Parenting

There’s no “cool mom” or “mean mom”

24 March, 2017

…there’s just parents who understand how the brain works, and those that don’t, yet.

Last week my husband made two cheese toasties and one of my daughters thought they were both for her- when they went on two different plates, one toastie for each kid, my daughter Lost Her Shit in the biggest way. Bigger than I’ve ever seen. An hour of violent, ear splitting shit losing. I think the trigger was the toastie, but that toastie unleashed four years of having to share every damn thing with the newest member of the family. The emotions were deep and dark and frightening for her.

For whatever reason that day, the surprise spare hour I’d found in between places I had to be or the little lie-in I’d had that morning, I was an ocean.

Immeasurably calm.

Encompassing.

Enough.

Her emotions were just one drop in the big sea of my empathy and solidarity. I held her, stopped her hurting someone, rocked her, repeated back to her the one phrase she couldn’t stop shouting.

It might feel funny to start a blog post like this, like “look, let me tell you about this one time I was amazing!” But you see, at the end of it all, I felt like I’d been through labour. (I’m sure she was just as wrecked.) I felt like I’d climbed a humongous mountain, and I’d smashed it. There was something required of me, and I’d rose to it. Honestly, without sounding like a dick, it was surprising and humbling. And I want to be able to do it more and more and more. Every. Single. Time.

I need to celebrate these moments, because littered around these mountain topping achievements are the times I snap, the times I’m grumpy all day, the times I exhaustedly reach out for a quick threat “if you call your sister baby one more time I will take away your internet!” and it is HARD work trying to change your mindset from the dominant one (parents must be in control! Children must obey! Children mustn’t steal a whole hour of your day with their meltdown!) to a more empathetic, power-sharing one (we are in this together! I am here to guide my children, to show them kindness so that they can thrive!) and we’ve got to give each other a high five when we rock it.

The truth is, it is only when I am able to keep in my head all the insights from neuroscience that I am able to rise to what is needed of me as a parent. This stuff is the gas in my tank, without this information I resort to a totally unjoyful, fearful, disconnected parenting.

(Story told with permission.)

***

This week I read the article “7 Reasons I’m a “mean mom” not a “cool mom” – all I had in my head after reading it was the phrase ‘There ARE no mean moms, or cool moms, or good moms, or bad moms (or mums!) there are simply those that have had the opportunity to learn about our children’s brains and those that haven’t.”

When I say there are parents that understand the brain and those that don’t, I’m not being patronising. I just absolutely believe that you can’t hold the information that neuroscience is bringing us and still proudly be the “mean mom.” And it’s no ones fault, so there is no judgement. I mean, it’s not as if you have a baby and someone hands you a little pamphlet about how to raise your baby according to the latest research and people are actively ignoring it. Nope. The opposite is true – you have a baby and the majority of people; health visitors, family members, mainstream media, actually give you advice that is the very OPPOSITE of what recent studies are telling us. I guess this is because society churns along smoothly if everyone just does what has always been done. So I want to speak kindly, empathetically; I truly believe 99.9% of parents make their choices because they want the very best for their child. But I also want to do what I can to highlight what people are discovering about the brain and how the different ways of raising children can impact them for the rest of their life.

Also, you can have all this information about the brain and still sometimes be the mean mom, ‘cos you are having a bad day and you can’t shake the blues or you’ve run out of time and you have Cocopops stuck to the soles of your feet constantly and it is Winding You Up. ARGH! Those days happen, but you still aim to do best by your child’s brain.

But to actively CHOOSE disconnection over connection with your children – that makes me think not enough parents know this shizzle.

(Sidenote- the article claims a bit of science itself, the “fact” that nagging works. I have spent alot of time looking into this in an attempt to find the source of this claim, I’ve even emailed the researcher, and only ever get ultimately directed to the Daily Mail. Not a single scientific journal has covered this piece of research and you can’t even find the original study, or even a reference to it, apart from in the world’s most crappy pop media. Plus the claim “nagging works” goes against everything neuroscience is telling us about relationships. So can we just chuck this claim out the window?)

So let’s get in to the good stuff.7 things about the brain that you can’t unknow…

I could choose ANY number of gamechanging brain things, but these are the seven that really struck me from an event I organised last week with Ruth Beaglehole, the founder of Nonviolent Parenting.

7 facts about the brain that could transform your parenting

 

1- Our brains can flip us from rational human to grunting ape in a couple of seconds.

The brain is a mega complicated thing. (Ha, that sentence – I can hear the squeak of the chair as my neuroscientist readers squirm!!) But let’s simplify it for a sec. Humans essentially have three brains that make up their brain. Our early brain, the first brain we got, is a bit of an animal – almost purely focused on survival. Then we evolved a bit, and on our way to our higher brain, get a midbrain, a bridge between our survival brain and our rational, analytical, poetic, artistic brain. This higher brain is also where all of our ability to empathise is located.

You know the phrase “fight, flight, or freeze” – that is what happens when all of our thought process sinks back down to our survival brain. When triggered into a big emotion, or when panicked by an emergency situation, we take a dive down to this lower brain and it is common for all rational thought to leave us.

This simplified brain picture is important for a couple of reasons:

When our kids experience big emotions, trying to bring them out of it with logic (Hey, don’t worry about it! I’ll make another cheese toasty!) will commonly not work, and will commonly only make the child feel more isolated, as though you don’t understand the bigness of what she is experiencing. When your child is in their lower brain, when they are little this is often, they need you to be present, to be with them, as their survival (all their brain is thinking about!) rests on you being close.  We can also help them make the transition back to their higher brain – see number two.

But the second reason this 3 brain image is important is for our ability to parent wisely. If we are panicked by something (in a rush or external pressures) or triggered by a big emotion (something that child has said or done has pushed a button and made you see red!) where do our thoughts come from? Yep, the lower brain. We sink there and, lemme tell you, nothing good comes from there when you are parenting! That’s when we blow our top, or say something to shame or threaten, or just act like a big ridiculous chimp.

Our job as a parent is to keep pulling ourselves up from our brain’s urge to take a dive!

2- Regulation is key.

At one point during the Nonviolent Parenting Workshop, Ruth said “And this, THIS, is the work of the parent” – we all shuffled to the edge of our seats, desperate to hear the silver bullet. “The work of the parent is REGULATION.” If we focus on one thing, if we can only focus on one thing, our job is to keep ourselves regulated – in this higher brain. Because if in the face of our children’s emotions, actions and words, we can keep our empathy neurons firing (and they are ONLY in our higher brain) we will be able to provide what they need from us. (What do they need from us?? See number 6!)

Once we have entered a disregulated state, it is hard to come back from.

So actually we need to get real good at listening to our bodies and trusting the signals we are getting, the warning signs that tell us we are about to sink into disregulation.

My warning signs are a fastly beating heart, short breath. This tells me I need to tap into my Regulation ToolBox. I am an auditory regulator. So I play music and say a mantra over and over under my breath.

We are also here to help our kids understand their warning signs. There is sometimes a clue in what people do when they are in a disregulated state.

If you fight and move your body when overwhelmed, you are possibly a movement regulator and doing something physical – punching something or having bath- will help.

If you swear and scream or sigh then you may be an oral regulator and singing or chewing gum might help.

Do you pull at things, your hair or your top? You may be a touch regulator and it might help to have a stress ball or pat your pet.

If you do a death stare or need people to look at you, you may be a visual regulator and it may help to have a favourite painting you can turn to, or a book of photos to look through.

Getting our heads around what is in our own, and our child’s regulation toolbox, and knowing when we need to turn to it, can save some really shameful crap happening.

3- Everything gets wired in.

Oh, gawd, this one. Our brains are amazing. And awful. They never forget. Every word, every action, every experience gets wired in somewhere in the brain. If things happen every now and then, it still goes in there. Obviously, it changes the brain less than when things happen often. When things happens often, say your child never knows when you are gonna erupt at them, their brain will be wiring itself up to protect itself from harm, to do what it needs to do around you, and possibly others, for the rest of life.

We all shed a few tears at this revelation. And even more at the next.

4-  It is never too late.

Even though everything gets wired in, it is never too late.

Because; neuroplasticity.

Whilst everything is in there, the brain continues to rewire until the very day we die. It is ABSOLUTELY possible to change the effect we have on our children and help them wire their brains in a healthy way. It is possible, as an adult, to observe that we are wired up for insecurity or anger or distrust, and to begin the work of rewiring. I’ve mentioned this book a few times, but the book 4 Ways to Click by Amy Banks is the most excellent and readable thing I have read on neuroplasticity and relationships.

The significance of neuroplasticity is that no matter our worst parenting moments, no matter what has gone down for our kids, no matter the shame and punishment that’s been dished out, kindness can always win.7 facts about the brain that could transform your parenting

5- What goes in, comes out.

A little task for you to do in the next 5 seconds – have a think about all the things you want your child to be when they grow up. Here’s mine. My honest list:

kind
empathetic
able to connect with people
to trust herself
to love herself

Guess what?

If I want those things out, I have to put them in!  It is literally how the brain wires itself!

Lists like “Reasons I’m the Mean Mom” completely ignore this fact about the brain. People think they are doing the tough love thing in order to make their child kind.

Oh!

It s the opposite of how it works. You simply CAN’T think that raising your child with severe consequences, with anger, with micro controlling, is going to result in a kind adult.

The only way a brain learns kindness is to experience it.

The only way my child will learn to trust herself is if I trust her.

It is that simple.

6- Empathy cells grow only by our brains receiving empathy

One of the characteristics that has been really delved into in recent neuroscience is empathy. I guess that’s because people realise that if humans could be raised with more empathy our world would be a far better place to live. There has been some incredible work on empathy to show that we have empathy centres in our brains, a little hub that is added to and built up every time we receive empathy. And knocked down a little every time empathy is not given, and shame and punishment given instead.

Read more about empathy and in particular empathy blockers here. 

7- Anger is an important state.

Firstly, anger is never just anger, but unmet needs.

Dan Sigels “H.A.L.T” is helpful – is your child hungry, angry, lonely or tired? It is a good one as it recognises that needs are not just physical, but that some of our BIGGEST reactions can come from emotional needs that aren’t met.

Anger is also a good thing. The impetus to ask ourselves what is really going on, what can we change.

Anger also gives children the chance to learn – to figure our problem solving. If we try and immediately quench all anger, what do they learn?

Anger also gives us the opportunity to let our child know that we love them unconditionally, that we accept them 100%. I love this quote from Gordon Neufeild, author of the incredible, highly recommended book Hold On To Your Kids. 

“Unconditional parental love is the indespensible nutrient for the child’s healthy emotional growth. The first task is to create space in the child’s heart for the certainty that she is precisely the person the parents want and love. She does not have to do anything or be any different to earn that love – in fact, she cannot do anything, since that love cannot be won or lost…The child can be ornery, unpleasant, whiny, uncooperative, and plain rude, and the parent still lets her feel loved. Ways have to be found to convey the unacceptability of certain behaviors without making the child herself feel unaccepted. She has to be able to bring her unrest, her least likable characteristics to the parent and still receive the parent’s absolutely satisfying, security-inducing unconditional love.”

Understanding where anger comes from, what role it can play can hugely impact our response to it.

***

Eep, I feel I could go on but I have actually been writing ALL DAY!!!!!!

Just quickly though, I do want to say that everything that applies to the child applies to us too. Our brains are the same. Human Brains, y’know? They require kindness and empathy. And the best person to deliver that is us!! We must be kind to ourselves. Give ourselves a break. Forgive ourselves if we’ve flipped our lid. Be compassionate about the fact that we haven’t had this insight about the brain so have been proudly parenting meanly. And encouraging to ourselves, remembering, It Is Never Too Late!

This is my latest video – it goes into all this brain stuff PLUS it includes another 4 letter word that can really help us with our desire to parent well.

Finally, I would love to hear from you. If you have had any mountain topping moments, I would love to give you a big juicy high five. And if you found this helpful, and want to help spread these insights, why not share this article somewhere?

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19 Comments

  • Reply Georgia 24 March, 2017 at 9:58 am

    I love this, I work in an adult field of empathy and compassion and it’s taken me a couple of years for my brain to catchup with this is how to live my whole life – inspirational read x

    • Lucy
      Reply Lucy 24 March, 2017 at 10:23 am

      Oh wow, cool, I would love to hear more of that field!

  • Reply Leanne stelmaszczyk 24 March, 2017 at 9:58 am

    I really needed this post this week -twice I’ve sunk into my animalistic brain and felt so so rotten. Whereas Im normally OK to reflect on what’s been happening to lead me to react in such a way, this week I’ve just been blocked and angry. This post has really helped me to think about the week, to reframe it and give my own needs a bit of COAL.
    Since you were asking about climbing the mountain though, last week I was so COAL it was beautiful and enlivening. A gentle stroke and sharing of space brought my eldest boy back from the brink of his deep pool of emotions and it felt so wonderful. I was there. He was there. We did it together with nothing more than being simply connected.

    • Lucy
      Reply Lucy 24 March, 2017 at 10:23 am

      Oh, this is emotional, I want to give you a huge big high five and hug for your space holding for your boy last week. Awesome. Love to you x

  • Reply Courtney 24 March, 2017 at 10:53 am

    I love your last couple of paragraphs (actually all of it, but those hit home). One of my children feels BIG. He is the amazing soul who has made me the parent I am to my other children. He has given me so many times to practice how I respond to huge feelings and I have it down to a fine art. If I ever snap, it surprises me as it is usually over the small, the insignificant, needs required in the midst of the rush, little but significant demands overwhelming a sleep deprived mind. I need to be more mindful of those moments.

    But something has come up for me lately, a block. I realized that all those years I calmly and expertly rode those storms, took the blows through calm breaths, I wasn’t kind enough to myself. You are right, at the end of those episodes, you are wrecked and you also need time to heal and reconnect. I need space that I didn’t give myself. I have been really mindful lately of revisiting those times that have stuck in my mind and healing. When those big emotions come up now, we ride them out together, but I am also honest about my own boundaries, feelings and need for time and space once it is over. It is about mutual respect and I realize It wasn’t going both ways before. I am feeling so much stronger at the end of these times where we BOTH get what we need.

    I love your blog and I love that there are parents out there who truly, truly feel the way I do about parenting and children. From afar, you help to make this path easier for me so thank you

    • Lucy
      Reply Lucy 24 March, 2017 at 4:45 pm

      Hi Courtney. Yep. I hear you. I love thinking about the little girl I carry around with me at all times! She deserves to feel kindness and feel valued and worthy. I want to be kind to her too.

  • Reply Sam Milam 24 March, 2017 at 6:24 pm

    As always, you are so spot on. Love this and sharing!

    • Lucy
      Reply Lucy 24 March, 2017 at 11:03 pm

      Thank you Sam!

  • Reply Cathy 24 March, 2017 at 8:49 pm

    Thank you so much for posting this. I’m really struggling at the moment as a single mum with an almost 3 year old who has been doing a lot of hitting and and generally being rough over the last few months. I have tried to parent in a gentle and science-based way, but things have definitely been on a downhill spiral recently. I’m grateful for this article, I needed a reminder x

    • Lucy
      Reply Lucy 24 March, 2017 at 11:03 pm

      Courage to you Cathy! We need to keep filling our minds with this stuff – we are swimming against the tide in such a big way x x You are awesome x

  • Reply Jacinta 24 March, 2017 at 10:15 pm

    When my three year old is acting up and doing anything I don’t want her to do I have learned to ask her if she would like a cuddle. Often she says yes straight away, and the act of hugging each other calms her down and makes me feel loving towards her rather than angry. Sometimes when she is having a full screaming session I tell her to come to me when she would like a cuddle, and soon after then screaming stops and she asks for one. There have even been times when she tells me she needs a cuddle and pre-empts the attention seeking through undesirable actions. It makes such a difference when I am at my wits end to call on this simple action.

    • Lucy
      Reply Lucy 24 March, 2017 at 11:04 pm

      It’s so lovely that you have both identified cuddling as part of her regulation toolbox! x x

  • Reply Petra 25 March, 2017 at 12:44 am

    This is so timely for me, in fact at nearly any moment since I became a mother this would have been timely! Thank you so much for writing this all so clearly and reminding me about what I believe and hold dear and inspiring me to try and be better… And I think it’s definitely OK to start with a story of triumph, that’s the most motivating, when we see that responding like that makes us all feel better. My proudest parenting moment is perhaps when my eldest scratched my eyeball which resulted in a trip to Eye Hospital A&E and I didn’t even shout! A lot of other times I don’t have that self control however and my girls seem to get wilder by the day so it’s something I’m trying to work on… Thanks for the encouragement. X

    • Lucy
      Reply Lucy 25 March, 2017 at 9:45 am

      Oh wow, big high fives about Eyeballgate! Thank you for your encouragement 😀 xxx

  • Reply Monika Rakowska 26 March, 2017 at 8:00 pm

    Thank you Lucy, I am struggling with my 4 years old daughter and her violently hitting me (only me) in her darkest moments. I am not sure what to do? Do I hold firmly her flying towards my body limbs and say: “I won’t let you hit/kick me.” Or do I let her hurt me until she is done, without any reaction, and then after the storm passes – say: we don’t hit/kick people.” I look forward to hearing from you or anyone who found the peaceful way of dealing with such outbursts. I talk to my daughter about ways to calm her body/mind and she suggests smelling flowers, blowing on her possum fur, etc, but in the moment of hot anger, she is unable to respond to my reminders of those solutions.

    • Lucy
      Reply Lucy 28 March, 2017 at 10:31 am

      Hi Monika
      Yes, definitely hold her and said I won’t let you hurt anyone.
      I do this as I do want to be very clear that we don’t use our bodies to hurt people, but also I know she will be devastated when she comes out of that deregulated state and knows that she hurt me. That is a burden for her to carry.
      I have children that are violent in their darkest moments. It is common. We need to hold them and still validate their feelings.

  • Reply rabble mum 26 March, 2017 at 10:41 pm

    There’s a belief that children’s emotions aren’t important and calming a child down is spoiling a child. Parents worry their child will become a self centered diva who can never get enough attention and will have unrealistic expectations. I think me me adults were unloved as a child and spend the rest of their lives catching up.

    I think spoiled children come from child worship. Every child needs to be special to their parents but they need to know they sometimes have to be one of a crowd. Too much stuff and not enough love will give a child bragging rights and a hollow feeling inside spa brat will be made and it won’t be the child’s fault.

    Thanks for this article, it’s an important message.

  • Reply Sarah 27 March, 2017 at 9:59 pm

    This is great Lucy. I have been reading the ‘Chimp Paradox’ which is helping me to understand how human brains work. I love how you have put this in the context of parenting and being a parent, so helpful.

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