Who has a child that sometimes just seems to wake up angry and frustrated? Or maybe you work with children who are pent-up, on the verge of erupting, constantly.
Like a lot of grown-ups, it may just be that they’re not a morning person… Or they may have a highly-strung personality.
But it’s also possible that the adrenaline in their brain is too high.
Whether we’re a child or a grown-up, if there’s been a spike in adrenaline, it can take 24 hours – or more – to come back to ‘baseline’ levels.
The bad news is that adrenaline levels can rise significantly without us having an awareness of it.
Our deep, primitive survival brain has no conscious thinking capacity, but as soon as it senses a threat, it starts to ramp up ready for action.
Having too much on our plate or all the traffic lights turning against us or realising our MOT is overdue may not, in truth, be a matter of life and death.
However, because your ‘amygdala’; the little organelle that activates your ‘fight or flight’; is reactive and non-thinking, common logic and rational thinking go out of the window.
This is why we may completely lose our s*** over something which, in reality, is trivial, and often before we even realise we were feeling stressed.
And this explains why a child might be close to ‘fight or flight’ from the moment when they wake up.
There might be an obvious stressor; an argument or melt-down from the previous day for example, or an enduring worry.
But it may be trickier to work out (for them, and you…)
One thing that got a lot of kids over the Covid-era was the loss of control they suddenly found themselves with.
Deconstructing that at a cognitive level is more than most young brains can manage, but the truth is that powerlessness is scary.
The evolutionary process of childhood is that they’re designed to become more independent, not less.
For most of the parents and professionals alike that I worked with over that time – presenting the typical concerns over anxiety, or problems with behaviour or communication etc. – when we dug a bit deeper, there was usually just a child in the middle, struggling with a world that was going completely against the grain of what Mother Nature intended for them.
But even without that, not enough sleep, losing a game on the iPad, an unresolved peer dispute are all enough to unsettle your child’s nervous system.
Football card trading is rampant at my son’s school ATM, and I see in him; who has caught the bug, despite NEVER being into football; the constant whirring of a brain thinking about how he can acquire the most sought after player.
And this is the kind of thought-process that keeps sending a ‘worry, worry, worry’ message to the subconscious brain, which responds by keeping on high-alert.
The good news is that it’s fairly easy to re-balance our children’s brain chemistry.
If they’re in the ‘wake up angry’ camp, this would ideally happen, of course, before they even go to bed but, as a practitioner, that’s not something you have control over.
And even as a parent, you may be clueless that adrenaline is rising anyway.
What really matters is that, if you sense a child getting irritated or frustrated, you try not to match their emotional state, or dismiss their reactions as unnecessary.
You may be right, of course, but their amygdala’s just doing what it’s designed to, and your response is the difference between bursting the balloon and just letting it go.
And that’s to be avoided if necessary if possible because, while it’s not impossible to re-adjust brain chemistry, an emotional hijack can take a day or two to recover from.
Either way; whether you’re dealing with the highly-strung child or a full on melt-down; here are 5 quick ways to help flush out stressor hormones, and replace them with healthier brain-balancing hormones
1) Co-regulate; Talk back to the child as though they are calm and regulated, instead of mirroring their intense emotion state. Difficult, yes. Impossible, no.
2) Get Them Moving; Movement gives us an instant dose of dopamine which helps wave goodbye to stress! Even better if you can get them to step outside and breathe deeply. Then you add serotonin to the mix.
3) ‘A & E’ (Accept and Empathise’); Don’t focus on problem-solving straight away, unless that’s what your child expects, and can manage, in the moment.
Validate their feelings, whatever they are. We all want to feel heard.
4) Avoid Intense Eye-Contact; When faced with anger or defensiveness, communicate without direct eye-contact, or keep it fleeting. Hyper-vigilant brains misread facial expressions far too easily
5) Use Eye-Contact; When faced with stressors like anxiety, fear or sadness etc., the mutual gaze can be incredibly soothing. Take your cues from the child in terms of the kind of eye-contact they need (or don’t!)
Whatever you do, it’s important not to rush them out of their stress, as that can just add more pressure which thus fuels the fire.
Focus on non-verbal communication first, moving onto words once you sense your child is better connected with you and able to process what you’re saying.
And lastly, be realistic with, and kind to, yourself.
Our own stressors can make all of this much harder work, so, wherever you can, focus on giving yourself the breathing space to be the well-regulated grown-up your child needs to become well-regulated, with you.
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