It starts with you. We know, it feels counterintuitive because we pour so much into our families, but gentle and respectful parenting starts with you. When we choose not to manage behaviours through punishments and rewards and instead choose connection and relationship with our children, it absolutely, without a doubt starts with you.
When we parent through connection and relationship, we are sharing our calm with our children. We are modeling the types of responses we hope they eventually will adopt in their lives. We are taking a moment to respond, instead of react. We’re choosing the harder route instead of the quick fix, and it’s so worth it. Today we want to highlight that this form of parenting, this ability to show up for our children in the hardest moments with grace, patience, and love, this ability to choose connection over punishment, is a lot of hard work.
If you’re relatively new to this idea of parenting, the basis is simple. We want to share our calm with our children, provide a safe space for them to express any and all emotions, and provide loving limits for them, until they are able to do so for themselves. Emotional regulation is not something that can be taught, but is rather something that grows out of multiple instances of being regulated and soothed by someone else. Babies and toddlers’ brains are very immature, that they’re meant to be that way so they can respond and shape to the environment they live in. This means they’re still “wiring” in those early years and we can help make those neural connections by providing the example for them to follow in the future. When we repeatedly soothe our children when they are in a heightened state of stress, we’re building those neural pathways that will eventually allow them to soothe themselves out of a heightened state of stress, but this cannot be forced or taught by removing parental support.
So what can we do as parents to support the development of emotional regulation? We can hold space for any and all feelings that our children need to feel, empathize with them and help them to acknowledge and label them until they can do so themselves, and repeatedly provide comfort and soothing to help them return to calm.
Our children co-regulate with us. Babies and toddlers are born with primitive brains that have so much development that has yet to unfold. This means that they are not able to regulate their own emotions, they are not able to down-regulate when they are upset. As a result, nature created the interbrain to connect their primitive brains to our mature brains. This is why parental presence is so important. This is what allows us to guide our children back to a state of calm.You’re the foundation. You’re what centres them. If you’re not regulated they can’t be.
This is such a powerful idea and on the surface seems relatively easy to implement, but what about those days where it feels like there isn’t a moment without someone crying? What about those days where you feel like your own basic needs are barely being met that you can’t possibly share some non-existent calm with your children? What about those days where you feel so dysregulated that it makes so much sense that your little ones are also dysregulated? How do we get you regulated? How can you get to a place where you can acknowledge the feelings being stirred up inside of you, feel them and then return to calm?
First, before anything else, we want to be aware of how we’re feeling in those moments. Are we feeling overwhelmed, tired, grumpy, overstimulated, frustrated, resentful? And allow yourself to really feel those feelings.
Then, we want to shift to regulation. How can we self-regulate in that moment, which again is a tricky thing to do. Can you take 5 deep breaths? Is there a mantra you can recite that will help you (we’ll share some of our favourites at the end). Can your babies join you in a form of play that will help you to not only get recentered and regulated but allow you all to feel connected after doing so as well (think yoga, a dance party, or a game of hide and seek, depending on the age of your little ones).
Finally, if we feel like these moments are happening more often than not, we want to take a step back and check in with ourselves on how we’re meeting our basic needs, and by basics we really mean basics. Are you eating 3 meals a day? Are you getting a chance to shower? Are you drinking water? If the answer to any of these questions is no, we really need to start here.
Can you prep some meals on the weekend so you are able to quickly heat and eat them during the week if you’re home with your baby or toddler? Can you stock your fridge with healthy snacks so you are eating well throughout the day and nourishing your body? Are you able to shower before your partner leaves for work in the morning or during your baby’s nap time? How about in the evening after dinner or even after bedtime? Do you have a water bottle close by - which is especially important if you’re breastfeeding?
If your basic needs are being met, we like to push families to allot 30 minutes a day to each parent, wherever possible. Now we know that families are all different and that this is not feasible in all circumstances, but wherever possible we really love to see parents getting this time in the day. Feel free to make adjustments for this to work for your family. If it’s not possible to do this during the week, can you each get a few hours on the weekend? Maybe one parent gets the downtime during the week, but the other gets it on the weekend. Maybe the time comes from alternating who is doing bedtime each night so the other parent gets the down time on the nights they’re not doing bedtime.
Now the important thing with this 30 minutes is we really want you to use the time to do something that you LOVE. This is not the time to do the groceries or clean your bathrooms (although solo trips to the grocery store can be amazing). This is time we really want you to focus on doing something just for you. You can read, write, paint, dance, watch netflix, listen to a podcast, do yoga, go for a run, bike, literally anything you enjoy doing. If you’re strapped on ideas, think of the things you used to love doing before you became a parent.
Simply spending time outside is one of the best things you can do for your mental health. The outdoors ground our bodies and lift our moods almost instantly after we immerse ourselves in them. What’s more, it also does wonders for our children too. We recommend that all families spend at least 20 minutes outside a day, but more is really better. We know that climates are different depending on when you are reading this so we will just leave you with this quote by Ranulph Fiennes, “there is no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing”.
When we fall into patterns of self-sacrificing it isn’t just us as parents that suffer. When we self-sacrifice we feel the exhaustion, burn out, maybe even resentment or defeat. Beyond that though, our children feel the effects of us not taking care of ourselves. When we don’t show up for ourselves it makes it very difficult to show up for our children in the way we want or intend to. We need to be able to make the time to do things that make us feel grounded.
While we encourage you to do things for yourself in the midst of parenting, we also want to remind you that there is no shame in asking for help. We have found that there tends to be a narrative in today’s society that moms should be able to do it all on their own without any struggle. Mom’s have never been more on their own. There is no trophy for the mom who manages to take care of every single aspect of their life flawlessly without any support. This really is just not sustainable.
To wrap up today, we want to leave you with one of our favourite Rachel Hollis quotes:
“Think about it this way. You’re like a vase. I heard this one time, and I thought this was the greatest analogy ever. Imagine that you are a glass vase and you’re standing up tall, and someone is pouring water into you. That water is everything you could possibly need to survive. So you, as the glass vase, are filled with life and energy and nutrients and love and joy—all the good things. But we women often don’t think about ourselves as much as we worry about everyone else, so we try and lean over. We tip our vases forward and backward and side to side so that the good things we’re receiving will spill out to those around us. We give some to our children, or our coworkers, or our parents, or our friends. We keep tipping ourselves over. We tip it a little bit here, we spill a little bit there, and eventually . . . the vase falls over and breaks into a thousand pieces. We spend so much effort trying to take care of others that we destroy ourselves in the process. But here’s the incredible thing. If you’re a vase and you just stand up tall and proud on a firm foundation, if you just take in all the things that are being poured into you, what will eventually happen to the water in the vase? It will overflow and spill out to everyone around you.” - Girl, Stop Apologizing.