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  • Writer's picturePanorama Psychology

How To Join Your Kids During Hard Times

In our work as child and family therapists, parents often ask us "when will my child be able to self-regulate?" While there is no one-size-fits all answer to that question, there is a common theme that can ensure that your child is set up to develop solid self-regulation skills. Yes, learning skills (like deep breathing) from a child therapist can be great, but when it comes to regulation, parents and caregivers have a far more profound impact on how a child will experience, and recover from, adversity. Enter co-regulation, which is the process by which children learn self-regulation over time through observing and feeling regulation in their parents.


Attachment theory tells us that children look to their caregivers to decide how to feel. If a parent is scared, it is evolutionarily advantageous for a child to be scared also, because there is surely danger ahead. On the other hand, if a child observes their parent feeling calm, a child can feel confident that they are safe and unthreatened. Imagine a child feeling frustrated or upset, possibly crying or yelling, or rolling on the floor, or even calling you nasty names. They are clearly in a dysregulated state, and that dysregulated state feels scary and threatening to them. Imagine how you might approach this child.


Of course it is easy to "come in hot" with some loud words in an attempt to shut down this behavior. However, we all know that the "come in hot" approach often leads to more dysregulation, more yelling and crying, and nastier words. This is because a parent's dysregulated reaction is PROOF to the child that something is very wrong, and they SHOULD feel scared and unsafe. Of course, we know that a more gentle, regulated approach to this child will bring a sense of safety and comfort (even if it takes some time). Below are a couple ways to think about co-regulating in these difficult moments.


"If we want kids to tolerate frustration, we have to tolerate their frustration." - Dr. Becky Kennedy


When we see a child struggling, it is a natural instinct to try to end that suffering. This instinct is driven by a very loving desire to shield children from discomfort, as well as to shield us from our own discomfort. Some common ways of trying to end suffering are shutting it down, overpowering it, arguing/reasoning with it, and ignoring it, each with their own downfalls. We often suggest a different approach to a child's suffering, which is to join a child in their experience of suffering rather than to rid them of it. When we choose to join a child in their experience of frustration, we embark on a journey of understanding and connection, rather than shame and isolation. It involves acknowledging and validating their emotions, creating a safe space where they can express themselves without fear of judgment. The paradoxical effect of joining children in their suffering is that the suffering tends to pass more quickly and smoothly, which is brought about due to a sense of safety and understanding.


Approaching Suffering vs. Avoiding It


Attachment theory and co-regulation compels us to approach suffering rather than shy away from it. First, it is important to recognize that it is not our job to teach children what to suffer about. While a meltdown about legos might not seem like a "reasonable" thing to suffer about (it isn't, for adults), we must realize that the suffering is as true as any in the mind of a child. Next, we have a choice - whether to avoid our child's difficult feelings in the hopes that it might provide temporary relief, or to approach the experience with an attitude of openness and compassion, knowing that in the long term your child will need to cope with all sorts of frustrations. Of course, we recommend the latter option here. You might say something like "oh no! The tower fell and now you are so disappointed and sad." And then you sit in the suffering with your child, as long as they need. This can lead to your child feeling safe and understood, which helps them to better understand themselves in the long run.


Approaching Frustration with Curiosity Instead of Shame:


Imagine your child has a set of "parts" inside of them. They have a sensitive part, a goofy part, and a competitive part, among many others. When children are experiencing intense feelings (and expressing them), we can imagine that a "part" of them is on full display. For example, a child may feel jealous and hurt upon finding out that Mommy took sibling for ice cream today after school. They might express this with strong words ("You don't even love me!") or actions (crying, pouting). In this situation, we can imagine that this child's "sensitive part" is on full display. Now comes the choice: how do we want to respond to this sensitive part? Do we want to argue with it, in an effort to prove that this part is unreasonable and shouldn't be trusted? Or should we ignore it, teaching the child that this sensitive part does not deserve any love or attention at all? Hint: neither of those.


We often help parents recognize that there are no bad "parts" in their children. For the sensitive part, we want children to learn to understand their sensitivities, not shut them down. While shutting down a sensitive part leads to shame, approaching a sensitive part with curiosity leads to understanding. So when this child says "you don't even love me," we might respond with "you are feeling hurt about me taking sister for ice cream, and now a part of you wonders if I even love you. That is a really sad feeling to have." Notice that we are not arguing with the feeling by saying "but Mommy really DOES love you, you know that, right??" There will be time for that later, and after your child feels heard and joined in this moment of suffering, we might say "I love you and all of your parts so much, even when you are having a hard time."


In the realm of co-regulation, approaching frustration with curiosity becomes a cornerstone. This mindset sets aside judgments, replacing them with a genuine interest in understanding the child's experience. As we approach frustration with curiosity, we ask questions, listen actively, and seek to comprehend the underlying emotions and triggers.


Conclusion


We offer this guidance fully knowing that no parent is immune to their own frustration and suffering. And if you sometimes "come in hot," it is okay. You are still a good parent and you can rest assured there will be many more opportunities to work with your child's suffering. And the next time your child is having a hard time, see if you can identify what part of them is on full display, and approach that part with love and compassion.

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