Tag: Parenting

When Children Go Astray

The love between a parent and their child is long lasting. The relationship progresses through time beginning with bonding at birth, hours of care giving, and the slow development of a more meaningful relationship as time is spent getting to know each other as unique individuals. This love is strong and though it is possible, it is rather unlikely to be easily forgotten. The ancient prophet Isaiah in the Holy Bible highlights this bond with the question “Can a woman forget her sucking child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb?” Life sometimes will throw us curve balls that just seem to come out of nowhere. It seems like it was just yesterday that our child was lovingly embracing us or climbing up on our knee and then there is a slammed door and massive distance. What happened? Like tornadoes, nature’s most violent storms can develop so rapidly there is little advanced warning, the bond between parent and child can be disrupted leaving emotional devastation in its wake.

Parents for a variety of reasons find that they have lost the precious connection with their child and are flooded with a whirlwind of emotions ranging from sadness, doubt, worry, hope, frustration, anger, despair, guilt, shame and especially FEAR. The crushing ache in your chest does not come from disease or indicate heart attack rather your heart aches for a child who appears lost. Most of us when flooded with fear respond in one of three ways. We may freeze feeling there is nothing we can do, we may withdraw and refuse to think about the problem hoping it will go away or resolve itself or we fight with all our might to control the situation. Any of these reactions, will have an impact on the child. Like Newton’s third law of motion states for every action in nature there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Due to new neuroscience, we now know that mirror neurons exist, which means the child’s brain will observe and mirror the behavior of the parent as if they were themselves taking the same action. It follows then if the parent is feeling highly anxious and frozen in fear; the child’s brain may then mirror the fear and become more anxious. If the parent withdraws or becomes busy to distract from the pain, the child may conclude that the parent does not care. Most parents when feeling out of control attempt to take back control by imposing more limits in hopes of keeping their child safe and seeking to regain connection. Rather than feeling the love and concern, the child often rebels against the limits feeling the need to be free to make their own choices and seek to preserve their sense of unique identity.

One of the greatest gifts parents can provide their children is to take care first of their own emotions so that they can be available and present to help their lost child. This is counter intuitive. Due to the strength of the bond and the intense love felt for a child, parents focus outward and on the child’s behavior. They think that they will take care of themselves once their child is safe. Often this means both parents and child lose sight of their inner emotional world and the deeper more significant attachment needs go unmet. The focus remains on behavior and often each blames the other for the problem.

Exploring this inner world and using tools to help manage fear or shame will help create the atmosphere for increased connection. Allowing you to then communicate more clearly with your child the love and affection you feel and the truth behind the feelings I am here for you no matter what. Consider the following three topics as you begin your exploration of your thoughts, actions and deeper emotional longings.

1. Am I living in the present moment?
2. Am I exercising self-compassion or am I blaming myself or my child?
3. What is the balance between the time I spend focusing on providing rules, consequences and structure versus the time spent on nurturing the relationship?

When we are experiencing the intense emotions of disconnection and our deeper attachment longings are not being met, we may feel like I did once when my airway was blocked and I could not breathe, DESPERATE. At these times, we have an increased need for self-care, social connection and emotional fuel. However, these are usually the things that we set aside due to the crisis. Remember at these times taking care of yourself is one of the best ways to take care of your child.

Take a moment to journal what are my current thoughts about this situation. What am I doing or not doing in connection to these thoughts? What are the different feelings that I experience because of the issue between myself and my child? Often our statements and actions communicate our more reactive emotions like frustration, anger and demands for respect and compliance. Rarely do we find moments to clearly express our softer emotions like fear, loneliness and longings for knowing that we are lovable and acceptable. Our children also have softer emotions and longings that go unexpressed and due to the distress between parent and child both feel these intense painful emotions and seek ways to cope that may help in the moment but rarely bring connection and healing. For example, yelling, blaming, screaming, ignoring, defiant behavior or abusing substances are all possible ways to cope with underlying pain yet never solve the real underlying needs.

There is hope, tools for healing, and actions that lead to increased safety, vulnerability and connection. Be sure to also read Finding Connection in the Here and Now, Why does my Child Blame?, and Out of Balance: Structure versus Nurture for additional tools and ideas for coping with the crisis of a wayward child.

By Jennifer Solosko LMFT, CEFT
© May 2017

Freeze and Flee, Not For Me

Back in my college years, a roommate of mine played a trick on me that left me paralyzed with fear. Upon entering the room, my mind registered something was different but I couldn’t quite place it. Looking around and not noticing what it was, I proceeded to put my laundry away. To do so, I had to open the closet door from which my roommate leapt out at me. I was so startled my body went into some form of dissonance where my brain and body were out of sync. Someone watching would have seen the laundry basket moving up and down as if I couldn’t decide whether to put it down or pick it up. Afterwards, this left us both in stitches.

For those struggling with anxiety, they know it is no laughing matter. People experiencing it are all too aware of the physical distress and the relentless thoughts pulling them out of the present and into the endless what if’s of the future. Anxiety itself is not the problem. Our fear response is hard wired in us to keep us vigilant and aware of danger that at times is even life threatening. Fear is a basic human emotion designed to provide us with information. Once this information is received, there are only three basic moves: freeze, flee or fight. Hormones like adrenaline and cortisol are released to allow our bodies to prepare for the fight or to get away from it as quickly as possible or if completely flooded to freeze. In the case of being attacked by a grizzly bear, it is best to play dead so you are no longer seen as a threat.

Unfortunately, our brains can’t tell the difference between what is real and what is perceived to be real. One night while deep in sleep I had a dream, I was falling out of a tree. I flailed and hit the bed so hard it woke me up, heart pounding and there I was at home safe in my bed. While awake thinking about the possible negative outcomes, our mind and body often respond “as if” those outcomes are already occurring. This leads the person to a natural defense; avoid whatever it is that makes you feel that way.

It is normal to avoid. If you touch a burner and get burned, you want to avoid getting hurt again. This is often the healthy thing to do. With anxiety, it is natural to want to avoid the things that feel scary or uncomfortable; however it works differently with anxiety as the more you avoid it the scarier it becomes. If you address the problem initially is like a small puddle that you can easily jump over. If the feeling gets bigger and bigger, then it feels too big to jump over. With anxiety we need to take action.

But what do you do if it is your child who is paralyzed with anxiety? Parent’s also feel fear themselves about the negative outcomes that their child with anxiety will experience. If they avoid school, will they pass their classes? Will it impact their future? The parent’s fear often leads them to frustration where they attempt to plead, cajole, bribe or punish their child into action. This can result in a negative reaction in their child where a power struggle arises leaving both feeling powerless and defeated.

No one enjoys feeling that way! Here are a few ideas parents can try. These tools teach children ways to take action and lessen the likelihood of them using avoidance in the future.

1. Progressive muscle relaxation teaches the child how to recognize the level of tension in their body. It is a two step process where first the child tightens a muscle for a few seconds and then focuses on that muscle relaxing. Beginning at the top of the body and progressing down to the toes, muscles are tightened and then relaxed. A fun way to teach this to small children is by playing a game called “Spaghetti.” Parent and child practice getting rigid like uncooked spaghetti and holding this position for 10, 20, 30 seconds and increasing time with practice and attention and then becoming limp noodles like cooked spaghetti and having fun relaxing and going limp to the floor. This can be practiced multiple times.
2. Diaphragmatic breathing is a form of deep breathing where the person fills their lungs slowly and contracts their diaphragm. The belly fills like a balloon and then the person holds their breath for a few seconds. The air is then released slowly through pursed lips. This slow, deep breathing helps reverse the chemical reaction of the hormones released with anxiety and brings a sense of calm. A fun way to teach this to smaller children is by using bubbles. I like having fun competitions with trying to blow the longest and biggest bubble by taking a deep breath, holding it for a few seconds and blowing through pursed lips slowly to get the biggest bubble.
3. Five Senses is a way to help bring a person back into the present and it creates a grounding feeling. The person can use all five of their senses once triggered and feeling anxious to help bring them back to the present moment. Have your child look around and describe what they see with detail about shapes, colors and textures. Have your child choose a favorite scent and smell a favorite scented candle, food item or essential oil. Find an item they enjoy the feel of like a smooth blanket, stuffed animal, kinetic sand or bubbly water. Have your child eat something sweet, salty, or sour and focus on the taste as they chew slowly and savor it. Take a moment to listen to the sounds in the room and list as many as your child can hear or play soothing, quiet music or the sounds of nature.
4. Lattering is a form of breaking things down into smaller more manageable pieces. This could include breathing, five senses, being in the present, reaching out to a support person, and breaking school or work tasks into simple steps. Also, avoiding is rewarding because in the moment it feels better. Adding fun rewards for taking action can help make acting more rewarding. For smaller children, I like magic footprints where you trace your childs footprints and then when they come home from school there is a pathway of footprints to follow to a special snack or treat. Also, magic tree or box where once discovered it holds a special reward.

At times, there are things that can be structured differently at school, enlisting a school psychologist or teachers understanding and help can help mitigate a child’s anxiety especially if it is around another child’s behavior, not being able to use the restroom or with performance anxiety.

For parents, to understand better a child’s emotions and to lessen frustration and anger responses, I like Dan Siegel’s work one of which is the Whole Brain Child that explains why it is so difficult for the child to regulate emotion and gives ideas for how parents can learn this and then help teach their child mindsight which is similar to mindfulness.

Anxiety is normal for all of us yet there are times when it takes on a life of its own and it seems our bodies stay in fight or flight or freeze or flee all the time. When this is the case, seeking out the help of a licensed professional is recommended as these tools are powerful and effective yet require patience and practice. Trained therapists are available to assist you and your child out of the automatic responses and into choosing a calmer, more present action.

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