Knowing what to do, when, and how is a challenge in parenting! If you’re doing the right thing, but at the wrong time, you may be left questioning your methods and feeling like you’re failing in parenting.
Here to help moms and dads learn how to be most effective in their parenting is the founder of Curious Neuron, neuroscientist Dr. Cindy Hovington.
Learning how to decipher the cues from your unique child, understand their temperament and nervous system, and be nimble in adapting your strategies for different situations and emotions are key elements in finding the ease in parenthood.
Dr. Cindy (00:00):
With emotions and emotion regulation skills, there are two parts to it. There’s how you feel internally, that emotion that you’re feeling, the thoughts, the feelings that you’re having, but then there’s that external part, the behavior, how are you exhibiting or kind of showing that anger? How are you showing that frustration? What’s the external part of it? It’s like that with our kids and it’s like that with us.
Dr. Sarah (00:26):
There is no shortage of parenting advice out there, but it can be hard to know how to customize generic tips and convert scripts into your own words so that they actually land with your kid. That’s why it’s so important to understand why psychologists and scientists and therapists suggest the strategies that they do so you can adapt them to fit into whatever situation you’re finding yourself in. Today. I am so thrilled to have my dear friend and the founder of Curious Neuron, Dr. Cindy Hovington, joining me again on the podcast along with being a mom of three. Cindy has a doctorate in neuroscience from McGill University. She’s the co-founder of WonderGrade, which is an amazing app, and she’s the host of the Curious Neuron Podcast, which I was just a guest on yesterday. So definitely go check out that episode too. It was a great conversation and I just can’t wait for you to hear my talk with Cindy.
But before we get started, I want to ask you to do me a quick favor. I want you to think of three parents in your life, friends, coworkers, family members, three parents, and share this episode with them. It is so important to me that these supportive resources get into the hands of more parents because while there is an overwhelming amount of stuff aimed at helping parents, it isn’t always helpful and a lot of it can leave parents feeling confused and frustrated and guilty. So I would be so grateful if you could send off a quick DM or a text to one of your mom or dad friends and help me to get this scientifically accurate and shame-free info out to more parents, just like you.
Power struggles in parenting can be a real challenge, but they don’t have to be a constant source of friction and frustration. There is still time to watch a replay of my full masterclass in q and a from battles to bonding, overcoming power struggles where you’re going to learn precisely why the parenting strategies that you’re using to either avoid or win a power struggle just aren’t working and why they likely never will. The real problem that leads to power struggles in the first place and how to break out of this trap, my exact framework for mapping out your child’s challenging behaviors and how to create a personalized toolbox for your unique child and the specific power struggles that you find yourself in over and over again. So if you are looking for strategies to increase your child’s cooperation, decrease the number of times you hear the word no, and finally feel like you’re nailing this whole parenting thing even when it’s messy, go to drsarahbren.com/powerstruggles to watch this free masterclass. That’s drsarahbren.com/powerstruggles. But hurry, this event replay will only be available through October 2nd.
Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two. In this podcast, I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights so you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting voice with confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.
Hi friends. I am super, super pumped because we have a very special return guest today. Dr. Cindy Hovington. Thank you for being here.
Dr. Cindy (04:14):
Hi, I am so happy to be back.
Dr. Sarah (04:17):
We just had an awesome chat a couple days ago. I recorded a show for your podcast. I am super excited that you’re here on Securely Attached because whenever I want to give parents the neuroscience breakdown of behaviors and emotions, you are one of the first people I think of to help explain it because one, you know it backwards and forwards, but also you explain it in a really, really easy to understand way. So let’s dive in because I’m super excited, but I really wanted to be talking today because I get this question all the time and I am curious if you do also, but parents are always like, I’m doing the thing. I’m doing all the things that you guys on Instagram or all the psychologists say to do. I’m naming the feelings, I’m validating am trying to co-regulate with my kid. I’m trying to help them feel better. It doesn’t work for my kid. Is there something wrong with my kid? Is there something wrong with the way I parent? What’s up? And do you get that question a lot too?
Dr. Cindy (05:27):
So literally this morning I was at the park with my kids and this mom that I’ve seen a couple times, she knows what I do. She came up and asked me that exact question, no way the universe aligned and it helped me because I was able to give her a response knowing that we were going to have this conversation today. And I realized that it’s such a common question and she had the exact same thoughts about what you just said. Am I doing something wrong? Am I messing up my child? She was also losing it very often now because she tried so many things and basically just to give context so that we can work around this sort of situation is she’s a mom with a six year old and out of nowhere this year, nose became a big thing. As soon as she would say no to something, he would start screaming and crying and be upset and then whatever she would ask him to do after that, forget it.
He wouldn’t do it. He didn’t want to follow. He didn’t want to do whatever she asked him and she had a lot of trouble getting him back. And she said that she started off by being calm and trying to tell him, take a deep breath. I see you’re getting mad. And she goes, I validated his emotion but nothing changed. So she said, she flipped to I’m going to ignore you and I’m not going to speak to you when you speak to me that way. So she went back and forth and she said, but I’ve done both sides. I’ve done the trying to be stern with him and I’ve also done the calm and I’m here for you. Nothing worked. And she’s like, what am I doing wrong? So I think this is really good to start off our conversation because the first thing I asked her was when he’s completely upset, he’s fully dysregulated, and that’s where we started our conversation.
I think sometimes as parents we forget that when that child, I picture a mountain and there’s that rise to the tip of the mountain where they’re starting to get dysregulated and I think we spoke about that last time, but that rise is when you have a moment to kind of stop them from going up to the tip to the top of that mountain. And if you miss it because it’s very short and it’s quick, then they’re at the top of the mountain. They’re fully dysregulated, they can’t hear you really. I say it mean they could hear you, but they’re not really hearing what you’re saying and you have to wait it out. What we want to do is wait for them to be coming down that descent of that mountain to start speaking to them again and to help them. What she hadn’t realized is she was saying things like, well, I’m not going to speak to you when you’re this way.
And he would say, you’re so mean. He would yell at her and I tried to change a bit of the language she was using saying, I want to help you right now, but I can’t. You can’t hear me. You’re screaming, you’re crying. I want to help you, but I can’t. I’m trying, but I just can’t. You can’t hear me. So she hadn’t realized that part of when is the time to say certain things and to offer tools. It’s not when they’re dysregulated. So that’s the one thing. But the two really big parts that were a moment where she was like, oh, I hadn’t never thought about that, was the environment before everything happens and also cognitive skills. I think that we just don’t talk about cognitive skills enough. We don’t talk about the fact that there are cognitive skills involved in emotion regulation skills. So it’s not simply about telling our kids, Hey, these are the X amount of emotions, learn these 10 different emotions and my child can label them. Sure, that’s a part of it, but it’s a small part because if they are very impulsive and they can’t control certain impulses or they haven’t developed executive function skills where there’s problem solving involved and memory involved, and part of that is attention and if part of attention is inhibiting incoming information. So all of these cognitive skills have a role in emotional regulation skills and if we do not think about those and don’t train those skills in our kids, then they’re still going to struggle with emotions. So it’s not just about the emotions in short.
Dr. Sarah (09:27):
So what I’m hearing you say, I’m picturing in my mind these pieces of a puzzle. There’s what we see in front of us when our kid is dysregulated, and I want to come back to that term because I want you to define it in case parents are like, wait, you jumped in the middle. What is dysregulation? But let’s put a pin in that because first we’re looking at what we see in front of us in the moment when our kid is dysregulated and there are specific tools that work in that moment, right as they’re climbing that descent or they’re at the peak of that mountain. We’ve got a window there and there are tools that work in that window and tools that don’t work in that window. But then I’m also hearing you talk about before we’ve even gotten to the mountain, that’s that environment piece and in-between all the mountains in general, building skills, cognitive skills, executive function skills, regulation skills, that these are things that are what we do when we’re nowhere near a mountain. Exactly. We do it in the valley. So first, let’s talk about dysregulation, quick and dirty brain science. How would you explain this to a parent who’s never heard this term before?
Dr. Cindy (10:42):
So I like to look at it as fully regulated means you are focused, there’s a cognitive aspect to being regulated. Your nervous system is calm, it’s not an alert, it’s not ready to fight or flight or freeze or anything. It’s just very calm and your nervous system is, it’s not about just being relaxed, but you’re attentive, you’re focused and you’re regulated. When you are dysregulated, your system is ready to, it’s stressed. First of all, there’s stress on the system and it’s ready to do whatever it needs to do, run away from a bear, it’s ready to run away if it has to or do something. You’re on your toes and that might look like excitement, it might look like anger. It might look like it’s not a specific emotion, it’s just that your system is off in that moment and you could explode. There are different levels.
You and I had spoken about this on my podcast where you had a scale, you had to kind of rate yourself one to 10. I like to bring it down into color zones for parents so that they can explain this to their child as well. Green in that regulation meter, green, yellow, red, green is when you’re focused and calm and able to have conversations, able to manage your emotions, which is the emotion regulation part. As you are slightly dysregulated going into that yellow zone, you are slightly not focused like you’re starting to lose your focus and your ability to pay attention and you might lose control of your emotions. There’s a better chance that you lose control and that emotion dysregulation comes in and then when you’re in the red zone, I mean your child could say something and you explode on them. You’re not anywhere able to control the impulses of wanting to say something or do something. And that’s to me how I try to talk to parents about it so that we can understand what it looks like because with emotions and emotional regulation skills, there are two parts to it. There’s how you feel internally, that emotion that you’re feeling, the thoughts, the feelings that you’re having, but then there’s that external part, the behavior, how are you exhibiting or kind of showing that anger? How are you showing that frustration? What’s the external part of it? It’s like that with our kids and it’s like that with us.
Dr. Sarah (12:50):
Yeah, that’s such an important point because I think we talk about dysregulation and we could switch, right? We can be talking about a child’s regulation and we can just easily be talking about the adult’s regulation. When your mom in the park, her son is getting dysregulated when she’s asking him to do something and he doesn’t want to do it, he’s getting mad and he’s getting dysregulated. Then his defiance in that moment, his pushback as his external expression of his anger is dysregulating for the mom in that situation. And she’s going to, fine, I’m going to not listen to you. I’m going to get mad at you. Now I’m dysregulated, right? I’m in a state of threat and it’s not good or bad. Dysregulation isn’t good or bad, it’s a threat response. It’s a really natural and sort of organic thing that we all experience. The piece that I think that’s most important in terms of parenting as the adult, the most important thing I think that comes with regulation and dysregulation is the awareness piece. I’m going to get dysregulated, but can I notice that it’s happening? Because if I don’t notice that it’s happening, I really won’t be able to do much about it until we’ve all kind of moved all the way to the other side of the mountain. But if I can notice it’s happening as we’re climbing, I might be able to reverse course.
Dr. Cindy (14:19):
Right? Exactly. If you’re both at the peak of that mountain, both of your brains are not really focused and thinking through what you need to do or say, so what’s the point? One person has to come down that mountain or else it’s a struggle. It’s that fighting fire with fire kind of thing. You can’t do that and it’s just that you, not that you can’t do it, but it’s harder. So you need to be, as the parent, you have to try your best to regulate yourself first so that you can assist your child in coming down that mountain a little bit and starting the descent. But sometimes you can’t help them, especially with young kids, she was asking, is it bad for me to ignore my child? It’s not about ignoring. You can validate their emotions and say, I’m going to wait for you to be calmer.
I do want to help you. You can use that language and you’re not ignoring them. You’re just stepping back because sometimes there’s nothing we can do in that moment. Even for us, even as adults, we can have a conversation, not a conversation, but we can have an argument with our partner and we don’t want to talk to them in that moment. It’s like, let me calm down first and then I’ll come back because I’ll have a calmer mind and I’ll be able to think about what I say rather than just react to what’s happening. I want to respond. And it’s the same thing with our kids. If we can actually take that pause in that moment to respond to our child, we’re more regulated rather than reacting, we’re going to help them as they come down that mountain, we’ll be able to assist them a lot more.
Dr. Sarah (15:46):
And something else that you were talking about with this mom and her question and why I even wanted to do this podcast episode in the first place is because I feel like one of the most triggering things for pushing parents into a state of dysregulation is that frustration that comes with thinking, oh my God, I am doing everything that everybody tells me to do. I’m following the rules. This is supposed to be working and it’s not. And so I keep doing this same thing over and over and over, or maybe I am like the mom you were describing, I’m trying this and then I’m abandoning it and I’m trying this and I’m abandoning it, I’m trying this. I’m just kind of grasping at straws, trying everything. And actually, if we really zoom out from that strategy, we might find that it’s the inconsistency that might be a variable there that in decreasing the effectiveness of all of those different strategies, but the frustration that comes with feeling as though it makes me think of putting together Ikea furniture, I’m following of the instructions.
Dr. Cindy (16:55):
I can’t put it together.
Dr. Sarah (16:55):
And doing all the things, but it’s just not like this thing does not look like what it’s like lopsided is not working, it’s falling apart. That’s the feeling I feel like most parents have when they’re following the instructions and it’s not working for their kid. And that frustration is a huge vulnerability to becoming dysregulated whenever your kid gets set off.
Dr. Cindy (17:17):
Yeah, first of all, I give up on IKEA furniture. I never finished it. Or there’s something missing. I end up with one thing left in my hands and I’m not supposed to have anything left. I’m like, what happened?
Dr. Sarah (17:31):
Right! And how easy is it to pick a fight with your spouse after trying to put IKEA furniture together? It increases our vulnerability when we’re doing something that feels like it should be easier than it is in our mind, and we’re having that thought, that interpretation. What the hell is wrong with this, with my kid, with this strategy, with me, with parenting, those thoughts trigger hugely volatile emotions inside of us, really understandably. But that really makes us vulnerable to being more reactive in our own behaviors with our kids in the way we speak to them, in the way that we act around them and that actually can model for them Low frustration tolerance too. It’s not modeling regulation skills. So it’s like we can create a bit of a hole. And I see this not to be like, I don’t want to make parents sort of overwhelmed, but I definitely think if you’re feeling this, if you’re nodding along to what Cindy and I are saying, my best advice is to first of all just put a hand on your chest and say, I’m doing a good enough job. But then zoom out and look at, okay, why might these strategies not be working for my kid in this moment? What’s happening? Are they regulated enough to receive these tools?
Dr. Cindy (19:03):
Let’s focus on that word. Zoom out that term, right? Zooming out. I love that because this is what I try to tell parents. So let’s zoom away super really far away from that mountain. They’re not having a meltdown right now. It’s a regular day. What does that look like in your home? Not anywhere close to being dysregulated or having big emotions. What I like to tell parents is before all of this happens, zoom into your child and their abilities and skills. So we spoke about cognitive skills. Are they struggling with impulse? Are they struggling with staying focused? Are they struggling with you? Giving them, depending on their age, let’s say we’re talking about kids six or under following one to maybe two. If they’re closer to six rules of go do this, go take, bring it into your room and whatever, it’s put it away, something very simple or set the table and then don’t forget to take the milk out of the fridge.
Two rules that fall within their executive function skills, something they’re able to follow. So those are the executive function skills. Then there’s the impulse and then there’s the ability to focus. If you already notice that your child is struggling with one of these three, there are things that we can do to help them with that. So if they’re struggling with following rules and you’ve noticed that during routines, whether it’s the morning or nighttime that they forget, they’re never brushing their teeth, they’re forgetting, you have to keep reminding them, what can you do to support that development of that cognitive skill? In particular, there’s the Harvard, if you search Harvard and executive functions, they have this huge PDF of how to teach your child executive function skills from zero, literally six months actually till I think early teens. And when they’re very small, two or three years old.
Songs that repeat themselves that have some sort of pattern that a child remembers once they’re a little bit older, go fish like games, card games where they have to remember the pattern or what’s the rule of this game? Simple, easy games as they’re getting closer to the age of six, there are games like Simon says, or when they’re younger, even those freeze games like musical chairs or those are all games that develop executive function skills. There are tests or psychology test like the night and day task where you show a child a picture of a moon. Is it a picture of a date? Anyways, it’s a picture of a nighttime, like a moon, and they have to say day. So whenever you show them the night, they have to say day. And when you show them day, they have to say night. This is part of inhibition.
Your brain naturally wants to say daytime when you see the picture of the sun, but you have to remember that the rule was the opposite. So you’re inhibiting your brain from saying what it wants to say. You can do that with anything. I would play this with my kids and take two colored markers and you’d have to say blue when you saw red and red when you saw blue, it’s not an easy thing to do. But there are games that we can play with our kids and they’re games that build on executive function skills and inhibition skills focusing skills coloring together. And a lot of parents will tell me, my one-year-old or two-year-old can’t focus more than a minute. I’m like, that’s great.
Dr. Sarah (22:23):
Dr. Cindy (22:24):
We forget. I think as parents sometimes we need our young kids to focus a half hour because we need that half hour for whatever it is. But actually, I remember during my studies we had done a bit of research to find some sort of, I dunno if you’ve seen an equation that there isn’t a set equation, but we had used as a kind of blueprint. You look at your child’s age, so let’s say they’re two years old and you add about five minutes to that time. So let’s say two years old is two minutes plus five minutes. If they can do that, that’s super good. I don’t know if there’s an actual definition to how long a child should stay focused, but it’s much shorter than what we imagine it to be. It’s like literally three to five minutes plus their age in minutes. It’s small.
Dr. Sarah (23:10):
It’s little. And another thing that we have to remember is just to throw in a complexity wrench in this is that your child’s focus or their access to their executive functioning skills or their ability to inhibit an impulse, these are all things that are housed in the prefrontal cortex. And we know if you’ve been listening to this podcast, you definitely know this, but if you haven’t, let me explain. The prefrontal cortex is like our thinking brain. It’s the part behind our forehead. And there’s another part of our brain called the amygdala, which is in the middle back part of our brain that’s like our threat detector. And it pulls a fire alarm if it perceives a threat. And when it pulls that fire alarm, the prefrontal cortex, the thinking brain goes offline. And so these are skills that are, yes, they’re like going to be built over time.
The prefrontal cortex is not done developing until 26. Exactly. So a two year-old’s prefrontal cortex on a great day when they are firing on all cylinders is still not necessarily reliably always going to have, that’s a two prefrontal cortex being fully on, is going to give them that seven minutes of focus. That’s their maximum max, but their minimum is directly related to the amygdala activity. If they are in a threat response, that seven minutes that you might be able to get a focus is completely unaccessible and it drops down to zero. Now, if they’re, like you said in that yellow zone to mix metaphors in that sort of low level sort of subtle fight or flight, then okay, you might get two minutes, you might get three, but you’re not going to get seven. And I think this goes back to that feeling of frustration in parents is they sort of say, I know my kid can do this. I’ve seen them do this, so why aren’t they doing it now? They must be choosing not to do it. They must be defying. They must be intentionally not listening to my instructions when in fact they very well might be not able to access those skills because those skills live in a part of the brain that goes offline really, really easily whenever the brain or the nervous system is stressed.
Dr. Cindy (25:36):
Yep, exactly. And in the same thing you just spoke about attention, but the same thing applies for any of these skills, cognitive skills, inhibition, impulse. So as soon as they feel threatened and we don’t even see it, we and I had spoken about how we might not recognize it in our own bodies as adults, those little micro moments, well, they might have those too. So if your child is coming back from preschool or daycare, then let’s say there was a lot of noise and they feel dysregulated because part of that dysregulation also comes from the thalamus and the senses that come into, that’s the information coming into our brain as well. And that part of our brain also is connected to the amygdala, which is connected to the frontal. It’s like this whole system. So if the child was around very elevated noise levels and comes home, you will not be able to tell right away that they’re dysregulated, that their brain senses a threat when the threat was actually lots of sound.
Dr. Sarah (26:31):
Dr. Cindy (26:32):
Exactly, yeah. And now you are telling them, I dunno, do something go get, I dunno, change your shoes or do something. And they’re not listening to you and you see as a behavioral thing when in essence it’s actually this regulation thing and you need to find a way to bring their system down so there’s so much that we don’t see that’s affecting them and bringing them up that mountain all the way to the top when they’re fully dysregulated. And it’s like them hearing a no after preschool or daycare and you’re like, oh, every time I say no, they don’t hear me. But when I asked the parent today, she was kind of surprised because I said, let’s forget about this part, the mountain part. I just want to zoom out and understand what the environment looks like. What happens before? Is it something that she was talking about clothing?
Is there a particular item of clothing that makes them feel dysregulated, something tight, something uncomfortable. My son, certain socks, forget it. His behavior would change once he had those socks on. And you only have to zoom out. So once you’re zooming out really away, zooming out completely away from that mountain, you’re looking at the child as an individual and saying, what skills and tools can I offer you? Or what is happening around you that might be dysregulating you, like you as a human? What do you need from me? How can I help you? But part of that other piece that we haven’t spoken about yet is the zooming out. Once I see my child, now I’m going to start zooming out for my child. Who else is close to them? Well, a caregiver, is it me? Is it a preschool educator or daycare educator or a teacher or grandparent who’s in their environment?
And how is that person responding to that child’s emotions? How are they modeling emotion regulation skills? And that’s the conversation I had with that mom today. And she was like, I never thought about that. But my husband, he seems to be very similar to that son in particular. They had two sons. And she’s like, I know. I tell my husband, stop doing that. And it’s not to point fingers or to blame, but what are we modeling as the next available person? When you zoom out away from the child, what are we modeling and how are we supporting that child’s emotions? Because one thing that really gets to me is all these programs out there and systems that are like we teach in our preschool, all these labeling emotions and how to cope with emotions and deep breaths and yoga and whatever it is. But then they go home and it might be completely dysregulated as a household and perhaps that family hasn’t really learned how to regulate their emotions.
It’s not to point fingers and to blame it on the family, but it’s to say if we change as an environment, we will see or notice changes in our child as well. We just need to kind of work at this together. So we can’t keep, I find that we put the onus or all the responsibility on that child to learn emotion regulation skills when we have a really big responsibility as the people around that child and how we model it. So we have to think about our child, the skills and the tools that they have, zoom away from that and think about the skills and tools that we perhaps need to build in order to support our child’s development for their emotions.
Dr. Sarah (29:39):
Yeah, I think that’s so helpful to think of in terms of, this isn’t really about blaming, it’s about what is our environment’s skill level? And I don’t mean as a team of parents are we, but how aware am I of my emotional reactions in front of my kid? That’s a good place to start. But not just emotions, right? Yes. Obviously, if you have a family that’s got a lot of dysregulated emotions, maybe we’ve got parents who work in a really high stress job, they come home kind of grumpy and little things set them off. We want to look at how that might be impacting the collective emotional skillset of the family. Because if parents aren’t able to model it for kids, kids aren’t going to learn it from the parents. But a lot of times I work with a lot of families who are always trying to teach emotion regulation skills to their kids, almost to the extent that, again, there’s the people that are like, I’m doing all the things right, but it’s not working.
A lot of times, I think one of the big gaps is not just focusing on emotions and not just focusing on teaching, because that usually ends up kind of in real life looking like a lot of language, a lot of lecturing, a lot of reviewing things that are not going very well oftentimes in the moment. So one, we want to remember that when our kids, even a little bit dysregulated, language probably isn’t our first line of defense and not the best way to teach. True modeling, self-regulation, lowering our nervous system, activation, our fight or flight response, doing that out loud, narrating that process that we go through out loud, helping show our child what a calm, safe, regulated nervous system looks like, and recognizing that that might take a little bit of time to actually move your child out of a threat response themselves. Sometimes I also think parents think, well, co-regulation is successful if it turns off my child’s dysregulation.
And that I think is a huge myth about co-regulation. Co-regulation just means I’m communicating safety to your amygdala with my safe regulated nervous system. Your amygdala might take a while to actually turn off that fight or flight response and move the body successfully back into their rest, digest, or the opposite of fight or flight, that parasympathetic nervous system response. So sometimes parents actually may be very successfully co-regulating with their child in that they’re starting that process in their child’s brain, but it doesn’t immediate, it’s not a light switch. It doesn’t just turn off the dysregulation and bring them right back to a state of calm and cooperation. So that’s one thing. But the other thing that I’m thinking is it’s not always about emotions. Sometimes it’s about sensory stimulation and your nervous system isn’t always activated by emotional distress. Sometimes our nervous system is activated by sensory input that overloads our system.
So that’s where I think your point to the environment is really very useful as well beyond just parental emotion regulation. But how loud is our house? How tired are our kids after a day in the sun at summer camp? How do your kids respond to sensory input from touch? Are their clothes perhaps bugging them? Is there a tag that keeps itching their back in a way that makes them feel kind of uncomfortable? And then you have that all day long, guess what? You’re going to lose your mind after a little while. I know, right? Are their shoes too tight? My kids’ feet grows so freaking fast.
Dr. Cindy (34:03):
Dr. Sarah (34:04):
Their shoes are always too tight. I know if my shoes wear as tight as sometimes I realize my kids, I’ll be like, whoa. And it’s not gradual. They go through these growth leaps.
Dr. Cindy (34:15):
Dr. Sarah (34:16):
Overnight. And they don’t always, especially the really younger kids can’t always say, Hey, my shoes are too tight all of a sudden. No, exactly. But if my shoes were too tight all day, I would be such a mean B of a person. I would be so grouchy.
Dr. Cindy (34:32):
But it’s true. We do need to think about that. I think that sensory piece is such an important part. That’s why this mom was kind of laughing because I kind of didn’t even talk about the meltdown. I was like, let’s just talk about what’s happening in this child’s environment. And she brought it back to the clothing and she’s like, oh yeah, it happens a lot during the morning. And if you think of parents, they’ll often talk about behavior happening at the end of the day, and I dunno about you, but even with myself, I am also dysregulated. By the end of the day, I have three kids, and by the end of the day, I’ve heard so many mommies that just hearing mommy sometimes is like, shh, nobody talk. Nobody say my name. Give me 10 minutes. It’s like there’s a bluey episode where I think the mom takes 20 minutes and she has to explain, I need 20 minutes Sometimes we need to regulate her system.
So that awareness piece is almost what we want to focus on. Being able to regulate themselves will come, but can we teach them that awareness as well? That awareness piece of what does my body feel like? This mom in particular told me that she was getting so frustrated with this child’s behavior that she was mimicking it, I think with good intention. And she was like, I’m so embarrassed that I’m telling you this. Sometimes when he says no to me, I start pretending to have a meltdown like he does, and I get mad and I stomp my feet and I clench my hands and I close my jaw and I get mad. And I said, interesting. You just described to me all the external behaviors that he has when he’s very mad. Does he know? Is he aware that he does that when he’s starting to feel mad?
What comes first? Is it the clenching of his fist? Is it the jaw? Is it the stomping of the feet? And she stood there and she’s like, huh, no, I don’t know if he knows about it. I’m like, can you see it? But he might not be aware of it. So can you bring that into his awareness? You don’t have to mimic what he’s doing, but when he’s feeling that in his body, can you bring awareness to that and tell him when you feel this way, here’s the game plan. Now you are sort of playing with what that ascent looks like once they’re starting to climb the mountain and they’re aware of, I just noticed I clenched my fist honestly, even as an adult. So I struggled a lot with my own emotions and mental health between my second and my third child. I ignored my mental health.
And honestly, I went to the dentist and they told me, you’re breaking your teeth. Are you grinding your teeth at night? I was like, I don’t know. I don’t think so. But I realized that I was doing it during the day because I was getting so anxious and frustrated so often with three young kids. I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know how to balance two and diapers, and I wasn’t even aware that I was clenching my jaw so hard that I was causing lines or whatever the dentist said. She was able to see what I was doing inside my body. Well, externally. So I was feeling frustrated, overwhelmed, and angry and exhibiting that externalization of my emotions without even realizing. So that awareness piece, you’re giving them so much information about their bodies and about their emotions that they might start understanding what it feels like to be angry, what it feels like to be frustrated might not be the same, what it feels like to be worried, putting your hand on your chest and realizing your heart rate’s increasing. Yeah, I notice it now. Little things to help them understand what that is scent looks like for them because everybody is different.
Dr. Sarah (38:07):
But you got, I think one thing that’s so important is you have to prime them for those kind of interventions for them to be effective in the moment. If you have never talked to your kid about these behaviors and what they mean for them in calm moments, and when they’re upset, you say, is your heart beating really fast? They’re going to flip you the bird. If that dentist had been sitting in your kitchen while your kids are screaming mommy at you. And it was like, are you clenching your teeth? You would’ve been like, get out of my kitchen, get the hell out of my kitchen. I’ve been so bad. But because you were at the dentist and you were maybe, I don’t know, not a lot of people are calm at the dentist, but for different reasons. But you’re out of that setting. You were able to sort of say, I wonder if I am clenching my teeth and when and what does that You’re able to reflect on that because you’re regulated, right?
You are in a safe and regulated state importantly with our kids. And it’s so interesting. I talk about right tools, wrong time a lot, and I feel like your mom in this example is really doing the right tools. She at the wrong time, not because of an intention, right? You’re helping her recognize, build that awareness. But what she is doing, I think is trying to show her kid all these behaviors to help him build awareness of what he’s doing when he’s really mad and how it impacts the people around him, right? She’s trying to show him in her own frustration while he is frustrated what that frustration looks like and feels like. The problem is both of them are too hot to use that information productively, but it’s still the right tool. It’s just better administered at a chill moment. And then if you do that enough times in the calm moments when your child is upset, you can say, Hey, if you get real close to a child who’s really upset and you place a little hand on their heart very gently, and this is a kid, you’ve primed for this, not someone who’s never ever experienced this intervention before, but if you have a kid who’s familiar with co-regulation and is familiar from calm conversations that their heart gets really fast when they’re mad and you get close to them and say, Hey, bud, can I put my hand right here?
I think your heart, oh wait, put your hand right here and put your hand over their hand and put their hand over their heart and say, do you notice that? Do you feel that heart beating so fast? Yeah, you are really feeling it.
I’m not telling them to breathe. I’m just breathing. I’m modeling it. I have seen this work so many times with kids who if you told them to check their breathing in the heat of the moment by going, if you were dysregulated, it would never, ever, ever land. So our regulation, our ability to prime them for some of these interventions in calm, connected moments and our regulation in the moment and our ability to bring their attention sort of safely and non, a threatening way to their signs and symptoms, and I think bringing their awareness to physiological…
Dr. Cindy (41:44):
Dr. Sarah (41:45):
Signs rather than behavioral signs are usually a safer place to go because we don’t get as defensive about a racing heart than we do about, you just threw this on the floor, you threw this on the floor, and now it’s broken. Versus, ooh, your heart’s beating really fast. This doesn’t feel good. Okay, yeah, I got it. You’re very mad Now. That’s not going to land all the time.
Dr. Cindy (42:14):
No, and that’s important to say that. Yeah, exactly. We’re not going to be on the ball and get it right every single time because our level of dysregulation will be different in every single moment, and so will theirs. There might be a day where they take that when you place your hand on their heart, they might accept it and say like, okay, they weren’t as dysregulated as maybe the day before, right? There’s going to be a lot of, not every single emotional situation is the same. There isn’t a copy of this. It’s not as if every time they’re angry you can do the same thing. And it’s important for us to say that because there’s going to be angry on a scale of one to 10, a seven one day there’s going to be angry on a scale of one to 10, maybe there are three that day. And then how dysregulated are they in terms of the environment and how are you that day?
Dr. Sarah (43:00):
There’s so many variables. That’s why I think that parents are kind of, sometimes, again, one of the reasons I think parents get so frustrated is because being sold these soundbites, these scripts, and the implication is that if you just do these scripts, everything should be fine. And I mean, listen, I put scripts on Instagram too.
Dr. Cindy (43:22):
So do I, yeah.
Dr. Sarah (43:24):
It’s so important. I feel so strongly that anybody who’s putting out content to parenting better back that up with some nuance, with some context, with some explanation, Hey, this is not a blanket fix all and should be working every time. And if it doesn’t, there’s something wrong with your strategy or your kid scripts are helpful, but frameworks are so much more useful because they allow you to tweak the variables. They allow you to say, okay, I can read my child’s sensory level right now. I can look at the environment that they’re in. I can look at the sort of chronic environment within our home or within a school setting. I can look at how much have they slept last night? How much have they gone since they last ate something? What are my kids’ tells that they’re moving up that dysregulation ladder? I know my kids.
So you’re able to say, I can, sure, I have some scripts in my toolbox, but I also get really skilled at knowing how to read my child’s cues enough to know which skills to use when I’m not going to get a lot of success by putting my hand on my kid’s chest. If they’re at a 10, I’m going to get my hands smacked out of my, I know that. But if I do that when my kid is at a six or a seven climbing, I usually have a window there where I can get in there and support that regulation in a more effective way. But I also recognize that if I get to them at a 10, I have skills for that space too. They just don’t look like the ones I would use at a seven or the ones I would use at a five.
Dr. Cindy (45:24):
And the only way to find that out is to do it, is to try it and to make mistakes and to place your hand on that child and to get your hand smacked or say, don’t touch me. This mom was saying sometimes I can’t even speak to him. He yells back at me. He’s not even hearing me say things like, I see that you’re angry. She’s like, why is it you guys tell us to validate emotions? But he’s yelling back at me and telling me to shut up. And she said, sometimes I want to hug him. I’m telling him I’m here for you, and he pushes me away. So I think it’s by doing it that you realize, okay, when my child is at a tent for anger, I can’t touch them. I can’t go close to them. I can use my words when they’re at a seven or I can hug them when they’re at a five.
You need to try it in order to start understanding your child. And honestly, I just turned 40 this year, and it’s been the past three years that I’ve been learning my own system and understanding it, even though it’s something I’ve been teaching people, it’s something that I’ve been understanding a little bit more in terms of, it was only after my third child that I realized how dysregulated I get by 4:00 PM where noise levels have to come down, where light has to come down just a tiny bit, but no TV at that time. For me in my house, there’s no screen at that time because I get dysregulated too easily. So it’s really important for us to also know what dysregulates ourselves. And there’s a lot that plays into it. And it’s like you said, that framework allows you to remember just how many variables there are to that child being dysregulated and having big emotions and being at the top of the mountain. It’s not just an easy up of like, oh, anger, top of the mountain, cool here, you say this and they come down and it’s done. It’s not like that. And I think that be nice.
Dr. Sarah (47:14):
Sorry, wouldn’t it be nice if it was that easy.
Dr. Cindy (47:16):
Wouldn’t it? But I think that’s why we struggle too as parents is because we are given this perfect script sometimes online, and it’s like, oh, cool, the next time my child is angry or feels worried, I’m just going to say this and everything will be fine. But not only are there so many variables, but it also takes so much time to train that. I was talking to a physiotherapist this week and she was saying, if you’re doing an exercise and this happened, you expect three months, three to four months before you see a result. It’s not any different with our child’s brain. It’s not going to be overnight. Why would I expect my bicep to get all toned in three, four months, but not my child’s brain when it doesn’t work? So I think we need to be realistic about that.
Dr. Sarah (48:02):
Yes, I think that’s super important. So having realistic expectations about how long this learning might take, understanding that learning really is dependent on the thinking brain or the prefrontal cortex being online, which is directly dependent on that sense of safety and security and not in a threat response. Thinking about building our kids’ skills outside of the heat of the moment, cognitive skills, their cognitive skills, their executive functioning skills, their emotion regulation skills. But also, and I’m just now thinking of this because of what you just mentioned with you thinking about your own stuff, your own sensitivities and how your regulation fits into your kids’ regulation is like aha, light bulb moment for a lot of parents. We’re all a connected family system. I often use the metaphor of a spiderweb when I talk about working with kids in therapy because I’m always encouraging parents who want their child to be seen at our group practice for individual child therapy.
And I’m like, wonderful, but you’re going to be super involved because the way I explained it is the family is like a spiderweb. If you pull one thread, the whole thing moves. Your child’s regulation, your child’s behaviors, your child’s, the way that you’re going to approach discipline in your family, it really can’t be seen as isolated from the family system. Because if you want your child’s behaviors to shift, you’re going to have to look at how the entire family responds to and sets your child up for certain behaviors, regulated ones or not so regulated. And so I think yes, we need to give parents a realistic understanding of this is a lot of work. It’s not easy. I definitely do not want people to walk away from this thinking there’s a quick fix because there, but I also don’t want people to think it’s so complicated and so impossible to do.
It’s not. It’s like if I could give parents a roadmap, which I’m very, very, very dedicated to trying to do, the roadmap itself is not complicated. It’s just I think are overcomplicating it because they’re trying to do things that aren’t working and then they’re jumping to the next thing and it’s not working and they’re jumping to the next thing and it’s not working, which gets that inconsistency. It exhausts us. But ultimately, you probably, if you’re listening to this podcast, you probably already have an amazing toolbox. And if you feel frustrated that those tools aren’t working before you dump out that toolbox and try to fill it with other tools, I would say let’s actually just make sure you know how to map out your kids’ actual brain and body map, which is something I teach parents. I have a course that I’ve rented as a group in my private practice for a number of times with families of parents of two to seven year olds that specifically helps them map out their unique childs like brain and body map, understanding their own child’s regulation scale, their regulation scale, and then give them tools to actually use the tools that work for their kid at the right time.
And starting, I’m about to launch it as an actual program that anyone can do outside of my private practice because I feel like I just want to make this information more accessible. Shouldn’t have to just be in my local neighborhood to be able to get this. So for the first time ever, I’m about to open it up to the whole world. Like anybody who wants to do it can do it now, because I just find that this information is hard to come by. There’s tons of information on what to do, but there is not a lot of information or handholding of personalizing this to your actual child to actually get guidance on how do you implement these tools. If I am doing it and it’s not working, why might that be before I just jump ship and try a different set of tools altogether? So that’s what I’m trying to do with this program.
So I’m hoping that it’s helpful for parents because I just feel like they’re so good and they think they’re so bad and it’s so heartbreaking. These kids are like, every single kid I’ve ever worked with in my private practice is a fantastic kid. And their parents know that, and they get so frustrated when they can’t connect with that part of their kid because it gets hidden by all this messy dysregulation and messy irritation and frustration. And I think when we can help parents get more tuned into reading their kids’ cues and they hone their skills just a little bit and they figure out when to use them in the right way, that kid that’s so amazing is out more and everybody just feels better.
Dr. Cindy (53:24):
And I think that coming back to that mom that I met today at the park, she was saying, the first thing she said to me is, am I messing up my child? So it’s either you’re not connecting with your child, you were just saying, or this feeling that what if I mess them up? What am I doing that’s really going to mess everything up? And I hope parents realize that the work you’re doing is so important. And I think so many parents can connect with that because we all feel like, okay, we’ve done everything. Now what we do need that framework, we need to know. It’s kind of like that flow chart that you could picture in your head, I did this. That didn’t work. And it’s not about changing the whole thing. It’s about tweaking certain variables and trying to understand that child. So it’s really important for parents to know that.
Dr. Sarah (54:07):
Yeah. Well, I’m so glad that you came on. I always love our chats so much.
Dr. Cindy (54:15):
Thank you. I think this is an important, again, topic for parents because I don’t want parents to feel like they’re failing. Even this mom that I met, she wasn’t failing at anything. She was just putting certain things at the wrong place, and now she has a different perspective. And when you have a different lens over this situation, she felt empowered. She didn’t feel like she messed up by the end of our conversation. That’s always my goal, my personal goal, a mom, I know it. I don’t want parents to feel like after they hear this conversation or any of these conversations around emotions like, oh no, I messed up my child. I don’t want you to feel that. I want you to feel like, oh, I hadn’t realized that, or I hadn’t thought about that. Instead of modeling how to stomp your feet, I’m going to model what to do when you feel angry. Just different ways of looking at it. You are your child’s best teacher. You are going to fix this, you’re going to help them. And it’s actually not even about fixing. It’s just giving them the right tools to make it easier for them.
Dr. Sarah (55:10):
Yeah, I love that. I fully agree with that. If people want to know more about the work you do or get in touch with you or look up your app, your awesome app you should mention, how can they find you?
Dr. Cindy (55:23):
Thank you. So yes, I’m the founder of Curious Neuron. They can visit curiousneuron.com. I do have a podcast as well. I focus more on the emotion part. What does it look like to be your child’s emotional intelligence kind of coach in a sense? What do you need to learn yourself and how do you teach this to your child on Instagram? It’s Curious Neuron and I am the co-founder of the app WonderGrade. And basically what we’re doing is we’re taking all of these skills and tools that you and I were talking about and putting it on the app so that it’s easy, it’s at a parent’s fingertips and what we’re building right now, and I’m really excited it’s coming out in a couple weeks, not right away though, but cognitive skills. Nobody talks about the importance of these cognitive skills. So there are ways that we can train this and there are games that a child could play to help develop these cognitive skills that will actually impact their emotion regulation skills. So that’s something I’m really passionate about.
Dr. Sarah (56:16):
I love it. I love it. Well come back again soon and I will put a link to all that in the show description, in the show notes, because we just recorded another episode together on your podcast. So if you guys don’t listen to Curious Neuron, go get on that podcast page and subscribe because it’s such a good podcast. And I think I have two episodes with you now, so we should just have a running library of episodes that we do together.
Dr. Cindy (56:44):
I told you I love, we started a Saturday together and I was like, just calm the rest of the day. I should talk to you every Saturday morning.
Dr. Sarah (56:52):
I love that. That could be a fantastic way for us to start our Saturdays.
Dr. Cindy (56:56):
Thank you, Sarah. Thank you.
Dr. Sarah (57:04):Thanks so much for listening. Don’t forget there’s still time to watch my free masterclass From Battles to Bonding to learn strategies for tackling one of the biggest challenges parents of young children face: power struggles. So if you feel like you’re constantly flip-flopping between being too strict or too lenient, if you’re wishing your child would just cooperate without you having to ask them to do something a million times or worrying whether every fight you might have could be harming your child’s mental health or their relationship with you, then this free masterclass will be just what you need to put your mind at ease. I will help you decode the underlying causes of these daily battles of wills. I’m going to guide you through building a toolbox specifically designed to tackle power struggles, and I’m going to teach you exactly how to break free from this frustrating cycle, and it’s not the way you might think. So just imagine the relief of no longer engaging in daily power struggles. If you want to try it, go to drsarahbren.com/powerstruggles to get started in shifting towards more ease and harmony in your home with your kid. That’s drsarahbren.com/powerstruggles. But hurry, because access to this masterclass will only be available through October 2nd, so don’t wait. Thanks for listening and don’t be a stranger.
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