It's not Rocket Science
Parenting is not rocket science, but that doesn't mean it is easy. And when something isn’t easy – it’s best to keep it simple. Like fly into space - drill a hole - drop a bomb - and leave (Hmmm). How wrong could it go Mr Willis?
Dr Bruce Perry developing his theory of emotional regulation – something which is a key skill for children (and adults) to learn in managing relationships both those which are beautiful and bring you joy and those which are challenging and bring you trauma - identified the 3R's needed to achieve emotional stability.
The 3R’s are to:
This makes complete sense when you understand the order in which the brain develops (watch out – here comes the science):
The Sciencey Bit
Risk enough to learn, but not so much to get dead
Knowledge about the brain is important as we try to enable our children to develop in a socio-emotional way, where they can learn to get their needs met effectively, taking enough risks to learn, but ultimately staying safe enough to protect their life. Being able to link the behaviours we see on the outside to what is happening on the inside, gives us an opportunity to better understand their needs and provide effective support. Over time this teaches them how to master their own skills of self-regulation. The younger the child, the more support they will need to regulate themselves and problem solve.
Simple is not the same as easy
So whilst we say it is simply 3 steps of:
it is, in reality, not easy. As a parent it requires you to be able to manage your own emotions, be able to sit with uncomfortable feelings that your child is experiencing and recognise you can't always fix them, and help them to imagine all the different ways they could solve their problem and the positive and negative consequences of these possible choices. It even sometimes means letting them have a go at trying something (with safety boundaries in place commensurate to developmental and chronological age) and picking up the pieces when they fail. Failure is not a bad thing – it’s just another learning opportunity.
The most precious thing of all
But most of all it means time. The most precious thing you can give your child is your time. In between the first step of regulating your child's emotions and the third step of helping them to learn how to problem solve is the second step of relating with them. This cannot be done alone - they need to do this WITH someone. So spend the time to relate with them.
Time consuming as this is, the 3R’s teaches your child skills which will mean that later in their life you will not be trying (as much) to regulate their feelings, build relationships and teach problem solving skills with them as teenagers, when the problems are exponentially bigger and more complicated than they are right now, and when you most need them to take the time to talk to you.
The gift of the year passed and the year to come
If there is anything last year (and it seems also this year) has gifted most of us, it's the time to spend with our children. The time to sit down with them when they are upset, angry, confused, anxious and disappointed and help them to regulate these feelings, relate to their situation and help them reason a solution that will work for them.
J: Yep. I hate school, I want to go to a different school.
Me: Really? You sound sad about school. What's happened that you feel so sad?
J: I am sad - Jimmy keeps calling me names - he says I am a rubbish baseball player and I can't play their games - he leaves me out and tells the others to not let me play.
Me: (Stifling my inner mama bear roar and with an ache in my heart - I take a deep, deep, deep, breath) That sounds horrible - that must make you feel very sad.
J: It does - I hate him - I don't want to go back to school.
Me: Ok, I can understand that. I can see you feel very sad and a bit angry about this too.
Me: And maybe left out too? And disappointed?
J: Yes – I’m not going back to school ever again.
Me: I understand. So where does this happen in school?
J: In the playground, at lunch time and break time.
Me: Let’s think about what you could do about it? What do you want to do most?
J: I could punch him in the nose.
Me: Ummm. Yeah - you could - and then what would happen?
J: He will feel as bad as me.
Me: Yep, he sure would, what would happen next?
J: I'd get in trouble with the principal.
Me: Yeah, I think you would. Would anyone else feel upset if you punched someone in the nose?
Me: Yeah I reckon she would. Is there anything else you could do?
J: I could go Turbo Ape and scream at him.
Me: Wow - Turbo ape - that sounds erm, dangerous?
J: (Excited now) Yeah, I would just kick and punch and throw my arms about like a windmill and make loads of loud noises to attract attention.
Me: Oh that sounds like your plan if someone is hurting your body or you feel trapped and uncomfortable?
J: Yeah. It’s like Donkey Kong on Turbo power.
Me: Is that how Jimmy makes you feel?
J: (thinks for a minute - he does this with great dramatic effect - visualise Rodin's "The Thinker"). Well no, but I do want him to stop calling me names.
Me: Of course you do – I do too. (Silent pause)
J: I could tell the teacher. But I don't want to be a snitch.
Me: How bad does what is going on with Jimmy make you feel on a scale of 1-10?
J: About a 6
Me: How bad does being a snitch make you feel?
J: About the same
Me: Oooh tough choice. That's hard. What are you going to do?
J: I could tell Jimmy he is being a D***.
Me: Okaaaay. Is there another word you could use?
Me: Mmmmm... what do you think will happen next if you do that?
J: Shrugs - he might stop.
Me: What friends have you around that would stick up for you?
J: Adam and Joseph.
Me: Do you think it would be better to have them around or not when you tell Jimmy to stop being horrible?
J: Probably be around.
J: Yawns... I'm tired.
Me: Yeah me too - get some sleep.
The solution is not in the outcome, it's in the process
Now bearing in mind, none of what J came up with here is an actual solution to what Jimmy was doing to him at school. The more gentle "please stop" was likely to be ineffective, and the "punch in the nose" tactic was likely to escalate things and result in a phone call from the principal - so also ineffective. I didn't sleep much that night - but so is the burden of a parent.
However, what was achieved and what is so, so, SO important is that J began to see he had options. He was not trapped. His options were not all great ones, most of them would be entirely ineffective and on some level he probably knew this, but from this conversation he got 3 very important things.
These three things moved him from feeling like a passive victim - to feeling like an active player in the outcome. This very process raises self esteem and confidence and increases the likelihood that this will translate in his body language and attitude to Jimmy.
The reality of the outplay
So what actually happened?
J: Hey Jimmy - I'm sorry we weren't getting on very well last week, I'd like to be friends.
Jimmy: Sure. Do you want to bat?
LJ Sayers is a restorative practitioner, trainer and consultant, living in Northern Ireland. She is partner to JP, Mum to J, a Covid-redundant hugger and the chief quality controller of all chocolate in her home.