When it comes down to it, I believe the health of any relationship, whether it be spouse, colleague, friend…..very much points back to how well you communicate. During moments of communication is when all those wonderful, or not so wonderful, hormones are being released in our brains. As soon as our babies are born, we are told to bulk up on eye-contact, gentle talking and physical contact to get those lovely bonding hormones (oxytocin and dopamine) happening. So what happens when our children start to grow and learn to push our buttons, and, God forbid, have a will of their own?
Let me ask you this? When was the last time you (as a parent or in any relationship) raised your voice and put your hands on your hips? Guilty here! I have probably already done it several times today! Well do you know what you are sub-consciously doing in that posture? You are “looming larger”. It is a posture adopted by both people and many animals to make themselves appear dominant and intimidating. When we adopt an intimidating posture and voice, we can unintentionally cause the release of cortisol and other stress hormones in our children’s brains. What affect does cortisol have? Cortisol is actually a wonderful hormone that is released in times of threat that allows your “frontal lobe” (reasoning/rational part of the brain) to process quickly and effectively causing a reaction to ensure survival, known as the flight or fight response. However, in young children, whose frontal lobes are not fully developed, they cannot respond rationally to stress. Children’s responses to stress are controlled by the more primitive areas of the brain. In order to handle stress and return to calm, young children need a parent/caregiver to comfort and reassure them that they are safe. If the environment is constantly threatening, or the children do not have a reliable caregiver, they will rely on the primitive areas of the brain to handle stress.
So what does all this mean for us in everyday parenting our rabble? Well, basically, it is our job as parents to keep our children’s brains in a relaxed state as much as possible when we are communicating with them. If we keep using intimidating tactics to discipline and control our kids, we are actually training their brains to respond in an adverse way and they literally cannot think rationally to hear and absorb what we have to say. Even more confronting is the fact that consistent and ongoing extreme levels of cortisol have been found to case significant emotional and developmental delays. Eeeeek!
I have to say that when I delved into this a few years back, I had to really assess my communication and discipline techniques as a Mum. I was never a huge exploder but at times getting stuff done took preference over healthy interactions with my kids. I find with my kids when I am approaching them in a way to incite stress on their little brains (picture a Tasmanian Devil spinning and spitting toward the offending child!!) they all react differently. Some will withdraw completely and almost be physically unable to verbalise themselves, some will dissolve into hysterical tears and some will flare in anger. Some won’t seem to exhibit stress at all but I notice later that our relationship doesn’t seem safe or as close as it should be.
This little piece of advice came at a time that we most needed it. It was our sweet little Jaspy-boy (boy #5) who seemed to meltdown in moments of stress, more than any of our other children. He smiled his way through his infancy, however when he hit the toddler years it seemed that life became too unpredictable and threatening for him, and he would constantly be lost in overwhelming emotion. The toddler years is often a stage where there is massive development in the brain and increased awareness of the world. The tactics we used with the previous kids were not working. My/our communication with him in these moments were inconsistent at best. It was at a time where we had a lot of outside pressure happening and I was limping my way though an exhausting pregnancy. So we, particularly me, was not on my game. So this little insight in how best to bring calm into his world was a God-send.
So what is the answer? Pretty simple really. It is in these moments that no matter how you are feeling, to remind yourself of the words “slow, low and listen” as you approach your child/children. The opposite, which will almost always incite a stress response, is “fast, large and loud”. For me slow, low and listen means getting down as low or even lower than your child, partnered with a firm but gentle touch (to communicate comfort and safety) and a soft tone. When we adopt this position we are not only diffusing a stress release in their brains, but also ours. Eye contact is good but not necessary, more often in teens, as it can be received as threatening or intimating. It is often best to ask your child (in a calm tone!) what the problem is, allowing time (30 seconds or so) for the brain to calm and help the child to know they are heard and understood. It is then from that position that you can offer advice, or in times of discipline explain what consequence will have to ensue and why. This part needs to be kept simple, brief and difinitive. It’s important to remember not to get caught up in an argument or he-said-she-said scenario. If the child continues to be heated and argumentative, you can simply respond with “let’s talk about this later when you can communicate calmly”. For young ones it might mean some time/space somewhere like their room for a few minutes while they calm and are ready to listen. Consistency is the key, but it is not easy! Believe me, between 7 kids and a few stirers in the mix, I have had plenty of time to practise and still only get it right some of the time. But boy, when I do and I am on my game and intentional in the moment, it truly does work. I can almost see all their little brains in their heads in a relaxed, rational state…… and the result is a calm, happy household.
I am now pleased to report that our little Jasper is thriving. With (more) consistent and calm communication with him, we have been able to enter his world when he feels overwhelmed and help him to bring calm into his little brain. Previously, I think we were heaping more fuel on the fire. He is doing beautifully at school and celebrated his 6th birthday as a mature and mostly calm little boy. I am amazed at the beauty of development and how the natural maturing process happens when raised in a safe environment. His school teachers have wonderfully created a safe place for him also, which I am sure is a big part of his increase in emotional IQ.
The hardest thing is acknowledging that it starts with us. Another couple who I was listening to on a similar topic of brain science in kids, would actually give each other the permission to whisper to the other “remember you have an adult brain” when he/she wasn’t responding well to their kids. The husband would often respond in jest “do I really?”. If we are honest, most of us are not responding as the fully formed adults should, and I am the first to put my hand up to admit this. However, a key is to remind ourselves daily that we have an amazing privilege and responsibility in molding and shaping these minds, and the way they develop habits in coping with the world. A certain amount of stress is good for them, but constant stress is not.
If you are find reading this a little convicting, knowing that most of your interactions with your kids are explosive and/or intimidating…… there is hope!! Their precious brains are very much plastic…….meaning with consistent and repeated healthy interactions they can change, heal and rewire. I would propose that after a week of intentional change, would definitely lead to ongoing neurological change. No matter how old your child is, your relationship and communication habits can still become positive and healthy…… you just have to remember….. slow, low and listen……and remember you have an adult brain ????????
Love, Greta…..The Butcher’s Wife XX