My guest this week is just me, Dr. Nicole, chatting with you about some ideas that have been deeply on my mind as I see so many of you struggling with so many things in my clinic and online communities. This is, perhaps, the best parenting advice I could give. In this episode I’m sharing with you the core ideas that actually make the biggest difference in our lives as parents and in our kids’ lives during their growing up years. I have come to the conclusion that we actually need way less than we think we do to help ourselves and our children thrive. In fact, we really need just one, yes one, foundational thing to focus on that allows everything else to come together, that allows us to actually do the things that will best support our children’s development without losing ourselves in the process.
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What’s Been on My Mind … 00:00:45
Challenges as a Parent … 00:03:10
What 20+ Yrs of Clinical Practice and Parenting Taught Me … 00:06:48
What You Actually Need as a Parent … 00:07:58
Connecting Emotional and Behavioral Regulation … 00:11:52
Context is Everything … 00:17:45
Developing Regulation Capabilities is a Learned Skill … 00:18:40
How to Help Ourselves & Kids Stay Better Regulated … 00:23:50
Become a Space-Maker and Episode Wrap Up … 00:27:10
Dr. Nicole Beurkens
Hi everyone, welcome to the show. I am Dr. Nicole, and today’s episode is different from any that I have done before. This episode is just me. No guest, I am not answering a specific question. Instead, I am going to share with you some ideas that I have been deeply considering and writing about recently. In my clinic and online communities, I see so many of you struggling with so many things. Whether you have a typically developing child, a neurodivergent child, a developmentally delayed child, a child with challenging behaviors, or whatever else might be going on, parenting is tough. And I can’t help but wonder if sometimes we make it even tougher than it needs to be because of all the information, tips, books, therapies, and whatever else is out there in the world now, especially online. I have really been pondering how best to strip all of this down into the core ideas that actually make the biggest difference in our lives as parents and in our kids’ lives during their growing up years. And I have come to the conclusion that we actually need way less than we think we do to help ourselves and our children thrive. In fact, we really need just one foundational thing to focus on that allows everything else to come together, that allows us to actually do the things that will best support our children’s development without losing ourselves in the process. I want to share some of the writing I have been doing about this and I hope you find it helpful wherever you are on your journey.
Making the decision to be a parent is making the decision to bring a lot of things into your life. Some you can imagine, and others you can’t. There are joys like you have never known, and challenges you didn’t even know existed. We love our kids with everything in us, and yet a lot of the daily raising of kids can be filled with what feels like endless challenges, obstacles, difficulties. We just want our kids to be the best they can be, and we want to feel like good parents. We want everyone to be happy, and for life to mirror the story we subconsciously created in our minds about what parenting, children and family would be, way before we ever became a parent.
The challenges we experience as parents start from day one, when we are faced with how to deal with feeding, changing, sleeping, crying, and so much more. And beyond infancy is when the real difficulty is set in, as our kids develop their own opinions, test boundaries, try to figure out how the world works, and become more independent. Suddenly, it feels like everywhere we turn we are managing something with our kids that has the potential to turn into a tantrum and argument, frustration, or worse. We begin to wonder why no one told us this parenting gig was so hard. And we easily start down a path of worry and guilt about our ability to manage it all effectively. There is nothing like a child to throw us into the greatest uncertainty we have ever known.
It makes sense then, that parents spend so much time seeking out information, advice, support, and strategies around how to parent, especially how to manage behaviors and development and difficult situations. We want to know the best ways to do everything from feeding and potty training to discipline and driving instruction. We comb through all the information we get from family members, friends, the internet, social media, the local bookstore, community groups, and random people in line at the grocery store, in what can sometimes feel like a desperate attempt to figure out the magic thing that will make our kids do what we want them to do, and to help ourselves feel like the capable parents we want to be. This is a good news/bad news situation. The good news is there’s no shortage of information, tools, scripts and strategies available for parents today on any and every topic you can imagine. Never before in history has so much knowledge and so many tools been accessible to all of us. But this is a double-edged sword in many ways, and that’s the bad news. The constant accessibility of all this information causes us to cling to the illusion that there is some right answer out there, some tool we haven’t yet discovered, some idea we haven’t yet been exposed to, some magic phrase or pill or thing that will solve whatever challenge we are facing with our child. If we just read one more article, scroll through our curated Instagram feed of parenting experts one more time, hire one more coach or therapist, then we will have the answer. Even hearing that, you can probably recognize how simultaneously compelling and ridiculous it all is. If we are honest, we have all fallen into this trap at one point or another. We run on the hamster wheel of tools and tips, scripts and strategies, theories and therapies, only to discover that perhaps we are not getting anywhere very fast. Now, this isn’t to say that those things are not helpful — they certainly can be. But information and tools alone are not enough. We actually have to be able to consistently implement these things in order to get benefits, and therein lies the challenge. The gathering of information and resources is one thing. The putting them into practice is entirely another, so we continue to feel unsatisfied, frustrated, and compelled to search for the solution to whatever we are dealing with. This goes for all parents, whether you have a toddler or teen, a neurotypical or neurodivergent child, a biological or adopted child, or any other specific type of situation. This happens to all of us.
After working with parents, children and families for 25 years, and being a parent myself for 22 years, here’s what I know for sure: Every child has the potential to learn, grow and be better tomorrow than they are today. And every parent wants to feel capable and competent in guiding their children. If you want to feel more competent as a parent, and help your child progress and whatever their areas of struggle, here’s what you need to understand: You actually don’t need more strategies, scripts or stuff to do. Chances are you kind of already know what works or you have read enough strategies or you have learned enough skills. What you need is to be able to actually implement what you know to do on a more consistent basis. In my experience, there is far more often an implementation gap, as opposed to an information gap. So if you don’t need lots more strategy scripts and fixes to parent your children more effectively, handle challenging moments with them, and improve their behaviors, then what do you need?
Space. You need more space. You and your child need more space in every aspect of your lives. You need more space between emotions and behavior, more space between stimulus and response. You need more space in your mind, your body and your environment, so you can feel, and react, and manage things in the way you know is best. You need space to actually implement all the things you know and want to do for yourself and for your children. This means, then, that the key to supporting yourself and your kids more effectively, to being more of the parent you want to be, to helping your children grow and develop in a more positive direction, to developing better emotional behavioral regulation, is actually to become better at making space. Before we talk about what I mean by making space, let’s spend a few minutes exploring what space is in the first place. A common dictionary definition is, “A continuous area or expanse which is free, available or unoccupied.” This fits with how I think we tend to conceptualize space as nothingness. On the surface, it’s about openness, a pause, a place or a period of time when nothing happens. It’s blank. We might also think about space as what exists between events, or feelings, or things. It’s the in-between, where one thing has ended and the next thing has not yet begun. At the other extreme, we can consider space as being what holds the entirety of everything that exists in that moment. Space contains all the feelings, thoughts, context, environment and experiences happening in that moment. It seems then that space is really about nothing and everything all at once. It’s both the presence of everything in the moment, and the lack of doing anything to change it or move on from it. I think of it as hitting the pause button where everything freezes. What’s there is there, but we are not doing anything to move the frame forward. We hang in this space of what exists without taking any action on it. My Zen Master musician friend sends me music he’s created, and reminds me not to listen to the notes, but to listen to the space between the notes. The space between the notes is where nothing and everything happens at the same time, where we can simply take in and process all that is, without focusing on the sound that came before or the one that’s coming next. This is a powerful framework for thinking about everything in our lives, including how we experience and relate to our children, especially during challenging moments or seasons. Can we learn to be in, and listen to, the space between what’s happened and whatever will happen next? Can we create more and longer spaces to navigate the especially difficult things we encounter in parenting? Can we create more space between our feelings and our responses, and allow our kids to do the same?
To really understand why this idea of space and making more of it is relevant to you, your parenting and improving your child’s behavior and development. We need to dive into the research around emotional and behavioral regulation, how and why it’s important and what allows it to develop and improve. Now that’s a lot to cover in a podcast. So let’s just focus on the basics of this. For now, what you need to know is that one of the key things that develops over the course of childhood is what we call emotional and behavioral regulation. Regulation is simply the ability to have control over your emotions and behaviors, to manage your emotions and behaviors appropriately given the situation. When a person is emotionally regulated, they can feel a wide range of emotions and not be overcome by them. Behavioral regulation is a skill of being able to manage your actions in a way that’s appropriate and healthy, regardless of what emotions are present. This is why behavioral regulation is very connected to emotional regulation. Now, the opposite of regulation is dysregulation. When someone is emotionally and behaviorally dysregulated, it means they are having feelings that are outside the range of intensity that would be expected for the situation, and are behaviorally acting out in ways that are unhealthy or problematic in order to try to reduce the intensity of their uncomfortable feelings. Here are some examples to help flesh this out: I am emotionally and behaviorally well regulated. When I feel frustration about something at a level that is manageable for me in that moment, I remind myself it’s okay to feel frustrated, and that I will make it through, and come up with a way to solve the problem or help myself return to a less frustrated baseline. I am emotionally and behaviorally dysregulated when I feel frustration with my child getting ready for school slowly, experience that frustration at an intensity that exceeds my ability to manage it in that moment, and yell at him to hurry up, and threaten to take away his toys if he doesn’t comply. A child is regulated when they feel sad about having to turn off the computer, experience that feeling at an intensity that’s manageable for them, and then turn it off and move forward to the next thing. They are dysregulated when they feel disappointed about not getting computer time after school, that emotion is bigger than their ability to manage it, and they lash out with screaming and a temper tantrum as a result. There are a couple of key things to note here: The first is our perception of the intensity of feelings we are having. When we experience emotions at a level that we perceive we can handle, we tend to be able to stay better regulated and respond appropriately. However, when the emotion feels too big to manage in that moment, we can become easily dysregulated and act out in ways that cause more problems or that we regret later on. Context, then, is critically important to our ability to stay emotionally and behaviorally regulated. My experience of frustration with my child in the first half of the day may feel entirely different than my experience of frustration with them after a long day when I just need them to go to bed. And the intensity of the emotional experience based on all the contributing factors will lead me to react behaviorally in a different way. The same thing is true for kids. Their ability to stay regulated when feeling anxious, sad or disappointed during a pretty low-key day without a lot of demands and stressors is going to be far better than on a day when they have been rushed around, had to do a lot of hard tasks, are hungry and maybe even didn’t sleep well the night before.
The second thing that’s important to know is that we are not born with built in regulation capabilities. Far from it. In fact, one of the most important tasks of the developmental process from birth through young adulthood is developing the capacity and skills for emotional and behavioral regulation. In other words, this is very much an experience-driven and learned skill. What’s the primary way children develop emotional and behavioral regulation? Through their relationships with parents, caregivers, and other key adults in their lives. That means the relationship we have with our children, which includes our communication, engagement, responsiveness, boundaries, routines, and everything else that happens between us and our kids, is the path on which they build the brain connections and the skills for regulating their own emotions and behaviors.
If you have heard the term co-regulation, that’s what we are talking about here. Co-regulation is simply the process through which children manage their emotions and behaviors via the modeling and presence of their parents or another adult. Self-regulation, which is the end goal, is when we get to the point where we are able to independently be aware of our feelings, thoughts and behaviors, and manage them appropriately in the moment, given the situation we are in. But self-regulation can only develop over time with a strong foundation of co-regulation. The four-year-old child who is melting down because they can’t have the toy they want a Target can’t be expected to self-regulate in that moment. The feelings are too big, too fast, too strong. They need their adult to be a calm, steady, supportive presence in that moment, to show them that they can feel those big feelings and come out on the other side. Essentially, that they can have overwhelming feelings of disappointment, and frustration, and sadness and whatever else, and come back to a more manageable and regulated emotional baseline without getting what they want. When adults respond to this type of situation by yelling at the child, telling them their screentime will be taken away, or by giving them the toy to make them stop, we are failing to co-regulate and help the child develop the brain connections needed to feel, interpret and manage those emotions differently in the future. In these challenging, emotion-filled moments, kids need us to be an anchor of regulation, so they can more quickly return to a regulated baseline themselves. When we become dysregulated in the face of their dysregulation, nothing good happens. We get upset with ourselves and them, they don’t develop improved capability for regulation, and the cycle goes round and round. This is why we so often say that the number one thing parents need to be able to do when a child is distressed, melting down, yelling, acting out, resisting, arguing, whatever — is to stay calm. Because when we are able to regulate our emotions and behaviors, which is what it means to stay calm, they are able to move through their dysregulation quicker.
You might be thinking that sounds like a pretty simple thing. Okay. Kids need to develop regulatory capabilities. We model and guide them to do that, everybody’s good to go. It is simple. The problem is that simple and easy are not the same thing. While the process of supporting emotional and behavioral regulation in ourselves and our kids is pretty simple, we tend to find it very difficult to do. Our emotions can quickly take over, as they can for our kids. We experience constant stressors and environmental inputs that make it difficult for us to stay calm so we can help our kids stay calm. Some children have neurological differences, developmental delays, traumas, and other things that can get in the way of developing better regulation capabilities. This is why this relatively simple process can actually be the most confounding and difficult thing to do as a parent. We need to keep ourselves emotionally and behaviorally regulated, so we can help our children develop the ability to be more regulated, and to self-regulate over time. Boy is that hard on many days. So what can we do to make this easier, to help ourselves stay better regulated, so we can help our kids stay better regulated?
We can learn to make space. Space is the key to supporting emotional and behavioral regulation for us and for our children. We need to create more space in our expectations, relationships, communication, schedules, physical environment, and even within our physical bodies, to allow ourselves to manage our emotions and behaviors and our child’s emotions and behaviors more effectively. Why are more parents and children struggling with mental health challenges, behavior challenges, chronic physical ailments than ever before? Because we have created a world and lives that don’t have much space in them. In the name of achievement, fulfillment, giving all the things to our kids and families, and helping our kids become everything we want them to be, we have tried to squeeze more and more into less and less time. We have increased expectations for our children and ourselves. We have sacrificed quality for quantity, all of which placed us on a collision course with the reality of what we as humans are capable of managing. This is especially true for our children. If we want to better support ourselves and our children, become better parents, and help our kids have better behavior, then we are going to have to focus on creating more space in our lives, space between our emotions, thoughts and behaviors, space to process what’s actually happening in the moment, to rein in our time-traveling brain that loves to jump 20 years into the future. Space for our child to process what’s happening in the moment, to build the muscles of resilience for feeling uncomfortable things and coming out on the other side. Space to consider what might be best for us and our child in that moment, to consider all the strategies and tools at our disposal, and choose what seems best in that moment. Space for us and our child to feel and to be in that moment without having to fix. Space to remind ourselves that this too shall pass, this moment will lead to the next, and it will be okay. We make more space by slowing down the pace of life for us and our kids, by using communication that allows for responses rather than reactions, by eating nutrient-dense foods that support a calm, regulated nervous system, healthy brain connections, better mood, less anxiety, and so many other things. We create space by sleeping well at night and making sure our kids are well-rested. We make space by getting outside in nature, moving our bodies, breathing fresh air. Speaking of breathing, it’s a key way for us to make more space in our lives. Focused, intentional, regulated breathing. And there are mindfulness tools, meditation and many more.
When I stopped to think about it, any blog post, video, podcast episodes, social media posts or any other content of mine you have consumed is really about ways to help you create more space, because it’s in the space that you and your children can grow, regulate and thrive. I have hopefully convinced you that the solution to whatever issues you are facing in your parenting and with your child is not to collect more strategies, sticker charts, scripts and whatever else for dealing with behavior. Instead, let’s turn our attention to how to become a space-maker, so everything becomes easier and more effective. Let’s practice listening to and living life with our children in the spaces between the notes. Thank you, as always, for listening to the podcast, for being an important part of this community, and I look forward to catching you back here next time.