By Melissa Holland Mansika
So, this whole idea of “losing it”, “flipping my lid”, “going red brain” as a parent and needing to repair? Unfortunately, I’ve had some practice.
It was the end of summer and just two days before Max was going to start first grade. I made my first mistake: underestimating the stress Max was experiencing which led me to my second mistake: sharing the idea that we would “do something fun to celebrate”. This, in theory, sounds like a good idea. However, it was not, because Max was experiencing a lot of stress about the upcoming change that he couldn’t name or express. Enter mistake #3: I offered Max two fun choices. I have been taught that offering choices to kids is a good way for them to feel empowered. However, I have since learned that choices can just as easily be stressors!
Stress and negotiations and chaos followed and before we knew it, Max was in full-on meltdown mode, hysterical, crying, screaming. And I did my thing where I handle it so well for so long until suddenly I don’t – a surprise to us both.
Max and I were on the landing on the stairs. He couldn’t stop yelling and I couldn’t stop crying. Then a calm came over me. I like to think regulation, perhaps full on hypo-arousal and shut down, but truly, it felt like the Divine, and suddenly I spoke in a calm, firm, loving voice.
I put my hand on my heart and I said, “Max, this is really hard; we are both having really big feelings, (I took a deep breath, loudly) but no matter how big our hard feelings are, our love is bigger (deep breath). We will get through this; we will weather this storm, (deep breath). I am here for you no matter what. I’ve got you, no matter how hard (deep breath). We are here together and we will get through this hard moment, and we’ll take deep breaths, together (at this point, we took three deep breaths together).
We sat in silence on the landing, my back pressed against the wall, his head in my lap. I stroked his hair and his back. After a long while, I said, “you know what I think we both need? Something really soft around us, like the Cloud (the world’s softest blanket that he named the Cloud), and something soft to sit on, like the couch, and something
crunchy to crunch on, like popcorn and something fun to watch, like the Wild Kratts movie.” And that’s what we did, wrapped up in the Cloud, snuggling, crunching, watching and being together.
Before I learned anything about Self-Reg, I would not have had any way to conceptually make sense of what happened – the how and why of it. I would have chalked it up to my own personal failure, my inability to control my emotions and Max’s diagnosis as “sensory processing disorder” and “social/emotional developmental delay”, and then suffered on.
Self-Reg teaches us to first, reframe, and see misbehavior as stress behavior, and then, recognize the factors that may be causing stress, eliminate or reduce the stress when possible, reflect carefully to develop awareness of the body’s signals of stress and then respond by developing personal strategies to restore and develop resilience.
With this new perspective of Self-Reg, I could see it more like this:
I could understand that Max’s behavior, was due to overwhelming stress of the upcoming significant transition, not misbehavior, or his diagnosis.
I could see that my losing it spectacularly, crying and yelling, was not reducing his stress (yes, sarcasm). But when I was able to start to reduce my own stress first, then I could genuinely soothe Max and meet his stress with compassion. I could comfort him with a soft blanket, snuggles and something crunchy to chew on, and reduce any expectation or activity.
Months later, drafting this blog post, I had a chance to reflect further about this experience, and that is when I realized that I was experiencing my own stress and grief at the time, over how his childhood is fast disappearing! I realized that being a mother means navigating a series of losses; with every exciting milestone comes a loss as well.
When I take the time to feel the sadness and grief that arises along with these anticipated and positive milestones, I can feel more restored and open to the positive parts of the new transition. After reflecting on this, I could understand that the stress I was experiencing, about Max heading off to first grade, he could also feel and sense it, and in part, was reacting to my own stress, a perfect example of what Self-Reg identifies as a “pro-social stressor”, dealing with the big feelings of others.
One of the most significant lessons of Self-reg has been the “put on your own mask before helping others” idea: the essential importance of managing my own stress as a mother, to support my child in managing his. And one of the most powerful ways I’ve discovered to develop resilience to future stress is cultivating the super-power of self-compassion. This is a key, often missing, piece in the process of repair, after a rupture in relationship. And each time we, as parents, lose it, we have another opportunity to teach our kids how to handle their own mistakes. In addition to owning up to our mistakes with an authentic, heartfelt apology (I’m so sorry I lost it and yelled at you like that), and showing our commitment to growing and reducing the likelihood of that happening in the future (I’m working on how to change that and I’m still learning, I’ll keep working on it though!) we also need to very visibly and specifically show self-compassion, kindness and gentleness towards ourselves.
We acknowledge that it is just plain hard to be human and that we feel genuine kindness towards ourselves even when we are at our worst. And just as important, we need to model this practice of self-compassion for our kids. I have learned that when we, both parents and kids, know it is safe to make mistakes and when we clearly see the path of how to repair, then mistakes are not so overwhelming, scary, or stressful. We can relax into the messy business of being fully human. And this brings our overall stress response down because we know we have a soft, familiar and safe place to land.
Original Blog Here