Author and educator Susan Kaiser Greenland has worked with children and families using mindfulness and meditation for more than two decades. Here, she offers guidance to help children cope with family challenges, such as divorce, throughout their lives.
It’s important to understand how the nervous system works. We all need a certain amount of stimulation to function—a deadline, a public-speaking date, a race. That small adrenaline boost we get from a moderate amount of stimulation ensures peak performance.
Too much stimulation, however, can send us into fight, flight, or freeze (FFF). In children, this is especially confusing because it can be interpreted as defiance. Kids cross their arms and seem to pull away or zone out. This behavior is actually a sign that they are overstimulated.
When children go into reactive mode, their capacity to think clearly and respond to reason shrinks. They become closed off. This is when you should be available. Be with them; listen, acknowledge their feelings, and don’t expect them to talk it through right then.
It’s important for you to be present for your child so that they feel seen, loved, and conflict-free. When you’re grounded, your child can become grounded.
Interactions will not always be pleasant—don’t take what your child says or does personally. Recognize that they have mixed-up feelings and will need you to keep the space safe. Your job is to contain the situation without being reactive and allow them to feel their feelings. If you can’t respond calmly, you will only escalate the situation.
Of course, no parent is perfect. I made a huge mistake as a young parent: I’m a fixer and always tried to reason it out or find a consensus with my kids. I didn’t understand that in the midst of a meltdown, none of us had the bandwidth to work through the problem. But I learned that when a child is in FFF mode, you shouldn’t try to sort out the problem.
The wisdom doesn’t come from being perfect. We’re always going to lose it sometimes. Turn it into a teaching moment for both of you. Recognize that it happens; circle back and apologize. Don’t hold yourself up to an unrealistic standard.