My health insurance provider gifted me a yearlong subscription to a meditation app.
My new yoga app offered a deep discount for continuing a subscription.
And, quite literally, as I was starting this article, my mother invited me to a watch-party on Facebook featuring two musicians playing classical music (it was actually quite lovely; thanks Mom).
Is it just me, or does it seem that the whole world is saying “calm down?”
Granted, if you are following the news or fighting for deskspace with cats* (as I am)…or for mental space in a full household, replete with humans who are in the earliest stages of frontal lobe development (and humans with fully intact, but overly taxed, frontal lobes)…it would, likely, help you to calm down.
In fact, this theme seems to have followed me even into my readings of late…Beginning Well, No Drama Discipline, The Opposite of Combat, Beyond Behaviors…all echo this idea of the importance of calmness in the face of stress…though, of course, they call it different things. Dögl’s book just embodies it. Siegel and Payne Bryson ask you to “connect” before you “redirect.” North encourages you to help children “feel felt” by their conflict partners. Delahooke goes so far as to say the perquisite for any learning, nay even for life…starts with the ability to be calm and alert. And while Magda never asks you to stay calm (though Janet Lansbury would suggest you strive to be ‘unruffled’)…she does ask to pause…to slow down…to observe first…which of course, leads us all to feeling a bit calmer.
The reason for this is, quite simply, when we’re agitated and overwhelmed by emotion, we’re operating out of our limbic systems…our “downstairs” brain as Siegel and Payne Bryson term it. Don’t get me wrong…that downstairs brain is very important for survival…it’s the part that tells us to fight or flee, or maybe even shut down, when in danger. But it is an instinctual and automatic part of our brain…just as we don’t have to remind our hearts to beat or our lungs to inflate, when we feel threatened or upset, our brains automatically take over. But here’s the thing…when our downstairs brain is in control, our ‘upstairs’ brain, the frontal lobe (responsible for self-control, inhibiting impulses, higher order thinking like logic and planning), isn’t online.
My Mom (she’s on my mind a lot today, no?) once explained it to me like this: “there’s no learning happening during a tantrum.” That’s one to live by…when your ‘downstairs brain’ is in charge, when your child is crying and screaming…when you’re stressed and at the end of your rope…instinct is in charge, not intellect. When your child (or you) are in that state, it’s time to reach for Magda’s message: pause…slow down…observe. If your child is upset, be close and offer comfort, but don’t try to solve things immediately. If you’re upset, take a moment to breathe and notice your surroundings. As pulse rates slow, begin to TALK about how you’re feeling. I love Susan North’s quotation about how, neurologically speaking, you can’t be (as) furious while talking about your fury…talking, assigning language to emotions is what starts to bring that frontal lobe in, which helps to build a staircase between the upstairs and downstairs brains (thank you for that analogy Dan and Tina).
Of course, if you’ve been in class with me for any length of time (and I know some of you haven’t yet, so here’s a spoiler…), you know that children’s frontal lobes don’t start to form until around the age of 2. All this means is that we adults get to act as children’s frontal lobes…inhibiting impulses, offering boundaries, introducing some logic and order…laying the groundwork for that development…and remembering that in order for some of that groundwork to be laid, children have to be in a calm and alert, ready state of mind. So get to calm (or calmer) before you get to the lesson…connect then redirect.
The other thing to keep in mind is that sometimes feelings linger even after a conflict or upset has been resolved. I witnessed it just yesterday in watching a video** from my Practicum student, Kumiko. Her children were having a disagreement over a sandwich…and it was quite a disagreement, giving us a lot to discuss (house rules, power balancing, mediation vs arbitration, health and hygiene, fairness, satiation, and allowing children to have their feelings… just to name a few). One thing I observed, though, was even after the conflict was over, her older child still had a lot of energy, had trouble staying seated, and even subtly tried to start another conflict with his younger sister! It seemed that the energy from the first conflict carried over. Has that ever happened to you? Your irritation over one thing carried over to the next interaction you had? (Could it be happening on a more macro level in your life right now?) It happens to children, too. We sometimes forget that because they are often so great at not holding grudges or staying in upset…but until all of those feelings are dislodged, it can be hard to move on. What’s the best cure for this? Slow down.
The last thing I’ll leave you with is what I think the meditation and yoga apps are attempting to offer me. The thing that helps all of us, but most especially young children, in staying calm and centered is a predictable routine. When our days have a predictable flow, a regular order, it helps with everything from peaceful moments to better eating to more restful sleep. This isn’t to say you have to stick rigidly to the clock, but instead to key into the rhythm of your child’s day and try to keep it consistent. A lot of the stress and grief we all felt at the start of safer at home came from losing our routines; hopefully, you’re finding your stride again, for you and for your child.
Wishing you a calm and pleasant evening,
* Pro tip: Put a box on your desk…
**Kumiko is studying to be a RIE Associate. Initially, she sent me videos from her work in a childcare center in Beijing. Since the start of Covid, she relocated to Japan to live with her parents, and now sends me videos of interactions and caregiving exchanges with her children. I watch them, send her notes, and we discuss how to apply the Educaring Approach in each situation. I also offer this type of consultation for families in my RIE classes. For more information, just let me know.