Today’s guest author is Jennifer Abbanat.
Jennifer is a wife and mom to three kids ages 18, 16, and 13. Jennifer is an advocate and voice for her neurodivergent children. She and her family live in Northern California.
“You don’t have to be a therapist to be therapeutic”Mathew Portell
Therapeutic parenting isn’t “therapy.” It’s about how we are with our kids at any given moment.
It is showing up for them in a way that is supportive of their well-being, their nervous system, and their individual needs at any given moment.
It is through this “therapeutic” idea that attuned, connected caregivers can be “the agents of change” through our relationships with our children and by showing up authentically and responsively.
Will we always have the capacity to do this in every moment, every day?
Of course not. Caregivers are themselves humans that bring their own experiences into the relationship and family space. We don’t need to be “perfect” all of the time. In fact, perfection should never be the point or the goal. As Dr. Tina Payne Bryson mentions, “Our kids need us to be imperfectly perfect.” When we show up without our best foot forward, that’s okay. Self-compassion is a big part of this attunement and connection that can be a powerful intervention.
What is important after “our less than stellar” parenting moment(s) that frequently can cause a rupture is how we become aware of ourselves, how we become mindful and present to the situation that occurred. When we can shift our own state of being to become intentional, we can then repair what we missed in our child that created a “less than stellar” moment between us.
Unfortunately, our society has attached a moral failure message to making mistakes versus it being part of the human experience that brings opportunities for self-growth and discovery about ourselves at any age. Mistakes are necessary for development.
Whether they are within our parenting or made by our children, mistakes we make need to be viewed not through a lens of judgment and poor character; but rather as an opportunity to learn and with curiosity.
One thing is certain, ruptures will always occur within the context of relationships.
If we show up with curiosity and intentionality, regardless of the cause of the rupture, relational repair can begin the healing process. It is not so much about who is at “fault” or who did what to whom. It is how we, the adults in the relationship, approach the rupture, knowing our kids are watching what we do next.
This can either teach a valuable skill that our kids take with them throughout life, or we can inadvertently send a message that has the potential to land in the child’s nervous system as shame, blame, and feelings of poor self-worth. This happens to even the most well-meaning caregivers if we aren’t showing up in a way that meets the child where they are at any given moment.
Experiencing relational ruptures is a part of life. It’s not about the situation that created the rupture. When we understand we have the power to be the “agent of change” (Dr. Bruce Perry) and model for our kids how to approach repairs within a relationship without shaming or blaming, we are giving them a gift that will be felt throughout their life, providing a relational foundation that sets them up for future success.
“The most powerful therapy is human love”Dr. Bruce Perry
Our kids are not responsible for how their behaviors (no matter how big or small) make us feel.
That is not their burden to deal with. It is ours, the adults.
Being a therapeutic parent isn’t about acting like a therapist. It is about meeting the child’s needs, being present with them, with our attuned, unconditional love and co-regulation that meets them and supports them through their big emotions.
Big emotions happen. We are feeling beings before we are thinking beings. Our feelings and emotions can take over and leave our thinking brain at the door. We see this especially in our kids, as they are still going through important developmental stages.
It is often the “big” emotions that many adults struggle with.
It is the super excited “hyper-aroused” child who is acting silly, high energy, happy, and laughing that adults often tell them to “calm down, chill out, or to stop”.
This child is simply being a child. The adult, however, is experiencing the excited child as being too much, and maybe it is “creating overwhelm for the adult,” which isn’t the child’s problem. That’s a problem with adults. It is a child being a child, and it is the adult that doesn’t have the capacity to “put up with” an overly excited child.
“See a child differently, see a different child”Dr. Stuart Shanker, Ph.D.
Is this the child’s issue? No, the child is being a child.
This is all about the adult’s nervous system state and their low capacity to respect a child expressing childlike joy and “behaviors.” It is too much for the adult at that moment. We have all been here before. Maybe we are tired, perhaps we had a bad day at work, maybe we are hungry (hangry), or possibly we just don’t know how to regulate our own emotions to allow space for a child to be a child with all the energy and childlike behavior that comes with being a child. But the responsibility always lands with the adult, not the child.
Here is another scenario. A super frustrated, angry, tired, irritable child. These emotions are also “big feeling” emotions that can create big feelings in the adults around the child. These kids are also often told, “to calm down, to chill out, or to stop”.
Are you seeing the pattern here? Children with big emotions, whether happy and excited or frustrated and angry, are often met with the same adult response, which is that the child needs to stop.
Is this really an issue with the child? Or is this an issue with the adult? Are we unrealistically expecting something from the child so that it meets our needs versus allowing the child to be themselves?
Children are still developing. Children’s brains aren’t even “fully developed” until almost age 30, according to the latest neuroscience. A child experiences the world around them through all of their senses (internal-their interoception and external- exteroception senses).
It is through these sensory-rich experiences that they begin to process and figure out how they fit into this world. This is a developmental process. This is learning. Kids learn through their senses (body up), and it becomes a felt sense in the body that, as they grow up, becomes a felt memory. It is these experiences of how others around them make them feel that contribute so much to their understanding about themselves, actively shaping who they are, and this becomes their inner voice: am I loveable, am I likable, am I good enough?
So when adults show the child that they cannot handle the child’s big emotions, whether happy and excited or angry and irritable, the adults are leaving the message that “I can’t handle your big emotions,” and this creates an inner voice that tells the child “you are not safe, you are not okay, you are not loveable for being you.”
This has not just short-term implications but contributes to long-term adversity and challenges.
If we don’t change our patterns to be more comfortable with big emotions (both our own and our kids), our kids will be more likely to grow up and repeat the toxic patterns of generations before where the messages sent were that ‘big emotions are not safe, big emotions make adults uncomfortable, the child needs to change in order to be loved and accepted by the adults’. This will continue with more generations of kids who don’t know how to effectively regulate their own emotions, how to be with their big feelings, and how to be in their body and mind even when it’s uncomfortable.
It is through our repeated experiences and predictable co-regulation that we feel and can develop our own self-regulation skills, which we can then pass on to future generations. There is no self-regulation without co-regulation!
The parent-child connection is the most powerful mental health intervention known to mankind”Dr. Bessel van der Kolk
Self-regulation comes from feeling safe in the company of another. This is under our awareness. This sense of relational safety is felt in the nervous system.
This is the therapeutic parenting/caregiver relationship that kids need. It is through our co-regulating and attuned presence that we help meet a child’s need at any given moment.
This is the adult’s responsibility to share these experiences with kids in our care (whether as parents, caregivers, educators, etc.).
So, it might be time to learn more about one’s own nervous system and what may be blocking the individual from being able to be uncomfortable with a child’s feelings.
Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. It is through this personal growth that we become more capable of showing up as authentically as possible for our kids. Our kids thrive when they feel seen, safe, and soothed by our presence. This, too, becomes their inner voice.
Relationships are the agents of change, and the most powerful therapy is human love.”Dr.Bruce Perry