“New research at Stanford University encouraged middle school teachers to take on an ‘empathetic mindset’ when students were being disciplined. The study found that the number of pupils who were suspended across the academic year halved, from 9.6% to 4.8%.” ~ Study: Focus on Empathy, Not Punishment, Improves Discipline
We all know how well children saturate themselves in the present moment. Lost in doodling, leaves, bugs and clouds, the present moment wraps itself around young ones like a warm, secure blanket. Here children enter a deep state of relaxation where they trust all is good in life.
One reason children rest so well in presence is because they rest well in their heart. The heart dwells in what I call the “zero point”: The child is neither forward nor backward in time. The mind, by contrast, lives in past and future, “minus” and “plus”—deviations from zero. The discursive mind anticipates what’s to come, plans ahead, regrets yesterday, stresses over what could be and worries about what should have been. It thinks and thinks, which is its job.
One of the most important roles of a caregiver is to nurture the child’s restful state of heartfelt presence. A slow, simple, attuned pace is needed for healthy child development. Calm, soothing tones keep children alive to what is here and now in their sensate body. Specifically, slowing down in difficult moments and joining children in their big emotions helps them to soothe their heart and nervous system and self-regulate.
Indeed, a calming presence is a much-needed gift in times of chaos and confusion, one that’s willing to say, “It’s okay”; “I’m with you”; “It’ll all be fine”. These simple yet powerful words not only calm big emotions but assure children, and adults for that matter, that they are safe right now; all is good in this present moment, which allows the present-oriented heart to rest and remain open and the child to continue being saturated in the joys and wonders of timelessness.
Startling the heart and nervous system“Putting your students' emotional needs first is important because without feeling safe and understood, no instructional strategy will be effective.” ~ Jasper Fox, Sr.Click To Tweet
It’s obviously impossible for caregivers to be perfect and always have calm transitions with children; to never feel rushed, to have no moments when they need to use a stronger tone and directive. This is especially true when parents don’t have an extended network of family to offer support and teachers have thirty students to themselves. Naturally, they become tired and short on patience.
The organization and relationship systems we have designed and live by in the West are far removed from those in indigenous cultures where family and community play important roles in raising and educating children. Today, more than ever, people have become estranged not just from extended family, but neighbors and friends who we once relied on for helping hands.
Therefore, given our limitations, I’m not here to say that parents and teachers “should” always be calm with kids. What I am offering, however, is an insight into the deeper dynamics of a child (and adult) who does not regularly hear: “It’s okay”; “I’m with you”; “It’ll all be fine”; who is corrected and directed far more than connected with.
Consider these scenarios:
- A child is startled because he breaks a vase. He is immediately hurried away even though he is not in danger of cutting himself. The future—directing him away and cleaning—is more important than the present—the intense emotions he is feeling.
- A child gets confused about getting ready to leave the house or classroom. Her rational brain is still developing, after all, and it can take extra time for little ones to digest logistical matters. Instead of having her slow response and confusion met with understanding, she is repeatedly told with an anxious tone to speed up.
- A child is afraid because he heard loud banging sounds from above his bedroom and, instead of his parents reassuring (meeting) him, they state all the reasons why that could not have been. Rationalizing is their attempt at empathy, when in fact it is fixing; and fixing is not what big emotions need. Imagine what happens to emotions that parents repeatedly try to fix?
- A child doesn’t understand the school assignment. Her little, developing brain is not ready for it yet. Instead of being met with soothing words of understanding, she is corrected or reprimanded with a quick, sharp tone.
- A child is happy to simply be right where she is—outside, playing with a caterpillar—and doesn’t want to be taken away to one more organized event; yet rushed along she is. The transition is not tended to with the care the sensitive girl needs; nor is there a recognition that the child, deep inside, longs for simplicity, a parent to play with, and attunement.
How often is this the case for children: Direction and correction supersede connection; fast and future surpass slow and present? Without enough tender slowing and empathy for sadness, fear, confusion, panic and general needs, without enough connecting before correcting or directing, the nervous system and heart suffer.
They do because that, over there, is more important than the child, over here. What’s present and alive is quickly overridden by a “better”—cleaner, more organized, on-task, productive, “right”, get-to-it—future.
Look around carefully; you’ll see that increasingly we are preparing children and rushing them along at alarming rates, and at the cost of letting them simply be and slowly live. Not surprisingly their mental, physical and emotional health suffer.
Too much; too fast; too soon“... unresolved trauma is responsible for the majority of the illness of modern mankind.” ~ Peter Levine, In An Unspoken VoiceClick To Tweet
Much of society has normalized and become unconscious to the intensity with which vulnerable young ones are responded to and the pace they live in. We don’t realize the impact it’s all having. It’s not the words so much as the urgency or intensity of the tone and pace that startles the heart and nervous system. Regular doses of sharpness, abruptness and urgency literally yanks children out of their state of presence and restful awareness making the now, and all it holds, feel unsafe.
It’s worth remembering how deeply children, especially those between 0 and 7, reside in the space of no-time. Not only are they “zero point”, heart-felt beings, but very much oriented to the right brain which, too, is all about now. Presence is embodied at a cellular level and there is a felt-sense of interconnection with their surroundings that left brain- and future-oriented adults have lost touch with. It’s therefore incredibly hard on young ones to be pulled out of their saturated, heart-felt state again and again.
And it’s worth remembering that with children small is BIG! To children, a caregiver’s anxiety and directive can feel like a fierce windstorm that tosses them into the air; being rushed along can feel like an intense shock to the nervous system; being corrected without nourishing connection can feel like a whack on the back of the heart. Shocks to the nervous system knock around the heart and soon the child becomes nervous. The soft, forgiving pace that the gentle child needs is overlooked, and the mindful zero-point of the heart is pulled upwards into a mind-full way of living.
When inner experiences such as sadness, fear, confusion and anger are continuously made to feel unsafe and repair is not offered, it becomes inevitable that the child’s thinking, rational mind becomes more active and calculating in order to manage safety. People and circumstances are increasingly assessed in order to mitigate the possibility of fear, hurt and overwhelm: How can I best behave; how do I avoid; how do I be good; what did I do wrong; how can I do it right? In other words, children adapt; or, as Pat Odgen states in her book, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, in order to feel safe, children “…instinctively adjust their inner needs and behavioral responses to parental demands and preferences, learning early on what is expected in relationships.”
These adjustments become habitual. The child learns to live less instinctually and more through the calculating mind that wires itself according to its environment. The child deviates further and further from 0 and dwells increasingly in minus (past) and plus (future).
The stronger this pattern engrains in the body due to intensity and general environmental failures the more likely children go from being temporarily alert or anxious to becoming stuck in hyper alertness which is a sign of trauma. “Too much; too fast; too soon” is the formula that causes a child’s nervous system to become aroused outside what Dan Siegel calls the “window of tolerance”. Without a primary caregiver to offer soothing words, that “spike” in arousal likely becomes stuck outside what’s tolerable; the child can’t come “back down” from her over-aroused state and the spike becomes “frozen in time”.
This is developmental trauma, a dysregulation of the physiology. The child enters a more rigid and vigilant state because her childhood experiences are filled with “too much; too fast; too soon” and without enough “It’s okay”; “I’m with you”; “It’ll all be fine”.
Trying is tiring on the body
We underestimate how much mental and physical illness stems from not having enough soothing words in intense or overwhelming moments, and from growing up with a dyregulated nervous system. Alone in our experience without a caregiver to safely share our interiority with, feelings get suppressed – depression. The mind over-works to create safety and as a response to the spike in arousal – anxiety. Life force energy is truncated, the nervous system dysregulated – trauma. These, over time, have significant repercussions on our health, far more than most realize.
As a child I was diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, in large part because of the adverse childhood experiences I faced that included abuse and abandonment. I used to double check, triple check, quadruple check locks, how well my hockey cards were stacked, my alarm clock, and more. I used to have to run my fingers along edges, plug my ears and touch the ground, or suddenly shake my head. My hyper alert mind was trying desperately to discharge anxiety and control my environment so that I could feel safe. I was trying so hard to do things right because, both at home and school, I was indoctrinated into wrong.
Trying to keep up, trying to do it right, trying to cope is incredibly tiring on the heart. Trying is tiring because trying is about excessive efforting, suppression, denial, splitting, focusing on past and future. I tried because I was in a hyperaroused (vigilant) state due to severe boundary violations. I tried because it was not safe to rest in my body. It was scary to feel. I tried because the present moment was hardly accessible since my mind hijacked my heart and living below the neck became harder and harder.
Not surprisingly, when we continue to push while avoiding feeling and healing, our bodies express symptoms. Excessive trying creates heart problems later in life; or we discover we have chronic fatigue syndrome, asthma, migraines, insomnia, irritable bowl syndrome, colic, etc. In my case, I had a litany of health problems that lasted for years including getting sick every time I spoke (for 4.5 years), heat on the crown, eye burning and pressure, headaches, eczema all over my scalp, pain in my chest, ear pain and pressure, chronic tightness in my forearms, back, shoulders and neck, stomach pain, and, not surprisingly, heart pain.
More than we realize, these and other pains and illnesses have their genesis in unresolved childhood wounds. I have been able to heal these symptoms not by going to my M.D., but through healing unresolved trauma—by going to the cause.
What every child needs“When little people are overwhelmed by big emotions, it's our job to share our calm, not to join their chaos.” ~ L.R. KnostClick To Tweet
I needed to know that I was safe in my mistake, held in my confusion, fine in my fear. I needed a parent or teacher to sit with me patiently in my world as I unraveled my inner experience.
I needed someone to allow me to be far more, and do far less; human being I was, and am. This is where I was, and am, most happy.
A child needs plenty of time not to try, to live at his own natural pace, to be who he organically is. A child needs to live spontaneously, trusting the whims and rhythms of his heart with far less interference from the thinking mind that instigates trying in the first place. In this most pure, embodied state children stay in the implicit knowing that now is perfectly okay; now is enough; it’s just fine and so are they.
Slow and sure are needed when a child falls over, breaks a vase, is uncertain or confused; when she wishes to simply melt into grass and stare wondrously out her classroom window; when transitions are needed from one place to another. But slow and sure are hard to come by these days, especially when parents are stressed, troubled in their relationships, burdened by unfulfilling work, dealing with health challenges, mental unrest, feeling alone in the world. Slow and sure is not a pace and way people in the West feel comfortable or are familiar with (particularly because when we slow down we begin to feel the uncomfortable and denied). In fact, there is less room than ever for ease, slow and unstructured simplicity. “Do it right”, “Be strong”, “Be quick”, “Be smart”, “Hurry”, “We need to get going” and “Grow up” have forged the clutter of life and learning at alarming levels at school, home and elsewhere. Grades are more important than joy. Homework is more pressing than time with family and in the backyard. After school programs squeeze out flow, exploration and much needed boredom from which creativity arises. Responsibility and performance are prioritized over simple connection. This ever-growing rate of complexity, speed and structure grates on tender little ones and is largely to blame for the rise in anxiety and depression.
The child’s nervous system is wired to evolve at a gentle, naturally emerging rate, which makes it easier for them to stay in their heart. The presencing, instinctual heart is meant to lead, not the past-future thinking mind. (In fact, via the Vagus Nerve, 80% of information travels from the heart to the brain, and only 20% goes the other way.) When the mind is quiet and the heart leads we experience organic, natural doing—doing that arises spontaneously from embodied presence, from being, from timelessness; we simply know what to do, and that knowing arises not from the thinking, efforting mind but from instinctual, felt-sense.
Look at children carefully. How much thought goes into their moment-to-moment decisions—in their drawing, in skipping down the hallway, in telling you that they saw a dragon pop through the cloud above? Children are full of surprises because they are wild and free, unencumbered yet by the shackles of the time-bound thinking mind. This is indeed a sign of health—resting in the here and now of instinctual movement, impulse, felt-sense, while connected to dreams, desires and emotions.
Just as flowers blossom and the sun drifts in due course, a child is wired to flourish as life moves and breathes. We don’t do our breathing; we don’t try to breathe; rather, we are breathed; it happens naturally without trying. This is the Tao the great Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu taught, the natural flow of life. No plant or animal tries. They just instinctually move via intelligence deeper than the linear thought we prioritize in the West and obsessively grade our children on; the same wildly innate intelligence that informs a growing child how and when to gurgle, swallow, poop, crawl and talk.“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” ~ Lao TzuClick To Tweet
We think ourselves to be separate from Mother Nature and the intelligence of Life. With our addiction to speed and future-linear-orientation we act as if we are, but deep within we are not. We are far more connected to its slow, sinuous, emerging rhythms than we know.
And so it is a great gift to allow children to remain where they belong: Moving and exploring at their own pace, attuned to the wonders of their heart, their bubbling emotions and cellular intelligence, and to the unfolding rhythms of life. In offering this gift, children remain saturated in the only place we can ever find fulfillment—here and now.
The following words help:
- It’s okay.
- We got this.
- I’m with you.
- Take your time.
- We’ll get there.
- It’s fine.
- Tell me more.
- I love you.
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Check out Vince’s book: Let the Fire Burn ~ Nurturing the Creative Spirit of Children, A Children’s Book for Adults