Bear Hugs or Crocodile Tears: Tools for Emotional Regulation in Trying Times

This has been a strange summer to say the least. For children, it may be a mixed bag. Some kids might thrill in the extended “vacation,” while others may be feeling anxious or depressed by the lack of routine and time with friends.

Whatever your child is experiencing may have to do with their age and whether or not they have siblings. Typically younger children and kids with brothers or sisters are fairing okay, while only and older children may be feeling more of the emotional effects of isolation.

However, even those children who are generally in good spirits may have moments of anxiety or frustration. This can be especially true for children who are fairly young and do not yet possess the ability to communicate their feelings clearly.

Fight, Flight or Freeze
The human brain has evolved to scan the environment for danger. Young children are especially perceptive of their surroundings, taking informational cues from sight, sound, smell, touch and taste. In the current social landscape, this can translate to unfamiliar and sometimes frightening interactions as children see people wearing masks and begin to notice that their routines have changed.

The sympathetic nervous system, more commonly referred to as the “fight or flight” response, kicks in when fear arises due to an unfamiliar situation or event. A child’s fear that their expectations are not being met can create a real sense of unease, and they do not always have the capacity to communicate that clearly. Instead what you may see is an emotional fireworks display. For children and adults alike, one of the major causes of agitation in the sympathetic nervous system is the sense of not being understood, and the subconscious reaction to such unsettling feelings often begins before we are even aware of it.

When the autonomic nervous system shifts into its sympathetic state, a flood of physiological and emotional events occur that is not totally within the control of the person experiencing it. A sea of hormones are released, the heart rate goes up, blood pressure and breathing increase, and blood flow to the digestive system is reduced dramatically. For children under a certain age, without the language skills to help them along, this may even be a daily occurrence as they cry to let you know they are hungry, too hot or too cold, etc.

That Gut Feeling
At one time it was believed that the autonomic nervous system was comprised of only two parts: the sympathetic (“fight or flight,” as described above) and parasympathetic, or relaxed, nervous systems. It is now understood that there exists a third, and frankly fascinating, part: the enteric nervous system (ENS). This is the part of the peripheral nervous system that governs digestive processes independently of the central nervous system. There exist many more neurons in the ENS than the spinal column – what we often think of as a major hub for nervous system activity. We now know that what we refer to as “a gut feeling” or “butterflies in the stomach” is in fact directly related to our GI’s ability to communicate neurologically!

It’s common for children to complain about tummy aches, and what we are now realizing is that this is directly connected to the emotional state. There is almost no separating digestive upset from feelings, regulated by the nervous system. If your child complains of an upset stomach, it’s a good opportunity to open up a dialogue about how they’re feeling emotionally as well. (Keep in mind that common tummy complaints are different from severe abdominal pain, which requires immediate medical attention. Tapping your child’s heel, or asking them to jump a time or two and then asking where it hurts can be a great indicator of the severity of pain. If the child says the pain is in their heel, then their stomach discomfort is relatively benign. If they report that the pain is in their abdomen, then it’s possibly indicative of more serious issues that require a doctor’s input.)

One of the best ways to generate a sense of calm and comfort is by creating rituals your family can rely on to create a sense of safety when your child is feeling upset or unwell. Soothing Tummy Love is an excellent resource when your child is experiencing stress that manifests as tummy discomfort. Paired with a gentle tummy massage done in a clockwise, circular motion, a ritual like this creates a beautiful, calming bonding opportunity for child and parent.

In those moments that are fueled by stress and frustration, it can be hard to know what will help calm your child effectively. It can also be hard to maintain your own sense of calm when you begin to feel helpless in the face of a wailing child! Practiced both consistently over time and in moments of acute stress, BANG! is an acronym designed to help parents ground themselves and their children as they navigate turbulent emotional waters.

Breathing. Taking a minimum of 8-10 slow, deep breaths helps shift from the sympathetic into the parasympathetic state. The vagus nerve, which runs from the brain, through the face, and to the abdomen, is bundled with parasympathetic fibers. This enables it to react quickly to relaxation techniques such as deep breathing, shifting things away from fight or flight and into a state that supports relaxation and digestion. Deep breathing along with your child will help to set the pace and help them feel supported. Doing this together can greatly reduce anxiety in both parties.

Connecting your deep breathing practice with an external stimulus can be helpful in order to support familiarity with this practice, which in turn will cue the brain that it’s time to relax. When done consistently, signaling that it’s deep breathing time by ringing a bell, or inhaling a soothing scent such as Fussy Temper Comfort, will teach the mind to begin to relax before you even take your first breath. Breathing can also be paired with a visualization of your child’s favorite place to take relaxation even deeper. Simply invite your child to imagine a place where they feel relaxed, comfortable and happy as they slowly breathe in and out.

Appreciation. In this context we use appreciation not so much in the moment of agitation as we do with breathing exercises, but more as a foundational piece in order to foster a sense of gratitude and safety on a daily basis. Moments of gratitude and appreciation can take place any time, from playing in the garden, to bedtime, to a pause before a meal to mention something each member of the family is grateful for. This can be an extremely grounding exercise that brings the whole family into the present moment together. A Family Gratitude Journal can even serve as a beautiful reminder of all the things that bring joy to you and your little ones over time.

Nature. Loads of research supports what humans have known for millennia: nature is calming. Being in a natural setting, whether it’s the forest, the beach or a lake, helps to restore calm by engaging the parasympathetic nervous system. Studies on forest bathing show a shift in brain waves and stress levels when a
person goes for a walk in the city versus a walk in the woods.

Spending time in a nature as both a foundational and acute tool in supporting your child’s emotional health shows incredible benefits. Taking time to become quiet, observing the natural surroundings with all senses, enables the body and the mind to relax and restore itself to a state of calm. Focusing on plants, water, starlight, or anything in the surrounding area dramatically helps the brain to slow down and regroup.

On a related note, eating organic whole foods greatly supports the body in all its functions, meaning that your child’s nervous system will be better able to regulate itself when it’s supported with healthy nutrition as opposed to highly refined, processed foods.

Giving. Studies have shown that in stressful situations, your nervous system does a better job of remaining calm when you are focused on helping someone else. What likely originated as a survival technique shows us that focusing on ourselves in emotional situations can actually be more stressful than trying to help someone else through the same experience; In acute moments of stress we are better able to manage our own emotions when we’re looking out for the wellbeing of others.

What does this mean for kids? “Giving” in this sense is beneficial on multiple levels. By teaching children to learn awareness of the feelings of others, we instill within them valuable lessons in sympathy. They learn that theirs is not the sole experience, and thus begin to understand and empathize with others. In teaching awareness and service to the needs of others, we raise kind and supportive children. As many people know, one of the best ways to get out of your own head is to help someone else!

While the BANG! protocol was created in order to help parents and kids through stressful emotional states, the components therein are aimed at cultivating consistent practices and rituals that will provide a greater sense of calm, groundedness and gratitude on a daily basis. The more consistently a child feels safe and supported, the less likely they are to fall into sporadic meltdowns. After all, it’s pretty difficult to feel agitated and grateful at the same time!
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