In the Face of Stress

I was looking back over my journals and ran across the first article that I wrote regarding parenting. I remember at the time it took a lot of courage because I had what I called “writers block” and was petrified at putting my own self out there in the world. I was afraid of what others might think, say, or do, in response to me. It’s taken a lot of empathy sessions to lay down new pathways within myself to get to the point where I was willing to do that back in 2010. So, a few years have gone by and lots and lots of empathy sessions for Gloria, for which I am eternally grateful.

I want to come back around though, I have six beautiful grandchildren that I just love so much, and they always have me coming back around to what it’s like to be in relationships of trust. How to grow relationships of trust, and how important it is to be as present as possible with our children, with any children, or with one another. 

So, let me share with you some of the musings from this first article that I wrote.

It was dedicated to all those people in the world that care for children and others that show up differently. That they have "special needs." I like to acknowledge that we are all on the same spectrum of human life, and it’s a very wide spectrum.

I wanted to create a space that invited you into community where you would be welcomed just as you are. There would be resonant support and lots of mutuality and reciprocal exchanges of heart-connection that allows you to relax into who you came here to be. As I stepped into this type of community, it was through being with my youngest son who had high sensory processing difficulties, that I found the book on Nonviolent Communication (NVC) and the path that introduced me to some of the closest friends that I have. They became life-long empathy buddies. 

Also, I explored Interpersonal Neurobiology, relational neuroscience, to understand what happens inside of our brains and our bodies in order to develop the capacity to promote resiliency. This way of being both inform and transform my parenting and all of my relationships, especially my relationship with myself. 

Let me share a little story. My little guy was given a math disability in the first grade. I didn't even know such a diagnosis existed until then. Part of the testing he underwent revealed a lack of working memory, which is critical to compute math problems. I didn't find out until the end of that school year that his ongoing experience learning math was of being put in isolation at a desk with a timer. The thinking behind this was it would help him focus on his math work because he was slower than the other students. Yet, no one was allowed to talk with him until he was done. 

Rylan’s nervous system was anxious to begin with, but became especially anxious when separated from warm, caring relationships. Even four years later, just hearing the word subtraction, he panicked, from a deeply engrained pattern being triggered of overwhelming helplessness. 

When we slow down, we can look at how his experience of stress affected him through the lens of relational neuroscience, and we can begin to see what happens in the brain and in the nervous system. 

The repeated experience of panic sent a flood of hormones, that shifts anyone instantaneously into survival mode. One of the hormones released, cortisol, inhibits the hippocampus located in the limbic system. This part of the brain stores and organizes learned material and connects it with what we already know. Also inhibited, and losing its power supply, is the logical and reasonable part of the brain, where calm and resiliency prevail, the prefrontal cortex.

Children need accompaniment, all humans need accompaniment. Yet children especially need accompaniment when they flip into survival mode, to help them come back to calm. By having a warm, caring, resonant other that stays interested in their experience, children can make meaning and sense out of their life.  

Rylan's whole nervous system had prepared him for danger by turning on his emotional alarm system, the amygdala in the limbic system, and it had become increasingly hard for him to stay calm or to solve problems. His primitive impulse for fight/flight/freeze had activated, and his objective was to fight and physically survive. 

Rylan and I practiced interrupting the pattern when his brain perceived he was in danger. We wanted to create new neural patterns using fresh experiences so the old patterns would fall away in time. The way this practice of "interruptions" looked was for me to respond with spontaneity and creativity in the face of his triggered reactions. I did my best to track what his needs might be in the moment, and simultaneously held an intention for connection and presence. 

This was something I gradually was able to begin doing after receiving lots of resonant empathy support and practicing self-empathy processes in order to not only widen my window of tolerance, but to be able to welcome whatever emotion would come up in relationship with my son. 

Once the pattern of panic was gently interrupted, Rylan's prefrontal cortex would restart and another hormone, GABA, dripped down onto the amygdala which calmed his emotional alarm system. This brought his hippocampus back online, which is also known as our cognitive mapper because it assembles bits of information into memories. With these pieces in place, he was able to take in new information and learn.  

So, that day, back in 2010, we were sitting across from one another at the kitchen table and had just completed a section working with number families, adding to find the big number. I turned the page and read to Rylan, "Number families also show you how to write subtraction problems." 

I heard a loud gasp, I stopped reading and looked up to see Rylan's eyes and mouth opened wide. His eyebrows had shot up and he had lifted his arm to throw his pencil. Suddenly he paused. His eyes shifted momentarily to catch mine, and then with a mighty yell he hurled the pencil across the room. 

I jumped off my chair and I clapped, because I was so happy and joyful, and I said, "Rylan! Rylan! Do you know what I just observed?" (This was the strategy I had to derail the perceived danger by staying relational.)

He said, "No," with a surprised and rather confused expression. I saw his body shifted and relaxed a little, which was an indication his nervous system had started to come back to calm alert. 

I said, "I saw you pause, for just a moment before you threw the pencil, and I find that so fascinating. I wonder, what was happening for you then? Did you notice that moment when you paused, too?" I asked. 

He reflected for a moment, and he answered with a frown. "Yeah, I paused, and then I threw the pencil anyway." 

I said, "Wow! You noticed that you paused too? That is so exciting! You've developed your own pause button! High-five, dude!" 

We high-fived, and I sang out a song we had learned when we went to family camp, "Yay Rylan, celebrate Rylan, sing it with an open grateful heart! Yay Rylan, celebrate Rylan, sing it with an open heart!" 

As I sang, I danced around the table to take his hands in mine and invited him to join me in the celebration. Then together we sang the celebration song again, but this time he spontaneously changed the lyrics to "Yay Gloria, celebrate Gloria…” and we ended our dance with a warm hug. 

Then I asked him, "Hey, how do you imagine that moment might look different now?" This is what I call a redo, a rewind, or a post-hersal. 

Rylan walked over, picked up his pencil, and sat back down at the table. He lifted up his arm with the pencil, used the same facial expressions and noise, and then he paused. His face broke into a great big old grin and he calmly lowered his arm and said, "Now, where were we again, Mom? Subtraction number families?" 

In the midst of difficult moments, at that time, we were just starting to experience that the repetition of this practice of interrupting made more space for both of us to find connection and presence.  It creates more compassion and self-awareness for the child as they are developing through a relationship that is grounded in trust.

Our long-term goal was to provide an on-going neuroception of safety so that Rylan would develop the internal resources he needed to slow things down and see options even when he was stressed or triggered. 

Remember the brain in the palm of the hand, when the child “flips their lid” they need a surrogate prefrontal cortex that stays calm, present, curious and warm in relationship to support them to find their way back to regulation. Because internalized regulation is always co-regulation first. Children need to have an internalized mom, or dad, or caregiver that takes the time to stay in relationship rather than jumping into strategy.  

Once we have connection and presence that links us together, then you can rewind time. You can brainstorm a "rewind" of how your child now imagines the experience might have been different, with all the parts of their brain working together, and you can experientially play that out. Be creative and spontaneous and follow the lead of your child.

I've loved how choosing to stay heart connected and present in relationship with my son has provided him with a radically different model for learning, especially when many people consider him as having "special needs." Learning can only take place when there is both physical and emotional safety to take in new information and you have the freedom to learn at your own rhythm. At your own pace. We each develop our own rhythm of attachment. 

Have you ever noticed what your rhythm of attachment is? 

Creating the neuroception of safety is the first step, yet, it is only possible when you have consistent support - in order to provide the support your child needs to find their way back to regulation in the face of stress.


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