need to use reason and logic to determine if it's a good idea to jump back onto the sidewalk if a car suddenly appears as your crossing the road. To tell someone to take a deep breath in that moment would be futile; the amygdala is in charge and the only thing to do is run!
Our job is to stay Regulated, to CO- Regulate BY Creating NEUROCEPTIVE CUES of SAFETY to REMIND the child's AMYGDALA it is SAFE. To do that, we....
So, what can you do about it? Practice CONNECTING to the big emotion regularily. Check in with it every day! How is that part of you that doesn't feel heard... or cared about... worried... or not listened to, doing today? NORMALIZE THAT WE ALL SOMETIMES FEEL THESE THINGS!
When it shows up, we join it (we match their affect; energy level, tone and show interest in what they are upset about)
"Wow, this Part of you is pretty loud right now, lets find something we can hit, throw or do together to let it release some of its energy, let it know we are listening."
and after, you can discuss it more - "Let's make sense of why that Part was so big just then...." "Let's become a detective and figure this out together...."
"It makes sense that Part of you got loud, to let us know you felt... overwhelmed... left out... something is unfair... not cared about... not listened to... hurt...!"
Remind yourself and the child out loud - Anger/Worry/ Big Emotions are a sign we need to check in with ourselves, we are feeling hurt or our boundaries are being crossed or we need something.
This works the same for a child with Anxiety/Insecurity...
When it shows up we Name it/Identify it
hey, I'm wondering if you feel a bit withdrawn or shut down right now.... I hear you mentioning you have a stomacheache or headache right now...
Name its intention:
That usually means our body is not feeling comfortable or something feels threatening!
JOIN it: Do something WITH the child to release the energy
"Lets... go for a walk, find a weighted blanket to snuggle, scribble on this paper, draw out how we are feeling, get some water... and give this Part space to check out if it really thinks you are in danger or to tell us what it is worried about or what it needs."
Co Create the story....
I wonder what was happening when that Part got loud. It would make sense that it showed up if... "You were worried you were going to get into trouble..." "That you were worried about getting the wrong answer..." "Worried about others judging or making fun of you..."
Check in with that Part regularly:
"Hey student, how is that Part that gets worried or feels judged feeling today?"
Being seen and acknowlged, helps us regulate and trust (no matter how old we are).
This can help in many ways;
It creates empathetic awareness and integration.
It will lead to the duration, intensity, and frequency of behaviours decreasing.
It will help to create more moments of calm in the child's life.
It helps build self-awareness and competance/sense of self.
It builds confidence in children and their ability to deal with various situations.
It becomes easier to remember and use the skills when needed.
Practicing CONNECTING to emotion strategies may seem like another thing to add to your long list of things to do, but there are creative ways that you can incorporate this into your day. You can check in with these parts at bedtime, in the car, walking to school, at the dinner table or while doing other daily routines. Doing this as a family or as a class can help to normalize emotions and connecting to children's experiences. It's also important to model positive connecting and co-regulating as an adult; children are watching and learning from you and if you are using the strategies that you're teaching they will be more inclined use them.
1. Connect to the emotion being expressed and name it and its intention
(Identify it; use Acceptance and Empathy and name it's Intention; how it is trying to help the child)
2. Provide an outlet or healthy way of expressing it
(Give it space to release the stored energy in the Central Nervous System)
3. Co-Create a narrative about why its there
(To decrease shame and normalize it and support child in returning to a co-regulated state)
4. Support the child in repairing if there was a disconnect or they caused damage or harm to someone else.
("I know you would never intentionally harm someone, lets go get them an ice pack/bandaid, make them a card, let them know we are sorry")
Responding to big emotions
A few things that people can do to help in the moment when a child's emotions are high are;
Stay calm yourself - slow your breathing down, don't talk too much (the brain isn't good at taking in the information when the emotion is high)
Empathize and validate their feelings, use hugs (if that's calming for the child)
Stay with them and using the CONNECTING strategies you've been practicing
IT TAKES REPEATED EXPERIENCES OF CO-REGULATION TO DEVELOP THE CAPACITY FOR SELF-REGULATION.
IT TAKES REPEATED REPAIRATIVE EXPERIENCES TO FORM NEW NEUROPATHWAYS.
(hence why teachers provide lots of experiences of repetition to teach a math question etc...).
Don't get frustrated if they resist doing the strategies, it's the amygdala talking, give them some time. They also may not have learned how to feel SAFE in acknowleging their feelings, making sense of their experiences, or repairing when a conflict or incident has happened. It's okay to name when you as an adult are feeling frustrated, hurt, overwhelmed, or tired; it helps normalize and create safety for them to.
If your child is in crisis please contact your local crisis line, call 911 or go to the local hospital emergency room for help.
Should you and your child need more support managing emotions it might be helpful to contact a local mental health professional for help.
It doesnt help to talk to or correct or punish a child who is disregulated. Instead, join them in finding ways to release the energy and figure out what their emotion is trying to communicate, what need is not being met, or situation became overwhelming. Stay with them and provide neuroceptive cues of safety to help them return to optimal functioning (Stay within their "window of tolerance").
Cues of Safety
(think of what you would do if you walked into a room and baby was crying in crib)
Soft voice that modulates in higher tones
Rythmic movement (rocking)
Narrating the experience with empathy and acceptance - "oh you are so upset, I am right here to help you feel calm again"
Accepting their emotions and experience
being Curious about the meaning of their emotions
The Polyvagal Theory: Humans have a nerve that runs from the digestive track to the brain stem- called the vagaus nerve. Its job is to keep us safe and help us respond when needed to survive. Humans scan the environment for safety and threat all day long (even as adults). Individuals who have experienced stress, trauma, or have a neurodiversity, or who have lived through a pandemic... may pick up even ambiguous things as threatening. When threated, we act protectively; we are in Fight/Flight/Freeze state. To support returning to a regulating or connected state (in their Window of Tolerance), we need to pick up cues of safety. As adults, we may have to AMPLIFY providing neuroceptive cues of safety and empathy to support children and youth in staying regulated (staying in their window of tolerance).