Parenting: An Act of Love

There is no question about it; parenting is both enormously rewarding and also extremely taxing. Being at the beck and call of children and their emotions, whims, and needs is a bit like being on a roller coaster, complete with the highs, lows, and everything in between. Certainly, most parents can identify with experiencing intense love, joy, and gratitude in one moment while being filled with frustration, exhaustion, and helplessness the next. Despite the ups and downs, parenting is certainly one of the most important and significant roles and tasks one can have.

From the time of birth, little humans are hardwired for attachment, love, and belonging. Research indicates that children who feel this sense of connection to their families, schools and communities are less likely to misbehave. As parents, it is our job to help children experience this sense of belonging, to help them know their worth, to teach them social and life skills, and to help them feel capable and an appropriate sense of autonomy and independence.

We are constantly teaching our children through what we do, how we speak to and about others, how we treat our partner, even how we discipline our pets. The ways in which we treat and talk to our children will impact them for a lifetime. If we treat them with dignity and respect, they in turn will learn to respect others and also will expect respect from others as they grow older.

We also know that children are more motivated to be cooperative when they feel encouraged, loved and a sense of belonging. Certainly, positive discipline is important, but it should be done in a loving, fair, and firm way. The focus should be on behavior, not the child, in order to redirect behavior without instilling shame. When the focus is on the child (i.e. bad boy), it instills a sense of shame, breeding disconnection, hurt, and anger. According to author and shame researcher Brené Brown, children who are raised in a shaming environment are more likely to struggle with things like addiction, depression, violence, bullying, eating disorders, and aggression. We also know from her research that shame does not promote positive behavior change.

It is also extremely helpful for parents to teach children their importance by listening to them and validating their feelings. Even when children want something they can’t have, acknowledging their feelings is extremely helpful for the child in order to feel heard and understood. Additionally, by explaining your decisions to your child, you are teaching them about life, your family values and beliefs, and helping them to know what to expect. For example, a child might be crying because they want to go play with their friend at dinner time. Instead of ignoring or getting angry with the child, or instead of giving into them, the parent might say, “I know you are sad and disappointed because you wanted to go play with your friend. It is time for dinner, though, and it is important to our family that we are all here together to eat. You are welcome to play tomorrow after school.” Teaching children about their feelings and healthy ways to cope with them will hugely benefit them as they navigate life’s challenges.

Ultimately, the most important thing you can do is love your child. Positive Discipline The First Three Years says it best: “Perhaps the greatest parenting skill of all is the ability to feel an unbreakable bond of love and warmth for your children and to be able to listen to the voice of love and wisdom even when your patience has been stretched to the breaking point.”


Living in the Green Zone

I recently listened to a webcast with Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and author. He spoke of brain change and something that really struck me, the “green zone” and the “red zone”. Ultimately, as he described, when our basic needs are met (including feeling safe, connected/attached to others, and satisfied), we are in the green zone. In other words, our body and brain enjoy rest, peace, love and contentment. When our needs are not met, the brain goes into the red zone, firing up our fight, flight and freeze responses.

Both zones and responses are necessary and important. However, what stood out to me was his comment that the red zone is not meant to be “sustainable.” In other words, being in the red zone, or in survival mode, is supposed to be a fairly brief response to keep us emotionally and physically safe and then we are meant to return to the green zone. To illustrate this point, imagine a startled deer. It freezes when it feels its safety is threatened and then returns to eating and other restful/green zone behaviors once the danger has passed.

However, as Hanson pointed out, modern life is not always conducive to living in the green zone. Instead of experiencing occasional red zone spikes with longer-term green zones, most people are exposed to ongoing moderate stress. The problem with this is that staying in the red (or pink) zone leads to a physical, mental, and emotional breakdown. The green zone gives us time and energy to repair from life’s stressors. Without time for healing and strengthening, the mind and body can be left with a weakened immune system, anger, fear, heartache, feelings of inadequacy and hurt, dissatisfaction, or frustration.

While we are unable to disengage from modern day life and technology, Hanson argues that we can spend most of our time in the green zone where we feel restful, peaceful, content, and loved. To do this, he says we must rewire our brain to take in and notice more of our positive experiences while also calming the body and brain. As things happen, we can stop, pause, perhaps be grateful, and then move on. By internalizing these positive experiences and our ability to recover and be resilient, we are able to experience and move into the green zone more easily after a red-zone experience.

Concrete examples of moving ourselves into the green zone might include taking several slow breaths when we notice our body moving into the red zone (ie. increased heart rate, feeling frazzled, unloved, hurt, or irritated) and calm the mind by focusing on something that makes us feel safe, fulfilled or appreciated. Next, relax tension as best you can. Drink water, put your feet on the ground, eat, and use the restroom to slow down your process. Bring someone (or even a pet) to mind that cares about you or is loving toward you, particularly if you are feeling hurt or unloved. You might also imagine other times when you survived and even thrived after experiencing a difficult or painful red zone experience. The green zone also includes leisure time, investing in relaxing and fulfilling hobbies, and cultivating meaningful relationships.

By noticing when our body is having a red zone response, we can then begin to return to the green zone by intentionally practicing behaviors that are calming and restorative for us, and by spending time that is intentionally restful. In turn, our brain, body, and immune system will thank us as living in the green zone is pertinent for long-term health, longevity, psychological healing, and well-being.


Mental Health and Wellness

Staying mentally fit can be challenging in our stressful, busy lives. Mental health or wellness is defined by the World Health Organization as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” It enables us to enjoy life and relationships, and embodies our physical, mental and social well-being. Like most things, our mental health will fluctuate. Circumstances, stressful life events, grief and loss, as well as positive events and relationships certainly will impact how we feel about ourselves and our world. However, we can also make positive choices and engage in behaviors that strengthen and maintain our mental wellness. Following are a few tips to improve and maintain your mental health.

Exercise

Scientists continue to research and prove the benefits of exercise for both the body and brain. In addition to reducing stress and anxiety by increasing the body’s ability to manage mental tension, exercise also releases endorphins, creating feelings of happiness and even decreasing feelings of depression. There is evidence that for some people, exercise can be just as effective as an antidepressant in treating depression. Additionally, exercise has been shown to prevent cognitive (brain) decline which tends to happen as we age. Finally, working out often helps people sleep better, feel more productive, and improves positive self-image.

Leisure Time

Despite our busy schedules, it is critical for our mental health that we have “down” time. Playtime, hobbies, and rest are critical for all age groups and creates balance to deal with stress and the daily tasks at hand. Taking time to have fun, try new things, read a book, and engage in interesting activities contributes to feeling fulfilled and joyful. Play helps us be the best version of ourselves and creates space for creativity.

Rest

Sleep is critical for our bodies to heal and recover. Additionally, it improves our memory and attention, increases our ability to be creative and to perform at our best, helps with weight management, decreases stress, allows us to be more alert, and improves mood while decreasing anxiety and even feelings of depression or being overwhelmed.

Engage in Relationships

Biologically, we are hardwired for connection. Therefore, it is critical that we make time for the important people in our lives and strive for healthy relationships. Much of the way we feel about ourselves and our world is tied to our relationships. Research indicates that strong relationships contribute to living a healthy, happy, and long life. Our significant relationships serve as a platform for sharing our feelings (another important aspect of mental health and wellness), for creating traditions and memories, and for fulfilling our important needs of belonging and feeling loved. Additionally, being involved in community is an important way to feel connected, to give back through volunteer work and doing things for others, and to create a sense of togetherness.

Challenge Yourself

Learning new skills, taking on new things at work, creating fitness goals, or doing things that are out of our comfort zone improves mental fitness while creating a sense of confidence and accomplishment.

Spend Time in Nature

In addition to providing the body with Vitamin D through direct sunlight, research also shows that spending time in nature can boost cognitive function and creativity. Many people also find the great outdoors a space where they feel rejuvenated, more connected to themselves, and to others.

Make Time for Spirituality

Spirituality means different things to everyone, but a study published in the Journal of Religion and Health found spirituality linked with greater mental health. Specifically, they found that increased spirituality increased a sense of oneness and connectedness with the rest of the universe. Other studies show that people who consider themselves spiritual or religious report feeling happier than those that don’t.

Practice Mindfulness/Meditation

Mindfulness, defined by a study in Perspectives on Psychological Science, is “the nonjudgmental awareness of experiences in the present moment.” Mindfulness meditation is shown to have many benefits including lowering stress, protecting the brain, providing insight, improving performance, emotion regulation, and may even lower depression among other things. For more information, click here.

Seek Help

Life can be difficult and even devastating at times. We all need help at various points in our lives. Dealing with stressors and sharing our experience and feelings with loved ones is an important part of mental health. And, while friends and family members can be a great resource, you also might benefit from the unbiased, professional view of a mental health professional. Should you find yourself in a situation where you or your family member needs support or help, call Austin Family Counseling at 512-298-3381.


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