One of the most valuable things we can do as clinicians is to support parents in their day to day life with their children. I truly believe parents and caregivers are the most important people in a child’s life.
The healing principles of attachment and co-regulation drastically outweigh the support as a therapist that I can give to a child in one hour of therapy per week. Because of this I see parenting work as an essential part of working with children. See more about emotional regulation HERE, and co-regulation HERE and HERE!
The following metaphor was one I heard on the podcast Stuck Not Broken (which is amazing by the way!) that I use all the time when working with parents. I LOVE a good metaphor, especially one that creates new insights or provides different ways of looking at things and ultimately leads to parents being able to hold the space that children need to heal.
What I know about parents is the vast majority (with a few exceptions) are doing the best they can with what they have. They are exhausted and trying everything they can to get their child to feel better and do the things they know their child wants and needs to do.
And sometimes? Well, sometimes the only tool left in the toolbox is yelling. Sometimes parents take the parenting strategies that their parents used in an attempt to support their child.
Some parents doubt that co-regulation (check out this guide I use with parents HERE!) is necessary or can be effective. This might mean having ideas that the child needs to “toughen up” and “just get over it”. Other times I hear “yelling is the only thing that will work” or “I just didn’t know what to do - I lost it!”.
During these times I like to share this metaphor:
“You can’t get a turtle to come out of its shell by banging on the shell”.
Let that sink in for a minute.
Any time a child is not connecting with you and is behaving in ways that are dysregulated (throwing, crying, hitting, hiding, etc.) at the end of the day it means they do not feel safe.
Their nervous system has a neuroception of danger. (Learn more about neuroception of safety in therapy HERE and HERE).
The turtle in its shell is not going to come out unless it feels it is safe.
Turtles don’t feel safe when yelled at or when something or someone is knocking on the shell. Turtles have long game. They stay in that shell until they feel safe.
The same is true with children. They will not...they CAN’T feel safe if we are yelling at them, looking at them with an angry face, or talking down to them. Telling kids to “calm down” or “just get over it” has never in the history of parenting been an effective strategy for regulation.
These strategies make children feel minimized or shamed for their emotions and more importantly they feel pretty darn disconnected from parents. AND when parents are upset, angry, or yelling children’s nervous systems tune into that and their dysregulation can increase.
I also think it’s not super fair to young people that we would expect that young people would be able to regulate (with an under-developed prefrontal cortex) better than an adult who is yelling, grumpy, or losing their cool.
And hey! We all lose it sometimes, but a clear understanding of brain development can help parents understand that their child isn’t feeling safe and has less ability to regulate emotions than an adult. This understanding can help bring compassion from adults both towards themselves and their children.
So….what does help?
Justin Sunseri, LMFT has this wonderful Co-regulation Quick Guide HERE that I often share with parents and caregivers.
At the end of the day getting the turtle to come out of it’s shell (or child to regulate) means being a safe external co-regulator.
It means being able to give a child cues of safety so their nervous system can understand that there is not a significant threat of danger. This might mean having gentle eye contact, getting below eye level, and being intentional on what you say.
When children (or anyone) is in fight or flight mode their inner ear muscles turn off leading to tuning into sounds of danger (low pitched and high pitched) and less into human voices. This can lead to difficulty with comprehension and understanding of words and language.
Additionally the limbic regions are most active and the prefrontal cortex can go offline - ie decision making, logic and reason. So because those brain regions are not active and available to a child, parents may be saying the most brilliant things, but unfortunately their child is not in a place to be able to take it in and make sense of it. It's not that they don’t want to, they just can’t.
At the end of the day being a safe adult will allow the child to feel safe enough to regulate and have access to the prefrontal cortex.
And that my friends? Well… that’s where the good stuff happens. The conversations, healing, growth, increased understanding, and learning.
Want to learn more about Play Therapy and the neuroscience of regulation? Check out this training HERE!
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I'm Ann Meehan, an LPCC, RPT-S, and EMDR Consultant. I help other therapists grow in their passions as play therapists, trauma therapists,and child and adolescent therapists.