Bedtime Stress Response

16th May 2016
Bedtimes with aroha

Ever stood at the door of your child’s room at bedtime, ready to leave, thinking you’re all done for the evening when suddenly they make a request, ask a question, sound unhappy?

The Intention

I’ve always made it a priority for the children to go to sleep knowing they’re loved and cared for rather than feeling alone or sad. It’s important to me that my children associate their beds and bedtime with happiness. I’ve spent most nights of this last 12 years of parenthood working with the children to create positive bedtime rituals such that both they and I feel connected and strong in our relationship whenever I leave them to their sleep.

These rituals have included cuddles, songs, stories, kissing arms, massaging feet, drawing on backs, back and forth word and gesture choreography that we’ve built up together over time. When it’s gotten out of hand with too much being asked of me I’ve limited the final words to “what’s the last thing you’d like to say?” which quickly extended to “three things” but did stop there.

The Reality

For the most part this has been great. We knew what to expect and mostly stuck within those boundaries – working together as a team to create a beautiful end to the day. However there have been times when requests for something more to eat or drink or a tricky question such as “How did all the houses get here?” or even more eye raising “Where did all the people come from?” have felt like an insurmountable problem; like an enormous, overwhelming obstacle rising up between me and my chance to go to bed myself! I still get this now at times, even though I figured the panic over how much sleep I am going to get tonight has long since passed as my children have grown up.

I felt this just last night. I was holding youngest’s hand as she drifted off to sleep – so relaxing, I love doing this – when middle child came in and announced she was still hungry and could she have something to eat. My mind went blank (I was very interested to note) as the learned stress response kicked in – auto pilot. I could have answered, relaxed and happy, “sure thing, there’s plenty of fruit, I’ll see you soon to say goodnight” but no, I went into panic mode. I garbled something about “not able to answer, don’t ask me” and then, after a few breathes I called out to her retreating back “yes, ok, go for it” – not quite calmly, but I did manage to spit out that more helpful response.

The Reflection

So what’s going on for me that a simple request can hamstring me so?

I understand the neurology of it. When we are triggered into stress response our brains shut down the “unnecessary” rational part of our brain, instead diverting energy to the fight, flight or freeze parts of the brain – our primitive survival mechanisms that served us so well for thousands of years when living out in the elements amongst many dangerous predators. Also, I get that this panic response was repeated many times when I was super tired for all those years and was seriously feeling in danger due to exhaustion making driving something of a concern. However it’s not helpful anymore (nor indeed was it ever possibly), it’s not serving me to get angry or go blank when my children ask me to stay a few moments more or to rub the other foot before leaving. I’m no longer at a point where the urge to run away from this parenting business is a regular occurrence. It’s also not helpful for me to blame the children for their “unreasonable requests”, which is often how it seems in the moment, until later when my rational brain sees it more how it actually is – a child has a need to be met.

Bedtime

Bedtime – meeting needs, minimising the stress response

The New Intention

Hmmm. So what’s needed here is for me to be mindful of my breath, keep my love for my children at the forefront of my thoughts and feelings, and stay strong in my trust that these days I will get enough sleep most nights. Connecting with the breath helps to calm my nervous system and soothe the stress response. I’ll need to work with the children to get clear on new boundaries and re-learn helpful responses; and practice these each evening until they are well embedded. When I notice the stress response I can take steps to calm it as soon as possible and clean up any messes I may have made with the children while in that state. And most of all, I will need to be kind to myself, ensuring forgiveness and love are paramount throughout this process.

Thanks girls for providing yet another opportunity for me to learn and grow!

Days Gone By…

Thinking back, I could have used this reflection to support myself, my girls and our precious rituals when the stress response was a regular occurrence. Awareness that it was happening, understanding that the processes underpinning the fight, flight or freeze response were my brain’s attempt to keep me safe (this is its major objective). Acknowledging that I had reason to feel concerned for how much sleep I was going to get, so boundaries were indeed important and that also “this too shall pass”. Recognising my response as my response rather than the children’s fault would have been very helpful. The mindfulness, the breath, the love and working together on boundaries and practice responses, and finally kindness and forgiveness for myself would all still have been relevant.

With any luck this will resonate with others out there and offer some ideas to make bedtimes the special, connecting and relationship nourishing opportunities that they can be.

Endnote

What bedtime ritual ideas can you create together? You know each other and your bedroom layouts and lifestyle best. Best not to do this when you’re a bit frazzled or in a hurry. Have a good cuddle and chat about it when you’re calm and enjoying each other.

Ask your friends, and your friends’ children, and wider whanau about what they do for bedtime rituals.

Else a couple of other ideas off the internet:

Bedtime Gorilla Help your Children Ease into a Peaceful Sleep

Bedtime music such as Indigo Dreams – soothing music (for you and for them)

Po marie x

 

When we trust in children

9th May 2016
Trust in children

A wee story about trust

Yesterday I returned from a weekend training session. My 7-year-old daughter was so excited to see me! She insisted on carrying my things into the house and up to my room for me. At first I gently objected saying “I’ll do it darling.” Luckily however she is a very strong person and instead of accepting my stepping on her toes, my lack of trust in her, she stated firmly and kindly “Mum, I can do it” and proceeded to take my drink bottles and purse, my pillows, ukulele and everything else that was in my hands.

She stumbled up the stairs. I followed, smiling. At the top she turned around, re-balanced herself under her load, and told me that I was to follow her and NOT go into the kitchen. “OK.” I agreed, even though I was keen to greet my partner and other children. I stood there while she unwrapped and de-cluttered herself. Then she was back. “Now, close your eyes and follow me. It’s ok I’ll keep you safe.”

Now, usually I close my eyes initially and then wait until she’s begun the journey before peeking, just a little, opening my eyes a tiny crack to check for any dangers to my person. This time however I chose to trust entirely to her direction and care of me. She smoothly led me along by the hand. My right arm brushed a wall as we turned a corner. The urge was very strong to open my eyes. I had to keep reassuring myself that I would be safe in her care for these steps to the kitchen.

On arrival I was greeted with the most delight I’ve seen on her face in a long time as she handed me a gift. As I unwrapped her carefully decorated present for me I realised that I too had given her a gift, one more valuable than any we can buy. My gift was to trust in her plan, trust in her care, trust that this little person in front of me is confident, competent and has much to contribute to this world – and I am not in control nor in charge of how that will unfold for her and by her. Wow.

A New Dawn For Play

2nd May 2016

I was at a conference on Play over the weekend. Great job Childspace! There was plenty to affirm, challenge and inspire the 300+ audience from NZ and around the world. So, where are we humans at with understanding the importance of play for children’s development and how can adults support children best in accessing play and making the most of this critical part of life?

Play is whatever a child is feeling an urge to do. Whatever meaning we as adults wish to glean or whatever names we wish to use (schemas, learning outcomes, value of play, dispositions …) children are doing it anyway. Whether or not we document or even notice it, children are still playing and gaining value, learning, creating connections with themselves, others and the world.

Too often adults interrupt children’s play in a well meaning attempt to either “extend the child’s learning” or keep the child “safe”.  Our society believes that adults are there to teach children about the world. This is to overstep our bounds and elevate our own importance far too high. The world is there to teach children about the world. Our job is to facilitate the environment and perhaps the child, though only as necessary – we have no place in facilitating the actual play, nor the learning.

I learned of “adventure” playgrounds – in their truest sense – from Marc Armitage (Malarkey, PlayWork, just fantastic!). Children at The Land in Wales are free to experiment with risk (adults manage the hazards and observe the play without interfering unless absolutely necessary). Work together, social ups and downs, climbing, falling, build a hut with hammer and nails, light a fire in it – whoops, wish we’d created a chimney…

Adults. Stop. Notice. “Are they totally absorbed? Are they playing? Without need for me?” If yes, then

L E A V E    T H E M .

Nathan Mikaere-Wallis didn’t mince words when stating that there is currently a vast difference between culturally-informed beliefs and research-informed beliefs about children, play and the role of adults. Children (in fact all humans) are story making machines. We are designed to seek out experiences, take in the information through our senses, make sense of that information through various parts of our brains and lay this “story” down for future reference. Only 30% of our genes are mapped at birth, 70% of our genome is adaptable – we adapt to the environment in which we find ourselves. This adaptation is mostly influenced by the primary relationships we have during our early years, along with the experiences we have with ourselves at our interactions with the world. Play facilitates this learning most effectively. When we are free to play in the way our brain wishes to learn our stress response system is in a soothed state such that we can access greater proportions of our brains and “learn more”. Our job as adults is to assist with stress regulation, supporting the emotional safety of the child so they in turn can be free to satisfy their natural desire to play.

Full brain development occurs only when each stage of growth is honoured and supported through to completion. Skipping stages doesn’t help children in the long term (nor usually the short term either). When we try to make a 3 year old practice being a 7 year old (e.g. by teaching them to sit still on the mat and read and write and name colours and other facts) we rob them of the opportunities that BEING a 3 year old brings. We need to meet the needs of a 3 year old and step back while they do what they know they need to do as a 3 year old. And 3 year olds are total geniuses at EXPERIENCING LIFE.

A world full of adults with the ability to soothe their stress response system, who have strong, stable, complete foundations and are able to access vast areas of their brains most of the time would be a transformed world indeed.

Always accessible to us as adults and to children are stories and storytelling. Evelyn Davis reminded us of the magic that can be created by a storyteller who’s willing to give it a go, involve their audience and create life there and then. Our brains are ready and rearing to go with storytelling from about 3 years old and storytelling is ideally supported as a major form of play through the mid childhood years. Storytelling accesses many parts of the brain and encourages strong growth and development.

Since we are “earthlings”, Pennie Brownlee (Dance with me in the heart and other wonders) challenged, children mostly need to be connected with the earth in order to truly experience and satisfy their sacred urge to play. An urge – yes an urge – a deep, primitive drive to live and love.

Look closely at what is in the following line…

eartheartheartheartheartheartheartheartheartheartheartheartheartheartheartheartheartheartheartheartheartheartheartheartheartheartheartheart…

Pennie, this is wisdom indeed.

My workshop “Changing the World is Child’s Play” asserted that anything can be play. Play is an attitude. Normal everyday experiences together or alone can be play. Play is life. Life is play. Even staring into space is perfectly legitimate play. Furthering that idea, boredom is a valuable state to be in – from there creativity can arise.

Childhood is the dawn of a new human – with all the risk and potential that entails. Child’s play impacts themselves, others, the world, and the future. Changing the world really is child’s play.

What a weekend! I’ve gained so much understanding of new aspects of play and had the opportunity to connect with others who really get what child need – from themselves, from others and from the world.

And a parting thought from Marc Armitage:

“… children have no interest whatsoever in “why” they are playing”

J U S T   P L A Y !

What Children Need

10th October 2015

Children’s needs haven’t changed over the last several thousand years. Their basic surviving and thriving needs are still warmth and nourishment: being kept physically warm and nourished along with socially supported and extended. Without these, human children can die or at best struggle through life a shadow of what could have been their potential. But let’s look a bit deeper into this. Firstly, what is a need?

A need is something that we cannot do without, that is required to be met (most of the time) in order for us to live a reasonable life. When all of our needs are met most of the time, we have a high chance of reaching our full genetic potential. Our needs being met provides the ideal environment for us to be all that we can be.

All human beings have the potential to be confident, competent and contributing members of society – right from birth. Our one proviso is that we have certain needs which, luckily for our child selves, adult humans are intuitively programmed to meet. A baby’s facial and bodily proportions are such that we adults find them “cute”, inspiring us to care for these tiny beings. A baby’s cry calls us to act, to meet their need. Our whole brain and body make up allows us to mirror the production of love hormones our babies are also producing such that we wish to be near them, to hold them close, to gaze into their eyes and care for them. We are well designed to meet our children’s needs. So where are things going awry, with so many children’s needs not being adequately met?

Since human beings have such a large capacity for rational thought, we have the ability to ignore our instincts and instead to choose another course of action. Our biology may be calling to us to go to our young when they are crying but our logical brain areas can choose to block these messages and begin to justify why our baby will do well to be left alone. Just like with any brain functions, practice makes perfect, so the more we ignore these intuitions the better we get at ignoring them. After a while it can be difficult to access them at all.

Many of our children (and us also) have even been taught early on to ignore their instinctive understanding about themselves and others: “You’re alright” children are often told when they’re clearly not currently alright (though we adult-rationally know that they will be soon), and “You’re not full yet, eat some more.” I often notice my desire to encourage my children to override their own feelings and understandings and go along with what I believe is the case instead.

The other issue we have is confusion over what is a “need” and what is a “want”. I’m totally clear now that babies, children and adults all “need” to feel safe in order to live a full and happy life. For this to occur they must be kept physically and socially warm and nourished – this in turn supports their emotional and intellectual development. So a child who is calling for help and having no-one come is not being kept socially warm. A baby who is not being interacted with regularly and appropriately to build their pro-social skills is not being socially nourished. These are needs for us because we are an interdependent species, heavily reliant on others in our species to work together with so we can all survive and thrive together. Babies and children need at least one adult who is irrationally committed to their welfare, who is tuned into these physical and social needs and has the ability to meet them, most of the time.

A “want” is something that we can absolutely do without, even though we may not “want” to. Some wants may appear to enhance our experience of life but getting wants met will not make us better people, or reach a greater potential. As long as our needs are met, then our potential is covered. Toys are wants. Sweets are wants. Not having to deal with difficult situations for which we are responsible are wants. Pretty much all of the stuff we have in our houses are wants.

Contrary to popular belief a child doesn’t “want” attention. Being the interdependent species we are, if a child is calling for attention (in whatever way they’re currently trying to do this), their call is, in fact, a need. How we choose to respond to this request makes a huge difference to the child’s development, particularly their appreciation of themselves and understanding of how human beings interact with each other. If the need is met effectively then there will not be any drive to repeat the call. No-one chooses to stay locked in a need for a need. They will move on and call on us for their next need. Getting wants met however does seem to result in the desire for further wants. And underlying all of this desire for more, more, more, are a series of unmet needs. Hidden. Lost amongst the confusion between rational thought and instinctive drive. Underneath any repetitive, exhausting want is an unmet need. That goes for adults as much as it does for children. The key is to uncover that need and effectively resolve it.

Let’s review what children’s basic needs are:

  • Physical warmth – housing, clothing, protection from the elements
  • Nourishing food – real food
  • Social warmth – physical and emotional safety provided by at least one adult the child can rely on to be there and support them
  • Social nourishment – adult/s providing the necessary physical, emotional and intellectual environment such that the child can develop their understanding of themselves, others and the wider world and build on their ability to function effectively in this interdependent world

Once every child has these needs met most of the time – wow – what a world this will be!

 

Changing the World is Child’s Play

26th August 2015

My first book. This was born when I first realised what a privilege it is to be such a major influence in the developing lives of my children, and therefore out in the world. The foundations were being laid down with every interaction, every experience I had with my children and that was going to impact how they would later view themselves, others and the world. This was important stuff!

I then realised that it could also be lots of fun – normal, everyday interactions and experiences could be turned into the greatest, gravest or most fun adventures and opportunities for play. Then the list began!

From an original list of 400 experiences and ways of being around children, I culled and combined until I had 150, then 120, then 60 and then finally the 36 topics that made it into this first book. There are a further 36 awaiting inclusion in a sequel to this one for all those who’ve appreciated the ideas included in Changing the World is Child’s Play book 1.

The Foreword was written by Miriam McCaleb and Nathan Mikaere-Wallis. Two very reputable child advocates and commentators and both stunning human beings. I felt very honoured when they accepted my request to write this acclamation.

Please join me in delighting in the precious time we have with our children and acknowledge the extraordinary opportunities we have of shaping the future through our interactions and other choices. Please let me know all about your experiences of Changing the World through Child’s Play.

Arohanui, S xx

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