Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Attachment Lesson #3: When Your Body Gets Out of Balance, You Are Not Alone.

It seems that the great parenting debate revolves around what to do with our children when things get chaotic. If children were born fully mature and completely capable of turning challenges into triumphs, parenting would be easy-breezy and the parenting shelf at the library would be empty. But instead, children are born with partial brain development and we are left wondering what to do with them while they "grow up." Plus, when my child throws a tantrum or refuses to obey a command or blurts out a bathroom word, my child's immaturity dysregulates me (because my own brain's alarm systems are working) and that's not a fun what should I DO to avoid insanity? There are oh so many opinions.

Brent and I (mostly me because Brent isn't the fretting type) have churned over this matter on many occasions. As I've probably stated a million times now, I've read lots of parenting books, tried lots of techniques, and finally exhaled The Pyramid to guide us with these difficult decisions. We're not saying it's right for every parent. But it has hit the sweet spot for us.

Essentially, instead of defending ourselves against our children's emotional energy (by instinctively yelling, ignoring, giving in, punishing, sending to time-out, etc in order to combat our personal dysregulation), we've decided to dedicate our energy towards helping our children's brains and bodies re-balance when chaos disrupts their systems. And because the brain is constantly changing and gaining new capabilities, re-balancing our children looks different depending on what stage of growth they are in.

For children under 3, where their brains are primarily wired for emotional attachment, we re-balance (ie discipline) them by calmly bringing them to us (as opposed to sending them away for some sort of isolation consequence), so they can sense our emotional stability. For children 1-8, who are wired to follow and copy, we use natural leadership to help them re-balance. If we are positive leaders it works well. If we're not, it doesn't. It's pretty much on our shoulders (which is how we like it because our young children don't have a very mature prefrontal cortex yet so it doesn't seem very fair to lump all the responsibility for their immaturity on their shoulders...they wouldn't handle that very well and it causes bigger developmental problems later).

In general, for children 7-12, who are logically inclined and consciously aware of their actions, we help them re-balance by assisting them in using those newly developing areas of their brain. We lovingly mentor them and explain natural consequences and let them experience the associated joy or sorrow for themselves. For teenagers, who naturally want independence, we help them re-balance by encouraging use of their more advanced brain areas that control self-discipline (the prefrontal cortex)...but we don't use those brain areas for them (ie control them) because that would be counter to their self-worth. Naturally. (that's my new favorite word)

Regardless of what stage our child is in, we focus our disciplinary efforts on constantly reaffirming to our child that we as parents understand who he/she is now (however mature or immature that may be) and who he/she is capable of becoming.

The beginning of this complex 'teaching' is Attachment Lesson #3: When your body experiences chaos (opposition or negative energy or immaturity or dysregulation or whatever you want to call it), you are not alone. That's why you have a family. We'll make it through together.

Attachment Lesson #3 is one of the hardest ones. It tugs and pulls and stretches us. When I'm feeling particularly vulnerable myself, I avoid it all together. But the more experienced we get as parents, the more we can see that Lesson #3, learned or not, has tremendous impact on future emotional well-being.

From our perspective, our children's vulnerable brains make us pretty accountable as parents. Their future peace and happiness (and ours) depends very much (not completely, but VERY MUCH) on how devoted we are to modeling empathy and emotional regulation (aka Attachment Lesson #3, or mature prefrontal cortex use) during their younger years.

So we keep trying.

From MaryAnn's Perspective:

dear dairy,

this body of mine is great! i can see, smell, touch, taste and hear so many wonderful things...but i also feel sad, confused, scared, grumpy, and down right mad sometimes. i don't completely comprehend it. but i am starting to understand that when life gets tough, when my body makes mistakes, and when i feel completely out of control, there are BIG people around me that are at least a little more balanced (except when mom sometimes storms around the kitchen when she's getting dinner ready)...and they help me. they hold me. they look deep into my eyes. they speak softly. i feel something special when i'm with them. and i don't even know it yet...but my brain is paying very close attention to theirs. when it comes to conflict resolution...and emotional brain is copying the big people around me.  i'm getting all wired up in prep for i can hopefully turn around and help someone else balance out some day. thanks fam!!

yours truly,

ps...and here's a cool brain fact i overheard my mom telling my dad before he dozed off the other night: did you know that when a big person helps me re-balance in that present-sort-of-way that my mom's always blabbing about, both me and the big person get a prefrontal cortex workout? which makes us both stronger and more mature? that makes me feel kind of important even though i'm pretty small and vulnerable. what would my parents do without me?! ;)

A few past posts about how we've 'taught' MaryAnn this lesson during real-life chaotic moments are:
Hitting: Attachment Stage (0-3)
Woody to the Rescue

I'm sure there will be more to come...We have chaotic experiences about 50 times a day around here and MaryAnn has many many more months before emotional balance will feel a bit more natural for her. (Neurologically, learning emotional balance is like learning to walk...we don't go from crawling to running marathons over night. Emotional regulation connections take t...i...m...e...)

And somewhere trapped in the writing pipeline is how we've 'started over' with attachment and emotional balance when our older kids were technically past this stage. It was more painful and challenging for them and us. Sometimes still is. It feels like a more delicate I hesitate. But I'm sure it will come when the timing is right.  

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