Saturday, March 11, 2023

Parenting Pointers: Self-Regulation

 For Stuart Shanker, the possibility of a truly just and free society begins with how we see and nurture our children.

Shanker is renowned for using cutting-edge neuroscience to help children feel happy and think clearly by better regulating themselves. In his new book, Reframed, Shanker explores self-regulation in wider, social terms. Whereas his two previous books, Calm, Alert, and Learning and Self-Reg, were written for educators and parents, Reframed, the final book in the trilogy, unpacks the unique science and conceptual practices that are the very lifeblood of Self-Reg, making it an accessible read for new Self-Reggers.

Reframed is grounded in the three basic principles of Shanker Self-Reg®:

  • There is no such thing as a bad, lazy, or stupid kid.
  • All people can learn to self-regulate in ways that promote rather than constrict growth.
  • There is no such thing as a "fixed outcome": trajectories can always be changed, at any point in the lifespan, if only we have the right knowledge and tools.

I had a chance to learn more in this interview.

Why is it important to avoid labels like bad, stupid, or lazy?

It is a real eye-opener to discover when terms like “bad,” “stupid,” or “lazy” first came into use. It dates back to the beginning of the 19th century. Parenting experts -- and in those days anyone could and did claim to be a “parenting expert” -- looked at how scientists were able to change the internal property of metal or wood by tempering them: subjecting them to controlled fire. And they thought, why can’t we do the same to a child: change a child’s “internal property” by “tempering” their ability to deal with stress. And some kids needed a lot more tempering than others: kids that were “bad,” “stupid,” or “lazy.”

In one fell swoop, they had come up with the idea that a child is born with an “internal property”: the child’s character. And that through parenting, we could change that “character” to be the sort of individual that the Victorians prized: a child who was disciplined, hard-working, had self-control and grit. In other words, they took a simile and turned it into a trait, and we’ve been struggling with this view of personality ever since. Until now.

We are in the midst of an incredible revolution in neuroscience. The more we learn about how the brain works, and how it develops, the more these Victorian terms are seen as not just empty, but harmful. One of the big problems is, these terms condition how we see a child. If an older child has a tantrum, we see this as signs of a “weak character” that has to be hardened. But neuroscience sees something completely different. It sees a child whose brain has been overloaded, which forces us to ask: Why? What has dysregulated the child’s subcortex? Is it something about the way that child’s brain is wired? Is it something about the stresses the child is under? Not just obvious stresses, but stresses that are unique to that child. 

You asked, “why is it important to avoid these labels?” The answer is that they blind us to what is going on in the child’s brain, what we can do to help that child. They are labels that the child internalizes and they begin to do so at an incredibly young age. Begin to see themselves as bad, stupid, or lazy. When the problem is that they are simply over-stressed, and when this happens their “Red Brain” overwhelms their Blue Brain: the systems that pay attention, solve problems, notice others – and themselves!

To free ourselves from the grip of these antiquated labels we start asking Why, and Why now? And then, what can we do to help my child settle, to remove their “limbic brakes,” to help them find their sense of purpose and joy. And then, how can we help them to find a real sense of peace and calm, so that their brain can restore. And ours as well. 

How can reframing help parents?

The first step to answering this question is to get clear about what we mean by “reframing.” We have a saying in Self-Reg: “See a child differently and you see a different child.” But how does this actually work? 

Let’s take a simple example. You’ve taken your child to a restaurant for dinner as a special family outing, and you child starts “acting up.” They bang their cutlery, start to shout, hit their little sister. And someone at the next table leans over and in a very stern voice says, “Can’t you control your child!” You feel wretched and your pleasant family outing has quickly turned into a nightmare. Maybe you start to threaten your child with all sorts of dire consequences if they don’t behave. You are tense and your child’s behaviour gets worse.

But remember our lesson from the first question: we are supposed to ask Why and Why now. Is there a lot of noise in the restaurant? “I’ve noticed that my child gets dysregulated, overstressed when there’s too much noise in the house.” Is my child overwhelmed by all the strangers in the restaurant? “I remember that my child had pretty serious stranger anxiety when they were a toddler.” Are they uncomfortable in the chair? Are they stressed by having to choose what to eat? Is my own tension making theirs worse? 

One of the big benefits of reframing – asking myself whether my child is misbehaving or if this is stress-behaviour – is that everything about me changes: my own arousal calms down, and this is reflected in my voice and in my eyes. Instead of going into self-control mode, where I desperately feel I have to manage my child’s behaviour, I go into self-regulation mode, where I start to turn off my child’s “limbic alarm.”

One of the most important aspects of that neuroscience revolution that I mentioned is that it doesn’t just tell us why a child has become dysregulated, it also tells us how to soothe that dysregulation. Deep inside the brain there is a tiny little nucleus with a set of neurons that start pumping out neurochemicals to deal with the stress. Neurochemicals that trigger the “fight-or-flight” behaviours that we’re witnessing. In that same tiny nucleus, there is another set of neurons that turn off those neurochemicals. Right at the source, before “fight-or-flight” can get started or keep going.

A small child can’t do this on their own. Their brain needs us to trigger the release of the calming neurons. We do it with a gentle touch, a soothing voice, soft eyes. But the brain has a further treat in store. It turns out that when we soothe our child, the same neurochemicals are released in our own brain. The calmer we are, the more soothing our touch and our voice and our eyes. Nature equipped us with something called the Interbrain, a brain-to-brain connection with our child. Reframing is what gets that Interbrain firing on all its cylinders, providing the neurochemicals that parents as much as their children need to be calm and enjoy their meal.

And that couple at the next table? Well, they also need to reframe. We all do.

What is self-regulation and how can it actually promote growth?

There are so many definitions of self-regulation out there, floating around on the Internet. If you start noodling around, you’ll quickly find yourself wondering if everyone is talking about the same thing. In fact, our Jeremy Burman did a study on this and found 447 different definitions of self-regulation out there. But to keep things simple, we stick to the original definition, which dates back to the beginning of the 20th century.

The term was coined by an American physiologist, Walter Bradford Cannon. He was working with soldiers who had suffered shell-shock in the first World War: what today we call post-traumatic stress disorder. And he discovered that some core “self-regulating” mechanisms deep in the brain had been thrown out of whack by the acute stress they had suffered.

We can think of the brain as having different levels, all of them connected together and influencing each other with chemicals and electrical signals. At each of these “levels” there are self-regulating mechanisms, designed, for example, to maintain the amount of sugar or salt or water in the blood, or to maintain a stable internal temperature of 37 degrees. When one of these mechanisms becomes dysregulated, it affects the balance that all the others are designed to maintain. When this imbalance spreads, you get the sort of dysregulation I mentioned in the previous question, with a child having a tantrum. And what causes the imbalance is too much stress, of one kind or another.

But there is a further level of self-regulation: what we normally think of when we use the term. We teach our children to put on their hat, gloves, and coat when it’s cold outside because the less energy their body has to expend keeping that 37 degree internal temperature, the more energy available for things like learning at school or fighting off a cold. 

The kind of “learned” self-regulation that Cannon was thinking of were the strategies we use to reduce the stress-load on our children or on ourselves. The more the various systems in the brain are in “balance,” the more energy that’s available for things like strengthening the immune system, or, as you so rightly indicated with your question, for growth. For the fact is that all those elements that go into growth – cellular repair, metabolism, smoothly functioning internal organs – run on energy, glucose. So the better we recognize stress-behaviours for what they are, and learn how to reduce the child’s stress-load and the child’s stress-response, the more energy available for healthy growth.

One of the questions I get asked all the time is, off all the different kinds of self-regulating strategies, which is the most important. You are, for the reasons we looked at in the previous two questions. Not just because you learn to identify the signs of when your child is over-stressed, and the reasons why, but because your Interbrain is the most powerful tool nature gave us to nurture our child’s growth. Not just physical, but emotional, social, and cognitive. Growth is such a multi-faceted phenomenon, and at its heart is the Interbrain.

Only a society that embraces these principles and strives to practice them, argues Shanker, can become a truly just society. The paradigm revolution presented in Reframed not only helps us understand the harrowing time we are living through, but inspires a profound sense of hope for the future. Shanker shows us how to build a compassionate society, one mind at a time.

Stuart Shanker is a distinguished research professor emeritus of philosophy and psychology at York University, and founder of the MEHRIT Centre, Ltd. He is a world-leading authority and bestselling author on the topic of self-regulation and child development, and the former president of the Council of Early Child Development.

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