The Science is In — Taking Time for Ourselves is Better for Our Children

Trust me, I’ve been there — it must be around lunchtime, but I was up before dawn, and I’m still in my pajamas, haven’t had a chance to eat. There’s banana caked onto my clothes and into my hair, and I haven’t come close to touching one thing on my endless to do list. My stress level is rising. I’m trying to avert the next crisis, clean up a particularly unpleasant mess, and prepare a nutritious meal all at the same time. Meanwhile, my child is tearing joyfully through the house, wreaking havoc as he goes.

I’m not proud to tell you that my instinctual, automatic response to this situation would look like this: I frustratedly yell at my child to stop and confine him to the nearest enclosed space where he can cause the least amount of damage. (This will undoubtedly bring on the kind of wails and tears that immediately kick my stress level up several more notches.) I stomp from here to there as I a-little-too-aggressively sweep the floor and slam the dustpan around muttering to myself as the stress reaction fills my body — my shoulders climb towards my ears, my jaw clenches, and my breathing becomes shallow. Not one of my best mothering moments. And not the best course of action for my child or for me.

The most helpful course of action isn’t what you might expect. Recent studies in brain-based science suggest that the best thing for our children at times like these might be to focus on ourselves — to see how we can give ourselves a little compassion and self-care.

How we do that is different for each of us and depends on what’s going on for us in those moments. Sometimes it might mean taking deep breaths to calm our minds and bodies. Sometimes it might mean eating because we’re hungry or drinking something because we’re thirsty. In the bigger picture, it might mean acknowledging that we are tired and making a real effort to get more sleep each night. It could even mean finding someone else to watch our little ones for a few hours so that we can give ourselves a longer, more luxurious break. How we practice self-care is up to each one of us, but the important thing is that we find ways to relieve our stress — not just for us, but for our kids.

As parents, we often get so caught up in meeting our children’s needs that we forget about our own. We might even feel guilty for taking moments away from our children to focus on ourselves. Science is now telling us these patterns aren’t helping anyone. In fact, they may be teaching our kids the things that we don’t want them to learn. It turns out that our children need us as models: of keeping ourselves regulated and our brains integrated, so that they can develop these important skills themselves.

So, what does it mean to keep ourselves regulated and our brains integrated? Self-regulation, in this sense, is the ability to pay attention to and control our behavior, emotions, or thoughts, changing them from situation to situation. Brain integration means making sure that the creative right side of the brain is working together with the logical left side of the brain and that the instinctual lower part of the brain is working together with the calculating higher part of the brain. Often, when we become “dysregulated” — not paying attention to our behavior and adapting to situations — certain parts of our brain naturally take over. Unfortunately, these parts might not be the parts best equipped to handle the situation in front of us; we would come up with much better solutions if we were able to calm down and choose the best response for the current situation.

Though there is still a lot that we don’t know about the brain, much new research in brain-based science has emerged in recent years. Experts like Dan Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. have taken new information and found ways to apply it to parenting with positive new results. In future posts, we’ll talk more about these and how they can help us to raise happier, healthier children.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Psychotherapist, trainer and regular contributor to the newsletter for Romp, a children’s play space and development center.

Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Psychotherapist, trainer and regular contributor to the newsletter for Romp, a children’s play space and development center.