Dialogic HealingHomeA Unique and Powerful ApproachHealing for IndividualsHealing for RelationshipsStories of Dialogic HealingSupport and ResourcesVarious Articles and InformationWhat is Dialogic Healing?About the Author and TherapistContact Information, Office Directions, & Links

Parenting & Teaching Self-Regulation

The Importance of the Parental Relationship and Self-Regulation
The Core and Basic Facets of Parenting
Four Techniques to Help Develop Self-Regulation in Children

We all want our children to grow up and live happy productive lives.  From one perspective, children come into the world with certain dispositions, certain tendencies. From another, parents greatly influence and shape who the children become through how they behave toward their children and more so, the internal states they share with their

Madison Omholt, PhD.BackForward619.519.1000

 

little ones. The perennial quandary of nature versus nurture has evolved in recent decades into a more integrated understanding of how genetic webs shift and give rise to various psycho-physiological traits and symptoms through interactions of genetic, environmental, and physiological factors.  Although parental influence is not the only factor in child development, it yields a much greater effect than many people fathom.

How parents behave and what they vocalize are one dimension of what is communicated and shared with their children.  To a much greater degree, parents communicate, from one-moment-to-the-next “the whole” of who they are with others.  Human nervous systems synchronize, dance with, attach to, merge with, and differentiate from those in their close environment—and much of this occurs in mere tenths of seconds, far outside ordinary conscious awareness.  With newborns and infants, their very brains, not just their minds, are shaped by the interpersonal world—by both the explicit behaviors and ‘implicit states of being’ of their parents.   In the first year and a half of life, children are only able to get a sense of calming, of self-regulation, through their parents, and what occurs during this undifferentiated time becomes the essence of their inner psychological world. These first couple years are internalized and become the core of who they are through later childhood and into adulthood.  By how parents handle the ups and downs of life, how they relate to others, and by both who they are and how they act, they communicate what it means to be human to newborns and infants.   If parents have ‘not’ worked on themselves, more likely than not, they share with their children their “stuff,” and their psychological baggage becomes the psychological baggage of their children. On the other hand, if a person is truly successful at parenting, she gives her child himself, the capacity of self-regulation, and he grows up with a deep sense of who he is and an ability to relate meaningfully with others.

Children are developing all the time across big and small everyday moments: over days, months, and years.  In the first couple years, our little ones are just getting here, finding out if this is a safe place or not.  The more affectionate, calm, in tune, and attentive we are, the better parents we are being.  This is not spoiling them, this is good parenting.  Neuroscience has shown that the part of the nervous system, the parasympathetic, that is responsible for calming sympathetic activation, does not fully develop until we are a year and a half old.  Until then, babies are dependent on their parents and other primary caregivers to help them calm down. 

The hustle and bustle in “civilized life” has riddled many people with a profound imbalance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of their nervous systems.  These branches are complementary and supposed to work in harmony.  In contrast, many people are chronically over-activated, remaining in hyper-aroused ‘sympathetically’ charged states.  They are caught in worlds where they spend far too much of their time overworked, overstressed, over-anxious, and overwhelmed, or are highly functional, yet morbidly numbed.  Instead of enjoying the continuous tides of the present moment unfolding throughout their lives, they are caught in worry about the past or anxiety about the future.  In the last couple decades medical science has captured, measured, and analyzed the effects of chronic activation on humans.  There is an abundance of evidence detailing how these chronically overcharged states are not only detrimental to psychological and relational health, but also take a severe toll on physical wellness.  If stress is the life adult parents are living, it is the life blood they are imparting to their children.

The techniques described below are designed to help parents develop greater self-regulation in their children.  Parenting is a widely underappreciated ability and understudied responsibility.  Self-regulation is only one aspect.  There are many important facets of parenting that are not addressed on this webpage.  As a parent, especially with more than one child, one has to be able to organize and schedule well.  Children require rambunctious fight/flight play activities as well as quieter, more subtly nuanced and restful play time.  Parents have to be dynamic, able to shift into various aspects of themselves with barely a moment’s notice.  One’s own self-care and adult relationship-care will greatly assist her in being present for quality time with her children.  Consistency and reasonability in setting “consequences” are essential for establishing fairness and camaraderie in homes.  Giving your child choices, guided by the knowledge of the limitations and freedoms that are age-appropriate for your child, can enhance his or her sense of independence and empowerment.  The length of time, timing, and relatedness of consequences, punishments, and rewards, and how these are mixed with tender and tough love can increase the effectiveness of a parent’s interventions and a child’s well-being. Truly, the study of parenting practices could and should involve enough material to make-up at least one serious (and hopefully playful) graduate university course.

There are numerous scientific resources that can help parents recognize developmental markers in their children, so they can understand what sorts of behaviors, chores, and goals can be expected from children as they develop through childhood, and into teen and adulthood; but parenting is by no means simply a science, it is also an art.  The written knowledge of parenting, although a necessary resource, is an insufficient substitute for the simple and profound effects of a warm smile, a soothing touch, a timely bit of crackling humor, or a nuanced dose of tough love. Guidelines are useful, but it is the “self-other relational awareness” of parents, and their ability to articulate and apply this awareness somewhat effortlessly while in moment-to-moment relationship with their children, that provides the primary parental guidance. A parent’s awareness, when she is clear, holding onto self-observance, and in direct relation to their child at a felt level, will inform her of the needed approach and direction.  She will feel what is the necessary, most appropriate, and the action that is in the best interests of her child’s development.  The most important tool in parenting is the parent’s capacity to be receptive to the reality of the child, and to respond in differentiated ways to assist in the child’s development.    

With the goal of self-regulation and the child, over time, being able to be self-directed, the following are four techniques or ways of being with children.  As to what technique to use when, that will primarily arise from the parent’s assessment of the needs of the moment, but here are two guiding principles:  Should the learning be done together or is it best to have the child learn more independently? And, is the parent in reaction to the child or is the parent connected, but non-reactive? 

 

Independent Learning

Togetherness Learning

Parent is Reactive/Emotive

“Time-Out” for Parent &/or Child

Emotional Meeting to Secure Attachment

Parent is, or becomes, non-reactive

Separation to Empowerment

“Time-In” for Parent & Child

Independent Learning - Time-Out:  Time-out is a fairly well-known and frequently used technique.  It is an isolated quiet period, a disciplinary measure to remove children from an action, an item, or a context perpetuating a misbehavior that a parent/teacher/caretaker does not want to reinforce.  As a parent, when implementing this approach, it is important to check-in by asking oneself “whether is it the child or the parent that needs the timeout”.  Children can often be loud, rambunctious, and expressing an exuberant excess of youthful energy.  After a seemingly endless day of work or child-rearing, or when something unexpectedly adds to the toil and toll of the day, wreaking a bit of havoc on one’s internal/external world, it may be the parent who really needs the time-out.  For example, some parents, when they have had “too much” will remain vocally in contact with their little ones, but give themselves a break by having some quiet time alone in their bathrooms to regain their calm and composure. 

Time-out is a non-violent technique that is separating the child from something that he or she desires.  A simple guideline for this technique is to have a minute of timeout for each year the child is old; thus 8 minutes for an 8-year old.  Time-out is most effective when used as a social isolation approach:  through her action the parent is saying as a chieftain of her little clan that her child’s behavior is not acceptable.  Hopefully, the child has some reflection and deactivation skills that he has been taught.  It is important that a child not engage in some other distracting activity during this time and it is useful to have a physical area set aside for timeouts.  The idea is that the child reflects on his or her behavior, engages in a process of self-managing deactivation, or at least stews in their displeasure until the time is up, or their nervous system shifts and calms down.

Togetherness Learning – Time-In:  For this approach, the parent needs to have a developed capacity to relax or be in a relaxed state when implementing the technique.  A parent is presented with a child that is upset, stressed, or anxious, and he is going to assist the child in deactivating and coming into a more relaxed state.  For this technique to work, the parent needs to have the ‘self-awareness’ to know when he is physiologically in a deactivated state, and needs to be in that relaxed state or have the capacity to relax himself while assisting another to relax.  As with a meditation practice, it helps to have a designated spot in the house where you and your child can calm down together: an inviting bean bag, large comfy chair, or spread of pillows and cushions on the floor—basically, something of comfort—will work.   Once in the appropriated locale, the parent actively assists and guides the child with soothing voice, calming touch, or even a more formulized technique, such as body scanning or progressive relaxation to achieve the deactivated/relaxed state of well-being.  The beauty of this technique is that it teaches children at a deep embodied level how to “settle down” in close proximity with another person.  Unless we have been conditioned otherwise, it is natural for humans to come into contact with special others, and amidst that contact settle from the day’s events (or disasters!).

Independent Learning – Separation to Empowerment:  This technique is useful when both the child and the parent are activated and/or reactive. To begin, the parent first creates some emotional (and probably a little physical) distance from his child, with the eventual goal of helping the child come into her own sense of empowerment. This is an assertive (relatively deactivated) sense of empowerment, in contrast to an aggressive (sympathetically activated) empowerment.  Children, and life in general, are problematic—sometimes to the point where we are at wit’s end.  When “life” has got our proverbial goat, and our child is acting out, the first step is to separate oneself and settle, that is to settle or quiet one’s own fight/flight activation.  Often in moments of parenting there is not a lot of time, and one needs to be able to recall his relaxation response in seconds when addressing a problem.  Thus it is important to practice relaxation during separate times and as one gains the ability to achieve a calm neural state, next a person associates that state with a thought, memory, color, word, image, or sensation, so that by recalling the associative marker one can quickly retrieve the accompanying relaxed state of being.   
After the parent is separate and settled, it is time to return his attention to the child.  Ask her what has happened.  Ask her for her view of what has occurred.  Really listen.  He or she is small, growing.  Imagine what her world is like, listen to her, and in a subtly nuanced way, allow your nervous system to tune into hers.  Show her through your words, through your tone of voice, through how you hold your body and perhaps hold her, that you value her experience, you value her.  As you validate her world, try not to add your own stuff, your own perspectives, or excess emotionality.  Finally, show trust in your child by offering her a situation where she can achieve what she desires (give her options that are appropriate for her developmental stage).  Then get out of the way, and let her show you what she can do.  By getting out of the way in the right situation, you are showing confidence in her resourcefulness, in what she can do.  You are creating situations and an environment where she can feel empowered. 

Togetherness Learning - Emotional Meeting to Secure Attachment:  In this technique the parent meets her child at the level of the child’s emotional intensity and then assists the child in deactivating.  There are many times when children get upset, and sometimes it is necessary for them to be met in an emotionally intense manner so they can fully process the emotions/feelings that are present.  To safely engage this technique, it is necessary that a parent have the “observer faculty” developed so that she will not be lost to reaction at the time of her emotive response.  The “observer faculty” allows a parent to maintain a “peaceful felt-sense of body-oriented presencing,” thus enabling a person to both act and respond, holding multiple feelings simultaneously, without losing oneself to any single feeling or falling into a reaction driven expression or action.  It is easiest to develop (and/or recognize) the “observer faculty” in the presence of another person who is a capable teacher.  This is the most advanced of the four techniques.  Remember the goal here is good parenting for our children: to help them discover themselves, feel connected, safe, and to establish good self-regulation.  If at the time of the incident, a parent does not feel settled and does not have a sense of separation while in connectedness with her child, please use one of the other 3 techniques.

When a child is upset, angry, or activated, and the parent senses the child has a “need” for heightened expression, where simply helping the child calm down will not be the best assistance, then it is appropriate to implement this technique.  As with the previous technique, the parent needs to be sure her “activation” is separate from the child’s “activation.”  Next (same as in the prior technique), the parent needs to imagine and tune into the child’s worldview.  While practicing the “observer faculty” some aspect of the parent remains settled, remains calm.  With the “observer faculty” present (meaning that one aspect of the parent’s being remains peaceful, observant, and non-attached), the parent then meets the intensity of the child’s emotion with the intensity of her emotion.  As an aspect of the parent is aware and observant of the various dimensions in the interplay between parent and child, she does not lose control.  The parent is emoting, and perhaps emoting intensely, but it is truly for the sake of the child’s processing.  As the parent meets the child in his emotion, she may feel the child needs to get a little more intense to fully express what he is processing.  In this scenario, the parent should slightly escalate what she is doing:  such as let the volume of her voice increase, or bang the pots and pans with the child a little louder.  An essential key is that once the parent senses a downward deactivating shift in her child, then she follows, shifting her emotional responding and assisting the child in de-escalation.

Such shifts in children are often subtle: a change in skin tone, a different look in the eyes, a shift in voice tone, etc. and this is why having a nuanced receptivity of the child’s world is vital.  Parents are following the movements of the child’s whole organism (not simply the child’s egoic presentation).  The parent is assisting the child in whatever the child’s organism needs to process, and in doing so, helps the child gain the ability to process future occurrences of similar meaning and dynamism.  When the child shifts to de-escalation, the parent brings herself wholly into deactivation, and through her contact with her child (much as in the time-in technique) helps him calm down via connection to their dearest mom (or dad).