Schools have reopened in many countries, posing new and familiar challenges for parents. Let’s focus on one: Getting kids ready in the morning. It doesn’t matter if your child’s been going to school for years or has just started, the struggle is real. Many children find it hard to follow a morning routine – especially under time constraints. But the drama that plays out isn’t just about our children. It’s also a story about us as parents and caregivers.
I want to shed some light on the complexities (and beauty!) of our lives – even during parent-child conflicts – by looking through the lens of “Self-Reg” (a process for enhancing self- regulation) and by suggesting a different way to respond that promotes growth and connection.
According to the science of stress and self-regulation, it’s not possible to live entirely stress-free lives. That’s why we shouldn’t measure our success as parents based on how little our children struggle or show negative emotions. Doing so, would mean resisting the flow of life.
Instead, I invite you to practice co-regulation with your children to help them exit states of hyper- or hypo-arousal. These include morning meltdowns, but also any behaviour (fill-in-the- blank!) that triggers anger, anxiety, fear or shame in you. The goal is to help them revert back to a state of calm – one that restores energy and well-being. The question is, how?
We need to feel calm ourselves, so that we can send safety signals to our children. This happens below their level of consciousness and is a phenomenon called limbic resonance. These safety cues include communicating with a melodic voice, looking at them with soft eyes, touching them with tender and supple hands, and sometimes even being silent. The cues convey messages like: “I see you.” “I am here for you.” “You are not alone.” “This will pass.” “We’ll find the solution.”
Of course, for that to happen, we must first learn to see our children’s behaviors differently. Not as something we need to control or fix, but as something we need to understand. Self-Reg teaches us that all behaviour is communication. For example, when a child is having a melt-down at breakfast and doesn’t want to go to school, they are communicating excessive stress in their brain and body. Reframing their behaviour and leveraging our capacity to empathize allows us to remove the blinders of moral standards that we ascribe to our children (and ourselves!), and lets us be observers and responders instead.
Understanding our children
During the school year, kids have to wake up earlier than they do during the summer. They also have to follow a morning routine: wake up, get dressed, eat breakfast, brush their teeth, pack their lunch and head to school. If difficulties emerge during or in between these steps, they may subconsciously be responding to ideas and emotions that are surfacing about the day that awaits them: Who will greet me at school? What will happen in class today? Will I get called on to answer a question? If they have any reservations about going to school, this will drain their energy and increase tension in their bodies. How about the rest of the day? What will it be like to come home from school?
What about us, the adults? Have you noticed how we start our days with already an elevated heart rate, shallow breathing and tension in our muscles? We love our kids and find it painful to see them struggle. But we also want to be seen as rational adults who have things “under control.” We care how others perceive us – especially in our roles as parents. That’s why we take battles with our children personally. They trigger us.
So, how different would our response be if we started to see our children’s behavior as stress behavior rather than misbehavior? What effect would it have on our relationship dynamics and the way we transcend those challenging moments?
Whenever we catch ourselves judging our children’s behaviour, or feel the need to manage or control their words or emotions, or threaten them with punishment or offer rewards, this is exactly the right time to practice reframing. This is where we start.
About Nino Margvelashvili
Nino Margvelashvili is a neuropsychologist and Shanker Self-Reg® facilitator based in Tbilisi, Georgia. She co-founded Kaikona (an organization dedicated to promoting self-regulation, mindfulness, neuroscience, and positive relationships) to create opportunities for shared experiences of safety and connection between humans. Nino firmly believes that our path as a human family to healing, inner freedom and fulfilling life is with and through each other.
To learn more about Self-Reg, find resources and learning opportunities visit www.self-reg.ca.
PS Join the Purposeful Empathy community. Together, let’s spread more empathy in the world.
For more than a decade, I have been singularly focused on leveraging empathy for personal and social transformation. I teach Leadership and Social Entrepreneurship & Innovation at McGill University and co-founder of PVM-Studio, a global advisory firm that supports purpose-driven people and organizations. Learn more about my work here.