PARENTS GUIDE TO
As a parent, it is extremely distressing to see your child struggling. Especially if there is no apparent cause.
We can understand a child developing a fear of dogs after being bitten but we may find it harder to understand why they might start to dread school despite having plenty of friends and wonderful teachers.
The good news is, there are plenty of things you can do to help and things you can do to prevent this from happening.
WHY SILLY LIMBIC?
Before I wrote Silly Limbic I spoke to parents from the UK and some worldwide, one universal theme shone through, that everyone would like better access to information and resources when it comes to positive mental health.
There is no such thing as a perfect parent no matter what their instagram profile looks like- trust me, their life isn’t perfect. Because as you know, no question- being a parent is tough. It’s challenging on a daily basis and some days – we all want to quit! Between paying the bills, putting food on the table, keeping a roof above our heads it is hard to find time for ourselves and have fun. Somedays, when we crash at the end of a day, the idea of being ‘ be positive’ is enough to make us want to drown ourselves in our glass of Merlot/cup of tea.
My hope is that Limbic and his friends will become part of your household and that you will grow to love them as much as I do. They are there not just as lovable characters but to help you as a parent, feel more confident in talking to your child about emotions.
HAVE FUN WITH IT
Let me begin by saying one thing, if you find it hard dealing with your child's moods, you are not alone! I haven’t spoken to a single parent who has not encountered challenges with their kids and emotional responses. I have also not found a single parent who thinks they have it nailed, everyone wanted to learn more and try new things- so believe me when I say, everyone is trying to sail the same ocean- just in slightly different vessels.
The books and the resources for parents are not meant to be an absolute or definitive guide, every child is different and I do not subscribe to one way of parenting or one type of therapy. One size does not fit all. My therapy room is intentionally integrative and I use techniques from across the board- Hypnotherapy, NLP, CBT, CFT and just good old play and chat.
The book and resources are there to be fun and a way to bond with your kids and inspire you with new ways to try and help when they find negative emotions overwhelming. It may just help you understand yourself along the way. It shouldn't feel like a chore.
Of course, sometimes things can get too much and we all need a little help, so there is also a section of other useful resources and links. If you feel there are any missing please send me an email and I will add them.
LEAD BY EXAMPLE
The temptation is to simply offer reassurance, to tell your child “It is fine. There’s nothing to worry about.” It is a little like telling someone not to feel pain after they have hit their thumb with a hammer.
The problem with this is that it can often make your child feel worse or if the worst does happen make them no longer trust you. Instead they need to feel seen, heard and understood. This can be hard when they are having a meltdown in public or when your patience is worn thin. However, this is where building up your own resilience is important- we are told to put on our own oxygen masks first for good reason. When we too are under stress- especially from our loved ones, we go stright into that Limbic system and react by lashing out or breaking down. We must learn to take our own medicine to help our children and it takes practice and knowledge so read on.
THE SCIENCE BIT
So first off- let's get you going on how our brains work – if you take nothing else from this site- this is probably the most valuable. I have written this for you to understand but there is also a kid friendly version in the kids' section.
As a species we have incredible brains, they give us the ability to create, innovate, communicate and experience the world around us deeply and meaningfully. However- they are also a royal pain in the bum.
You see as we have evolved as a species, our brains have evolved with us. As a result, we can divide the brain into two.
The first is the primitive brain (often also called the reptilian brain) this is the original part of the brain that we had when we were still hunting and gathering and living in a simpler but more imminently dangerous time. We had to hunt for our food and we had to build our own shelter, so we had to battle with predators, harsh climates and genuinely life-threatening dangers. Our brains developed into the perfect survival mechanism, able to respond almost instantly and subconsciously to the threat. If we saw a tiger- we would react instantly to either fight it off or run like hell.
These primitive brains were and still are wired to err on the side of caution. Better to avoid the path with the long grass in case a tiger is hiding- then take it and hope for the best- its all about survival.
The part if this brain which is responsible for our survival is called the Limbic system. It consists of three main parts
Amygdala: the alarm system
Hippocampus: the decision maker
Hypothalamus: the activator
These all sound very fancy and complicated but to put it simply. If you were to encounter a tiger, your amygdala would send out an alert to signal danger, the hippocampus would look for previous experiences of tigers and choose the best possible safety measure- fight, flight or freeze- if it chose to run like hell, then the hypothalamus will kick out all the chemicals needed to help your body to be most effective in getting away- it will make your heart race, your breathing increase, and send adrenaline and cortisol surging around your body.
This would be great if we met a Tiger. However, in modern times, people- including our children, can get this life-threatening response to things such as going to school, starting a new job, going on a first date, socialising in groups.
The reason this occurs is due to brain number two.
The intellectual brain is more highly developed in humans than any other species. It is what separates us from other animals.
This part of the brain is where our ability to think abstractly, to imagine the future, to recall the past, to take perspective, to be logical, rational and usually positive.
We live in a complex society where we are being bombarded with information all the time from phones to televisions, magazines to the 40 different types of cereal in the shopping aisle. Our intellectual brains allow us to process this and continue functioning, it will filter what information is important and what is not.
Where the primitive brain reacts instantly based on past behaviours- it learns through trial and error- if one reaction worked once it will try it again next time. The intellectual brain is able to think rationally and logically and consider an appropriate reaction to that situation.
When we evolved this part of the brain, we did not lose the old primitive brain. It’s not like we were able to just upgrade. So we have both parts of the brain and they do not always agree.
We no longer have to fight off tigers, but we do have to deal with redundancy, bullies, divorce, poverty, terrorism..the threats have changed but our basic reactions to them stay the same. Fight, flight or freeze. All these reactions, however, are our brains way of protecting us from harm
Depression is our primitive brain responding by making us freeze- we become lethargic, our systems shut down and we shelter the storm- it's not useful to us today- but in primitive times, waiting out a storm without food or water meant conserving energy. We were functioning on minimal effort and energy to survive.
Anxiety is our flight mode. We have all felt that feeling when our heart starts to pound and we feel shaky and unable to focus, everything makes us jump. This is because cortisol and adrenaline are pumping through us, In primitive terms, this will help us run away very fast and keep us alive and safe. However, when we cannot run- because we have to go into the office today, feeling that way is not a pleasant feeling.
Anger is our fight mode. Some of us are better at controlling anger than others. Children find it particularly difficult not to react very quickly as their brains do not fully develop impulse control until after they are teens. However, it has a purpose, in primitive terms, it is there to help us survive through being bigger, stronger and tougher than our enemy.
So you can see, these seemingly negative reactions, actually serve a purpose- to our primitive brain, when it senses we are in threat- it has these responses and they usually work to keep us alive- they are necessary for the right context. Without them, we would not be able to emergency break, duck a punch, fight off an attacker. However, problems occur when our primitive brain gets confused and overreacts in an unhelpful situation
Because they are always learning. Every time we have an experience, we either create a new neural pathway or reinforce an existing one, making it stronger. Either way, the brain is changing- affecting our behaviour.
This is good news- as it means we always have the capacity to change- however it also means that behaviours can be learnt very quickly.
If we put our hand in a flame, our primitive brain learns fire is hot and hurts and it creates a neural pathway that associates fire with danger and pain- so we avoid putting our hand in it. Simple?
The intellectual brain, however, gives us the capacity to learn avoidant behaviour without directly experiencing it.
So, we do not need to throw ourselves off the top of a building to know it won’t end well…we can rationalise and imagine what would happen and that alone is enough to create avoidant behaviours.
Unfortunately what this also means- is we can learn through imagination alone and so when we over think- we can make connections that are irrational and not always derived from experience.
Think about the primitive brain as a dog- (you can see where I am going here!). Smart but pretty basic. They hear a firework they run, you tell them off they usually slope off and hide, a dog looks at them the wrong way they bark and growl. They will respond with fight, flight or freeze because they only have a Limbic system.
What you won’t see, is a dog pondering on that firework and it’s meaning you’re your dog considering that maybe the other dog is just having a bad day. They cannot take perspective or rationalise. The fact that we can is a blessing and a curse.
When we are happy, healthy individuals our intellectual brain allows us to override the primitive brain and react with empathy, sympathy, compassion etc. However, when we are not in a good place, it also allows us to dwell and imagine the worst even though it hasn’t happened. It gives us the ability to not live in the moment but to re-live past trauma and worry about a future trauma that hasn’t even happened yet.
When we get stuck in this thinking cycle, our brains see threat everywhere and because our brains do not know the difference between imagination and reality- when we ‘think’ about a threat- in the past or future- our primitive brain reacts as if it is happening to us right there, right now. In other words this is how we get angry, sad or stressed even when we are not under threat in that precise moment.
OUR BRAINS ARE TRICKY
OUR EXPERIENCE SHAPES OUR BRAINS
YOU CAN RETRAIN YOUR BRAIN
So as you can see- our brains are complex and can be tricky as adults, however, with children, those intellectual brains are still learning and developing. So the primitive brain is stronger and the potential to overreact is high.
Children today are also not exposed to much more stimuli and information than past generations and also more choice. In principle, this is a positive. However, in my personal experience, more choice means more fear, frustration and sorrow over making the wrong choice. Think about it- if I offer you two chocolate bars- you know which one you want, if I offer you 50, how do you choose? Once you have chosen, how likely is it that you will be satisfied with your choice- knowing there were 49 other options you didn’t take? Who will you blame for making that choice?
So what can we do about this? Well, the good news is, our brains are constantly learning. We have the basics nailed by adulthood but every time we have a new experience our brains create a new neural pathway- the more we repeat that experience, the stronger the pathway- it essentially creates a shortcut to allow us to be more efficient.
A good example f this is learning to drive. At first, we consider every gear change and agonise over which pedal is stop and which is go. However, the more we do it- the easier it becomes until we almost don’t even consciously have to think about it- a cat runs out and our foot will be on that break pedal before our conscious has even processed it.
Also- as I mentioned before – our brain doesn’t know the difference between imagination and reality- so just thinking negatively can cause problems.
Imagine you are dreading seeing your in-laws for a family dinner. They are always critical and you feel you always come away feeling an stressed. Well, you will probably think about that dinner in the weeks, and days leading to it. Probably remembering how awful it was last time while you are driving the car, then in the shower imagining how awful it is going to be. By the time you come to the Dinner, maybe it doesn’t go as badly as you imagined, but your brain has registered that you have attended that dinner 50 times in your head and every time has been a disaster- so next time- it won’t recall the one time it was ok, it will register the stress you felt imagining the other times and associate those dinners as a threat and then you are back in that primitive brain.
It's not all doom and gloom though. We can tick our tricky brains! Thinking positively can provide a solution.
This is why sports stars like Wayne Rooney, Jonny Wilkinson and Andy Murray use visualisation before the competition. Sports psychologist Dr Richard Suinn found that skiers who simply visualised skiing downhill fired electrical impulses and produced muscle patterns almost identical to those found when the skiers actually hit the slopes. Now, of course, I am not saying you can learn a sport by just thinking about it. However, what it does mean, is rehearsing doing it well, creates those neural pathways that tell your brain- you can do this. SO when you come to do it, there is already a positive blueprint.
In Solution Focused Hypnotherapy we use this to our advantage. Whilst lying on a couch imagining wonderful things may sound silly- consider the impact lying in bed at night remembering everything you did wrong this week in work and imagining the consequences next week- you get stressed..we can utilize that powerful impact in a positive way- now consider how you feel when you think about that holiday coming up- you imagine what you will pack, what the beach will be like, how many cocktails you are going to have,..the more vivid the imagination- the stronger that feeling of excitement and the stronger that new positive neural pathway becomes.
So I use lots of imagination when I work with kids, things such as mindfulness, positive visualisation, arts, crafts- anything which gets those little brains imagining positive imagery and that is what I have based the activities for parents around.
BEING A RESILIENT PARENT
I wholeheartedly encourage you to learn alongside your kids with these books and these tasks. The ‘put your own oxygen mask on first’ applied beyond an aeroplane.
We cannot be there for our children if we do not look after our own mental health and ensure our needs are also being met. This doesn’t make us selfish, it makes us sensible. Nobody wants a surgeon who has been working a 24 hour shift, has just lost a patient and is running on caffine to come at them with a knife. No-one wants a parent who is exhausted, unhappy and unstable either. Your family is a team, so don’t forget to check your own mental health too! ( there are lots of options to get help with this in the links section)
We know that 1 in 3 of us will experience some form of common mental health problem at some point in our lives. Notice that word- common, it is not abnormal to struggle with your mental health at some point and we know 75% of more serious issues develop before we are 18.
After reading about our tricky brains , you can see why.
A RESILIANT CHILD
Of course we all want our children to be the 2 in 3 who grow up without having to deal with any mental health challenges. However, no matter how much we want to- we cannot be have total control over how our children grow and develop. Life happens, pre-dispositions happen, peers happen, being a teenager happens!
What we can do- is ensure our children are equipt with the right tools to deal with challenges in life in a safe, positive and resilient way right from the outset.
When life is tough, it is easy to forget that for kids- growing up is also a journey filled with bumps in the road. They do not have the same level of responsibility as us, however as they are developing and learning, the world can seem a very unfair and inconsistent place. Falling out with friends, parents breaking up, moving schools, new siblings, homework getting harder, peer pressure, scary news reports- daily life can quickly become an emotional minefield.
A resilient child has the ability to adapt, in order to withstand and spring back from, stress and adversity.
If you want to get official, Bonnie Bernard (1991) defined resilient children as showing:
Social competence- socially active, sense of humour, comfortable with change.
Problem solving skills- able to think through a problem toward a solution.
Independence- sense of identity and confidence to be in control of their situation.
Sense of purpose- Optimistic about the future- able to plan and set goals
A RESILIANT HOME
Create a home environment where change is seen as a challenge not a problem
Discuss problems as temporary and work towards solution finding not barrier building
Set achievable goals
Promote positive relationships with friends, family and the community
Follow through with commitments
Always be open to new ways to have fun and relax as a family.