Let’s take a look at strategies to help ourselves as caregivers calm down so that we can provide a safe space for our kids to express themselves and better communicate their needs so we can help them. If you only look at parenting when your kids are struggling, it’s always going to be an uphill battle, but if we take a whole child approach we can step back a bit and better see what is truly going on under the surface.

I remember feeling worried, ashamed, and so frustrated when I was googling late at night for help with my child’s hitting and biting. Before I understood that my child was an autistic/ADHD child, it was really hard to sift through the suggestions. Much of the advice for punishment and reward systems didn’t make sense to me and some of it looked completely abusive to me. So what can you do to get some help if you find yourself in the same situation?

I remember calling a child psychologist and he asked me to document when the behavior happened. He asked me what was the trigger right before it. I started to notice that the more I tried to document what was happening, the more I was looking for the behavior and the more it increased. I also noticed that one of the triggers was being on my phone googling and worried.

My energy and my focus on the unwanted behavior produced MORE of the unwanted behavior, not less.

My child wanted my attention or was hungry or was simply hurting. I wasn’t as tuned in when I was worrying about what unwanted behavior was coming next.

Here’s the mental shift we need to make:

Stop Focusing on the Behavior

The child’s (undesirable) behavior is NOT the problem. The undesirable behavior is communication. All behavior is communication.

When a child is completely overwhelmed and distressed, their thinking part of their brain is not engaged. They are only in the reactive part of the brain that is flight, fight, freeze or fawn mode. When the brain is otherwise shut down, they are just going to follow whatever impulse is in their mind to do in that moment.

The part of the brain that drives impulse control is not fully developed in children until they are something like 20 years old. Younger children can not be expected to control their impulses. We can not expect them to act like grown adults in response to challenging situations.

Why are SOME kids able to control themselves?

When kids are under stress they will struggle. One child might have the impulse to bite because their teeth hurt from having a new tooth come in and they can’t voice this general feeling of pain. Then they don’t have any words for the first feeling and a second feeling comes in of being hungry. But they also don’t know how to express this. And then maybe there is lighting in the room that makes their eyes hurt and that is also distressing them. And when you come over to check on them – they bite you. They are telling you, “I feel so horrible right now, but I don’t know why. ” This is a sign for “help”.

Another child might be hungry but not have the stressor of the new tooth. Or maybe the other child has more verbal language to say to a caregiver, “I am hungry. ” They can express themselves verbally and have less of a burden of other stress so they don’t have the impulse to bite. This does not mean that this child is the “good child” and the first child is the “bad child”. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that this child has better impulse control. It might just mean that this child is less stressed by their environment and has a little more patience to express themselves calmly.

But, the child who is biting you to tell you they are hungry isn’t going to be helped by punishment and a lecture. When the brain is in flight, fight, freeze, or fawn mode – you have to help them get to a regulated state and the behaviors will take care of themselves. What they need is food and they need a person to help co-regulate their emotions.

Leah Irby holding a viola wearing purple with a purple background to the text.

Shift your focus

“How do I get my kid to not bite me?” Vs.

“How can I create routines and structures that make my child feel safe, loved, and connected to me?”

Take the focus off “making your child do” anything. Start instead to focus on your own behavior around your child and see what you can shift. Start to be a detective and look for clues that tell you what problems they are facing. Then you can start to work toward a solution before there is a crisis.

Model behavior you want to see

Think about the phrase “Do what I say, not what I do”. And as we all know, that never works. If you focus on regulating your own nervous system and working to build a connection with your child, you can build the trust you need to support them through difficult situations. Because children will watch and copy what you are doing.

In stressful situations, our children need us to co-regulate with them (sit with them in their big emotions and model how to handle them). Their brains are not yet ready to handle the big emotions and tough stuff of life alone.

When things are getting too difficult you can model taking care of yourself by saying, “I just need a break right now. I’ll be right back.”

And you take a moment in the other room to hum, take a deep breath, sing, shout, dance, jump up and down, or do something else that helps to calm you down.

Sometimes you can’t leave the room, but you might be able to take a mental break by imagining the jumping or singing. Imagine for a moment that favorite beach or place you go that provides you comfort.

Ways to build communication

There are lots of ways to communicate and those children who are non-speaking or who have limited speech will use a lot more body language than words. You want to empower them with a healthy way to communicate with you. But, you have to practice when their nervous system is regulated.

  1. Sign language – before we can verbalize, we have more capacity for sign language. It is also a great thing in times of stress. Sometimes even in verbal children and adults, they can become non-speaking from being overwhelmed by emotion. Having some sign language to use in those times, can help ease the stress of not being able to say what you need.
  2. Whistling – I am not very skilled at this, but there are cultures around the world that use sophisticated whistles as a way to speak to each other across great distances where you would not be able to hear spoken words. It’s also a great way to pass the time as you are walking and want to lift your mood. And can be a great substitute for kids who have an impulse to scream when other noises are overwhelming. Teach them to whistle as a substitute.
  3. Singing – teaching people to sing is my passion because this is an often overlooked form of communication. Many non-speaking people can sing. And for some children or adults who wish to communicate with words more, singing is an excellent bridge. But, we need to remember that singing, in and of itself is a powerful way to communicate. Singing lights up more parts of the brain than any other activity we know of. It connects the different sides of the brain. Check out this song on my Youtube channel to help with expressing emotions.
  4. Body Percussion – This just means making rhythmic sounds such as tapping, clapping, snapping, and stomping. You can use taps claps and hops to convey a sense of fun and play. This can help to change the energy in stressful times and build a sense of connection and joy.

Finding the Moments of Joy

Ultimately the more you can tune in to the love connection with your child and find some time to play with them and find out what makes them tick and what they love – they will build bridges to be able to better assist when they are having difficulties and need help. It will also help reset the connection as a family so even when the world outside is stressful, they can feel a sense of safety and connection to the family group.

If you would like to learn strategies to take control of your voice and songs to soothe, check out my Song Language online class. The emphasis is on empowering you to use your voice to sing, without judgment, to help keep the brain calm- so it can function at its best. This will help parents communicate and connect with their kids while reducing everyone’s anxiety and stress. Click on the link here to join the mailing list so you can be the first to know when we next launch the class.