Part 5: Regulating Emotions In Children; A Series of Tips and Tools From The Therapy Hour

Connect Before You Redirect 

Friends, this one is a game changer.  Time and time again I have had parents in my office espousing the wonder of this technique.  It seems simple and straightforward, but it packs a wallop in terms of heading off a meltdown, or deescalating a tantrum.  The strategy is simple, connect with your child prior to redirecting them.

For those that have either read Parenting Strategies For Raising Children: Brain Basics 101  or watched my video on brain basics, you know about the 2 main areas of the brain, the upstairs brain and the down stairs brain.  When a child is melting down or having a tantrum, they are basically, “flipping their lid.”  Their emotional limbic and reactive downstairs brain are no longer connected to the cortex, the regulatory and command center of the brain.  When a parent offers direction or redirection when a child is in this space, 1 of 2 things usually happens. Your child either demonstrates chaotic behaviors or rigid behaviors.  Think, they either completely lose it (chaos), or they dig in and refuse to move (rigidity). In this space, the left and right hemispheres of the brain aren’t integrated, they aren’t working together. When the brain is integrated, it’s in a receptive space, when the brain isn’t integrated, it’s reactive.

The connect before you redirect strategy is one that invites integration and receptivity.  Connection prior to redirection allows a child to “feel felt.” They are able to relax into being heard and understood, which opens them up to receptivity, so that necessary and appropriate redirection can be tolerated.

Connecting prior to redirecting strategies might include:

·      Getting down on their level

·      Naming their feelings (you’re feeling really upset about having to leave the lake)

·      Validating and normalizing their feelings (I’m upset too, I don’t want to leave the lake either. Maybe even mirror back and reflect for them some of their emotions- cross your arms, pout)

·      Offer elements of playfulness (I wish we could just stay at the lake forever. I’d live at the lake; sleep on the floatie, make sand pie patties for dinner, take a bubble bath in the lakeJ )

·      With these elements of playfulness, your child will likely connect how silly your statements are.  This is integration.  They are not existing solely in their more emotional right brain, but instead, are integrating aspects of their more logical and orienting left brain.

·      Once connected, offer a solution or strategy (come back to the lake together tomorrow) 

This strategy may seem cumbersome. As though it requires an excess amount of effort and energy when you’re asking a child to do a basic thing.  But what I have found is that the time and energy required for this strategy up front is nothing compared to the gains it offers on the back end.  Think about it. We’re talking about 2-3 minutes of playful, connected and creative engagement to create a “Yes,” that allows for you and your child to go about your day in (relative) peace and harmony.  As opposed to……what?   A dug in, rigid and emotionally dysregulated child that’s sullen, hurt, angry and reactive for the next 2-3 hours? 

The idea of connecting before redirecting offers your child the experience of being seen and heard.  It offers them an experience of the world in which their relationship with you is based on connection.  And what a gift that is!  That connection will be a lifeline as your child gets older.  A touchstone that allows them to explore the world safely while always knowing that you see them, hear them and are there for them. Not only does this strategy invite calm from chaos in the present, but it will continue to invite connection far into the future.

 For more information about connecting before redirecting, and helping your child “feel felt,” Dan Siegal and Tina Payne Bryson’s work is both excellent and accessible.  Two solid resources I often refer parents to are No- Drama Discipline, and The Whole- Brain Child.

If you are wanting support regarding your specific situation, please reach out. It really does take a village, and the wisest among us asks for help when we need it. That’s why we’re here, and we’d be honored to walk alongside you and yours on your journey. You can find out more about our child and family counseling services on the website.

Part 4: Regulating Emotions in Children; A Series of Tips and Tools From The Family Therapy Hour

Invite Kids Into Your Calm, Don’t Step Into Their Chaos, Part 2

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As follow up to Part 1 of Invite Them Into Your Calm, Don’t Step Into Their Chaos, I realized I would be remiss if I didn’t address the underlying key to this strategy, self care.  The reality is, if we don’t take care of ourselves first, we don’t have calm to invite our children into.  It’s just like the old airplane analogy about putting the oxygen mask on yourself first, so that you can then put it on your child.  But, it goes deeper than that.

Our children are watching us all the time.  They don’t always listen to what we say, but generally, they’re watching what we do.  So much of parenting is about modeling, and if we want to help our kids to learn how to manage their big feelings, we have to show them what that looks like.  The reality is, our ability to do that is significantly impacted by how overworked and under slept we are.  Think about it, if we’re tired, hungry, if we’re working too much with no down time to connect with friends or our partner, are we our best selves?  Are we equipped to keep our cool when our kiddo is feelin’ all the big feels about something that seems inconsequential to the editing eye of the adult self?  I don’t know about you, but I’m not. 

 If I’m under slept, overworked, and generally overwhelmed, not only do I not have the calm to invite my child into, but I am far more likely to step right into their chaos.  And in doing so, I exacerbate the issue. I get sucked into a power struggle or lose my cool, snapping or yelling or generally, not being the very kind of person that I’m trying to raise my child to be.  We have to remember that if we want our children to regulate their emotions, we have to model what it looks like to regulate emotions for them, doing it ourselves.  They don’t come out of the womb with knowledge of how to do this.  They learn it. From us. By watching us. Every day.

I’m often reminded that we can’t ask others to do that which we ourselves aren’t willing to do.  I have found this to be true as a therapist, recognizing that I can take others no further than I, myself, have been willing to go, as a coach and counselor, who works alongside parents to navigate the challenging water that is raising humans, and as a parent myself.  And so, I practice what I preach.  Or at least, I do my darndest.  Below are a few ideas of what self care might look like:

·      Date night with your partner

·      Dinner with friends

·      A good work out

·      Taking time for lunch, rather than just hurriedly eating at a desk

·      Turning off the TV and going to bed early, instead of watching the next episode of a program

·      Spending time outdoors

·      Doing something that is life giving for you, such as reading, working in the garden, going to a concert

I could go on and on, but the reality is, self care is unique to you and your life experience.  It’s evaluating what gives you a sense of connection, rejuvenation and gratitude, and prioritizing that, integrating it into your day, your week.  In some seasons of life, you’ll only be able to do this in small ways, and that’s ok.  Still do it.  It will make the difference in your ability to show up in your life the way you want to. To parent with kindness, connection and thoughtfulness.  To carve out and hold onto that calm, so that you don’t step into and get swept away by their chaos.  

If you’re struggling with your own self care, and are having a hard time coping with the challenges life is throwing your way right now, reach out.  We all need a little extra support sometimes, and there’s no shame is asking for that.  The wisest and strongest among us know when they need help, and ask for it. More information about the child, individual and family counseling services we offer can be found on our website.  We’re here to help!


Mary Kuepper is a specialized child and family counselor at KPMH. She has been working directly with kids and families across the Kenai Peninsula for many years. Her unique approach to child and family counseling has helped many local families find the results and relief they are looking for.

Part 3. Regulating Emotions in Children; A Series of Tips and Tools From The Family Therapy Hour

Invite Them Into Your Calm, Don’t Step Into Their Chaos,

Part 1

There are so many things I love about this idea of inviting a child into your sense of calm, rather than stepping into their chaos.  An author, speaker, podcaster I love, Jen Hatmaker, shared a story on her podcast about parenting adolescents. She talked about how teens are frequently getting on these crazy, emotional roller coasters, and reflected that though they were welcome to board that ride, she would not.  She candidly mentioned that she’d be there waiting for them once they chose to disembark, but essentially, that she was not going to join them in their crazy.  This is similar to how I see the notion of inviting a child into calm, rather than stepping into chaos, but is applicable at any age.

Children are going to have big emotions.  The prefrontal cortex which helps them regulate big feelings is not yet fully developed, and as a result, not only do they have all the “feels,” but the “feels” are BIG.  The dial that we have as adults that helps us assess whether an issue might be big or small, whether it warrants a significant reaction or not, well, they don’t really have that.  They don’t have the life experience or the higher functioning reasoning skills to know that having gold fish as a snack over graham crackers is, in fact, not the end of the world.  They just know they have this big icky feeling, they don’t like it, and they’re going to let you know ALL about it.

And, believe it or not, that’s actually a good thing.  We want our children to emote, to express their feelings.  We want them to feel safe enough to experience all of their emotions, and to let them out rather than bottling them up. 

We can’t rescue children from challenging emotions, but we can model for them what it looks like to handle them.  We can support them in naming their emotions, and hold space for them to feel their feelings.  We can model taking deep breaths to support them in co-regulation, and we can stay connected to them when they are dysregulated.  This is creating calm. 

Creating calm may look or sound like….

·      Getting down on their level

·      Saying, “I can see you’re really upset right now”

·      Reflecting “That must have felt really upsetting”

·      Saying “It’s ok to cry”

·      Taking deep breaths yourself, making eye contact, hugging

This is being a haven, a safe place for children to move through their emotions.  There is no hack for emotional intelligence.  The only way to get there is straight ahead.  The only way out, is through. But our children don’t have to walk the path alone, and the investment of time and energy in connection now, will pay off richly later. 

So, take a deep breath and stay the course. You got this. And if you need a little extra help, reach out. Our providers are here to help you and yours get back on track. Information regarding the child and family counseling services we offer can be found on our website.


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Mary Kuepper is a specialized child and family counselor at KPMH. She has been working directly with kids and families across the Kenai Peninsula for many years. Her unique approach to child and family counseling has helped many local families find the results and relief they are looking for.

Part 2. Regulating Emotions in Children; A series of Tips and Tools From the Family Therapy Hour

 All Feelings are OK 

Now, I realize that the notion that “All Feelings are OK” may seem a bit cheesy, but hear me out!  As a therapist, I often see two main parental strategies show up in my office related to dealing with emotions.  Either 1, parents communicate that certain emotions aren’t ok, such as anger, shutting that emotion down.  Or 2, parents try to rescue their child from certain emotions, such as sadness, by distracting them and or offering motivators to help them feel “happy.”  Though both of these strategies generally come from a good place, neither equips a child with the tools they need to successfully navigate challenging emotions throughout life.

 And, I get it!   Generally speaking, we don’t love sitting around in uncomfortable emotions such as anger, guilt or sadness. How much less so do we want that for our children? But, the reality is that these emotions are a part of life, and though we don’t generally want to marinate in them, we do want to have the capacity to tolerate them and move through them. 

 In the therapy space, I often have conversations with parents focused on normalizing these emotions.  It’s important to recognize, both for ourselves and for our children, that feelings come and go.  Just because we feel one way right now, doesn’t mean we’ll feel that way forever.  We want to normalize our child’s experience, letting them know it’s ok to feel that way.  We want to communicate empathy and understanding, allowing for a sense of being known, seen and connected.  But we always want to express a sense of confidence in our child’s capacity to handle those big feelings and still be ok.  In short, we want to communicate that we see them, we’re with them, and we have confidence in them!

 It’s important to note that just because all feelings are ok, how we handle all feelings is not necessarily ok.  For example, feeling mad is an acceptable emotion, hitting your sibling or throwing things as a result of those feelings, not ok.  We’ll want to be available to support our children in brainstorming and problem solving healthy outlets and coping skills for managing big emotions.  For more ideas on healthy and effective coping strategies, feel free to reach out!  Our providers are here to walk alongside and support you and yours with getting back on track.


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Mary Kuepper is a specialized child and family counselor at KPMH. She has been working directly with kids and families across the Kenai Peninsula for many years. Her unique approach to child and family counseling has helped many local families find the results and relief they are looking for.

Part 1. Regulating Emotions in Children; A Series of Tips and Tools from the Family Therapy Hour

As a counselor who specializes in work with kids and families, a common theme that arises in my sessions is how to help kids manage their emotions.  Parents often share with me regarding emotional outbursts, tearfulness, tantrums and issues with impulsivity involving their children.  In this series of blogposts, I’ll be outlining some of the most common topics of conversation that emerge in sessions with parents of young children.  As an entrepreneur with a family of my own, I have designed these blog posts to be short and sweet.  I hope that you are able to glean some nuggets that help make your world go around a wee bit smoother as a result.

 Developmentally Appropriate Behaviors In Kids

For the first blogpost in this series, I wanted to highlight developmentally appropriate behaviors.  This issue is nearly always at the forefront of my conversations with parents, and what I have learned is that often times, our expectations for children are unrealistic.

The reality is, a child’s prefrontal cortex, or their “upstairs” brain, for those that have read Parenting Strategies for Raising Children: Brain Basics 101, is not fully developed.  And, heaven help us, won’t be until a young person is in their mid twenties.  This part of our brain helps us to do all of the higher functioning things that make us human.  The prefrontal cortex is where we consider cause and effect, regulate big emotions, practice empathy and manage our impulses, just to name a few.  If you can’t seem to understand why your child is doing the exact opposite of what you’ve told them to do, this very well may be why.  They may really want to do as you asked and stay away from those freshly baked cookies on the counter, but the prefrontal cortex which helps them manage their impulsivity and consider the consequences of their actions, is not yet operating at max capacity.

Now, I’m not advocating that we have no standards and that we run an “anything goes” kind of household, but I do encourage parents to remember what a developmentally appropriate expectation for a young child actually is. For more detailed information on what developmentally appropriate behaviors look like given a certain age, this article on Hey Sigmund, Phew! It’s Normal. An Age by Age Guide for What to Expect From Kids & Teens – And What They Need From Us, is an excellent quick read for reference.

Additionally, it’s important to remember that repetition is key.  Children, just like all of us, are building new neuropathways all the time. What you say, over and over and over, will sink in.  But it will require patience and repetition on your part.  So, take a deep breath, take heart and stay the course. You got this.

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Mary Kuepper - Family and Child Counselor

Mary Kuepper is a specialized child and family counselor at KPMH. She has been working directly with kids and families across the Kenai Peninsula for many years. Her unique approach to child and family counseling has helped many local families find the results and relief they are looking for.

 

Parenting Strategies for Children: 4 Basics for Creating Calm from Chaos

We all know that raising children comes with no hand book or how-to guide.  And as completely delightful as children can be, they are also, at times, total terrors.  When trying to get a grip on behaviors, there are 4 strategies that I have found to be consistently helpful.  They are outlined below.

 

1. Make your expectations clear and measurable with your Children

I recognize this might seem like an obvious first step, but notably, it is often overlooked.  When your child knows what your expectations are, you are giving them a gift.  Now, they may not necessarily see it that way, but truly, you are offering them very clear data regarding what you expect of them. This sets them up to be successful, which then allows for seeing and praising their successes.  Which leads us to strategy number 2.

2. Catch Your Kids being good

As parents, it’s incredibly important to notice and offer feedback for positive choices and behaviors. This reinforces the good choices our kids are making, and communicates that you see them and appreciate their efforts at following directions, playing kindly, being respectful, etc.  There’s value in noticing and naming positive behaviors in the moment, but it can also be nice to reflect on these positive choices at meal time, as a family, or during an evening check-in prior to bed. 

A wonderful added benefit to this strategy is that we see what we look for. If we’re looking for the positive choices our kids are making, this perspective begins to shape what we are attuned to, what we notice.  And that actually feels pretty great for all of us, huh?  It’s nice when others notice our efforts, and are looking for our successes, not just our failures.

The other piece to this strategy is that we want to reinforce positive behaviors more frequently than we’re paying attention to negative behaviors.  Generally speaking, our kids want our attention.  And unfortunately, if positive choices and behaviors don’t elicit praise, feedback, or connection, then they are more than willing to try the negative ones.  Let’s face it, hitting a sibling is often far more effective at getting a parent to engage than playing quietly by oneself. Now of course we need to address and redirect significant behaviors, such as those to do with safety, but often times, precious time and energy is spent on minor issues.  Let’s not do that.

3. Ignore minor Behavior issues

This one’s pretty simple.  It goes back to an oldy, but goody; Pick your Battles.  Address issues of safety.  Boundaries are important.  Basic respect in interactions with others.  These things are non negotiable.  From there, you are always assessing whether the behaviors and issues that emerge in day to day life are big things or small things.  Generally speaking, don’t spend a lot of time and energy on the small stuff, because if you do, you will only fuel them, making them bigger issues.  

 

4. Use consequences consistently and sparingly

There are two keys to using consequences well.  As much as possible we want to use natural consequences, and the outlined consequences for a given behavior need to be utilized consistently.  Natural consequences are those that might be an organic result of a particular behavior, and or, a logical consequence given the behavior being exhibited.  For example, a logical natural consequence might be, “You hit your brother over the head with your truck. You’ve shown me you can’t use that toy safely and as a result, I’m taking it away.   When you apologize to your brother and show me that you can play safely with your toy, you may earn it back.”  The organic natural consequence built into this example is that the brother that got hit, may in fact want nothing to do with the sibling that did the hitting, and as a result, the child who misbehaved now has no one to play with. 

Recognizing that natural and organic consequences often emerge as a result of behaviors allows for teachable moments that can be really powerful for kids, especially if done with care and connection rather than a “that’s what you get,” attitude.

The other piece of this strategy is consistency.  Following through on outlined consequences consistently is essential in decreasing negative behaviors.  If your responses are inconsistent, kids learn that sometimes they are able to get away with something, get what they want, etc.  This inconsistent reinforcement is powerful and will typically create an uptick in the negative behavior.

The reality is that kids really do want boundaries.  Clear and consistent limits allow children to know where the line in the sand is, which creates a sense of safety.  When first holding that line, kids will bump right up against it and push those limits, but if you are consistent in how you respond, those limit pushing behaviors will subside.

 

It’s always important to remember that our children are young.  They haven’t been on this earth all that long and are still learning what it means to be a good human. In addition, their brains are not fully developed, and they don’t yet have higher functioning skills like demonstrating empathy, understanding cause and effect, managing big feelings and impulse control.  There’s nothing wrong with having high expectations of our children, but we do want to make sure that our expectations are developmentally appropriate and achievable.

The use of these 4 strategies will support you and your family in getting a grip on some of the challenging behaviors you may be facing. Though no strategy is one size fits all and guaranteed to work every time, generally speaking, these tools are consistent with a parenting style in which our children perceive us to be fair, reasonable, consistent and predictable.  This dynamic fosters connection, which in turn helps decrease unwanted behaviors. 

If you’d like to learn more about these strategies or others, please reach out. Our providers are experienced in working with kids and families, and are here to help get you and yours back on track. Information regarding the child and family counseling services we offer can be found on our website.

Parenting Strategies For Raising Children: Brain Basics 101

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When dealing with challenging behaviors in our children, it can be difficult to know what to do. I often hear from parents that they have “tried everything,” and that nothing seems to work. That their child is defiant, out of control, disrespectful, distracted; you get the picture. In this blog, and ones to come, you can expect to find clear and useful tips on managing behavior problems, as well as dealing with many of the other challenges our children are facing in this day and age.

The strategies and tools you’ll find here are a compilation of 10 years of experience working with kids and families as a clinical therapist, as well as real life data gathered in the raising of my own family. There are no miracle strategies that work for all kids, every single time, but there are certainly tools, and relevant information, that can help the cause!

Before diving into specific strategies, I want to do a cursory overview of some relevant brain education. Here’s the gist of it. For the purposes of this conversation, think of the brain as having 3 primary parts.

1. The upstairs brain

2. The downstairs brain.

3. Middle brain (limbic brain)

The upstairs brain is our prefrontal cortex, and is our rational and reasoning brain. This is where we problem solve, consider cause and effect, have empathy, regulate our emotions and generally, are our best, most rational and clear headed selves.

The downstairs is the oldest and most primitive part of our brain. The brain evolves from the bottom up, and the inside out, so when you think of the downstairs brain, think of a caveman brain. Way back in the day, when we were trying not to be dinner for the saber tooth tiger, this part of our brain kept us alive. It was great at it’s job, propelling us into survival mode where we either fought, froze or fled. This part of our brain is alive and well today, and still serves us. It is in charge of breathing and blinking, involuntary things, but it’s also still great at propelling us into action if we’re in a super scary or unsafe situation.

The middle brain, or the limbic brain, is where our feelings live. All the feel-good feelings are here, like love and joy, but when strong emotions come in, like anger or fear, we can sometimes “flip our lid,” and slide into our downstairs brain. Generally, we don’t make great choices down here. We don’t have access to the upstairs control center that helps us regulate our emotions and as a result, we operate in a pretty primitive, fight, flight, freeze mode when we’re in this part of our brain.

Now, consider your child. When it comes to handling behaviors, the first and best move you can make as a parent is to assess what part of the brain is your child is in? If they’re in their downstairs brain, stop. Just stop. Stop directing, redirecting, lecturing, explaining, disciplining; all of it. Remember, the downstairs brain is old, and operates out of survival. The higher functioning reasoning skills that happen when a child is in their upstairs brain are unavailable to your child when they are in their downstairs brain. Any attempts at setting your kiddo straight or teaching them a lesson, what have you, will be a waste of your time and energy, and will likely only escalate the situation. The arguing (think fight), the avoidance and trying to get out of the situation (think flee), and the shutdown, shoulder shrugging, “I don’t know why I hit my brother” responses (think freeze), will only continue.

When your child is in their downstairs brain their big emotions are running the show. Their upstairs brain is offline and your job, as the parent, is to help them regulate their emotions so that they can access their upstairs brain. The A, number 1, best way to do this is through connection. As human beings, we are wired for connection. In infancy, our systems regulate based on the regulation of our caregivers. If we can connect with our child when they’re struggling, we can help calm that limbic brain, the middle brain, and support them in accessing their cortex where they can better regulate and make good choices. On a very basic level, we want to communicate safety so that the downstairs brain can simmer down. We want to communicate “you’re safe, I love you, I see you, you’re ok, we’re ok, we’re going to figure this out.”

An excellent hack that can support this process is deep breathing. Now, I realize that nowhere in the history of ever has telling someone to take a deep breath actually felt like it worked, BUT, deep breathing does actually work. Deep breathing, in through the nose and out through the mouth with a nice long exhale, helps us regulate our emotions. It calms down that feelings brain and builds a type of staircase between the upstairs and downstairs that allows us to access the cortex. Typically, telling just about anyone to do anything when they’re in an emotionally dysregulated space goes badly, so rather than telling, show. Model for them taking deep breaths. Don’t step into their chaos, invite them into your calm.

And while taking those deep breaths, get down on their level. What we communicate is generally not nearly as important as how we communicate it. On a very primal level, we need our tone, volume and body language to communicate those themes of safety and love and care. In moments of frustration it’s easy to forget that often, we’re dealing with pretty tiny humans. We’re bigger, we’re louder and their sense of safety and belonging in the world is contingent on us. In moments of frustration, especially, we have to check our own stuff and bring it down a notch. We have to regulate our own emotions to support them in regulating theirs. And we have to connect. Connection builds the trust that allows them to safely leave that downstairs survival brain and access their cortex, the upstairs brain. Here, and only here, are we going to be able to have a productive conversation around what happened, why, and how might they handle it differently next time around.

So, to recap.

1. What part of their brain is your child in? Upstairs or Downstairs?

2. If downstairs, connect.

3. Invite them into your calm, don’t step into their chaos

4. Model taking deep breaths, encourage them to do it as well if they can tolerate the direction

5. Get down in their level- communicate non verbally that they are safe, loved, etc.

It’s also worthwhile to note that this framework and way of thinking does not undermine or negate discipline or consequences. In fact, the word discipline comes from the latin word, disciplina, which means, “to teach.” And isn’t that exactly what we’re trying to do when we’re redirecting a behavior, following through on a consequence, setting a limit, etc.? I believe it is. So, let’s work smarter, not harder, and make sure that our teaching, our disciplining, is happening when are children are best able to hear and learn, when they’re in their upstairs brain.

Watch a quick video on brain basics here. Or, if you want more in depth info, an excellent read is The Whole Brain Child, by Dr. Dan Siegal and Dr.Tina Payne Bryson.