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Children cannot learn, be alert or engaged when they are not calm.
If you try to teach a stressed child you’re going to find that they can’t retain anything. They can’t process the information you’re giving them and therefore they’ll never be able to apply it. This causes a lot of parents to throw up their hands and either go “skill-building doesn’t work– this is bunk!” OR “I can see my child has weak skills and I WANT to build them, but we can never get to the point where I can work on them with them because they’re always running at a 10. They’re NEVER calm.”
In low energy, our brains go into kind of “essential services” mode.
It turns off anything that isn’t essential to keeping us alive. We enjoy being civil and rational, but those things aren’t necessary for our survival. Our brain, our neocortex shuts down, and goes into survival mode.
Often, what our brains will do is force us into what’s called hyperarousal. It’ll rev us up and get us very emotional and on high alert, this allows us to respond quickly to an attack.
This means that if your child is never calm; if they’re always in that hyperaroused, high alert, highly emotional state. SOMETHING is sucking up all their energy.
We will also go into this state if we perceive danger.
Four-year-olds are by nature somewhat stuck in this state because their limbic system is sucking up so much energy going through that huge growth spurt. The limbic system that is essential to life and it’s the one that’s growing it’s also super sensitive, so it’s kind of a double whammy in that sense.
As a parent, you would think the logical way to fix this would be to find what is sucking all that energy or making them feel unsafe and eliminate it.
It would be lovely if it were that simple, but it’s not. Often with young children, the thing that is sucking so much energy is the demand to use their weak executive functioning skills, which are housed in their neocortex.
Children using their weak skills requires a lot of energy!
We go into essential services mode, but then we can’t teach them how to strengthen those skills because their neocortex is offline. Leaving parents between a rock and a hard place.
Then what is to be done?!
Most people think of energy expenditure as linear. You wake up in the morning with lots of energy, and you slowly deplete your energy supply over the course of the day until at bedtime you’re running on fumes and you go to sleep.
Life would be grand if that were the case.
We’d all be morning people, we’d all be super productive and social until about 4 o’clock, and then nightlife would be non-existent because we’d all go home and muddle through till bed.
That’ s not how this works!
Instead, we wake up, we use some energy, then we take a break and do something that rejuvenates us a bit- we eat, we rest, and then we use some more energy, and then we do something that rejuvenates us, and then we use some more energy, so on and so forth.
This is why for us Moms, we tend to stay awake way later than we should. We tend to not get many opportunities for significant breaks throughout the day so by the end of the day we’re exhausted. When our kids go to bed and we get a break that gives us quite the second wind and then we have the energy to do all the things.
What happens if you have a child that seems never calm, is that they wake up, something sucks all their energy, and then they can’t get back up the hill. They’re just stuck here at the bottom existing in essential services mode.
The first thing to do if you have a child that is never calm is to find out what calms them. What refills their tank.
The challenge is that this is different for everybody.
You know how teenagers blast music and to us old foggies we’re like “what the heck is the purpose of blowing your ears out?” Well, that’s calming for them. That rejuvenates them.
Music is one of those things that many people find rejuvenating but obviously we all have our own music preferences.
I’m pretty basic; I’m really into pop, and country, a bit of hip hop. My husband, however, is much more into classic rock and so are my kids. If my kids are stressed, if I can see they need a break and I’m going to try to give that to them. I put on the Hits1 in the car, that’s probably not going to do it. It’ll be rejuvenating and calming for me! It won’t be for them! If my aim in putting on music is to calm them down, I’m going to flip over to my husband’s presets and turn on the classic rock.
A place we often see this dynamic is in introverted people vs extroverted people. My husband is introverted, he’s very charming, he’s got good social skills, but being around people is draining for me. He gets rejuvenated by being alone.
I remember when I was pregnant with Logan we went to the wedding of a good friend of mine, and I was in the wedding so we had to be there the whole time and after that weekend he literally packed up and went camping solo for a few days because he was SO DRAINED.
My youngest son, on the other hand, is super extroverted. He gains energy by being around people. When we spend too much time at home he starts getting stressed and he needs to go out and spend time with people, who aren’t his immediate family or else he starts picking fights with his older brother, throwing himself off furniture. He did that last week, got a nice two-inch gash in his forehead, he gets super picky about his eating. All this behavior goes out the window.
Some people get rejuvenated by running. Some people get rejuvenated by playing an instrument. Some people get rejuvenated by playing video games or building LEGO, or doing art. Everyone is different.
Ways To Keep Your Child Calm
The challenge for us as parents is to figure out what fills our child’s tanks vs what depletes it, and give them an opportunity to do those things at regular intervals throughout the day. They’re having that fill and empty cycle.
One of my ParentAbility members recently figured out that her child loves podcasts, building LEGO, puzzles, and heavy work. Now, they’ve arranged their day so that he has planned breaks to do that at regular intervals throughout the day, and they’ve noticed a MASSIVE improvement in his ability to stay calm.
This means she now has an opening where they can work on skill-building and that will soon pay off too.
It stops that hamster wheel.
I know this can be super overwhelming. I’ve just given you a tonne of information. I know it can feel very overwhelming to try and find your child’s calm, especially since we tend to default to what calms us.
Parents will default to TV because it makes their child QUIET. Television is NOT calming, in fact studies have been done and it shows that because TV is too stimulating it’s actually mentally exhausting for children.
Don’t fall into the QUIET trap!
If you’re like oh holy hell, I just don’t even know where to start with this, PLEASE come join us in ParentAbility.
Remember: Behavior is ALWAYS communication!
It’s just a matter of figuring out what they’re communicating. The nice thing is that children learn to regulate by being regulated, you will have to set this up and enforce this at first. They don’t know how to do it by themselves! If they knew how, they’d do it, being dysregulated is hell, nobody chooses that. This takes a lot of front-loaded effort, but gradually they will begin to take it over piece by piece, step by step, and then they’ll be able to do it by themselves.
You’ll start getting comments like “OH he’s SO good, he stays SO calm and he’s such a good leader!” You will think “this took a lot of work, but it was so worth it!”
Thoughts? I’d love to hear them. Drop me a comment.