Category Archives: brain

How To Stop Yelling

angry-argue-argument-343.jpgVisualizing Behavior

Do you want to keep your cool when life isn’t going your way? Do you wish you didn’t bark at the kids when they’ve done something you dislike?

Visualization can help.

Visualization helps us improve our performance. Long-touted as an essential tool by athletes and professional musicians, we now know that positive thinking is not the reason that people feel they perform better with these techniques. Visualization is effective because thinking about practicing a skill changes the brain as if you had actually practiced the skill.

This is fantastic news if you struggle with any skill in your life–not just physical ones. Using visualizations can help you overcome social anxiety, make healthy choices, and best of all, keep calm during stressful times.

Instead of picturing yourself kicking the perfect touchdown into the goal (sports isn’t my thing), you can picture yourself responding with composure to life’s hiccups.

“Negative” Visualization

I tend on the negative side of things. I tend to worry more about very bad things happening than hoping very good things will. I tend to want to diminish my worst behavior and ignore whether my best behavior gets better. This is a default, not a recommendation–but there is something to be said for paying close attention to your liabilities.

While I visualize smiling each day while I do my exercise, I spend more time visualizing reacting better in my worst situations. Better still, I try to focus on being the kind of person who responds rather than reacts.

Try to think of a single, concrete situation that you respond poorly to. Do you yell whenever a glass of milk is spilled? Do you shut down whenever your child says unkind words to you? Do you hide if the house gets too loud? Just start with one thing.

And then picture yourself responding to that situation in the ideal way.

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Imagining Imagining

For some of us, that is impossible. Calmly reacting in a threatening situation isn’t “who we are”. We can’t even come up with a fantasy world where that would happen.

So–and I know this sounds silly, but trust me–imagine that you can imagine yourself responding perfectly. This worked for me.

I could not imagine being the kind of person who could give an uninflected “Yes” or “No” to questions that start with, “Did you remember to…?”

But I could imagine a theoretical world where I could imagine that possibility.

And now, at least some of the time, I am that kind of person. I’ve spent a minute or two for months picturing Amelia effortlessly saying, “No, I didn’t remember. I’ll do that tomorrow,” or “Yes, I did!” without any resentment in her voice.

Try to use visualization to improve your behavioral floor–the worst of your reactions. Practicing in the moment is often too hard because the reason you react so poorly is that you are hurt, scared, angry, or sad. Being removed from the situation allows us a safe place to exercise our self-control.

 

How to HEAL (With a Challenge)

Hardwiring Happiness


Hardwiring Happiness is a book about taking your everyday experiences and using them to build inner strengths. When you have certain characteristics like self-compassion and curiosity, you can call upon them during times of frustration and difficulty–but more importantly, they serve you well in everyday moments. Learning to appreciate the small things your partner does, pulling back on an argument with your child, and taking courageous steps towards accomplishing your goals all become easier when you have a wealth of inner resources.

How it Works

If you have a passing familiarity with pop neuroscience, you know the phrase “neurons that fire together wire together.” Your brain is an association machine and when we make associations, we learn. In his book, Dr. Rick Hanson calls upon you to use the brain’s knack for association to resource yourself–to H.E.A.L. the parts of yourself that are wounded and thrive in your daily life.

Metta meditation asks you to cultivate compassion. You do this by focusing on your heart, repeating the same phrase, and being aware of what compassion feels like in the body. The sustained attention to the emotion helps it grow and fill you up.

Hardwiring Happiness is asking you to apply the same general practice to your other inner strengths.

(In the Alert Authentic Mindful Group on Facebook, we are doing a 21-day challenge inspired by Dr. Rick Hanson’s book. Hardwiring Happiness. Please join us!)

Why You Should Do It

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Dr. Hanson spends the first part of the book going over some of the science and answering the question Why we want to learn the skills he is going to teach us in the second half of the book.

Our brains have a negativity bias. This is in our evolutionary past *not* noticing a pretty flower is okay; *not* noticing a tiger means death. Hardwiring Happiness is not about ignoring tigers. There are and always will be negative things in our lives that we need to pay attention to–and actually, some experiences that feel bad are good for us in the long run.

That does not mean that we should ignore the positive or leave it to our brains to notice it. We want to help our minds pay attention to the lightness and the dark–to quit giving undue attention and power to the negative.

The Human Default

Our world is vastly different today than in our evolutionary past. For our ancestors, serious stress was related to serious stress. Tigers, fear of banishment, and snakes. Sadly, our brains cannot tell the difference between these very real threats to our lives and too much traffic on the highway. We have so many stressors today, including but not limited to the intense and frequent technology stress that we get from renewing our Facebook page. Stress reactions used to be occasional but they are now frequent. Our bodies are now in a constant state of reactivity which is not good for our health, mental or physical.

Responsiveness, as opposed to reactivity, used to be our norm. There weren’t lions around every corner. In social situations, we were less knee-jerk and more of the present and open.

This book will help give you the tools to return to that state or responsiveness by paying attention to the positive around us and turning mental states into neural traits by helping strengthen the bonds between neurons that focus on the beneficial in your daily life.

The Method

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Follow this simple acronym: HEAL

H: Have an experience

E: Enrich

A: Absorb

L: Link

Have an experience: This is the easy part. This month, some experiences will just crop up during the course of your day; some you might have to create for yourself.

Enrich: Think of moments when you naturally feel complete. People often have them on vacation or during the holidays–they look around at their family members and their surroundings and are overwhelmed with gratitude.

You can create this kind of feeling by taking time out of your day to enrich positive experiences. While it may not envelop you in the way it does when it comes naturally, you can make it a much bigger part of your life.

Absorb: This step will often happen at the same time as enrich. As you are making the experience bigger and more embodied, visualize it sinking into you. Maybe you like the idea of gold dust sinking into your center; or maybe you want to picture electricity pulsing in your brain and creating your experience. Whatever it is, try to make the beneficial feeling more apart of you.

Link: One of the reasons that our memories of the past are so bad is because each time we recall them, we can modify them. We can use this little quirk of our brain to heal parts of us that are hard to handle.

When you “link,” you hold the positive experience in the forefront of your mind and call up a negative experience–holding it on the sidelines. Over time, this will gradually make those parts sting less.

HEALing is not about denying the negative in our lives, just paying the beneficial its due. 

(Please join us! We are already on day 4 of our challenge!)

If you have the time, listen to Dr. Rick Hanson go over some of the concepts on his podcast.

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How Busy Moms Can Make Time

Self-care sounds great to everyone. Of course you want to meditate. Of course you want to exercise. Of course you want to feel better.

Of course you can’t find the time.

More often than not, people don’t make changes until they really need to. I am lucky because I need to do these things. I have watched my depression and anxiety take away my ability to leave the house. I have watched them destroy the love someone had for me. I have watched them fault-find me to the point where the only thing I could see in myself was brokenness.

My biggest fear is that I will pass those tendencies onto my children, have my family suffer through my struggle with them, and slowly poison my relationship.

Because I have seen myself at my worst and she is so small and in such incredible pain, I know that I have to be vigilant.

This may not be the case for you.

So for you, it is hard to find time.

“Necessity is the mother of invention”

My need does not manifest additional hours in the day or a child who needs my attention less. The demand forces me to find a way to find the time. With one child it may be easier (or harder, depending on who you talk to or what age they are!), but it is possible for everyone to make time for themselves.

Here are a few ways to find the time and energy you need to practice self care. I did not invent these ways or even perfect them. I just use them and I think they could help you.

At the end, I’ll go through some common objections.

Routines

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This is by far the most important. We thrive on habits. Doing the same things over and over again at the same time doesn’t just save time and energy. Repetition and predictability lend a hand to emotional regulation. Too much stuff, too many choices, and moving too fast sap you of time, vigor, and will power.

When we have routines and habits, we no longer have to decide whether or not we are going to do something. The decision is already made for us. This brings you into automaticity, offloading a huge cognitive burden. You don’t have to think about turning off the lights and locking your door when you leave the house. You want more things in your life to happen with the same ease.

I am going to go through my schedule with you and then try to prompt you to think about your own.

Daily schedule: Each morning, I feed Zander when he wakes up and spend about 40 minutes doing The Miracle Morning. He’s only 6 months old. Partially personality and partially training, Zander has come to expect a lot of alone time when he wakes up. I set him up with one open ended toy and get to work.

Near the end of my TMM, baby boy starts complaining a bit. That’s okay because now it is his turn to have a story. We read one of his three books.

After story time, we do morning pick up and throw the diapers in the wash.

Zander starts complaining because it is time for some rest. We have the routine of taking a one mile walk to get him the first nap of the day. If I try to stay in the house, he cries a lot. “This isn’t how the day goes, Mom!” he seems to say. On cold or lazy days, routines may feel like they work against you.

We get back from our walk and baby stays asleep. I usually work for about an hour. Zander wakes up, eats. I have my breakfast. We hang the diapers to dry.

It is about 9 or 10am and I haven’t thought at all yet. I haven’t made one decision. But I have already done yoga, meditated, walked, read, journaled, cleaned, done laundry, spent time-in with the baby, and had breakfast.

After that, we often have something outside to do depending on the day of the week.

Whenever that is finished, around 2 or so, there is prep work for dinner. Then there’s some flexible downtime. Between 4 and 5 o’clock, it is time to start cooking.

We basically do this every day.

What things can you do at the same time, in the same way, every day? Is there always picking up that needs to be done? Are there car rides? Is there a time when everyone gets grumpy and needs to slow down?

Weekly schedule: For my family, we have Free Forest School on Monday and Friday mornings. Monday afternoon is grocery shopping. Thursday mornings, we take a 3-to-4 mile walk with a friend. We do a workout with a friend every Tuesday morning. Saturday is laundry day. Sunday is our day with Dad.

Currently, the other days of the week are “empty.” We might add in one more activity day but we will always have an at-home day scheduled.

What things can you do at the same time, in the same way, on a particular day of the week? Do you have a story time at your local library? Do you have a chapter of Free Forest School in your area? Any friends who might like to meet you every Thursday at the same park at 9am?

Monthly/Quarterly schedule: These larger rhythms can be an anticipated and understood as part of your regular rhythm.

You might have Family Board Meetings, a day when dad watches the kids and you get a massage, or date night. Schedule it regularly.

How many meals does your family really eat? Stop guessing which ones you are going to make and just plan to do Taco Tuesdays or Chicken-and-rice every third Thursday of the month. You don’t have to do all of the meal prep (although maybe you do, and maybe you can do it as a family every Friday). Just simplify your grocery shopping and cooking habits. Maybe plan Spontaneous Saturday where you make something new.

Once these things are scheduled and routine, you no longer have to figure out whether or not you’re going to do them. It is already decided. This keeps your kids calm, too. We prefer familiarity—it makes us comfortable. This preference is called the mere-exposure effect in psychology. When things are routine and familiar, our stress lowers. Predictability makes it less likely for you or your kid to fly off the handle.

Review Your Time

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By our nature, humans think things take them way less time than they actually do. We say we will be ready in ten minutes but we’re nowhere to be seen for twenty. If you cannot see it in yourself, you surely have a sister, husband, or child who does this.

Try to take note of how you’re actually using your time. Download Moment or QualityTime on your phone and see how much time you spend staring at your phone. Though you feel like you aren’t on your phone often, a few minutes every hour adds up quickly. Delete apps that suck up time.

Use a timer for a day or two. How long do you actually take to get stuff done?

Make a list of how you want to use your time. Make a list of how you use your time. Compare the two and adjust.

Arguing with your kids is another article, but figure out whether you care about the argument of are still defending your time on principle.

I had to delete Facebook, Facebook messenger, and Pinterest off of my phone. I also had to cut way down on streaming 30 Rock from my phone.

I don’t think all “mindless” time is bad. I still do love watching my shows and I give myself time to do it. I just try to do it less.

Plan Your Days

This could maybe go under routine, but deserves a second category because not all plans are routines and routines don’t take up our whole day.

Figure out what you’re going to do each day. A lot of people feel like the best way to do this is to make a goals list the night before. That way, when you wake up in the morning, you already know what you have to do. I’ve heard of people planning their day down to the half hour.

I am pretty relaxed in comparison. I jot down all of the non-routine things I want to do for the day on a little notepad. I don’t write “make dinner” because of course I am going to make dinner. Things like sweep floors, work on Mark’s project, respond to best friend’s messages are listed. I don’t schedule times for them but maybe you should. Think about your own preferences, how well you go-with-the-flow.

This also helps offload the cognitive burden of remembering things. The less things swirling around in your head, the more present you can be. Maybe you can remember everything you have to do today. But why would you when you don’t have to?

Sleep

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Do you know what gives you more time in the day? Sleeping more. Using time to gain time seems counter-intuitive but in this particular case, it is true. Being under-rested takes up a huge amount of your time (and obviously, energy).

Losing just two hours of sleep nightly hinders your thinking and memory. It also makes you more likely to get into a car accident (and I’m guessing, many other kinds, like dropping-the-jar-and-having-to-clean-up-the-mess-accidents). You take longer to heal from illness and injury. Your will power is depleted. You gain weight. You give in when you should have held your ground.

Being sleep deprived makes you unable to tell that you’re sleep deprived. You’re kidding yourself if you think you’re doing well on 5 hours of sleep—something unhealthy has become your normal.

What does getting enough sleep look like?

For me and my 6-month-old who co-sleeps and breastfeeds on demand, getting enough sleep means getting in bed at least 10 hours before I expect to wake up. If we are sick, teething, or going through a developmental milestone, 12 hours.

Objections

Q: I am a free spirit. I don’t want to schedule everything!

Do you know the part about being a free spirit that sucks? Being emotionally volatile. If your spirit is caged by having a plan at 3 p.m. on Saturdays, how free is it?

Q: I’ve tried building routines but they just keep falling apart.

On average, it takes 66 days to develop a new habit. That means it stops being so hard after about 2 months. How long have you tried?

If you have given it your all, consider who you are trying to build schedules and routines with. Maybe those people you deeply care for are better spur-of-the-moment friends.

Q: My kids will be bored always doing the same things.

My answer to this is twofold. First: What is wrong with boredom? Boredom can trigger very imaginative play.

My second answer is that they won’t be. Even if you scheduled most of your time, if that schedule includes a good deal of unstructured, free time—at home day, Free Forest School day, day at the park– your child is going to get a huge amount of variety. Just as your kid enjoys hearing the same story, so they will enjoy going to the same places. Life has a huge amount of variety on offer without us having to go out of the way to create it.

Please like and share this post.

What objections popped up in your mind while reading this? Please leave a comment. I would love to help you jump over that hurdle.

Attention Isn’t a Reward

Connection

I don’t even know if I have the capacity for normal emotions or not because I haven’t cried for a long time. You just stifle them for so long that maybe you lose them, partially at least.”

That is a punch to the gut for anyone who feels like they have to hide their emotions or “true self.” Science continues to affirm that concealing your emotions is destructive. Dismissing our feelings makes us less able to maintain our sense of well-being. Our inner, ignored swamps create a distance between us and those we love.

Time does not heal all wounds; connection does. When someone you care for struggles with their feelings, you reach out a helping hand. Sometimes pain comes in the form of destructive behavior—as a society, we recognize this. We acknowledge that addiction indicates alienation and that the most aggressive among us are hurting.
So why do we admonish people for giving their children attention when they are having a hard time?

What are Rewards?

You shouldn’t reward behavior like that.”

If you pay attention to him, he will just keep doing it.”

Paying attention to someone isn’t a reward. Loving someone isn’t a reward. Love is an automatic reaction. We should not pretend to turn it on and off as a means to manipulate.

Are you a good person or bad person for feeling sad?

Are you an upright citizen or dreg for feeling anxious?

Does your regret make you admirable or awful?

These are of course ridiculous questions.

Rewards are something that you get for doing something good. Punishments are for doing something bad. Emotions are not on a moral spectrum.
Labeling feelings as negative or positive is destructive. Learning to accept a wide range of emotions contributes to our ability to self-regulate, an important life skill which you are teaching your child how to do (or not to do) now. When your child makes bids for your attention, that is an opportunity for you to coach them through their feelings.

Attention

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It is easy for us to forget in today’s society what attention actually is. It is even easier to forget as adults because we feel and believe that we “take care of ourselves.”

Attention is our lifeline. Without the attention of others—in our evolutionary past and today—we either die or simply survive. In harsh environments, ostracism is used as an extreme punishment because we are social mammals; being ignored by your community is a threat of death and not an idle one.

Our attention and love are not rewards for our children. Once we recognize belonging as a fundamental human need, we can let go of the fear that we are rationing it incorrectly. You wouldn’t take away air, water, or food from your child as a punishment for their bad behavior. You shouldn’t take away your love.

Wanting attention is a legitimate need. If you find yourself thinking that the desire for attention is something that needs to be fixed in yourself, reflect on this belief, where you got it, and how to fix it. As trendy as pathologizing basic human desires and behaviors is, your family will benefit if you resist the urge.

Overwhelm

In the name of authenticity, we should admit that we want to show our love for our children when they break down. Breaking down can be palatable—the shuddering of shoulders, the “blue zone” that Dr. Siegel talks about where our children clam up and avoid eye contact. Or it can be the dreaded “red zone—the tantrum, yelling, crying, screaming that everyone seems to think they will be able to avoid because they will parent right.

Both of these are normal human reactions to being overwhelmed. Children feel overcome with emotion more often and more easily and have outbursts to match.

What should you do when your child is having a tantrum? You don’t need to tell them that their behavior is great. You certainly don’t need to actually reward the behavior with ice cream and toys. You don’t need to help them quickly get over the emotion. Stop harmful and destructive behavior (physically, if you need to), and just be with them. You don’t want to be alone in your tough emotions. Neither do they.

All behavior is communication. Sometimes that behavior is communicating, “I need your help to stop. I feel out of control.”

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The Quote

The quote at the top was made by a really famous guy. Jeffrey Dahmer.
I’m not saying that your child is going to cannibalize people if you ignore their emotions. They could grow up to be healthy, well-adjusted adults. They may learn how to regulate their emotions.
You are your child’s emotional coach. What are you teaching them?

Please share this post if you enjoyed it! Comment below: How do you handle your children’s tough emotions?

babies are people

Babies Are People

Because they don’t talk. Because we support them. Because they need so much. Because we are all they have.

It is sometimes difficult, if not impossible, to remember that our babies are people too. They have their own needs, wants, and struggles.

Difficult Times

My partner experienced this recently when he kindly offered to take our four-month-old son for a while so could relax.

Our four-month-old sleep-regression-and-developmental-leap-having son.

He was not the easiest he has ever been.

My boyfriend remarked in his wisdom that he could see how people sometimes forget that babies are people.

My boyfriend, obviously, is not alone in this. We had spoken about it. I have had that feeling. We all have that feeling.

Little Baby “Thoughts”

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While we’ll never know exactly what babies think—although that’s not quite the right word—I try to put myself in their shoes. I try to think of having a pain and not knowing how to resolve it. I try to think of being alone and not knowing if I’ll ever see anyone again. I try to think of needing help, and the people I care for most withholding.

Of course, my son’s thoughts are nowhere close to this coherent. Babies are people, too, but he has just come out of creature mode. He is just waking up to the world. His emotional system is just coming online, and he can begin to respond with reactions other than fight, flight, freeze or faint.

But even without the cognition, the important thing is there. The feelings are there.

And to me, they sound very difficult and very frustrating.

No Theory of Mind

I try not to go in the other direction, either. There are people who prescribe far more cognitive abilities to children than they have. I probably tend on this side, though I can usually catch myself.

Infants don’t have a theory of mind—they don’t know that you’re making choices and thinking thoughts different and independent from theirs. They don’t understand your motivations.

When my son is uncomfortable or in pain, I sometimes wonder if he is thinking, “Why won’t you just solve this? You’re so big, so strong. You can do so much. Please make this pain stop.”

But he doesn’t think that. He just feels: “I don’t want this!”

As he ages, he may start assigning blame. It will have to do with his temperament, and the sort of culture we set up in our household. Whether he blames me, himself, the world, or realizes that there is no need to sign blame, our ideas and attitudes towards are discomfort are going to have some effect on him.

Being Present

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But for now, my goal is just to remember that he is a person. He is not an inanimate objects that I can force my desires on, and he is not a full grown adult prescribing malintent. He’s neither a manipulative psychopath trying to pull from me every resource that I have nor plant requiring just a bit of water and a touch of sun.

All that I can do is respond consistently to his cues. This doesn’t mean perfectly, and this doesn’t mean immediately. It means recognizing that he is trying to communicate his needs and wants to me and responding to them sensitively.

Sometimes, he will cry while he is in my arms, but if he is with me, he will be fine. And if I can see him and stay with him there without demanding he feel some other way, then I will, too.

 

Cry It Out

It is not possible to spoil your baby. Anything that your baby wants, your baby needs. If that is food, if that is sleep, or if that is just your attention.

Attention is not inconsequential to a human’s life. Because we are social creatures, others attention a is fundamental to our survival.
We are used to saying that babies only have one means of communication: Crying. That is not quite the truth. Read anything about breastfeeding, and it will tell you to look for other signals before they start to cry. Rooting, chewing on their fingers, behaving restlessly. The quicker you are to respond to these small signals, the easier it will be for baby to remain in a state of emotional regulation.

Mild Deprivation
We know that extreme deprivation of parental care causes huge problems for an infant. Famous studies were done in Romanian orphanages where they found out that children who were not touched or paid attention to had higher rates of criminality and drug use. They were in worse health and more likely to suffer from mood disorders.
The literature is less definitive on sleep training and other practices that involve the intentional decision to allow your baby to cry without responding.
What the literature is very clear on, though, is that responding to your child’s cues is never going to be the wrong thing to do. Especially not for an infant.

The point of argument is whether or not cry-it-out, as it is know, is negative or neutral; not whether or not responding is a bad thing. There are some physicians who will tell you that without sleep training, your child will fall into sleep dysregulation–some go even as far as to call co-sleeping or nursing to sleep a “sleeping disorder.”

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Sleep Associations
We all use what are called “sleep association” to get us to bed. Very few of us just conk out where ever and whenever. If you look for tips on the best way to get a good night’s sleep, you will again and again come across two suggestions: (1) Make your bedroom only for sleep; and (2) create a routine. Because our brains are association machines, you will automatically be put into a state of ease if you use these tools.
Anyone who is calling using your mother as a sleep association a disorder is drawing an arbitrary and unhelpful line.
While evolutionary psychology is often just-so, I think it is useful to note that babies would have slept with and been nursed by their mother’s for most of human history. While we should be wary of people using naturalistic arguments to push their view, using our past is not a bad default to move from.

Cortisol
What made the children in Romanian orphanages ill equipped to handle life?
It has to do with their cortisol levels. Cortisol is a chemical that is released in response to stress. Too much of it is linked with bad health outcomes.
Since we know at least one of the mechanisms that leads to poor life-outcomes, we can ask specific questions. Does cry-it-out release enough cortisol to produce negative, long lasting effects?

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Hyporesponsitivity
One of the most fascinating things about babies and young children is that they actually don’t produce much cortisol, even when they are crying a lot. This is called the period of hyporesponsitity, and you can read more about it here.
Hyporesponsivity essentially means that while you see your baby or toddler getting red in the face, crying, or having a tantrum, their brains aren’t reacting as if they’re in a stressful situation. It is hard to illicit a boost in cortisol, even if we can see that our children are having a very difficult time.
We don’t know why the brain does this in those early years of rapid neurological development, but we know it does. We also know that brains bathed in cortisol early in life set up their organism for failure, so it makes sense that it has some way to protect itself.
There is one easy way to get a baby or toddler’s brain to start producing cortisol, though: Remove their caregiver.
Our small ones use us as a buffer against stress. We mediate their emotions because they can’t.

Distress vs. Eustress
But isn’t stress good for us?
We will encounter stress throughout our lives. Some of that stress will make us more likely to develop cardiovascular disease, and some of it will make us better, stronger people. We can distinguish between these two kinds of stress. One is distress, which is negative; and the other is eustress, which is positive.
Eustress is short-term stress where we believe that we can cope with the demands on us. It is motivating. Taking on new job or hobby are examples of good stress. Distress can be long-term or short-term and it makes us feel like we do not have the tools we need to be successful. Unemployment and a death in the family are example of bad stress.
Are babies experiencing eustress or distress during CIO? Is it chronic stress or does it get interpreted as acute stress?

Inoculation
There is a phenomenon called stress inoculation. If you are exposed to a small amount of stress, you will slowly grow the ability to deal with more and more stress in your life. That is, you’ll subjectively perceive instances as eustress that you may otherwise have perceived as distress, if you have encountered similar struggles before. You will grow your window of tolerance for difficulty.
Studies have shown that baby monkey’s who experience short periods of separation from their mother’s in early life tend to be less anxious later in life.

Answers
This information my awareness of the need to focus on integration. My children and I need to be linked but distinct parts. Sometimes that calls for closeness and comfort, and sometimes that calls for standing apart.

As much as I’d like for the answer to fall definitively on my side–that what my gut tells me is right, is right–humans aren’t that simple. We might never have the answers we need to rest comfortable in our judgementalness of other’s choices.

Expectations

 

Your biggest problem is your expectations.

When you go out and you discover a flat tire on your car so you can’t go to see grandma and AAA won’t make it there for two hours and your husband isn’t answering his phone and the kids are crying, it feels miserable. And it is definitely not your optimal outcome for any particular day, but there is nothing wrong or inherently bad about the situation.

Your husband shouldn’t have had the phone on.

You shouldn’t always have access to help.

Your kids shouldn’t be happy about the situation.

Your tire shouldn’t be full of air.

All of these things can be in any state without anything being wrong, even all at once.

You’ve just drawn a line in the sand about how your day should go, and when it wasn’t that way, you decided that there was something wrong with the world.

Hope for the Best, Plan for the Worst

This isn’t about being a boyscout. You’ll be fine if you run out of a good. You can run to the store, call to someone to get it, or order it on Prime if you have a day or two. Some situations are of course far more inconvenient if you don’t have a particular thing on hand—but this isn’t our real problem.

Very few of our real our problems, our big problems, our Pareto principle problems, actually come from whether or not we have immediate access to a piece of fruit or even a diaper. It may suck to clean up poopy pants or a poopy car seat, but it isn’t going to kill you.

What is going to make today worse, and all of your days worse, is if you expect to not have to deal with problems like this, and you end up having to.

The Real Enemy

Expectations are the real enemy.

Not just in every day nuisances like lacking an ingredient you thought you had, but in your relationship with your child.

And your partner.

And yourself.

In believing that you or your son or your daughter or your partner should be something other than they are, you create an unwinnable.

If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, you lose the chance to the admire the beauty in its swim.

“Age-Appropriate” Expectations

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There was a popular infographic going around talking about the cognitive capacities of children, when it becomes appropriate to expect things from them. I think that the effort of this infographic was noble—reducing the frustration that parents feel with their children when they have unreasonable expectations. But I feel that it also had two implicit messages that I have a harder time supporting:

  1. Expecting it: If you have an idea that someone “should” be able to do something, you will get annoyed with the fact that they aren’t doing it. If it is backed by “science”, the backlash is even worse. Parents feel not only put out by their child’s behavior, but might begin to believe there is something wrong with them.

    Milestone-mania is already rampant, and there is no need to double down on that sneaking sense of paranoia in an attempt to allay anger.

  2. Reducing Agency: One thing that happens when we decide what people “should” and “shouldn’t” be able to do is stop attempting to get them to grasp concepts or build the tools to head in that direction. This is called the tyranny of low expectations. It is essentially writing someone off and letting them pay the consequences.

More useful than developing suitable expectations is having none, but to give your children the support and skills that they need to develop and strengthen their capacities.

It’s not as if, on their fourth birthday, all or even more kids have impulse control. It’s not as if most adults have even worked that muscle particularly hard.

What is happening is a slow progression to have more emotional control—a completely unpredictable path that will move backwards and forwards more time than anyone could possibly count. A path that your child will continue to walk through toddlerhood, teenagerdom, and well into adulthood. Skills and abilities that you thought they had will seemingly fade overnight, and that they should be able to do these things—according to science!–isn’t going to help you or your child get anywhere.

Try This Instead

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Let’s go back to that day in the car.

You have a lot of other options, outside of disappointment. Give yourself five minutes to feel those feelings, then move on.

Check what your options are to carry out your original plan: Consider an Uber, see if grandma can come over, or someone can pick you up.

Or just go inside, tell grandma sorry, and have a different day from the one you were planning.

If you didn’t have that plan, how would the day have gone? How would you feel if those things didn’t happen on a day you didn’t mean for them to happen?

We can’t always have such peace and clarity, but working on lassoing in our expectations bit by bit, we can stop trying to handle disappointment, and instead just go about with our days.