Aligned and Attuned
Over the course of the day we all pulse through the various emotional states that comprise the rhythm of our life. We are continuously moving through alternating states of arousal, dysregulation, and regulation. We are working towards a place of balance. Often, we think of balance as a space in which we feel calm and serene. Rather, it is a place in which you are conscious of your emotions and are empowered to express them. Alignment occurs when you feel safe enough in your own skin to let who you truly are shine. Nurturing a sense of self-regulation in children sets the stage for an authentic life in which one can feel attuned to inner feeling states.
It is impossible to feel singularly serene and never deviate into dysregulation. Rather, we want to decrease the amount of time spent in dysregulation and regulation and have an abundance of time in alignment and attunement.
This is accomplished through attuned parenting and the modeling of self-regulation strategies.
Self Regulation – Use it or Lose it
The process of learning, from a neurobiological standpoint, is a process of building, strengthening, and pruning neural connections. Once a neural pathway has been established it is called a synapse. It is these neural connections that enable alignment in the brain.
Brain development in infants begins with a minimal amount of neural connections. An infant has no independent self-regulation strategies but rather relies on a caregiver to learn these skills. Within the first year of life, as a baby gains experiences, neural connections begin forming rapidly. Infant brain development is booming with the blossoming of neural pathways. For brain development in children, these pathways resemble a mass of tangled roots. It is in the second and third year of life that these roots are pruned and organized. The neural pathways that stay in place are the ones most frequently used. If a connection is no longer actively utilized, it is pruned away; our brain employs a use it or lose it strategy.
Babies depend upon their caregivers to cope. The baby-caregiver bond is the primary means for self-regulation in children. This intimate connection also acts as the foundation for future learning and the development of self-regulation strategies. A baby borrows the parasympathetic nervous system of his or her caregiver to regulate. It is in moments of attunement that a baby will learn how to regulate arousal states. This is when neural pathways for self-regulation strategies are set in place. It is through consistently being with your child and aiding in self-regulation that these neural pathways are solidified. As a parent, you are building these connections when you rock or sing to your baby, for example. Babies need recurrent experiences of dysregulation, which may manifest in crying, and assisted self-regulation from a caregiver, which may involve holding or feeding, for example.
How you are coping in a given situation translates into how your child will learn to cope in the future. The ways in which you regulate your emotions models to your child the self-regulation strategies they can use.
It is of great importance to be authentic. You do not need to feel perfectly calm to help your baby cope. When a baby is crying or expressing challenging behavior you may feel dysregulated yourself. You may need to use strategies to nurture your self-regulation so you can then empower your child towards his or her own regulation. That is O.K.
It is valuable to recognize and honor your feelings and work to regulate them back to a place in which you are comfortable and fully aligned. Even if you do your best to appear cool, calm, and collected if you are screaming from stress internally your child will feel that turmoil.
If you respect your emotions and use self-regulation strategies you will be modeling that for your child. You will be strengthening neural pathways in his or her brain. If you do this consistently, those neural connections will result in your child’s ability to self-regulate independently in the future.
A caregiver who allows for authenticity teaches the value of feelings. Authenticity ensures that children develop trust and intuition. A child who has consistent experiences with an authentic adult will learn how to make sense of the world because there has been alignment between what the child feels, hears, and sees.
Honoring Emotions Verbally
The verbal messages you send your child are just as important as the nonverbal/emotional messages they are receiving from attunement with your parasympathetic nervous system.
The simple mental shift I offer for you is to add an honoring statement when disciplining your child. This means honoring the wisdom in all emotions. By doing this you are communicating with your child that you understand and respect him or her.
Example: A parent (Arthur) walks into a room and asks his daughter (Sofia age 4) to clean up her toys and come to dinner.
Sofia yells: “NO” and throws a toy.
Arthur walks over to Sofia and places a hand on her back. He says: “Wow Sofia, I see you are angry. It can be challenging to stop playing when you are having fun.”
Sofia looks at her father and quietly says: “Ya.”
Arthur responds: “It makes me sad when you yell and throw toys. We use our words when we are upset. Next time you can tell me you aren’t ready to come to dinner yet.”
In this example, the child’s anger about having to stop playing resulted in her yelling at her father and throwing a toy. Arthur takes time to connect to his daughter and honor her anger by labeling her feeling. He communicates respect for her by recognizing how difficult it can be to stop playing. Only then does he guide her behavior. Arthur was able to see the wisdom in his child’s communication and encourage her to express it more appropriately, through words instead of aggressive action.
*Bonus tip: If this example resonates with you and your child frequently has a challenging time transitioning from an enjoyed activity, begin using a timer. This allows the child’s brain time to anticipate the transition and regulate any emotions that may be bubbling up. You can tell your child he or she has 10 minutes until it is time to do another activity or clean-up. Another verbal cue can be offered at 5 minutes, 2 minutes, and 1 minute. When giving this warning make sure your child is paying attention. This will look different for all children but you can ensure attunement by making eye contact or placing a gentle hand on your child’s body. Once the timer is set, remember to follow through. After the given time has passed the child must move on and listen to your words. Do not give extra time or your child will learn that the timer tool is not consistently enforced and if they behave a certain way they will get more time. If challenges arise at the end of the time remind your child that you respected his or her time and you expect them to do the same for you.