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Helping Our Children Regulate Emotional Arousal

One of the greatest gifts of life we can give our children is to model how we regulate our own emotional arousal in a variety of situations.  Children must be around and connect to more organized and efficiently wired brains (either via their parents, caretakers, teachers, etc.) in order to develop at their optimal brain potential.  It’s a basic neuroscience principle that a more organized brain over time (generally the parent) helps the less organized brain (generally the child)  develop healthy neural networks so the less organized brain will over time evolve into a well organized brain and, function and perform at optimal potential – processing energy and information from brain to body and body to brain efficiently and effectively.

Like all healthy life endeavors, helping our children regulate emotional arousal is a practice in accepting and being imperfectly perfect, but also being steadfast in our practice at using certain techniques to keep us on the right path.  First we have to restructure our parenting formula.  Before we help our children, we must help ourselves. You are not going to be able to give and guide 100% unless you are first and foremost giving and guiding yourself optimally 100%.  See my post on Changing the World Through Our Children


I must note here too that we can work on ourselves and help our children regulate emotional arousal simultaneously.   Our goal is not to seek perfection for ourselves for we will never obtain it.  Our path is a process and helping our children regulate emotional arousal is a process too.  There will be a process of symbiosis and alchemy going on here between parent and child and child and parent.

There’s a great book all mindful seeking and doing parents must have on their bookshelves permanently.  It’s called Moody Cow Meditates by Kerry Lee McLean.   Not only is it great for children, but it’s also great for us adults and a fun yet basic reminder that we all boil over in anger, sometimes making really poor choices, and facing the consequences.  The treasure in this book is that it shows that there is another way, a constructive and healthy way to handle anger, and demonstrates a great tool to regulate our emotional arousal – meditation/conscious breathing.

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The book introduces children and kids of all ages to the tool of conscious breathing and sitting to settle thoughts.  I must share with you the demonstration used in the book, because if you haven’t read it, it’s a great visual to use for children.  Imagine a jar of water (this is your mind) and for each angry thought we have, put a pinch of colorful sparkles in the water jar, shake it up and notice that when we get angry all of our thoughts get stirred up and sometimes out of control.  Now sit, close eyes, and come into a conscious breath (either inhale/exhale through the nose or inhale/exhale through the mouth, but slow and deep).  After a few minutes all the sparkles settle down to the bottom, which means all of our angry thoughts settle down too.

So, here’s the pinnacle, Moody Cow is faced with either stirring up all this angry thoughts again or leaving them settled and enjoying his peace.  He decides to keep them settled down because he loves his peaceful state of mind.  So parents, we buy this book and read it to our kids and suddenly thousands of little kiddos will be peaceful and calm meditators, right?   Not quite the reality of working with kiddos.

Here are some guidelines I use in my own parenting formula when helping my son learn how to regulate his own emotional arousal.  Like all guidelines, try them and see what works for you:

-address your (the parent/caretaker) emotional, physical, intellectual, and spiritual needs every single day of your life (this helps keep your brain working at optimal processing of energy and information so when faced with stress and anger, we can respond and teach appropriately)

-model how to handle anger, frustration, and stress in mindful ways (conscious breathing, take a break, walk away)

– use mindful communication with your children on a daily basis (listen, empathize, connect)

– validate for the child that the anger/stress/frustration is ok and normal

–  tell them you love them, but state that the way the anger/stress/frustration is being expressed is unacceptable

– teach and encourage conscious breathing (slow, deep and steady breathes either in/out nose or in/out mouth) *very important one here

– get the body moving (encourage an activity where they can get the body moving – fast walking outside, running, playing a sport in backyard, etc. – just don’t have them veg out with electronics; it’s important to release the stress hormones out of the body)

– give alternatives to body movement – i.e., scream into a pillow, scream outside

– play an instrument (if your child plays one)

-encourage them to write in a journal

-encourage them to draw or paint

– quiet time in room

– teach them to be accountable for their angry feelings and apologize for any behavior that went over the line

-if anger gets completely out of control and nothing here works, try to connect with them through a caring soft voice and touch through an embrace (when this happens they may need you to pull them out of a possible trauma-linked brain disorganization and most of the time, love and connection does the trick)

-sometimes therapy/counseling is necessary if there are signs of trauma (i.e., sudden onset of the following:   distant emotionally,  suddenly sensitive to appropriate adult touch, unusual mood swings, lack of appetite, disruptive sleep are just a few)

This is by no means is some exhaustive list that if followed will endow you with peaceful little pumpkins.  But from my experience, this is what works for me and my son.  Most of all, it’s a practice.  Some things work some days, and some things on the list work others.

After any angry/stressful situation, once things have settled down, it’s key to briefly go over the chain of angry events (think mindful communication here) and embrace your children with a big hug and connect with love.  My son and I call this “starting over”.  We wipe the slate clean and onward and upwards we go.

When we practice the guidelines I noted above, we create nourishing environments for our children to development optimal brain function.  We also teach and give our children life transforming tools under their emotional tool belts to use in a variety of stressful situations that will propel them forward in their own conscious awareness.

Om Shanti Om ~ Athea


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  • Hannah March 26, 2014, 11:46 pm

    This is so true. My therapist taught me to practice five deep breathing’s a day and go to a feeling of love. So now when Peyton gets mad or frustrated I try and teach her this. The other day I was mad and she walks up to me and tells me “Mom. You need to take a deep breath” And stood there til I kept doing it. I also just ordered her that book too, I think she will like it.

  • Athea Davis March 27, 2014, 12:11 am

    Great story, Hannah. Thank you for sharing. I love that you are teaching her mindfulness so early. It will be a great tool for her to have as she matures. Kuddos, mama!

  • Larry April 11, 2014, 1:29 pm

    Great stuff Athea! LOVE it. A great way to start embodying peace for the planet is through kids, and the consistency of practice!

  • Athea Davis April 11, 2014, 2:47 pm

    Thank you, Larry. Yes, kids are our future. The buck stops with the kiddos. 🙂 Love and Hugs ~ A.