Our nervous systems have dealt with some heavy burdens over the last few years. And while parenting is often stressful, shutdowns and financial implications made it tough to shield our kids from the collective anxiety. The result for many families is a house full of dysregulated nervous systems.
Brain science expert and yoga and meditation teacher Lauren Betzing is here to share advice on how nervous system regulation benefits both parents and kids.
We have all experienced it. Out of nowhere, our child loses their cool over what seems to us to be a small thing. Perhaps it’s a meltdown while you are out grocery shopping, or an uncharacteristic, “Oh shoot, is that MY kid who just did that?” behavior at the playground.
As parents, we can be flooded with reactions ourselves, feel internal or external judgment, or we can even begin to panic wondering, “How do I make this stop right now?”
If you take a few moments to pause in these situations, you’d begin to recognize that everything starts and resets in the body. That these outward behaviors are just the external route through which our nervous system and our emotional energy are expressing.
Why Nervous System Regulation Matters
By understanding the critical role of the nervous system in these situations, we can have a leg up as parents and work proactively to support ourselves and our kids as these inevitable moments arise.
Cutting edge research and discoveries in landmark books like The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk and Anchored by Deb Dana and Stephen Porges, a pioneer in the polyvagal theory, have collectively deepened our understanding that these “challenging behaviors” come down to one common thread – a lack of safety.
We all want to feel safe
Based on the latest findings in neuroscience, we know that at the root of hitting, yelling, talking back, meltdowns, trouble falling asleep and more, indicate that the body is in a state of stress.
Our nervous systems are overloaded and the body is having a difficult time maintaining a state of regulation. In other words, the behaviors are a reflection of the body saying, “I do not feel safe right now.”
To understand what exactly is going in our child’s body, it can be helpful to have a quick biology 101 reminder on the function of the nervous system.
What happens physiologically with a regulated vs. dysregulated nervous system
We have two branches in the autonomic nervous system: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. The sympathetic nervous system (“s” for stress) is designed to help us in fight or flight.
In a properly functioning system it would turn on when there is a real threat or danger and then regulate back to homeostasis. The parasympathetic nervous system (“p” for peace) on the other hand, is designed to help us shift from this fight, flight or freeze response and bring calm and relaxation back to the body.
It is not surprising in our high tech, high activity, “always on” society, that kids’ nervous systems are being triggered frequently, and many times they do not have the support or tools to regulate their bodies.
How to Regulate Your (and Your Child’s) Nervous System
One of the greatest opportunities we have as parents is to do the inner work to shift our inner state and nervous system health, model that to our children, and help them to know how to enter a state of relaxation after the inevitable ups and downs of life.
So what can we do as parents?
Through years of research and practice, we have found two simple and highly effective ways that can help support YOU and your kids.
The first practice is for what we call “triage” moments where the nervous system has already tipped into a sympathetic state, and the other is what we like to call a foundational practice to help reset and stabilize the nervous system proactively.
Here are a few nervous system regulation practice ideas to support you on your journey.
For the “that escalated quickly” moments
First, you want to check in with yourself and regulate your own nervous system.
Take a deep breath, feeling any tension within your body and be willing to release any and all thoughts and judgments that may be circling in your mind.
A good mantra in these situations to bring yourself back to center is: Peace begins with me.
This creates the energy of co-regulation so you can then support your child in their process. What that support looks like will be different based on your child, their unique needs, temperament, and the situation.
However, one cue you can use across the board to help your child in the moment is to visually model your process of connecting to the body and regulating your breath. This can be as simple as placing your right hand on your chest and beginning to take deep inhales and exhales while you make eye contact.
You may be surprised at how quickly they respond to this non-verbal cue!
You can also try one or more of these energetic movement techniques with your kids to help settle the nervous system. They tend to be extremely effective for wiggly kids or those who are particularly keyed up.
As above, breathing starts the signal to your body that you are ok. You can try a box breath (here’s a breathing exercise and meditation for kids) or direct your breath into different areas of the body. Breathing into your lower back ribs can be really helpful.
Alternate Nostril Breathing
Alternate Nostril Breathing is a yoga and meditation technique that helps calm the mind, balance the energy, and bring harmony to the nervous system. This practice is believed to bring balance to the right and left hemispheres of the brain, leading to a feeling of relaxation and stress relief. Here’s how to do it:
- Use the thumb and ring finger of one hand to gently block your right nostril. Inhale deeply through your left nostril.
- Close your left nostril with your right thumb and release your right nostril. Exhale through the right nostril.
- Inhale through the right nostril and then close it with your right ring finger. Open your left nostril and exhale through the left.
- Repeat this pattern for several rounds, taking deep, slow breaths and focusing on your breath.
Start by shaking your hands or feet. If that feels good, add other parts of the body. The goal is to reduce those feelings of tightness, tension, or jangled nerves. Don’t shake hard enough to injure yourself.
This stimulates the vagus nerve and helps connect us to our emotions. Allow yourself to feel any emotions that come up (laugh, cry, get angry). Feel free to make other sounds if they’re helpful.
Hugging is a co-regulation technique where one person receives nervous system regulation from an already regulated person. If you are calm, hug your child until they feel their body relax (around 20 seconds). The oxytocin flood can bring on feelings of joy and improve the immune system.
Also called earthing, connecting with the earth can calm our nervous systems. Take off your shoes and stand on the earth. Lay down in the grass, a forest floor, or the beach. Hug a tree with your whole body.
For foundational nervous system support
While you can embed soothing practices and moments into any time of your day, one of the most effective windows to support the regulation of the nervous system is right before bedtime.
We can pick up all types of things that disrupt our nervous systems or make us feel unsafe throughout the day. By setting an intention and regularly practicing deep breathing before sleep, we can release tension and reset our nervous systems to come back into homeostasis.
To practice with your kids, you can invite them to lay down on their bed and close their eyes. Try a body scan meditation where you ask them to take a deep breath and release any tightness or tension from their bodies starting from the toes all the way up to their head.
You can then invite them to share or release any experiences or thoughts from their day that they’d like to let go of. You can then close the practice with your own mantra or saying that is meaningful for your family (e.g., a prayer, a message of love, etc.).