Muscles clench in your belly, your chest tightens. A shortness of breath and a sense of panic. The blood seems to have rushed to your core and you don’t have much awareness of your feet or of your surroundings. Your mouth is dry and your thoughts are racing. This is a glimpse into what can happen when the nervous system dys-regulates. When your unconscious mind has picked up a signal that you are unsafe and your body needs to activate for protection. When something happening now stirs up an implicit memory from a past time when you felt similarly—even though the situation is completely different and you’re all grown up now. The response is fast, unexpected, intense. It often happens before you have any control over its whirlwind effect on you.
This is what can happen in the body when we become dysregulated. When our children become dysregulated the same thing happens for them, as well. A child, however, does not typically have the tools and skills to express this rush of intensity, so s/he will often act out or shut down in order to discharge or suppress this energy. So how do children (and adults) learn to respond more effectively when they are triggered?
Mindfulness is key. It requires the recognition of our internal experience in order to shift our internal experience. When we are aware of what is happening for us internally, then we have more freedom to make a different choice in our response.
Helping our children develop a sense of authentic self-awareness allows them, in the moment of overwhelm, to stay connected to themselves, thus having more of their rational brain online and thus eliciting more choice and control over how they respond. We teach mindfulness and self-awareness predominantly by modeling these capacities and cultivating them in ourselves. Checking in with ourselves regularly throughout the day—particularly with the body, which is where emotional regulation and dys-regulation begin to be activated. Throughout the day, notice what is happening in your body. What is the temperature? What sensations do you experience? What parts of you are tight and clenched? What parts of you are relaxed? Are you numb? Overgripping? No judgment, simply notice and breathe.
When we bring our attention to the body the impulse to judge or create a story about our experience dissipates. The less we do this, the less our mind remains an active participant in the process. The mind fights for our survival, but it often sabotages our ability to regulate by getting caught up in the need to solve the problem or make sense of the situation. There are times when this is necessary. But most of the time, when we are dys-regulated, it hinders our capacity to move forward.
Stay with the body and teach your children to be in the body. Over time, patterns that we have been stuck in will begin to soften and release. Tensions will fall away. Emotions will move through paving the way for more spaciousness and more calm. Be playful and fun in the ways you teach children to have this awareness of the body.