Photo by Monstera
By Dan Blair, marriage therapist and family counselor
The first half of this article reveals the anatomy of stress, and how we can respond to it. The second half applies what we learned about stress to parenting our kids. Hopefully you shall understand ways to help you and your child recognize and respond to intense emotions in a healthy way especially during times of stress. What am I saying? Life is messy. Maybe we can get better at handling strong emotions. Perhaps there will be an intervention you can use to motivate your child. Most importantly, I hope you find at least one way to improve your relationships with your children, reduce conflict and have more enjoyable interactions.
We are all stressed. Here are a range of stressors that we encounter in this life. Which one can you identify?
Acute and chronic stress come from an attempt to meet demands beyond our capacity. Our brains are designed to go online with another healthy brain to regulate stress and emotions. We are meant to be in community. When this is not available, are brain’s next move is “fight or flight” responses. When that does not work to deal with the problem, we resort to “freeze” mode. After that there is a shut-down mode. Over time stress affects the cells in your body and causes mental and physical disorders. It even affects how much exercise will help, or how much nutrition we can absorb. Examples include lowered immunity, cholesterol, heart disease, stroke, cancer, pain and insomnia.
Ideally we are able to go online with another healthy brain to handle emotions. Do you know what part of the brain goes offline when we are stressed? The part responsible for empathy, humor, creative problem-solving, logic and memory. This is not good unless you are actually in danger. If you are actually in danger, you don’t have time to do any of those things. Adrenaline, cortisol and other stress hormones compromise our ability and put us in a state that I would call “adrenaline drunk.”
Ideally, we are in an optimal arousal state that we can effectively regulate our emotions throughout the day. As long as you have the tools to stay within these thresholds, you are able to engage with others, function well and make good decisions. If we move too high, we cross the line into a hyperarousal state. You will feel anxious, which is a warning sign. Too low and we are in the hypo-arousal state. This is shut-down mode. You will feel depressed over time. What does excess stress do over time? The boundaries shrink and it becomes much easier to move into the hyperarousal and hypo-arousal state. Our goal is to teach ourselves and our kid’s skills that widen the threshold and increase our capacity for handling stress.
Let’s say there is a path between fight and flight on one side, and shutting down on the other side. Our challenge each day is to stay in the middle where we can engage with others, function well and feel gratitude. Stress and trauma can make us veer off to one side, and eventually we can bounce back and forth between each side and feel anxious and depressed. The best way for us to stay on the on the path is to connect with others, someone who accepts you, helps you make sense of your experience, and is kind to you. You know, like God. We are declared righteous through the cross, and are now without judgment. Psalms 16:8 says, “With Him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” Psalms 131:2 says, “I’ve kept my feet on the ground, I’ve cultivated a quiet heart.” Another way to do this is through a healthy relationship in the Body of Christ, someone you can trust. If we can do that, we can contain fight, flight, and shutting down. This is why our kids need us to be healthy. We will come back to the number one tool. Here are some less effective, but helpful tools.
Tools for hyperarousal state to counter fight or flight: A, B, C, D, E
Acceptance what you are feeling. The body’s rejection of our own emotions causes stress. You can ask yourself, “What is happening inside of me in the present?” Notice what ever gets your attention. Ask yourself if you can respond kindly to it. Now what do you notice? Is there anything I unwilling to feel? What if it was okay to feel that?
Self-judging triggers the stress response we talked about earlier. Another name for the devil is the Accuser, and sometime we join him in accusing ourselves, or we accuse others. This sends us into fight, flight, or shut down modes.
Breathing. Do you know how to pronounce the Hebrew name for God? Ialeph,ayin. I can’t say it because the word is silent. It is actually more like a sound, the sound of inhaling and exhaling. Breathing techniques address hyperventilation, which leads to higher reactivity associated with an increase in oxygen and a decrease in carbon dioxide, which leads to a rise in the blood pH level. You can lessen the intake of oxygen to create a balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide.
Belly breathing is deep breathing using your diaphragm.
- Your stomach should extend, not your chest
- Breath in through the nose and out through the mouth
- Breath out slower than you breath in, and pause after you breathe out
- For kids, you can also use balloons, bubbles, or use “hot cocoa breathing” (pretending to smell hot chocolate and gently blowing it so that it cools).
Calming techniques engage the experiential part of the brain versus the striving part. We can focus on the five senses to reduce muscle tension. Just notice what you think about when your mind wanders and gently come back to your senses.
- Sounds like relaxing music, and nature
- Sights like pictures, movement
- Touch like textures, blankets, bath, sun
- Tastes like sweet, crunchy, spicy, sour
- Scents like lavender
Distraction techniques include anything that effectively holds your attention for some time until the adrenaline can metabolize. Walking or counting backwards seems especially helpful, drawing blood flow away from the brain’s alarm system.
Expression techniques express emotion in non-destructive ways. Talking to supportive person, journaling, artwork, coloring, dance, music and other creative options. Even exercise, yoga or any movement can put the adrenaline to good use and a by-product is carbon dioxide.
Tools for hypoarousal state to counter shut down: ACES
- Routines and rhythm of life
- Meaningful work that gives you a feeling of accomplishment
- Expectations: wishes or realistic? Within your control?
- Make a list
- Prioritize it and put it in a schedule
- Time with positive friends, family, faith, pets, nature
- Random act of kindness
- Ask for help
- Grieve and forgive
- Google “hobbies”
- The great outdoors
- Sleep hygiene
- Healthy eating habits
- Regular breaks
- Pay attention to emotions and needs
Optimal arousal checklist. I think for this we will need help.
- Are my brakes working? Joy, Peace, Patience
- How about the steering fluid? Faithfulness, Self-control
- Transmission fluid? Love, Kindness, Goodness, Gentleness
Now once I am in a good place, the challenge may be responding to a family member in this hyperarousal state. If I’m not careful, their state of mind is going to take over my state of mind. They start to argue, I start to argue. They start to raise their voice, I start to raise my voice. At that point, we are competing with each other for a sense of control. When some people, especially kids, are upset they like to control us. They like the power trip to be to make us get angry, say regrettable things, and go point-counterpoint. Anger can be a power trip accompanied by endorphin release to help them when they’re feeling anxious or down. I am not saying kids are like pigs, but to quote George Bernard Shaw: “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”
Earlier in my parenting career I would get upset and try to overpower my kids. I still do that sometimes, but am well aware that makes it worse. We may not know how it affects kids because they can also keep their negative feelings inside.
Kid’s calming parts of the brain are underdeveloped and the alarming parts are overdeveloped. Chaos can become comfortable. Have you ever feel disoriented or anxious in the middle of the night? Some kids can feel like that all day. No wonder they misbehave. Plus, kids read our voice tone, facial expressions and body language and react accordingly. Kids also test your allegiance to them. In other words, they want to know are you really there for them when they are upset or have made a mistake. Finally, triggers can be external (environmental), but they could also be internal, like fatigue, dietary, and sensory integration.
We cannot parent kids well if we are not calm. So what is the first step in parenting? Keep calm and I recommend using CPR.
What do we do to escalate adrenaline? Do we notice we or they are getting calmer, or are they adrenaline drunk? Instead of trying to teach them a lesson when they can’t see your point of view, perhaps start by giving the child choices and compromises so he’s not fighting loss of control. Don’t forget anger and anxiety are contagious don’t forget to check yourself. Whoever is upset needs to take a break from conflict until calm.
When calm, connect with them before you correct them. Show them you know and understand what they are feeling. Or, take the time to know and understand what they are feeling, so they feel cared about. Would you believe that comfort and kindness reduces anxiety? You do not have to agree with what they are saying. For younger children, get on their level, ask them to find your eyes or try appropriate touch. Learning calming techniques is often more important than the other lessen they need to learn.
Physical and verbal aggression though is designed to shock, upset and control you. Don’t let it work. If the child is too disruptive and the attempts to calm are making it worse lead the younger child to a safe place in the house and give older children space as long as they are safe. Unless the child is unsafe, wait until the adrenaline is metabolized. Don’t talk until the child is ready to listen to you.
Practice improves behavior better than reasoning. Like in learning the guitar, or playing a sport, actually doing something is better than just explaining it. You can practice the wrong way to do it first to reinforce the difference. For example, slamming the door versus shutting the door. Introduce the option of a redo, a chance to start over when frustrated. Practice any of the calming techniques, which usually only work when you and they are already calming down. Knowing that the positive needs to outweigh the negative, have plenty of good times, good talks, recognize their daily accomplishments and show affection. This is often what is missing in difficult relationships.
When calm, you can use the problem-solving triangle. The bottom corners of the triangle represent both sides of an issue. Both sides can share their perception of an issue. Each side shows acceptance and understanding of the other side. Surprisingly, there is no need to agree to teach effectively. Instead of focusing on who is right or who is wrong, focus on the top of the triangle, which represents brainstormed solutions. Agree on a solution to try, hopefully build on the kid’s ideas.
Once calming, practicing and other responsibilities are completed, routine privileges can be accessed. For extra reinforcement, add a special privilege at times. Behaviors can be tracked if needed with checklists, and stickers for younger kids. Positive consequences usually are effective and include praise and celebrations. Use consequences that are logically related. An example may be researching a topic, volunteering or providing restitution. Most importantly, be consistent. For older kids predetermine consequences with them. They do not respond well with surprises. Can you imagine getting pulled over and being assigned 80 hours of community service instead of a fine?
Now here is what I learned that helped me the most. Trying to get my kids to understand facts only helped kids counter them in their mind or to your face. Facts don’t change feelings or hormonal shifts. People and kids need to feel they are cared about. I learned to predetermine consequences, and use empathy when reminding them of the consequence. My negative reactions teach negative reactions and impede learning. Using fear, threats or isolation may be effective in the short-term, but not the long-term. As Abraham Lincoln said, “Force is all conquering but its victories are short-lived.”
Three laws are behind this CPR parenting. The law of conflict means kids automatically oppose your position when they are upset and they can’t receive new information. The law of practice means behavior is skill based requires repetition. The law of self-determination means the more freedom is limited the likelihood of poor choices increase. Kids need to be able to make their own choices and will learn best with consistent consequences.
This approach can take a long time to develop. In times of stress though, we have a need to lower expectations to effectively deal with increased demands. Target one to three behaviors at a time. It’s normal for kids more or less to not be able to control behavior, have difficulty putting on the brakes from acting on incoming stimuli, staying focused with their “steering fluid” (neurotransmitters in the brain) and get stuck because of their “transmission fluid” disengaging from enjoyable activities. They have powerful “engines” that give them lots of energy, so they will need positive outlets.
Structure can help. We can create routines that are realistic and include time for physical release of energy. In addition, we can prepare for transitions and less structured times. These times can be difficult. Establishing routines and schedules are helpful for us to get things done, and helpful for kids. For younger kids, a chart with pictures or drawings that the child drew, can prompt daily routines. As the child completes each task he or she can check it off on a whiteboard, or move a closed pin to the next picture. When transitions are tough, intersperse something relaxing.
You can also use visual and auditory timers, like the Time Timer app. Kids and adults can practice sustaining attention through sounds or beeps. Using an app like Beep Beep, or a system of your own design, can be a reminder to stay on task. You could even track if you are on task when it beeps. The more you can reduce distractions the better. Background music or noise can help block auditory distractions, or headphones. Also fidgets to manipulate, or seat cushions, like Movin’ Sit Jr. or Disc O’Sit Jr can help contain the extra energy. Perhaps different stations for different subjects. Or, consider apps like Inspiration and Epic Win to help kids organize, focus, and complete tasks.
- Post expectations with pictures or words at the places where they’re needed.
- Prompt behaviors before they’re needed. You can use signals. For instance, kids know what the school bell means.
- Determine the average time your child can focus on task. For now, you can make that the goal before a break.
- Use social reinforcement, encouragement, and mini-celebrations.
- Use time-in and time-out. Time-in is used for one on one attention and calming, time-out reduces sensory inputs for a time. Even a short time-out may help, having the child watch the second hand go around the dial for a minute or two.
I’d like to move from correcting kids or family members and reference connecting with kids and family members. We all have underlying emotions that we may not wish to feel. Nice replacements include anger, which also numbs pain, along with distractions and avoidance. We can’t access these emotions if we are adrenaline drunk, so we have to wait until we and the family member are sober.
What are some of these emotions underneath? Fear? Not being good enough? Rejection? Feeling alone? Sadness? Guilt? Shame? To be able to draw out these emotions and identify them is challenging. Proverbs 20:5 says, “Knowing what is right is like deep water in the heart; a wise person draws from the well within.”
For children, a great way to do this is depicted in the movie “Inside Out.” The movie depicts various core emotions to be in the “control seat.” Maybe asking children which emotion is in the “control seat” may be a start. Or, a useful book is Thought-Spot I Know What to Do Feeling/Moods Products: Different Moods/Emotions; Autism; ADHD; Helps Kids Identify Feelings and Make Positive Choices (Moods/Feelings Flipbook)
Otherwise, what are the basic emotions you can start with? I usually dig deeper than frustration or anger, which often cover other emotions, and is difficult to connect with by itself. Identifying fear, sadness, guilt or shame can point you in the right direction. You can ask about these, or go for more descriptive words as you ask them to describe their emotion.
How do we respond? Everyone wants or needs to feel accepted, understood, and worthwhile. So we can respond with the three forms of empathy.
Feeling shared emotions with another.
- Identifying emotions is calming
- Allowing your partner to feel what they feeling
- Staying in tune so your partner does not feel alone
Understanding your partner’s feelings.
- Not about fixing feelings
- It is about making sense of the feelings
- Letting them know their feelings matter
Action to support how someone is feeling.
- Offering comfort
- Showing kindness
We learned about brain modes, especially adrenaline drunk. The best mode in which someone feels cared for and is able to take in information and learn is in the optimal arousal mode. Too high we get adrenaline drunk with anger and anxiety. Too low we start to shut down. We considered ways to come out of the fight or flight modes, and the shut down mode. We speculated on structured parenting approaches. Finally, we reinforced the importance of connection over correction.