I was first introduced to Self-Reg and Dr. Stuart Shanker in 2011 while working on a play-based kindergarten curriculum for the Northwest Territories of Canada. Self-Reg was a natural fit with my beliefs about nurturing healthy, happy and safe children, families, schools and communities. As Executive Director of The MEHRIT Centre, I work hard to bring our vision of “grounding living and learning in self-regulation” to life every day. But I had a surprise along the way. I found myself changed personally and as a parent because of all I am learning. I wanted to reflect on a few of the unexpected “gifts” I’ve noticed in my own life and parenting:
1. I feel good about myself as a mom.
This was hard to put in writing; especially today, when halfway through writing this I had a big “bleep” in the radar that didn’t feel so good. But bleeps are part of the journey and I do feel good about my parenting most of the time. The bleeps are fewer and farther between and I recover more quickly from negative feelings like guilt or disappointment about how I handled something. Before, I often felt like I was missing something or just not getting it right. Learning about Self-Reg and the science behind stress and its connection to energy, emotions, and actions has been a game changer. I can still be hard on myself, but I’m better at catching myself in a “false story.” Mostly I feel like a pretty good mom (even when no one is watching!) And the gift is that I’m not trying to feel good about myself as a mom, I just do.
2. I am letting thoughts of my “not perfect parenting” moments pass more quickly.
When my daughter (now 8) was born everyone had parenting advice for me. My own Google searching made the lists of “thou shoulds” a mile long. But advice from one “expert” to the next often disagreed and I was confused and self-questioning constantly. Developing an understanding of the brain-body science of Self-Reg (although I’m still learning) has freed me from this sense of a judgmental eye watching over my shoulder. I trust my instincts more. This isn’t to say I get it all right – I mess up every day actually. But somehow the sense that “I got this” has replaced that constant self-doubt and beating myself up for all my human imperfections.
3. I am more relaxed with my daughter and feel more in sync with my urges to protect and nurture her.
Now that I can usually spot the signs of excessive stress in Siena it’s so much easier for me to see her behavior through “soft eyes” and to soothe her and nurture her when her energy tank is empty. I am flooded with positive feelings as I nurture my daughter instead of the frustration and the negative emotions that came with responding to “misbehavior.” Understanding the toll excessive stress has on my own energy in challenging moments has given me the unexpected gift of allowing me to see my own imperfections through those same “soft eyes” I now have for my daughter.
4. I spend less time feeling frustrated.
I focus on behavior as communication vs. something to fix or suppress. I am learning so much about my (amazing) daughter Siena that I would have missed completely if my parenting time was spent looking out for misbehavior to tell me what I need to change about her. I still get frustrated. Getting her out the door for the school bus on time is a regular example. But I feel calmer about it and she seems to mirror my calmness. Our morning goodbyes are always loving, even, and perhaps most especially, when she still does the race to the bus.
5. I say “no” more often and sometimes simply because I need to say no for me.
Certain social domain expectations go with parenting an eight-year-old: playdates, birthday parties, family days, school events – all things that are supposed to be fun. Yet I often find them stressful: the crowds, noise, people I don’t know and the sense that everyone is having a great time except me. Some days it’s no problem (when I am regulated). But when my stress level is climbing, an afternoon at a kid’s birthday party can be really dysregulating. I “reduce the stress” by avoiding these social situations when I can. Sometimes I head for groceries during a playdate or we go early or later to the community events to avoid the crowds. No guilt. If reducing the stressors isn’t possible, then I make time to restore my energy and find that calm place again at the end of the day. Self-Reg brings acceptance rather than trying to “be” that person who thoroughly enjoys this stuff.
6. I am thinking about my own Self-Reg.
I do a lot of reframing of my own behavior. For example, I have a strong startle reflex for an adult. I now recognize that it drains my energy. So I can watch for that and its impact on how I am feeling. I am recognizing my own “fight”, “flight” and, much to my surprise, “freeze” when it kicks in.
I’m also discovering the complexities of the brain’s reward system that, at times of heightened stress, has me heading for the potato chips. I now know I can’t use “self-control” to will my way out of these responses in any kind of enduring way. Instead I am focusing on my Self-Reg, the roots. That’s a much gentler way to live.
I don’t have it all figured out, and I don’t want to say that this is a miracle. But learning about self-regulation, and Dr. Stuart Shanker’s method of Self-Reg to keep my own stress and energy systems balanced, is the most hopeful gift for a person like me, who has spent her life trying to unlock the mysteries of health, well-being and happiness for children, teens, my daughter and myself.