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Neuroscience & Parenting

One of the hardest things for parents is to see their children in distress, whether it's physical pain or emotional upset. But it's so important for kids to learn how to recognize, experience, and manage ALL emotions, including the tough ones: anger, sadness, anxiety. When you accommodate and try to make uncomfortable feelings go away, you're actually doing you child a disservice. When you don't allow your child to fail at something and experience disappointment, you are robbing them of a chance to build resilience. Learning to support your child as they experience negative emotions and cope with unpleasant experiences that come their way is a valuable tool for parents. Help your child become more resilient by allowing them to experience the full range of emotions and learn how to deal with them. When we don't allow emotions to be felt, they don't go away, they just build up inside.

It's OK for a child to be angry when someone takes their toy or won't share. It's normal for a child to be anxious when going to a new place. It's expected that a child be sad when someone is mean to them. Your child should be disappointed when they get a bad grade on a test. Allowing your child to recognize and experience normal emotions can help them become more tolerant to negative emotions in the future. Think about the long game--you want your child to have healthy responses to whatever challenges come their way in life. You want your child to be able to handle sticky situations in school, with friends, eventually with partners and co-workers. You want your child to build resilience, teach them how to manage problems head-on, not shy away from conflict and tough stuff.

Neurobiology research tells us that kids need adults to help them regulate emotions until they learn to do it on their own. As our brains develop, we are better able to understand and manage emotions; until then, kids need secure attachments with adults in order to "borrow" their emotional regulation, or co-regulate. When we expect children to be able to manage their big emotions when they are developmentally unable to do so, we are setting them up to feel shame and failure. They learn to regulate through coregulation.

Through research, we have learned that many behaviors are 'bottom-up' behaviors, meaning they are a stress response to something in the environment and not necessarily planned or thought out. Bottom up behaviors do not change with rewards or consequences. A child who is too anxious to go to a new school will be unaffected by promises of candy or toys or the threat of no screen time. Especially when experiencing heightened emotions or stress, kids don't have the ability to control behaviors--their brains have not developed enough. A child having a tantrum throws a toy not because he or she thought about throwing it but because his nervous system is out of whack and it was a way to express intense emotions. Your child would more than likely not throw a toy when he is calm and relaxed. Your job as a parent is not to punish for the behavior, but to teach the child how to manage strong emotions so he no longer gets so riled up that he throws toys when upset. Learning how to coregulate is the first step in that process.

When you learn to coregulate with your child, you use the secure bond you have created to help him learn to manage his own emotions. What is coregulation? It's connecting with your child so they can use your emotional regulation to help them regulate their own emotions. It's validating their emotions and accepting how they feel (no matter how illogical they are…). It's being with your child while they feel out of control and helping them to feel more in control. Instead of a time out, kids need a time in--time in their parents' arms, time to connect. When a child feels connected and a sense of safety, both physically and emotionally, she can better regulate and navigate whatever she is experiencing.

Instead of trying to get rid of 'problem' behaviors, help your child feel emotionally secure. When we feel emotionally secure and safe, we can better identify and process tough emotions which means fewer melt downs.

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