How using Self Reg lead to greater compassion and kindness towards myself and my children.
This blog was written by Danni as part of her final project for the Self-Reg Foundations program.
My exploratory adventure of Stuart Shankar’s Self Reg process began early last year. The initial aim was to dust off my foggy post pandemic brain and improve my understanding of Self-Regulation. This, and to see if I could apply the process with clients and their families. What I had not bargained for was the impact this journey would have on me personally!
Some colleagues would simply read his incredible books and apply the knowledge. Not me! I knew my learning brain needed to be pushed and inspired through their online course. And let’s face it, I already I have a pile of unread non-fiction books that serve more as a bedside table these days! So on to the Self Reg online train I would jump. Boy did this train take some twists, turns, climbs and exploration into the tunnels beneath my own self-regulation mountain! What has been evolving, as a result of this adventure is understanding and lifelong shifts. My Self Reg train journey has me emerging with a different, unique, and lighter vision towards my own stress levels, responses and needs, but also that of my own family (3 teenage sons and husband). In this post-pandemic life, I think we have all been searching for a lightness to our walk, a way of understanding ourselves, and seeking to relieve the heaviness this may have created. I feel this process has helped us all to grow and thrive.
Stuart Shanker developed this powerful Self Reg process for understanding our stress and managing energy flow as a way of promoting self-regulation. This Five Step process encourages us to focus on how we manage stress, tension, and energy. It is not about inhibiting the impulses that arise from stress.
Self Reg is about understanding behaviours, looking beneath the surface behaviours, and not simply aiming to manage the behaviours. It is a process that refers to our brain – body responses to stress, which include our energy expenditure, energy recovery and restoration.
Self-Regulation under the Self-Reg model refers to how people manage stress, how much energy they expend, and how well they recover.
The step from Self Reg that has lead to the greatest change for me has been the step of Reframing Misbehaviours as Stress Behaviours. In over 20 years of clinical experience and 17 years of parenting, this essential first step, Reframing Behaviour, has had the most significant impact on me personally and professionally.
Reframing Behaviours encourages us to dig deeper, to see beneath the surface behaviours, to then view and see a child or adult differently. In this step we often use the analogy of viewing the child (and ourselves) with a different lens. When we see an unexpected behaviour it encourages us to pause, and ask the questions Why? Why Now? Why is this behaviour happening? And why now?
Part of this Reframing of behaviour is to understand the clear distinction and difference of the behaviours we are seeing. Modern science, the neurology of the brain, shows us there is a huge difference between misbehaviour and stress behaviour. It is critical we understand this difference. If we were to treat them the same way it could lead to more detrimental outcomes for our children, while not even addressing the underlying reasons for the behaviour.
To clarify, a misbehaviour is when a person could have acted differently, was completely capable of acting differently and aware of what they were doing. For misbehaviours the Pre-Frontal Cortex, the thinking part of our brain, is lit up and running the show while the limbic centre is subdued. Whereas, a stress behaviour is when the child is not fully aware of what they were doing or in fact why they are doing it, and they have limited capacity to act differently. In stress behaviour the child is in fight, flight or freeze mode and their limbic system is in charge! This is a biological response to survive and is usually caused by a high stress and tension load. The person usually does not have an element of choice. At that time they are in a flight or fight mode. The behaviour is unconscious or automatic.
Reframing behaviour is liberating! Using this softer lens allows us to take the pause and ponder the Why? Why now? It makes us see the person in a new light. It motivates us to be more patient and compassionate. It encourages us to focus on connecting and then supporting the child or adult through the other steps of Self Reg and manage their stress, tension and energy flow.
My new found knowledge and understanding of this step has actually enabled me to reframe behaviours in myself, my husband, my children, and my neurodiverse child’s behaviours in particular. To use a softer lens, and see his behaviours after school, or at the end of the school week, as true stress behaviours. His increased voice volume, emotional sensitivity and reactivity, his words (or as Stuart Shankar describes beautifully, limbic exclamations), tell us his stress and tension is high and energy is low. These verbal hits no longer trigger my own emotions or hurt my tender sensitive heart. The Reframing behaviour step has created a greater depth of understanding of the surface behaviours. They reflect his level of tension and stress in his body, and therefore the stressors he is under during his school week and day to day life. His battery and energy by the end of the day and school week is drained. It is drained from across Self Reg’s five domains; sensory, emotional, cognitive, social and pro-social stressors. These all build up and have a multiplying impact on his brain and body response.
This reframe was essential to then understand his need for reducing his stressors and taking action through restorative activities after school and on the weekend. Some of his stressor examples include his sensory overwhelm from the busy school environment, social and emotionally draining stressors from starting high school, meeting new people, new classes, new co-curricular groups, and pro- social stress from following the rules, school expectations, finding new routines, change and transitions. It all drains his battery, more than it does for his neurotypical brothers. By the end of the week his battery is flat. He is often mentally and physically fatigued.
As Ross Greene in his book The Explosive Child says, Kids do well if they can. My son’s capacity by the weekend to meet expectations fluctuates and depends on his energy state and stress / tension levels. By the weekend we have to reduce the demands on him. This includes reducing the sensory input in his environment, changing our expectations for his weekend participation, and allowing and encouraging activities that recharge and restore. I find myself reframing for my husband, not just how his stress behaviours present and what stressors lead to these. But also reframing the why he needs to use his strategies and tools for restoration and recharging of his battery and why he needs it in that moment.
For our youngest to be ready for another week at his new high school, when his battery is flat, his energy is low and tension / stress high, we have realised that what he needs is peace and quiet and to completely stop. Now the reframe of restorative behaviours has had to happen because his stopping behaviour, his “stop”, is not like his older brothers.
Some weekends he has needed to stop for a whole day. For restoration he needs to lie about for a whole day. He does not want to shift or move unless it is to watch television, snuggle with the dogs or jump on the trampoline. He can’t do a lot of social or noisy sport action to watch his brothers.
So part of the reframe of stress behaviour for us as a family, has been to reframe what restoration activities may look like. Every person and brain is unique and we all have different needs, actions, strategies, and tools to restore energy. An activity that may help one person may not help another. What may help one person to participate in for five minutes may look like one hour for another.
For our youngest it is different to his brothers, and this is part of the non-judgemental lens we need to use to see a different child, to see a different person. Some weekends he needs the whole weekend to rest, other weekends might be a day or half a day.
We follow his lead. What we do know is that he needs to be given the time to sink into our large Kloud beanbag and watch his favourite youtube clips. He needs to snuggle beside our two dogs who insist on his love, attention and hugs. He needs to be outside by himself in nature and jump on the trampoline or shoot hoops. This is the restoration he needs. Part of this reframe step has been using a kind and softer lens and reframing any judgemental thoughts. He isn’t just being lazy, he isn’t just choosing to do to restore. It is understanding that he is needing it. He is needing the low social stress, low emotional stress, no cognitive demands, and reduced sensory input. He is needing the deep touch pressure and tactile softness from the bean bag, the beanbag material and the dogs. He is needing the consistent auditory and visual hum from the tv. He is needing the outside time in nature jumping and allowing time for his vocal stims as needed.
Calm begets calm begets calm.
As a family we have reframed our thoughts and feelings around his restorative actions and tools, and how much time he needs, without judgement. We have become calmer and more accepting as we could see his battery recharging, his bright filled personality once again restoring. This adjustment, this reframe of behaviour, of what his restorative actions look like, and our thoughts and emotions attached, does lighten us and our parenting. We don’t need to bargain with technology time or use behavioural punishments or rewards. All we need to do is connect, hold the space for him with the steps and layers of Self Reg understanding, and as a result be able to connect, find calm, find joy, and start to lighten our load. What more could we ask for…