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Our Kids and Their Nervous Systems (And Ours Too)

In the words of Gary Landreth, Ph.D., “You can’t teach a drowning person to swim." A drowning person cannot see the logic of the situation. They can’t see that they simply need to grab the red buoy, still their body, and be pulled safely to the side. They are acting purely out of instinct and are quite literally in fight-or-flight for survival. This is essentially how our nervous systems work. So often as parents, we try to teach lessons during emotional dysregulation in attempts to get our children to see logic and reason. Now you might be thinking “Okay, but what does this have to do with my child throwing a tantrum?” Well, the instinctual part of the brain cannot tell the difference between life-threatening events and not getting the second popsicle it so desperately wants. This is an evolutionary response developed to keep our species alive. It came in handy back when we were cavemen, and we were sleeping next to lions, tigers, and bears… oh my! But our brains have not quite caught up with our cushy times. So, it continues to respond to things as if they are lions, tigers, and bears… oh my! It comes down to our ability to perceive the environment accurately and respond accordingly, this is known as “neuroception.” The problem is that some adults and definitely most kids have pretty faulty neuroception, so, their brains are constantly telling them they are unsafe. When the brain senses a lack of safety, it gets thrust into fight, flight, or freeze, one of the nervous system’s responses to perceived threats.

Unfortunately, when people live in a prolonged state of fight, flight, or freeze, they get used to it and start to believe that it’s normal. People may even seek it out because that is what the brain interprets as safety. Kids who live in a state of fight or flight for a prolonged time will do the same thing. They will act out so they can “feel safe” again and get back to normal. Kids’ brains are also not finished developing, so their neuroception is out of whack. Just think about the last time your toddler had a tantrum. I bet it had something to do with not being allowed to eat the liquid in the glow stick, or something illogical like that. This is why it is so important for you to to parent from a place of compassion and regulation. You won’t be able to calm your child’s nervous system if yours is activated as well. Let’s take a look at ways parents’ nervous systems get activated and ways you can help your and your child’s nervous system simmer down. Discrete ways we get taken over by fight or flight I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’m on a nervous system rollercoaster. I didn’t always know it, but for me, loud noises can activate my nervous system after a long stressful day. When I get home from work, I often find myself irritable and sensitive to the jumping and joyful screaming of my kids and it took me a while to get attuned to what was going on with me. I had to realize that I was tired at the end of the day and more sensitive to my kids’ natural energy. I had to adjust so I could be the mom they needed me to be and not get mad at them for just being happy, loud kids. And that’s the thing. As parents, we are much better at hiding when we feel overwhelmed, even from ourselves sometimes. And remember, your brain might interpret danger when there is none. For example, your child crying in their car seat because they dropped their water bottle might send you into fight or flight, even though everyone is perfectly safe. So, spend the next few days paying attention to when you feel your emotions rising and take note of what’s going on. Ask yourself if there is actually danger present or if you are just reacting to a faulty neuroceptor.

What you can do:

The first thing you need to do is calm yourself. If the situation allows for it, take a minute to use your calming techniques and center yourself. I like to use the acronym ANCHOR to help me. A – Awareness of your body signals. Pay attention to what your body is telling you. Emotions and feelings are, after all, just chemical reactions (sorta). So, it would make sense that your body would react to the chemicals being released (like cortisol) before you can recognize it. N – Name your emotions. Once you figure out what you’re feeling, say it. Either out loud or in your head. When you can name it, it takes the power away from it and puts you back in control of the situation. C – Connect to a calming tool. Now that you have recognized what’s going on, cope with it. By naming it, you can now pick the appropriate coping tool. H – Honor the process. It’s okay to take a minute to feel emotions and for your child to feel emotions. Emotions aren’t actually bad. What matters is how you behave in response to those emotions. O – Open to connection. If you are anything like me, I don’t want to connect with my kid when they are screaming at me. The last thing I want to do is hug them. But relationally, scientifically, emotionally, all the -ly’s… that’s exactly what they need. R – Recommit to your intentional parenting. Just reminding yourself that you are here to be the best and most intentional parent you can be. You will not get it right every time, but you will try your best.

What you can do for your kids:

After your ANCHOR yourself, here are some quick tricks to calm your child’s nervous system. Some of these are more appropriate for little kids and others for older kids. Use your discretion.

· Offer a hug · Offer some space · Engage in playful wrestling · Rip up paper · Throw old eggs at a tree · Reflect their feelings · Retell their story · Get playful or silly · Turn the lights low · Go outside · Run or jump · Bear walk · Sit in a cozy place · Cuddle · Drink water · Have a snack · Make funny noises · Take breaths · Get in the water · Count · Yoga · Paint · Write it out · Draw a picture

I hope this blog gave you a new perspective on why children have big emotions and how you can help in a compassionate way. If you find yourself struggling with your kids’ emotions, we are here to help! Reach out to us and one of our skilled therapists can help bring wellness back to your nest!


Siegel, D. J. (2017). Brainstorm: The power and purpose of the teenage brain. Langara College.

Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2020). The Power of Showing Up: How Parental Presence Shapes who Our Kids Become and how Their Brains Get Wired. Scribe Publications.

Siegel, D. J., & Hartzell, M. (2013). Parenting from the Inside Out: How a Deeper Self-Understanding Can Help You Raise Children Who Thrive: 10th Anniversary Edition. Penguin Publishing Group.

Schuler, K. (2011). Jai Institue For Parenting Workbook.

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