There is so much value that comes from validating our children’s emotions. From their earliest years, we can do the important work of teaching what their emotions are (i.e. “It looks like you are sad”) as well as affirming that difficult emotions can be experienced and managed, “I hear you saying that you are angry. Can we cuddle for a minute and talk about it?” It’s all very valuable. It’s all very kind. And, it’s all very fabulous in the theory-land of parenting. That is, until you just can’t do it anymore.
Yep. Sometimes I’m just too tired to validate my kids’ emotions.
Now, as a therapist, I know how important this validation is. I’m not throwing out the idea that it needs be done. I’m just saying that the mental and emotional bandwidth it takes to think of the right words and the right approach in the middle of a child’s meltdown when dinner is on the stove and your iced tea just spilled is not easy.
We have to have another option when our nerves are frayed, our kids are not in a space to hear our words or, we are simply too worked up to say the kind, appropriate, healthy thing.
Enter mirror neurons.
Mirror neurons are one of the most important brain discoveries of the past 20+ years. And, their implications for parenting are incredibly valuable. Basically, mirror neurons are the part of our brain that is wired to respond empathically (psychologically identify) with what someone else is feeling or experiencing. In short, whatever one person is projecting, it can help create that same experience for the other person. So, on the not so awesome side, that’s why it can be so easy for us to hit the ceiling when our kid is losing it. However, on the positive side, it also means that if we can get it together enough to at least be calm (even if we say nothing) that actually helps to calm our child.
Let’s go back to the iced tea scenario. If my kiddo is the one who spilled my iced tea, I guarantee you he’s losing it. He’s embarassed he spilled it. He’s upset that I’m upset. And, he’s frantically rushing around with a washcloth to wipe it up because he couldn’t think straight enough to grab a full-sized towel.
In this moment, if I try to do the whole “validate emotions” thing, I’m probably going to fail. When everybody is hungry and his emotions are raising my emotions, it’s hard to say just the right thing. But, if I can pause long enough to calm my body and my breath, then we can get somewhere.
When we calm our output, it activates the mirror neurons in our kids to lead them towards calm. Slower breathing matches slower breathing. Softer voices match softer voices. And, if they are in the place for it, even a hug where they are intentionally listening for our heartbeat can influence the slowing of theirs.
It is hard to be able to come up with the right words sometimes as a parent. I am so grateful for this far less pressured option we can choose until our brains and bodies have calmed down long enough to get back to that more sophisticated parenting.
Here’s to slowing down, breathing, and maybe a few more heartbeat hugs.
PS – This is my favorite (and brief!) video on how mirror neurons work. Enjoy!