April 4th, 2022
Many of the desirable traits we want for our children include:
- learning from their mistakes
- respecting boundaries
- being resourceful
- being able to process anger and not lash out
- being generous and kind to others (to share)
These and other characteristics we want for our children, evolve from what Dr. Gordon Neufeld calls the, adaptive process. This process involves your child’s expression of emotions – their tears. In other words, nature has a plan for these desirable human traits to unfold. Preschool curriculums, and painful frustrating hours are spent by parents trying to teach these characteristics before their children, more specifically their brains, are ready. When we distract, avoid or shame our children’s emotions, we are robbing them of the human experience to mature into the well-adjusted humans we want them to be. It’s important that we (or an adult caregiver) is present when a child is discharging emotion. It’s from 1000s of co-regulated crying sessions that our children become able to regulate their own emotions.
Our culture is so unaccepting of tears that it has interfered with this important process. The adaptive process ultimately paves the way to becoming an adult who can come to terms with what they cannot change, move on, and find another way.
This is How it Works
Say, for example a child is trying to change a parent’s mind about something. The child is working from the sympathetic nervous system (fight + flight). When the child realizes they are not going to change the parent’s mind, the child switches into the parasympathetic nervous system (rest + digest). When this shift happens the physical response is tears. Dr. Gordon Neufeld refers to these as tears of futility, the child (or adult) is experiencing the sadness of not getting what they want (this is a good thing).
If you look at tears under a microscope in different situations, you will see that they look different. Tears of grief and tears from laughing have different structures. They come from completely different biological responses in the body. In the case of tears of sadness, there are toxins in the tears that the body must release. This is why as adults we have (hopefully) experienced the feeling of relief after a good cry.
When children are not able to get their tears out, they can become stuck. When children become stuck in the adaptive process, they cannot complete the natural emotional process that will enable them to become resilient, resourceful, ADAPTED adults. There are occurrences in life we cannot change; supporting our children through this process is the way to build the innate skills to move forward through difficult situations, and find a more useful direction.
Let’s look at how this process affects the brain. It wasn’t that long ago that we believed the brain to be rigid, we thought that once something was “stamped” in, it was there to stay. Thankfully, we now know that the brain is plastic, and we can treat it like a muscle. Meaning, what we use and what works for us stays, and what doesn’t, the brain will prune. You may have heard the term, “what fires together, wires together” – this means that the experiences our brain repeatedly experiences become deeply ingrained in our brain, and vice versa. The adaptive process allows us to create new beginnings as we accept the change that needs to happen when something isn’t working or isn’t possible.
What To-Do When Your Child Cries
Supporting emotion is critical for maintaining our attachment with our children. Children need to know that their attachments (parents) can handle them in ANY form. Unfortunately, a lot of babies learn very early that tears make adults uncomfortable. In this case, they are left no choice but to suppress their emotions in the service of preserving their attachment with their parents. Attachment is the preeminent need of children (and all humans). How parents respond to emotion, will determine how a child experiences and expresses emotion for the rest of their life. Since humans are emotional beings, this is important for parents to understand. If a parent is unaccepting of certain emotions, a child will unconsciously shove the unapproved emotions away, permanently affecting the child’s emotional intelligence. As I mentioned before, the silver lining is that we can rewire our brains. Parents can change the trajectory of their child’s emotional health at any time, by adopting these principles.
So what does supporting emotion look like? First of all, please don’t make the mistake of thinking you need to give your child things to cry about. There are plenty of situations our children need to cry about in the first years of life. If you are new to supporting tears, start with the situations where you are not the agent of futility.
This could be when a child cannot fit a square puzzle piece into a round hole. Simply remain close, and hold space for the child to realize there is nothing left to do but cry. Language can include, “you’re trying really hard to make that work,” “that must be really frustrating,” “I’m here with you if you need to cry.” Using a sad tone in your voice can help draw the tears out (again, this is a good thing). If this practice seems particularly hard, or triggering for you; this is a great opportunity to reflect on how your emotion was treated as a child. If you were not allowed space to cry, your brain will recognize tears from your child as unsafe and you will naturally move to make it stop.
As with many moments in parenting, there is infinite power in recognizing what belongs to you and being responsible for what you bring to the dynamic. One of my favorite books on the topic is, The Conscious Parent, by Dr. Shefali Tsabary, an absolute game changer.
Keep on keepin’ on, your child chose you for a reason. You already have everything you need to parent your unique child. ❤ For more attachment-focused parenting tips, please subscribe to my newsletter!