By Dr. Kate Truitt with contributions from Rebecca Turner, LMFT
“Good” parents all want the best for their children. Beyond fulfilling their basic needs, parents want their children to know they are safe, and they want to instill in them certain values and principles that they feel will make success more likely in all areas of their lives. They hope that through their parental guidance, they can help their children avoid some of the hardships they experienced in their early lives.
Doing all of that is a tall order. While parenting can be a source of intense joy, satisfaction, and fulfillment, at times it can be more demanding than any job we have ever had. The challenges can be daunting, and physically and emotionally exhausting. Most of the time, the vision they have of being the “perfect parent” seems to be just out of reach.
Dear parent, let us ease your weary mind a bit. There is no such thing as the perfect parent. Parenting, like most major relational life experiences, will never be an exact science, and nobody will ever be able to lay claim to being an “expert” at it. As American writer and futurist Alvin Toffler wrote, “Parenthood remains the greatest single preserve of the amateur.”
That doesn’t mean parenting always has to be figure-it-out-as-you-go. There are many things that parents already do well in their lives outside of parenthood—strengths that can create the foundation for nurturing and sustaining their family relationships. Parenting takes resilience and it’s helpful to have some tools that you can keep at the ready. In this article we would like to introduce the concept of Resilient Parenting and pass along a few helpful tools and exercises.
Resilient Parenting Begins With Your Strengths
First, let’s define resilience. Though there are many definitions, we like to cite this one from the HeartMath Institute, a nonprofit research organization that has been studying the effects of the heart/brain/energy/emotions connection for almost 30 years: “The capacity to prepare for, recover from, and adapt in the face of stress, adversity, or challenge.” Sounds like a superpower, and on some levels it can be, but really it is something that we can all develop in ourselves with a little work.
As with all kinds of resilience-building, taking advantage of our strengths to create possibilities is vital to resilient parenting. So, let’s look at the four core components of resilience, which are:
1) the capacity to manage strong feelings and impulses
2) a positive view of self and confidence in one’s strengths and abilities
3) the capacity to make realistic plans and take steps to carry them out, and
4) skills in communication and problem solving.
You can see how these four core components relate to the definition of resilience we shared above, and how they can also be applied to parenting. Keep these in mind as we explore resilient parenting.
Resilient Parenting is a principles-based approach that we teach. Its goal is to help you and your family feel more connected, create consistency and accountability for both parent and child, and provide you with the knowledge and confidence you need to be resilient as you navigate through each year of development. In our Resilient Parenting workshops we explore the role of being a parent from a relational perspective, and impart skills and knowledge to empower parents to be their best selves, and to show themselves some kindness in those inevitable moments when they are not at their best.
The Role of Emotions in Parenting
One of the most effective ways of creating change in your child or teen is by first changing yourself. This is in line with that famous Mahatma Gandhi quote about being the change you want to see in the world. One of the greatest opportunities for creating positive change in children and teens is teaching them to regulate their emotions, and that means parents need to learn to regulate their own emotions so they can be the model for that behavior.
Emotions are ways the body communicates with itself. They can impact far more than just our mental state—affecting our physiology and judgment through the rhythmic patterns the heart sends to the brain in response to these emotions. In the context of resilience, we look at two types of emotions on different ends of the spectrum: those that deplete and those that renew. Depleting emotions (stress, worry, frustration, anxiety, fear, anger) cause our hearts to send more chaotic, imbalanced neural signals to the brain, which can cloud our thinking capabilities. Renewing emotions (appreciation, care, calm, gratitude, love, joy, excitement) cause our hearts to send balanced, organized rhythmic messages to the brain, enhancing our thinking capabilities.
The technical terms for these are cortical facilitation and cortical inhibition. When cortical facilitation is happening, heart signals enhance the brain’s thinking, processing, focusing, and reasoning abilities, whereas when cortical inhibition occurs, signals from the heart inhibit the brain’s ability to effectively synchronize information flow and processing. Therefore, emotional regulation is essential to learning, development, and effective interaction with others.
Have you ever had the experience of feeling stressed and not being able to think clearly, or being angry and saying something you regret? That is cortical inhibition. This is why when children are upset, it is often counter-productive to tell them to “think about it,” or why an anxious child often forgets what you told them. Their thinking brains are not working well in those moments.
Children primarily learn emotional regulation skills from parents and caregivers. By tuning into a child’s emotional state in the moment, putting a name to their feelings, and helping them use self-calming skills, parents are teaching and modeling emotional regulation, and engaging in emotional co-regulation.
Dr. Dan Siegel has coined the term, “name it to tame it” to explain the way that putting language to emotions help people calm down. Much of our emotional reactivity is fueled from our right hemispheres. Much of our verbal and higher-order thinking is fueled from our left hemispheres. When we are emotionally activated, a quick way to get our thinking brain jump-started is to activate our left hemispheres by trying to put words to what we are feeling, which starts to calm down the feeling brain. He explains the concept further in this short clip.
The Power of Mirror Neurons
Why is emotional regulation so important for parents? Because of mirror neurons and the impact our nervous systems have when we interact with each other. When your child is having a meltdown, it impacts us, triggering our own emotional responses and stress activation. A mirror neuron is a brain cell that activates and sends information, or fires, when we act and when we observe an action performed by another person, or mammal. In brain terms that means those cells are in effect “mirroring” the action of another mammal and interprets it as though the observer is the one who is acting.
This is why you can walk into a room and suddenly feel ‘off’ without consciously knowing why. Our brains are “crisscrossed with neural networks dedicated to receiving, processing, and communication messages across the social synapse. (Cozolino, 2010, p. 227)” Meaning, our nervous systems can scan the environment and sense possible threats, alerting us that we may need to react. This is especially essential for parents, for whom being acutely aware of their children is hardwired for the survival of our species.
Since we are not always physically touching, we use mirror neurons to sense each other’s feelings from a distance. This is designed to give us insight into the possible internal experience of others. Scientists believe that mirror neurons are the basis of our ability to be empathic, or to “know others from the inside out” (Cozolino, 2010, p. 232). This explains why it is so important for parents to first “be the change” by modeling the regulation of their own emotional states.
One of the self-regulation skills we teach in our workshops and to our patients is CPR for the Amygdala® which combines the mindful touch of self-havening with “brain games,” which are little distractions that help you move into a better brainwave state and back in being in charge of your emotions. Later in this article we will provide two short videos and a CPR for the Amygdala exercise you can use related to regulating emotions.
Providing a Sense of Safety
One of the most fundamental needs for a child to grow and develop is a sense of safety. We get that safety initially through felt sense, feeling safe through soft touch, consistent presence, and eye contact. As we develop, safety involves being taught emotional regulation, and communication, which, simply put, is the ability to use language to help surf our waves of emotion more smoothly.
As mammals, we come into the world equipped with basic survival instinct mechanisms. A child’s nervous system can have the same impact on a parent’s. We can use the knowledge of the bi-directional system to understand when we are activated, and to create empowered action to create calm and safety when needed.
To support more effective interactions between us and our children (and let’s face it, us and our partners, coworkers, friends), it is important to understand the neuroscience of emotions and thinking, and to skillfully apply strategies that help us meet our own needs for balance and calm before responding. This turns our reactions into responses. It also models healthy self-management for children.
Moments of struggle provide moments of opportunity. We will fall, say what we did not mean to say, react instead of respond. Those moments can become times we can model self-compassion and trying again.
Being “Good Enough” as a Parent
Dr. Donald Winnicott was a British pediatrician in the mid-1900s. In 1953, he published an article in the International Journal of Psychoanalysis called “Transitional Objects and Transitional Phenomena; a Study of the First Not-me Possession.” In this article Winnicott introduced a new concept that came to be known as “The Good-Enough Mother,” which we now refer to as “The Good-Enough Parent.”
“A mother is neither good nor bad nor the product of illusion, but is a separate and independent entity: The good-enough mother … starts off with an almost complete adaptation to her infant’s needs, and as time proceeds she adapts less and less completely, gradually, according to the infant’s growing ability to deal with her failure. Her failure to adapt to every need of the child helps them adapt to external realities.”
In essence, the “Good Enough Parent” throws the idea of “Perfect” on its head. What Winnicott posited, and what research and experience has borne out over time, is that moments of difficulty are how we grow. As a parent, the times we don’t get it quite right can actually become a learning experience to support children in developing their own capacity of self-empowerment and growth. And modeling effective self-care can be a powerful way of enhancing connection.
Parenting and the Stories We Tell Ourselves
Humans are narrative beings. This means we create stories to clarify and organize our experiences. For humans, our thinking brains, or frontal cortexes, play a large role in the stories we tell ourselves. Our stories can be formed many ways: firsthand from our own experiences, secondhand from the stories about ourselves or our world we receive from others, and even societally from the rules and narratives about race, gender, roles, and sexuality dominant in our culture and family. The stories we tell ourselves can begin to dominate the way we see the world, becoming like pairs of glasses through which we filter all incoming information. Self-beliefs can be empowering, or they can be limiting. The stories we choose to tell and hold onto can radically impact our day-to-day and our larger resilience.
Perhaps one of the most important places for the stories we tell ourselves is around parenting. On the more difficult days, what are some of the things you may tell yourself, or hear echoing in your mind? Consider where these stories have come from. What did we learn and observe growing up? What did parenting look like for our parents? What messages do we hear about mothers in our world? Or Fathers?
Take a few moments and write down some of the limiting self-beliefs that swirl in your head about parenting.
These limiting self-beliefs can become connected with our survival brain, creating looping thoughts that activate our stress response and keep us stuck in painful emotional spaces. Thpose lenses can make everything look red (anxious), or grey (depressed), or drab yellow (disgusted). Other information gets in—like remembering the times you kept your cool in a tough moment, or totally rocked a parenting moment—but these too can feel tinged with doubt or self-criticism.
Because limiting self-beliefs can be looped in with our emotional brain, changing our beliefs can be difficult. This is why mantras can sometimes feel inauthentic to us. If my emotion brain is telling me I’m a failure in order to keep me from trying new things and risking failure, it would take a long time of telling myself “I am successful” for it to feel true, if it ever does.
We respect our brain and the stories it is telling, knowing those beliefs are there for some reason. So, instead of forcing our brain into a new story, we offer it an alternative consideration. We call this “Creating Possibilities,” and it always starts with an open-ended question, and sometimes stays with an open-ended question, which invites the brain to explore new, endless opportunities of being.
Try this little exercise below. It may come in handy when you need to shift to a new state.
A Creating Possibilities Exercise
If you would like to try a Creating Possibilities exercise for moving beyond less-than-preferable emotional states or self-beliefs when they get in the way, watch the two brief videos at the bottom of this article to familiarize yourself with the mindful touch of self-havening, and then try the following exercise. (If you already are familiar with self-havening you can start here.)
Creating Possibilities Using Positive Memories
- Assess what emotion or state of being you would like to currently experience or would like to carry it with you into an experience; Bring to mind a time you felt that emotion or state.
- While Havening, focus on the emotion or state of being and repeat the question, “What if I was ____?” 5 times
- While Havening and if it feels authentic, focus on the emotion or state of being and change the statement to, “I can be/will be/deserve to be___.” and repeat 5 times
- While Havening and if it feels authentic, focus on the emotion or state of being and change statement to, “I am___.” 5 times (only if it feels true.)
- Repeat the cycle until the desired feeling is present or statement is resonant. End with a final 5 repetitions of whatever statement resonates the most.
Cozolino, L. (2010). The Neuroscience of Psychotherapy: Healing the Social Brain (2nd ed.). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company
Eisenberg, N., Hofer, C., & Vaughan, J. (2007). Effortful control and its socioemotional consequences. Handbook of emotion regulation. J. J. Gross (ed.). New York, NT: Guilford.
Winnicott DW. Transitional objects and transitional phenomena; a study of the first not-me possession. Int J Psychoanal. 1953;34(2):89–97.
What is CPR for the Amygdala and Self-Havening? with Dr. Kate Truitt
CPR for the Amygdala is an easy to use tool for calming the mind and body in a moment of emotional hijack. Watch this short video and learn how to calm your brain through the engagement of the self-havening touch and brain exercises. This video involves a short demonstration that highlights the impact of the delta wave presence on brain functioning. A fast brain is a reactive brain, a slow brain is a calm brain. Let’s calm the mind and put you back in charge of your emotional state.
Telecommuting for Success Part 9: Working & Schooling from Home. It Doesn't Have to be the Wild West! An Interview with Jami Eidsvold
An interview on Resilient Parenting by Dr. Kate with Jami Eidsvold, who is the founder and CEO of Smarty Social Media. Jami is no stranger to the virtual lifestyle, in fact she and her team of fearless moms came together 7 years ago as a virtual team and perfected the art of the work/life/parent balance with compassion, laughter, and grace. Listen in for quick tips on how to: 1) Create structure (and also have a good laugh when it all falls apart) 2) Design a remote work and school home environment 3) Prioritize connection in emotional moments to enhance calm (and save time!) 4) Model self-care while using your own mind and body as a tool to bring calm 5) Overall, lead with compassion and grace.
A Self-Havening Guided Meditation for Reducing Tension and Enhancing Calm w/ Dr. Kate Truitt
Join Dr. Kate Truitt in this guided self-healing in your hands meditation utilizing mindfulness, neuroplasticity, breath work and the self-havening touch to reduce tension and move into a state of embodied awareness. When we are carrying tension our body is letting us know that there is something awry or off. Through intentionally moving into relationship with our body we are empowered to deepen our felt sense of safety and enhance calm and tranquility. We carry the power for self-healing in our hands.