As parents, we don’t always get it right. But having the tools and skills to process our own big feelings and navigate emotion regulation in ourselves can have a big impact on how we support our children.
Joining me to talk about ways we can establish a healthy relationship to our emotions and teach our children to do the same is the founder of Curious Neuron, Dr. Cindy Hovington.
This episode will help you learn the benefit of slowing down, how to cut yourself some slack, and why the best way of teaching is through modeling. You’ll hear a psychologist and neuroscientist with 5 kids between them share their own relatable experiences with parenthood and offer strategies for using language, physiology, and brain science to create a honest and balanced approach to emotion regulation.
Dr. Cindy (00:00):
Emotions make us human. We don’t have to have it right all the time, but we just have to show our kids that we are working on certain things if we are, or that we have moments when our cup is full.
Dr. Sarah (00:16):
We talk a lot on this podcast about the importance of helping build our child’s ability to regulate their emotions. But before we can really do that, we need to learn how to navigate our own big feelings. Dr. Cindy Hovington has a doctorate degree in neuroscience from McGill University and postdoctoral training in science education. She’s also a mom of three and founder of Curious Neuron and the host of the Curious Neuron Podcast. I am so excited to have Cindy here to talk about some of the ways that we can work on processing the full range of emotions ourselves and helping our children learn to identify, understand, and cope with all the emotions they experience as well.
There is so much learning that can be done through play. Okay, let me geek out on brain science for just a second. When children are playing, their nervous system is in a state of relaxation or rest/digest, aka the opposite of fight or flight. And in this state, the frontal lobes of their brain are firing, giving your child the ability to reason, problem, solve, and acquire new information. So what does that mean? It means that we know from research and science that one of the best ways to teach our children is not in a heat of moment, not through a lecture, but through calm, connected moments during play.
And that is exactly why I’ve created a guide that teaches you how to incorporate emotion regulation, building games into your child’s play. In my free guide, Reduce Tantrums Before They Even Begin, I teach you five fun and simple games that help children develop emotion regulation skills like learning to breathe, inhibit impulse, and calm their bodies down. To download this free guide to strengthen your child’s emotion regulation skills when their brain is most receptive to learning, go to drsarahbren.com/resources. That’s drsarahbren.com/resources.
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.
So we have a really special guest with us today. This is a very good friend of mine I know from the parenting world, Cindy Hovington. We are so lucky to have you here to talk all about language and emotions and parenting. How are you doing?
Dr. Cindy (03:09):
Thank you. It’s so nice to see you Sarah. I love chatting with you. I think we can talk about tantrums and emotions all day.
Dr. Sarah (03:16):
Dr. Cindy (03:17):
Yeah, I think we could though. I think it’s a challenge. We should, the 24-hour challenge.
Dr. Sarah (03:23):
Right? It’s cuz parents are constantly asking about it all day long.
Dr. Cindy (03:26):
Yes, I know, but it’s our biggest struggle as parents and it doesn’t matter what degree your background you have, I think you end up in your first situations of it and you think you have the tools sometimes and then you don’t realize that you’re part of it too. And then you need to work on yourself. So I’m sure we’re gonna talk about all that, but…
Dr. Sarah (03:42):
Oh my God, yes.
Dr. Cindy (03:42):
I think it’s a journey, not okay not to have the answers, but hopefully our conversation will give tools to parents.
Dr. Sarah (03:49):
And I think, I mean you’re a mom, you, you’re in it. I’m in it. And both from a professional lens, we study this, we teach it, but I don’t know, I’m sure we’ll get into this today, but I don’t always practice what I teach. It escapes me at times.
Dr. Cindy (04:10):
And I want parents to know that I don’t practice what I do every, what I preach every day either. And it’s because there are moments when you are not your best self. There are moments when you’re tired, there are moments when you are stressed because of something for work or whatever it is. And then you are not going to parent the same way that your brain is not functioning the same way. And I think what we have to understand is it’s like that for us and it’s like that for our kids too. But it’s like I was telling you before, it was such a, wasn’t a good night tonight with the kids. I have three kids ages three, five and seven and it’s getting cold here in Montreal. And so I said, let’s have dinner outside for the last time. We’ll put on a sweater, we’ll make it cozy.
I just wanted to eat outside. I love eating outdoors. And I had this idea of a really nice dinner and then from the moment we sat outside, they were all complaining they were cold, they didn’t wanna eat outside, they wanted to go back inside. And it just led its snowball effect. There’s a snowball effect of one kid crying and then going inside and getting mad and then attention and this. And then I, and I had a moment, had a moment where I lost it and I have to come back to myself and realize what’s happening in my brain and what’s happening in theirs cold. And I get it, it wasn’t that cold, but they just weren’t happy. It wasn’t a good night for them, but I had expectations that I had to let go of. So that’s why I always say we have to come back to ourselves first, work on ourselves a little bit and then were able to manage certain situations better. I got upset once out of the whole night of three hours or two hours, whatever it was. But you know, have to talk to yourself sometimes and be your coach.
Dr. Sarah (05:51):
Yeah, yeah. And I mean just that brings us to a big part of what we wanted to talk about today, which is talking language. Whether we’re talking to ourselves in the moment, talking to ourselves after a rough moment, talking to our kids in the moment or maybe after as a repair cuz we lost it and we have to go back cuz you don’t always have to get it right. But we wanna narrate when we don’t get it right as a way of helping everybody make sense of it and process it.
Dr. Cindy (06:28):
And I love that you started the talking part from the beginning, which is us because I think our internal language will change a lot of how we navigate these big emotions in our kids because if we are not calm internally and we’re kind of being negative about ourselves in this moment and our child, we will approach it very differently versus seeing it as just a moment knowing that it’s gonna pass and just saying, your child’s not out to get you. They’re just having an emotion around something. They’re frustrated or they’re behaving a certain way because they’re disappointed that you had to leave grandma and grandpa’s house, whatever it is. I find that when I start with that internal language and remind myself that my child is acting a certain way or having these big emotions because of something that’s happening in their environment, I can help them a little a lot more actually because I’m being compassionate around their emotions and I’m being compassionate around how I feel in the moment.
And it’s okay to say to yourself, if your child has a tantrum, it’s okay to say, I don’t wanna deal with this right now. I can’t have the energy to, And I find that when I say that to myself, I, it’s a little warm hug, like, Okay Cindy, you can’t deal with this but we we’re gonna deal with it as best as we can and it might not be the best that you want but we’re gonna do whatever we can in this moment. And it’s comforting and you do what you can and sometimes you need to walk away or take a moment. And when you kind of explain that to your child, they’re gonna see that you have emotions just like theirs and it’s okay to lose it. Like you said, there’s the repair part after. But we have to externalize our kind of language around emotions and so our kids start to understand these are normal. They happen to mom and dad and everyone around me and it’s okay when I have them. There are boundaries, obviously you don’t hit and do certain things when you’re having a big emotion, but just having that language just helps a child so much.
Dr. Sarah (08:26):
And it makes me think too of this idea of making the process of things conscious, bringing what might feel like a subconscious process or something that our kids maybe don’t have access to knowing. So for example, if I’m having a dinner, if I’m sitting at dinner with my kids and I have an idea in my mind if I want dinner to go and it’s not going that way and I’m getting frustrated and I’m yelling and then afterwards I’m a little less patient throughout the bedtime routine, my kids don’t know that I had a different expectation of how the night was gonna go and maybe it meant something kind of special to me to have this one last dinner outside. And it was something sort of special for me. They just experience my emotions and my actions and which is fine, we will have emotions, we will have reactions, we will have expectations that get disappointed and that’s all normal. But the beauty of using our language to make something that’s internal for us public or out conscious for our kids is then we help them pull the veil back behind the mystery of why we do the things we do.
And so they don’t fill in the blanks with like, Oh I did something bad or she’s mad at me or I’m not a good kid, or she’s just mean, whatever the thing is that they’re thinking to sort of narrate our inner process. One, it gives them information which is helpful and regulating it helps them make sense of things. But two, it models what they could also do on their end at another point in time when they’re feeling the stuff.
Dr. Cindy (10:27):
Yes. So it’s interesting what you’re saying because for me I started, it was after I had my third child, I was all over the place. My mental health was everywhere, just not doing well. I was overwhelmed with having three young kids at home and I started implementing certain things that made a really big difference for me. So I started using the word “because” and it forced me to explain why I was experiencing a certain emotion or why my child was feeling a certain emotion. So for example, it helped me understand that I was having or around dinner time, around that four, five o’clock period, I feel that my sensory system is overloaded. And I didn’t know that. But when I was having dinner and my kids were saying, I’m hungry, I’m hungry, is it ready? Is it ready? And I was getting annoyed or something happened and it just frustrated me and I would yell a lot more.
A couple years ago I started saying I yelled because, and the more I started saying if I didn’t have an answer, I had to keep repeating it. I’m mad because my heart’s pounding and I didn’t know why. At some point around that time I knew that I was frustrated but why? And then I started realizing that noise. It was the noise. So I had to bring down the noise around that time and it changed my system. So I think when we start externalizing why we’re having emotions or why our child is right, they might be complaining about something or upset about leaving the park. So if you say they’re mad or they’re frustrated because they’re leaving the park versus just saying they’re frustrated or you’re telling somebody, my kid had a tantrum going to school because why finish this sentence with because add the reason why I think we become more empathetic around all our emotions ourself and our child as well because there are emotions usually linked to some sort of behavior and it just allows us to externalize that and we can teach that to our kids.
Dr. Sarah (12:21):
Yeah, that’s such a good strategy because it, it’s a sort built in mindfulness exercise. You have to practice noticing not just the feeling you’re having but trying to locate it in a context.
Dr. Cindy (12:37):
Exactly. And you might not have the answer right away and that’s fine, but forcing yourself to have this discussion with yourself or adding that word after a behavior you had or your child will help you understand the underlying reason behind it. So Dr. Mona Delahooke talks about that iceberg. Well I like to talk about the environment, it’s just like we’re zooming out of the environment. That’s how I see it because it just help me see what’s happening to the child who’s around that child. I’m around that child. So what’s happening during that behavior or those emotions. And then sometimes you realize my child doesn’t have the language around a certain emotion or my child. Or you notice that your child is frustrated and you can tell, let’s say they’re playing with their siblings and they’re not sharing their toys. You can start seeing them kind of go up that mountain, that emotion mountain or whatever it is, but they’re seeing certain signs and not symptoms but signs of a big emotion.
Then you could give them the language around what it feels like. You could say, Well I noticed your voice is louder or I noticed you’re more stern with your sibling or I noticed you’re stomping your feet. The language around all of that will help them understand what’s going on in those moments cuz it comes out as behavior. We know that we talk about that all the time, but for me it’s so important that we understand what’s happening in terms of the emotions and giving them the tools that they need. And the more we talk about why they’re doing it, the more we can understand what we can offer them.
Dr. Sarah (14:06):
Yeah, there’s such a parallel process that’s happening too because the more we narrate the climbing of the mountain that we’re observing and our kids we’re narrating for ourselves because it’s very quick. I think as a mom I’ve certainly been in a situation where I missed some of those signs and I just saw my son hit his sister and I get mad and I’m like, you hit your sister. But if I’m recognizing that I can also start to notice the wriggling in his body and say it out loud and then I notice that he’s starting to make that grunty sound he makes when he’s getting kind of frustrated. And then I noticed that he is picking up a block to throw at his sister. I might say, You wanna hit your sister with that block right now? And so now I’ve slowed down everything for myself.
So this is, when I say parallel process, I mean I’m on a ride too, right? I’m climbing a mountain, I’m getting more and more and more agitated the more I’m observing his aggression and I’m more prone to, if I’m not aware of my own agitation mounting, I’m not gonna have the language to narrate this process. And then the other piece, the parallel is his climbing of the mountain. And so when I narrate what I’m observing in his behavior, I’m regulating myself. I’m also regulating him, which is interesting because it’s like a two for one.
Dr. Cindy (15:53):
It’s so much work.
Dr. Sarah (15:55):
So much work.
Dr. Cindy (15:57):
It’s so hard and I totally get it that we have and this is why we have moments that where we kind of explode and they’re fine. I gave a workshop last week and something really marked me. There was a dad who said, I love this idea of really sitting down with your child and going through this emotion mountain and understanding where you struggle and which emotions are more difficult for you. So I had explained this part to the group of parents there and he said, Would it be okay if I do this with my child for myself? And I’m like, I was excited. I was like, of course you can do this with your child, show them that you have struggles as well. And then he said, But isn’t that showing them that I have weaknesses and isn’t that going against the idea of me being the parent and being that authoritative figure in their life that knows how to do everything and knows how to always has everything under control?
And he said, No, it makes you human. And I’ll never forget his face. He’s like, Huh. And I just addressed the entire group and I said, Emotions make us human. We don’t have to have it all the time but we just have to show our kids that we are working on certain things if we are or that we have moments when our cup is full or whatever sort of an analogy or visualization you want. I like to picture these energy, power or these bars. I don’t know, I grew up with Nintendo and super Nintendos like mortal combat and all that stuff. And you have the little, I always picture that energy. The character has full energy and it’s green and then a couple punches and kicks and you’re yellow and then it’s red and then it’s flashing red and you’re out. So I picture that throughout the day. I literally think about it when I wake up, where am I? Because you might wake up with that bar being green, but you might also wake up with it being yellow because maybe you had an argument with your partner the night before or maybe you have something coming up today and you’re stressed. And so maybe…
Dr. Sarah (17:50):
You had a kid in your bed kicking you all night.
Dr. Cindy (17:52):
True story. Yes, all three of my kids are sick right now. So it’s not, they’ve been coughing anyways. Yeah. Yes. So when you wake up, if you’re mindful or aware of where you are on your energy level or ability to manage your own brain, right? Because if I’m in yellow or red and my child spills milk at breakfast, I won’t react the same way as if compared to when my bar is at green. And I’m fully capable of controlling myself. So I think it’s important that we do show our kids that and my kids use that language, they have the same visualization and they will let me know where they’re at. Sometimes they use that example, sometimes they use a cup either overflowing too much or whatever works for your family, but your brain and their brain, they’re very similar, just that our frontal lobe works is able to think through emotions and know that if your boss says something, you don’t just flip the table.
If you’re mad, our child might flip the table cuz their frontal lobe might not say, Hey that’s not a good idea. So when they have really big emotions, their brain needs us to act as their frontal lobe and the think which is the thinking part of the brain which I think we’ve had this discussion. It’s so important I think for parents to understand what’s happening in the brain because then we realize, well it’s happening in our brain too. It’s just that our brain is fully developed and we need to support our child. So I don’t know how I got to that, but basically yes, we do need to be aware of our emotions and the more we are aware of them and the more we show our child that we do have these emotions, it’s not a weakness. Emotions are not a weakness.
Dr. Sarah (19:30):
No they’re not. They’re our super strength. And you said something else that I thought was really interesting, this idea that there’s a shared language, you and your kids have a shared language around the energy bars. In my family we have shared languages around feelings being sticky. My daughter has, her anger can get sticky and she can get stuck in it and it takes a long time for her to get unstuck. And it doesn’t really matter how you describe it, as long as there’s this, I love this idea of creating these sort of visually rich imagery and language that you share with your kids and you can use your own experience to introduce it. You can use their experience to introduce it. You can link the two. You could say, I have sticky feelings too. Or like you’re saying you have an energy bar just like they have an energy bar and you guys can share that language. I think that that feels really connecting for kids to have that sort of sense. Mom does this too. Mom has the same struggles as me and she has these same tools in her toolbox.
Dr. Cindy (20:43):
Exactly. They’re emotions. We all have them. And I think sometimes it’s part of the modeling. So I think we get stuck a lot on teaching our children the words around emotions, which is good, but it’s the first step and they’re so much more after that. Sometimes I’ll meet a parent and they have a five or six year old and they tell me, yeah, they know what frustration is and disappointment, but do they know what it feels like? Do they know what to do when they feel that? Cause that’s, those are the next steps. The first steps are really identifying that there’s a lot more than just anger or sadness and joy or happiness and what’s the in between. And my kids were too and would understand. I would use not understand, but I would use the word disappointment a lot. And I’d say it’s a little bit mad and a little bit sad.
I don’t know if that’s the right way. But it helped them understand that sometimes these emotions are mixed and sometimes it’s not just fully happiness or anger. And even us as adults, I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced the mixed emotions where you’re like, I’m not quite sure, I’m really mad right now, but I’m also sad at the same time. And to a huge degree and it causes confusion in us. And that’s why I think it’s important that we first learn how to understand our own emotions and then kind of model that for our kids and help them understand that it’s okay to be frustrated. There are different levels of frustration, but what do you do in that moment? How do you know that you’re frustrated? Sadness or worry. Even worry is something I think we should introduce as a word around our kids because they might not understand when I’m around a certain person or I go somewhere at school in the morning, my belly hurts or my palms are sweaty, they might not realize what’s going on and then it might come out as behavior.
But if we just always had the language I said it to my kids today, I said it as a joke, but it was to model that I was like, well I’m off to go to the dentist. I’m a little worried. My heart’s pounding. I just tried to show them. I was actually a little worried. I don’t like the dentist, but I wanted to show them it’s okay. And when I came back I’m like, I went, everything’s good and everything’s fine but I express my heart pounding or knowing that there’s something internal going on and that it’s okay, I’m accepting it and I’m still going. But I wanted to share that emotion with them and there’s really a wrong way I think to do it. The parents wonder sometimes, is it okay to let them know that I feel a certain way and I usually say yes as long as the topic of conversation is age appropriate for them. Cuz sometimes we might be going through bigger things, but it’s okay for them to know that we have emotions.
Dr. Sarah (23:27):
I think important actually. I think it could be kind of scary to think about a parent that has no big emotions and doesn’t like cuz then again it goes back to that idea of then our kids are filling in all the blanks. We don’t know how they feel, we don’t know what makes them have feelings. And then cuz we do have feelings and then sometimes they explode out of us cuz we are human and we do have those big feelings. Then it’s really confusing to kids cuz they’re like, I thought you didn’t have these, where is this big one coming from now? So it’s kind of making the whole emotional process that we go through transparent to them can actually reduce their anxiety as they witness our real human emotions. Because as much as we might think we’re holding it in and we’re being sort of stoic, our kids are really good at picking up the subtle cues and it’s so much better to name it outright. Say I’m feeling frustrated, I’m feeling irritated, I’m feeling tired, I don’t have as much energy to play right now. So me not saying yes to you isn’t cuz I don’t wanna play with you. It’s because my body’s tired right now. Which also actually brings me to this other thing that’s a little more sophisticated that kids probably work on later in life when they’re working with peers and spending, managing and navigating peer conflicts is interpreting another’s intention.
It’s a really challenging skill for most human beings. Most adults that I work with in my practice struggle with interpreting accurately interpreting other people’s intentions. And I think one of the reasons why as a kind of people we struggle with this is because most people were not raised by parents who narrated their inner worlds to their children and helped them connect the dots and helped them fill in the blanks and help them learn when my face looks like this, this is what I’m thinking and feeling on the inside so that your kid is not guessing. Probably inaccurately probably with some magical thinking or some egocentric something I did. Cause that’s usually what we do. So yeah, I think making your inner experience transparent, obviously it models for them language around emotions, it models for them emotion regulation, but it also plants the seed for being more accurate and in interpreting other people’s intentions and inner worlds.
Dr. Cindy (26:05):
And I think it’s something that as parents, sometimes we don’t know how to do it and we worry that we’re not doing it properly. And I think that we don’t realize that there’s so much around us. So you can be reading a book or perhaps you’re watching a movie and then you could pull out the emotions that certain characters are experiencing and start conversations around that. So I always recommend this as the simplest way to start having conversations around other people’s emotions. Sometimes it’s happened with my kids that they’re playing with another child here on the street and something happens and I try to bring it back up again either through play or a dinner. I noticed that you said this, how do you think that made them feel or they said this to you, How did you feel when that happened? And just having those conversations with our kids around emotions, it helps them.
And if you have an older child, they could even journal about feelings that they had after a certain experience. Something happened at school with a friend. How did that make them feel? Just understanding how certain situations cause different emotions in a child and you know can do that very young with a child as young as three when you’re reading a book, you know can point at a character and say how does that bear feel? And usually there are the faces, you can tell if they’re mad or frustrated or sad. And then just having the language around that and saying, Yeah, that bear feels sad. Why do you think that bear feels sad? And just simple conversations obviously at their age level. But there are ways to do that so that we can get, like you said, we’re planting the seeds so that we can have those conversations later and that they can understand other people too that are around them.
Dr. Sarah (27:38):
Yeah. And you mentioned that there’s steps to this, you can level up for going with the same mortal combat metaphor, but we level up in our ability to teach our kids emotion language. So maybe it starts with, I’m gonna just name the emotion, what are the steps?
Dr. Cindy (27:59):
Yeah, yeah, exactly. So naming the different emotions when they’re two or three when you are feeling something like if you’re frustrated, you’re cooking and you forget an ingredient, you forgot an ingredient or whatever it is, or you’re in the car and somebody cuts you off, It’s okay to say that’s so frustrating. Oh my gosh, whatever it is. But that’s the first step, just always naming the emotion and expressing the moments that you are experiencing that particular emotion. And then when I would play with my kids, then I would let them know that it seems like you’re mad. And I think there’s conversations around that. It, was it Brene Brown who talks about we can’t really name the emotions of another person? I forget. I heard a conversation once and now I keep thinking about that cuz I always used to name my children’s emotions, but I was like, what if it’s seeing anger and it’s a mix of frustration and sadness and anger.
I don’t know. So I just try to say, it looks like you’re feeling this way. I see that you are stomping your foot. My three year old today was really disappointed about everything around dinner time tonight. So when we came in we was pouting and he was looking down and his eyebrows furrowed and he had his arms crossed and I said, Well I could tell that you’re really mad that we didn’t come inside as soon as you wanted to. I know you wanted to be outside. So just, I use that word mad and then he just kind of agrees. But I know that as I keep using that, he’ll start understanding when he’s experiencing those different types of emotions. The next steps, which will be with my three year old, which is something I’m doing now with my five year old, is I can tell when he’s worried about something or I can tell when he’s starting to feel sad if his older sister is doing something that he couldn’t do and he’ll kind of distance himself from the situation instead of speaking to her and saying, I’d like to join you, he won’t do that.
So I’ve noticed that that’s my job. I’ve noticed how he acts around her with certain emotions and now I’m trying to label or help him identify exactly what I just said. So I’ll say, I noticed that instead of going to your sister, you backed away and sat on the couch but you look sad, you know, can speak to her if you wanna play that specific game. And even if you’re too young, she’ll show you how to play it. It’s okay. So I want him to understand that he tends to do that. And I don’t label it, I just kind of keep describing the environment and how he’s acting. And then as they get older, it’s now with my seven year old, it’s when she’s worried or when she’s mad about something, how do you deal with it? How do you stay in that emotion? Because it’s okay to keep that emotion.
We don’t have to push it off which is what I was taught. So it’s really hard to teach that because you automatically just wanna brush it off and it’s over with and it’s uncomfortable and you don’t wanna deal with it. But I’m learning how to stay in certain emotions and so I’m telling her it’s okay to be mad at your brother or it’s okay to be mad at me cuz I did something and I know you’re not happy with that but how do we move past that emotion? How do we do something to help us? Maybe mommy goes for a walk or sometimes it’s okay to come downstairs and take a moment to yourself. So that’s the language I’m having with her so that she knows that anger and sadness are okay, but what helps you move past it, Not get rid of it completely right away, but how do you move past that? So those are the three different conversations I’m having with my kids.
Dr. Sarah (31:23):
I think that’s so helpful too, to see how it progresses as our kids become a bit more mature and have more of a language foundation for this stuff. Do you also connect, I’m thinking about the somatic element, the physiological feeling of emotions because I’m definitely something I’m thinking about a lot with my kids is trying to help them make links to when they, they’ve got a lot of the feelings down. They’re three and almost five, they know their feelings. But I’m trying to help them also create language for what that feeling feels like in their body. Is your heart beating really fast? Is your jaw clenched? Are your fists and balls, What are they physiologically experienced? Cause I also want them to link up of the thinking and the feeling like what’s happening in their body.
Dr. Cindy (32:20):
Oh yes. Okay. So yes. With regards to the examples I gave, it’s just the common ones. But there’s one that I think we forget in terms of having to teach our children emotion regulation skills. But it’s excitement. So we often see our kids like, ah, they’re just so much energy and just so it’s annoying and it’s true, it’s frustrating cuz we can’t match their energy and I get that. But what we don’t realize is sometimes at the end of the day, this type of emotion requires us to help them regulate. And we need to regulate ourselves first because we might get triggered by all this energy and jumping up and down when in our minds we’re settling down for the end of the day and we’re picturing bedtime and relaxing and it’s not gonna happen. So yes, the excitement one, I often tell them, place your hand on your heart and they feel it.
I’m like, do you feel that pumping really fast? And they’re like, Yeah, let’s jump some more and run around the house. I’m like, Nope. When we notice that our heart is pounding really, really fast and we have lots of energy, it’s okay if we’re outside and releasing the energy, but now our body’s getting ready for bedtime and that’s when I introduce either quiet reading time altogether or a puzzle that we’re gonna do together something because it’s my role. The three and five year olds are still young. So I try to help them come back down. Cuz if I don’t do that then I get really frustrated. It’s just too much energy with those two boys. But yeah, it’s an example of when I do that. The other symptoms I haven’t really noticed in them, but I will talk about a belly ache when you’re worried or nervous about something or maybe a headache or just sweating in your palms or your knees feeling weak.
But we, I haven’t seen that yet in them. Some language that I’ve used with them that my five year old is able to use my five and seven year olds is when they use the phrase, when I have big emotions, my brain has trouble hearing, hearing mommy or daddy. And my brain struggles with thinking. So they will say these, the sentence because, and it happened today. So my three year old who was just so mad throughout dinner time my seven year old looked at me and I kept telling him, Take a breath. Okay, we’re gonna go inside, let’s just finish our dinner. But he didn’t care. He’s three years old, he didn’t care. He wanted to go inside, he didn’t want to eat, he wanted to take his plate inside and I wanted the perfect dinner outdoors. But my seven year old looked at me and said, Mommy, his, his brain has too many emotions right now.
He doesn’t hear you. I’m like, Yes, exactly. And at that moment I was getting frustrated with him and when she said that, I kind of laughed myself like, yes, that’s true, thank you. I need to take a breath and remember that he’s three and he’s disappointed. So literally he cannot hear what I’m saying because his brain is just over, is flooded with emotions and his frontal, his prefrontal cortex isn’t telling his brain. There’s no reason to be this upset. He can’t not happening. So it was up to me to just, I had to take my breath because that’s another thing when we’re at the top of that mountain that we spoke of, there’s nothing we can do, that’s not the right time to teach skills and tools and to tell them to calm down. Cuz I always compare it to adults. If my partner were to tell me to calm down when I’m on the top of that mountain, it’s the worst. You can’t do that, you’re gonna see the worst side of me. So it’s the same with our kids. We have to work with them as we see them climbing that mountain, getting their way to the peak. But once they’re at the peak, they’re at their peak. It’s okay to step back and just wait.
Dr. Sarah (35:54):
Yeah, I often say actually, I mean we’re spending all this time, you and me talking about naming feelings, making the internal external, using language, having a share, all that’s wonderful. But there’s a no language zone at the top of the mountain like because they’re, we were talking about their prefrontal cortex, if that’s offline, which is what happens at the top of the mountain that’s where the language comprehension areas are all stored. So you are just noise at that point. And it’s actually annoying noise, overstimulating noise. You are adding gasoline to a fire at that point. So parents will often say to me, they’re like, I try naming the feelings and it does not work. My kids just get more upset. And so if that’s happening, it’s just a really good sign that you’re in the no language zone at the, you’re too high above the clouds.
Dr. Cindy (36:56):
And there’s nothing you could do. You just have to wait. Same thing for us. If we’re really upset, something happened and we need time, we need time to come back down and our kids need that time too. So we just have to wait. And when we see that they’re starting to come down and that’s where the co-regulation comes in, that’s where the just taking breaths ourselves and regulating ourselves because that we’re triggered. It’s not gonna change anything. If they need time, it’s fine, as long as they’re not hurting themselves or anybody, it’s just they need the time and we need to step back. And once they’re down, then past that no language zone and coming back down that mound, then that’s where we’re kind of bringing back the tools or a little bit of the language and saying, Whew, you got really mad there. I was trying to speak to you and show you that we were going to go inside in two minutes, but you didn’t hear me and that’s okay but let’s just take a breath now that you can hear me and I see that you have eye contact with me and I’m at their level, let’s just take a breath together and trying to bring their system down.
But if we’re dysregulated at that point, it’s hard to help them once they’re coming back down.
Dr. Sarah (38:06):
Yeah. And we keep talking about the no language zone at the top of the mountain. And that’s really important to know when your kid is there, language may not be regulating to them, but also there’s some kids who find that language around their emotions is dysregulated. No matter where they are on this mountain, they may not be completely at the peak of dysregulation. They may actually just be really sensitive to being seen in that way. I know there are kids who are really emotionally sensitive who when we name accurately the feeling that they’re having, it’s almost like you seeing me this accurately and me having to face the reality of this feeling that I’m having that is too intense and too overwhelming for me. All of that can be really destabilizing for our kids sometimes, not all kids, but there are those kids, those special spicy kids who live so close to that shame, their feelings of shame live so close to their emotional experiences that if you accurately tap into that emotional experience, you name that feeling, they can feel a tremendous amount of shame or they can feel almost like an intense vulnerability of being seen that fully.
And that’s hard. That’s really hard as a parent to respond to that because we sometimes are, I don’t something I could say that helps this kid. And I think those are the times when that’s, again, your kid has a no language zone around feelings sometimes. And so we wanna be really mindful of we have to talk about feelings when they’re not feeling them. We have to stretch their tolerance for talking about emotions, for separating an emotion, anger from an emotion, shame in calm, cool, connected moments, preferably even once removed. So with book characters or reflecting on other people’s emotional experiences or animals’, emotional experiences until we build up that tolerance for maybe considering reflecting on the feelings that they’re experiencing in the moment. But if you have a kid that’s dealing with that, there’s a separate set of skills that you have to hone. We should probably at some point do an episode just on that.
But I know even me, I’m actually not that sensitive of a person in general. I have a pretty low threshold for anxiety and dysregulation partly my temperament, but partly the years of practice of this stuff. And even I lose my words sometimes or I get flooded. I know in my calm of reflective moments where I’m just sort thinking about how something went, I’m like, Oh, I could have said that or I could have said that. Oh, I could have said that or, But in the moment, and it’s not even terrible things. I’ll say something, be careful instead of where are the places you could put your feet that feel safe to you right now? Right. Yeah. Not the answers are fine. Yeah, exactly. One is richer in its teaching capacity, but when I’m seeing my kid do something risky, my language escapes me. And the automatic response is just be careful.
And so I think as parents can be really hard on us ourselves for not saying the right thing, and I just wanna, I don’t know. I don’t even have a strategy for you. I just wanna name that that happened, that happened to everybody. And I think going back later, one, I’m reflecting afterwards and saying, Oh, I could have said this and this, as long as I’m not beating myself up, that’s useful information for me to reflect on. And then I don’t have to intervene in the moment with the right thing. I can go back to my kid later the next day even and say, Hey, remember when you were climbing on that rock? And I kind of just said, be careful. What I think I could have said in that moment was actually, where do you think you could put your feet? That feels the safest?
And then you could just have the conversation later. I think there’s no expiration date on reflective conversations and it might not be relevant anymore. Obviously he’s not climbing on that rock anymore. He might. We’re not going. He might. But what you’re doing in that moment is you’re practicing the debrief, which I think helps kids learn cause and effect. It helps them learn reflective functioning. It helps them learn strategies for our next time. So even if we’re not unquote repairing, it’s like I yelled at him and I need to say I’m sorry, but it’s just like, Oh, I was thinking about this and I thought of a different way. Let me share it with you. That’s a nice connected moment you could have with your kid. But sometimes I think we’re so hard on ourselves that we didn’t think of the right thing to say that we don’t really even think about the fact that we could just have that conversation later.
Dr. Cindy (43:23):
No, it’s true. I interviewed this researcher from Europe who focuses all his research on emotion regulation skills and I was like, okay, give me your golden, your one piece of information that’s gonna change all the parents’ lives. And I was thinking it had a certain strategy or whatever it was, and he’s like, I was like, Huh. If every parent were to practice, we’ve seen it in the studies where we look at overworked and burnt out pediatricians and doctors, we work on their self-compassion and all of a sudden stress goes down and all of a sudden they’re able to their social emotional skills and understanding other people and having the empathy towards them changes that one change of self-compassion. And I was like, that was my moment. My like, huh. Yeah, that makes sense. Because I think it comes back to what you just said, right?
We’re really hard on ourselves in those moments, but if we just remember that we’re not perfect and it’s okay to have those human moments where you make a mistake or it’s okay to lose control of your own emotions and perhaps you didn’t learn these strategies or perhaps you’re not comfortable with certain emotions in your child. Just understanding all of that and in that moment just saying, I’m gonna do my best and then I’ll deal with it after. And in the way that you said, you know, might not have said the same way them, you might not have the words that you wanted to use in that moment, but then you were able to reflect and you’re showing your child, my brain was offline too, I had that moment, but now that I can actually speak with you, here’s what I should have said or here’s what I should have done. And that place comes from a self-compassion area I think of just saying, Okay, I had a moment. Let me move on and deal with my child. And then that brain space not having that guilt, it’s so freeing of not having to pile up all that guilt. Why do we do that? I don’t know. Cause I used to do it. I used to do that
Dr. Sarah (45:18):
A lot. Yeah, it’s hard to, I mean I still do it and I’m constantly reminded of the strategies. It’s really hard to use them in the moment. I also think part of the reason there’s two sides to it, on the one side it’s like maybe we didn’t know these skills. Maybe this is not familiar to us. Maybe we really have to really be conscious about integrating these new ways of being cuz they’re so not ingrained in us. And that can be a big challenge to self-compassion. I think the other piece that really just attacks our self-compassion muscles is the fact that probably a lot of us are consuming a lot of media content, social media content about parenting. And there’s so much out there and I mean I put it out there, you put it out, same there. This is what you can do and this is how you could handle this and this is the sort of optimal way of doing this and this is what the research says.
And it’s so wonderful that there is this tremendous amount of information out there for parents because I get so many grandparents who follow along with the work that I’m doing and I get all the time, I wish I had this when I was raising my kids where there’s a great, great benefit to this massive amount of information that’s out there. We wouldn’t be doing this work if we felt it wasn’t good and important stuff to do. And also it can feel for as a parent consuming it, which I’m also one of those people too, is like, Oh my god, there’s so many things I’m supposed to do. Yes, there’s so many ways I can mess this up. There’s so many things I’m supposed to say and it can just feel like we’re never good enough.
Dr. Cindy (47:06):
I get that and I get that and I feel bad. I feel bad sometimes. And I hear parents say like, they’re overwhelmed and they’re consuming this content cuz I’m like, yeah, I’m part of it. But like you said, I think that it’s important that we remember that we’re doing this for a reason and we’re putting the information out there. And what I always tell parents is, this just gives you many ways of trying things. It’s not that there’s a right or wrong way, but it gives you many different ways of approaching your child with their emotions and many different, or a lot of language that you can use from different platforms and people that you learn from. And not everything, including from my information, will work on that particular child. I parent every child that I have very differently. Similar in some ways, but different in other ways.
So that’s the same thing when it comes to parenting information where the parents have to say, This makes sense for my family and for myself. I’ll try this and it’s okay if it doesn’t work, just move on to something else. But every child and every family and every parent is different. I think what I was having this discussion with my mother-in-law, I think it was last year, but she’s like, Oh, we never had any of this stuff and we just did it. We just parented and everybody turned out okay. And I was like, Yeah, well what’s okay? Our generation is not okay part in particular. But I was just explaining to her that I think our generation wants to do things differently. And it’s not that they did it wrong, we’re not pointing fingers cuz I’ll have this discussion with my mom as well where she’ll just say, You keep talking about you were raised in a way that wasn’t great.
And then she’s like, I listened to your podcast and I read your content and I did the best I could. And I said, I know you did the best you could. But now that I understand the research, I’m able to pinpoint what I wanna do differently. Doesn’t mean that it was right or wrong, I just, I’d like to do it a bit differently. And there’s things that I’m taking from her and there are things that I’m not, and I don’t want the grandparents to be offended, but I think this is why it’s important for us as these platforms and these parenting people, whatever we are like, to help…
Dr. Sarah (49:15):
Researchers though. That’s the thing. There’s people out there who are sharing lots of information about parenting and some of it is opinion, some of it is based off of their own experience. And that’s wonderful. But I think it’s really important to also know where you’re getting your information. And I’m not even implying that I know all the answers because I’m a psychologist, but I do put a lot of thought into presenting information in a way that is both mindful of the receiver of their own mental health and about what kind of pressure and potential even judgment or shame I might be creating for another person who’s taking in this information. And I don’t know that everybody does that. And I think there’s also a lot of information out there that’s just plain inaccurate.
Dr. Cindy (50:02):
Dr. Sarah (50:04):
So it can be really, really kind of overwhelming for parents to be receiving contradictory information, Information that doesn’t have context or that’s taken out of context. And then I think so no, I think the work that you do is incredibly important because it is backed by research. And it’s not to say that our parents or the generation before us as a whole, we’re bad parents because we’re doing things differently. We have new information. Exactly. There’s new information. We know way more about the brain. I mean, the research on brain science didn’t even really start at the level that it’s at now. Until the nineties, there was so much more is known about brain development than there was when our parent generation was parenting. So it’s not about people being good or bad parents, it’s about expanding our strategies to encompass the most relevant and accurate information and research that we now know. Yeah, it’s nobody’s fault that they didn’t know what they didn’t know.
Dr. Cindy (51:10):
No, no, exactly. Especially when it comes to emotions. The brain research is relatively new. Emotion regulation research is just in its infancy. So, I think that’s where it’s okay that our parents didn’t implement that. They didn’t teach us appraisal, that they didn’t teach us no acceptance and problem solving, which are those really adaptive strategies to use for kids and for ourselves. We didn’t know. They didn’t know that. And it’s not pointing fingers. But now that we know that, I think as a society, we need to learn it and really start or continue the conversations around emotions. Because if we don’t show our children these skills in terms of naming their emotions, knowing how to identify them, knowing what to do, knowing how to recognize it in somebody else, knowing how to communicate it to their partner when they’re older, there will be issues there.
There’ll be struggles. I think about my friends at HR, my best friend’s a HR director at a company, and all she does is deal with people’s emotions and their issues, communication issues, who said what to whom? Who behaved a certain way that wasn’t right, Who said, who didn’t regulate themselves and lashed out at somebody else at the office. And she has to work on all these issues with people. And she comes back to me and she’s like, You need to talk about emotion regulation skills with adults because we don’t know, people yell or it’s just something that we as a society need to work on and help our kids. Even in school, if a child isn’t regulating their emotions I can’t remember the name of the author of the study, but they will perhaps struggle with friendships within the school or building that relationship with their teacher because they’re acting out, but it’s based on their emotions.
They’re frustrated and they don’t know how to control that. And then later on as a teenager, they might struggle with that as a new job and career. They might struggle with coworkers as somebody getting married or in a relationship, they might struggle with their partners. So it really is important. And it’s not that I wanna make, I don’t want parents to panic if they haven’t started yet. And that’s okay, it’s never too late. But if you have a six year old who’s really, really, or an eight year old or a nine year old who’s really struggling with what to do with frustration or disappointment, then start from the beginning with what we just said. Let’s name that frustration. When do you feel that if they’re older, let’s, let’s just write down, I felt frustrated at 5:00 PM, Just a little journal. Very simple, but something, What did I do when I felt frustrated? I did this. Was there another way to express that? But just again, it’s like we said at the beginning, it’s taking it out, that internal thing, which is an emotion that we don’t see, but we see it as a behavior. So what does it look like? And that’s when you start understanding when I’m frustrated I behave this way, or when I’m really disappointed I behave that way. Maybe I don’t act like myself and I internalize it or whatever it is. It’s just so important for us to have these conversations.
Dr. Sarah (54:09):
No, it is. There’s so much that can go into building different types of awareness around these things. So I think it is really important to talk about this stuff with them. Well, thank you so much for coming on and talking with us about all the stuff that you’re doing. If people wanna learn more, you have so many cool things going on. If people wanna learn more about your work, where can they find you? What are you up to these days?
Dr. Cindy (54:34):
Yeah, they can start at curiousneuron.com. There’s a few things. There are the blogs that we have graduate students from different labs. So I collaborate a lot with labs, research labs, and there’s a section as well where you can participate in a research study. So that’s my goal is I’m trying to bridge the gap between the science and parents. I have the podcast as well. There are new episodes out every Monday for the podcast. We have an academy that we’re slowly building, but for us it’s just about getting content out there. I just launched the YouTube channel. What else? I think that’s it. There’s Instagram @curious_neuron, and that’s all for now.
Dr. Sarah (55:11):
Just that. I’ll put links to everything in the show notes too, because if people have not been following the work you’re doing, go follow us. Thank you. Because, cause it’s, This is why I always love connecting with people who are in the science of it. Because it’s just so, the stuff you’re sharing is, it’s so trustworthy. Thank you. Yeah. You put so much care into how you translate things. You really take the time. I love how you translate research and you don’t just do it once. It’s not like, Oh, I did a research study, or I read this research study. Let me put a post up. You’ll do five or six posts breaking down one study. I love the work that you’re doing.
Dr. Cindy (55:56):
Yeah. Because you might have a different question and that study might have, you know, might look at it from a different lens and say, Okay, this answers that question. Or sometimes what’s helpful for a parent is just the procedure and the scale that they use. And there might be questions that might help us. So I try to really break down a study. It’s not about getting an answer. So my approach is very different. It’s not about saying, what’s the answer to this question? And this is the only way to do it. It’s more of what can we learn from this particular study? And I know that sometimes there are limitations to studies and I’ll address that too. But what can we pull out of the study and what can we as parents just gain in terms of knowledge and how to parent. But yeah, and I forgot to mention as well I also launched an app this summer. I don’t know if I told you.
Dr. Sarah (56:42):
I know about it. I love this.
Dr. Cindy (56:42):
I like emotion regulation skills. It’s called Wonder Grade. And basically we develop this character called Ollie. He’s like this lovable big green monster. And it teaches kids like mindfulness skills and it teaches kids like breathing techniques and calming ways to calm yourself before bedtime. And there’s a parent section because we realize that we can’t just give the kids the kids tools, but we need to help the parents too. So we have five minute audios that come out every Sunday that discover helped parents understand what happens when you’re raised a certain way, or what do you do when your child says something like this? Or how do you address that? And then we have an emergency button. So in moments when you just need that best friend to place their hand on your shoulder, there’s super relaxed audio that’s like two minutes. So you could step away from your child and it says it’s not about you. You’re not a bad parent. Let this moment pass.
Dr. Sarah (57:37):
Talk about building self compassion.
Dr. Cindy (57:39):
Dr. Sarah (57:42):
You just brought everything so full circle. Cause we’re talking all about how we need to, for our kids to learn these skills, we have to do it for them first. We have to make the language explicit. And your app is basically doing that for parents in these hot moments. It’s like, here’s the language that you need to hear right now.
Dr. Cindy (58:00):
Dr. Sarah (58:01):
So you can internalize it so that you can then go do that for your kid.
Dr. Cindy (58:05):
Exactly. I need, I did it for myself. I needed that voice. So Kristi, my co-founder, she has such a relaxing voice. I was like, could you just record this? And then we put it on the app. But yeah.
Dr. Sarah (58:16):
That’s so great. Thank you. Thank you so much. You gotta come back again.
Dr. Cindy (58:21):
Dr. Sarah (58:23):
Yeah, I love it.
(58:29):In this episode, Cindy and I spoke about how important it is to model and teach emotion regulation skills to our children. If you want a simple and straightforward way to get started, check out my free guide, Reduce Tantrums Before They Even Begin. This guide helps you to strengthen your child’s ability to regulate their emotions through play. In it, you will learn five fun games that you can play with your child to help them develop skills like learning to breathe, inhibiting impulse and calming their bodies – all really important aspects of emotion regulation. And because we’re developing these skills through play, our child’s brain’s prefrontal cortex will be engaged, meaning your child is in the best head space for learning new skills that actually stick. To download this free guide, go to drsarahbren.com/resources. That’s drsarahbren.com/resources. Thanks for listening and don’t be a stranger.
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