“It’s impossible to do it all. And doesn’t matter how ‘good’ of a parent you are, your kids are going to struggle. That’s the bottom line. Because they have to live life in their own experience. And they need struggle, to be able to grow and change. Because change is a catalyst for growth. Nobody wants that for their kids but it’s going to happen. And it’s not because of you,” said Dr. Caroline Danda, Clinical Psychologist, Author and Entrepreneur.
After nearly 3 years of pandemic living, working and caring, conditions have changed. Yet many of the expectations we hold, for ourselves, haven’t. There are a lot of good reasons to be stressed or sad right now. But when our kids struggle, it’s a unique kind of torment that’s hard to emerge from.
Caroline’s clinical specialty is treating children and adolescents. Often, for conditions like ADHD, anxiety, and depression. But she wisely explained that working with kids, always means working with adults. And there’s a lot we can do to dial down our own reactivity in ways that positively affects the mental health of everyone involved.
Life Will Remain Unpredictable
Did your carefully structured life plan ever implode pre-pandemic? Right. Plot twists are common. And Caroline reminds us that it’s part of the human condition we can’t shield our children from. “We can’t know when our kids will end up struggling, because they don’t know that they’re going to struggle, until they’re in the situation. So, as parents, a lot of the work is having a bit of compassion about how much cognitive and emotional processing it takes to continue to adapt and pivot.” How can we support it for them and ourselves?
You Can Add Fuel or Co-Regulate
“Co-regulation is our buzzword about how we help our kids. You either catch the calm or the distress of the other person. So, we want to support them by being co-regulators and act as the anchor for them.” Caroline said.“Justtoday, a Mom told me, ‘it was great to hear you talk about the co-regulation piece. Because I kind of forget that my presence and my tone matters and honestly, it’s really hard to be calm as a Mom.”
Most are dealing with more of everything post-pandemic. Whether it’s navigating childcare, appointments or school emails, it takes longer. And the increased complexity has reshaped our availability.
And it Will Not Always Be on Their Timeline
Caroline said, “Your goal, as a parent, is to let them know that you’re there for them. And no matter what they bring to you, that you can handle it. A lot of times kids don’t want to bring things to their parents because they’re afraid of what their reactions are. So, that’s where we have to become regulators ourselves.”
Our kids are often operating from a sense of urgency when they need us. But unless it’s an actual emergency, we may not be able to give them the support they deserve, in the moment. So, how can we convey this in age-appropriate ways?
So, Learn to Grow Your Own Calm
Caroline explained, “I kind of its kind of a two-part answer. And the first thing is working on ourselves, to figure out how we can remain calm so, that we can respond. Which means we think through what we’re going to do, and try to make it appropriate, for the situation, versus react. Which is a back brain reaction, also fueled by emotion, and it’s often fight, flight, or freeze.”
You may be wondering if this can all be avoided. Well, not exactly. The stress response is hard wired. So, learning to manage our triggers, feelings and mindsets, is the more realistic path to resilience. Caroline said, “We’re going to get triggered again. That’s just where we go if our kids are in distress, because, that is literally distressing as a parent! So, we have to work on growing our own calm which is also great modeling for kids.” How can we start, especially during this intense season?
Create a Signal for Your Body to Pause
Caroline said, “One of my favorite ways to do that is to simply take a breath in and then feel your shoulders drop as you let it go. And as you take that breath in again, you kind of clear your mind. And so, it’s a real intentional breath for every time you switch an activity. That gives you a little bit of a stress relief all throughout the day. It also helps your body to recognize that as a signal to pause.” Beautiful. We’re often asked to breathe to reduce stress. But until you’re in that habit, it may not work for you in real time.
Recognize When a Situation is Done
Caroline said, “The other part I like, is that after I’ve taken that breath between the activity, I kind of reflect on what just happened. I might make a statement like, oh my gosh that was really hard. Or this was fantastic! It’s kind of like Marie Kondo, when she organizes things and says, ‘You served me well and I want to say thank you’ so, I want to recognize what just happened. And to recognize that I actually got something done.”
And What You’ve Done
And drowning in the invisible work, that tends to fall to Moms, can feel pretty demotivating. Caroline said, “That’s an important piece for parents. Because when you live such a ‘what’s next, what’s next’ life, you have to pause to say okay, that’s done for me now. And I’m ready for what’s next. That can be a super valuable tool that doesn’t take a long time.”
And Self-Regulation Is a Bit Different from Self-Care
Self-care is grounded in action. Whether that’s a setting a boundary, choosing to do less, taking a nap or time alone each day. But self-regulation refers to, among other things our ability to manage emotions, especially under stress. And the set of tools we can use over time, to reduce our reactivity to difficult situations, events or people.
Caroline explains, “We’re always like, ‘let’s do all the self-care’ and yes to that. But finding these little moments throughout your day, where you can create that pause time, is the first part.” And these techniques, like exercise or mindfulness, take time to practice and incorporate.
But You Can Take Proactive Steps:
How do we help our kids, grasp this fairly complex concept, in an age-appropriate way? Caroline said, “I’m going to go back to observe but not absorb. For example, when the kids get in the car after school, if they’re all negative, what happens to your mood? You become super negative all of a sudden and you feel it. That’s part of observing, like ‘okay, my kid’s had a hard day.’ And when they’re struggling, they want to be seen and heard.”
Choose When to Resolve it
Caroline said, “So, your first step is decide whether you’re going to fully address it at that time or at a later time.” Because action in the moment may not be possible. She added, “You want to make them feel seen and heard and the best way to do that, is really to validate, and reflect.” How can we do this?
Help Them Feel Seen
And that means paraphrasing what they’re saying. Or say, ‘wow that sounds really hard’ or ‘that sounds really heavy, I’m glad you told me that. It sounds like this would be good for us to talk about, when we have some time alone and it’s quiet.’ Tell them, you want to hear more.” Of course, for those of us with school aged kids, it’s often easier to use language. But Caroline explains how to adapt when an infant, toddler or non-verbal child’s agitated.
Yes, You Can Adapt for Babies or Toddlers
She said, “It’s actually fairly similar. Sometimes, I might use their name and a calming touch, by taking their hand or rubbing their shoulder because that rhythmic touch is calming. That’s kind of what we need and connects to the animal back part of our brain too. So, that can be something that lets them have the attention. And then, you can still state the situation and what they’re feeling.”
Paraphrase Their Feelings
“For example, ‘You’re so frustrated your sister took your toy.’ See it from their perspective first. Get curious so you have enough information to respond. Versus saying, ‘you know better than to hit your sister’ because they can’t hear that. It doesn’t mean it’s okay but if you start with that, it’s probably going to escalate.”
Get Curious About the Why
She said, “sometimes our job is to get curious. Because behavior is communication. If we address and figure out what’s underneath the behavior, then we can help change that behavior in the future.”
Assure Them it’s Solvable
Caroline said, “So, you validate the situation and the emotional piece with it. That automatically starts to pull it from the emotional space, in the back of the brain, forward.” Into what she describes at the more thoughtful part.
She added, “and then they feel like you care. Versus if you say, ‘hold on a minute’ or ‘oh my gosh what’s going on’ because all of a sudden you feel my stress. Sometimes you can take it on yourself by saying, ‘you are so upset right now, you know what. I’m going to take a minute because I want to think it through, and I really want to be there for you.’”
And Dial the Intensity Down
Of course, it’s probably not a surprise that when we spin into full stress mode, it exacerbates things. Whatever heated moment you’re in the middle of, with a child, partner or colleague, it gets worse. Fast. But there’s another way. Caroline said, “I love to say this at the end of a conversation. Let’s take a minute so we can sort through it, and then we can figure it out. Because that’s the message they need to hear.”
Many thanks to the talented Dr. Caroline Danda!
Follow her great adventure on her practice website, LinkedIn and Facebook. And learn more about resources from her business The Invisible Riptide. You can also check them out on Facebook and Instagram.
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Dr. Caroline Danda is a private practice clinical psychologist who works with children and adolescents with anxiety, depression, and other emotional or behavioral regulation problems. She loves working with children and teens who have “big emotions.” And has a passion for normalizing mental and emotional well-being and helping youth and their families resolve current challenges and develop foundational skills for thriving.
She has been active in various community organizations and schools. With the onset of the pandemic, her passion for sharing information and making mental health resources accessible led to her partnering with Carron Montgomery to develop and create The Invisible Riptide book series and website. Partnering with Carron Montgomery was a natural extension of her passion, allowing her to bring her wisdom and experience outside her office to fill the gaps.
She is also a wife and a mother of three boys. Based on her experience in clinical practice, in the community, and within her own family, she has a talent for tailoring information and skills to meet the needs of individuals and their families. Her goals are to provide accessible, practical information to empower individuals and families to find out what works for them.