I think we have all been there, cruising along at a speed that is probably not recommended by the Highway Patrol, when another car comes out of nowhere causing us to slam on our breaks and utter some words that we probably don’t usually utter in public. When I was a younger man without any children, I could scream at the top of my lungs, saying all the things I wanted and then move on with my day not worrying about whether or not I was heard. I now have a 16-month-old daughter who seems to soak up every word I say, and then repeat them when I least expect it.
What we say matters. How we say it matters. And who we say it around matters. Our children are sponges, using us as guides to what they can say, how they can say it, and how they should feel about what they are saying. According to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association, at two years old your child understands new words very quickly, is always asking why, and is beginning to repeat words and sounds that they hear from around them. Children ages three and four are beginning to talk about their day, understand more of what you are saying, and more importantly, people can understand what they are saying. Understanding and repeating, however, is not where this ends. Children can pick up on the anxiety permeated in what we say from a very early age. According to mental health experts, the anxiety that a parent experiences from day to day interactions, as well as major public events, can transfer to their children as early as two or three, and can turn into an issue that requires help from an expert as early as ages 6 and 7.
We are in a world that is polarizing events around us. Day to day events have been mixed into politics, religion, and physical and mental health. It seems that when you talk about going to the store you are no longer just talking about going to get some bread, but rather you are risking your life, showing what side of a political line you stand on, and what your thoughts are on the world scene, all before even picking up your hamburger buns. While all of this is happening to you, which is stressful and complicated, your three-year-old sponge is watching every move you make and listening to every word you say.
Breathe. Yes, it is that simple. By breathing you slow down your autonomic nervous system which oversees your fight or flight response. You cannot be both excited and calm at the same time. By breathing and slowing down your heart rate, you and your children can center yourselves and begin to discuss the complexities of the day from a calm, less anxious beginning point. Also, by taking that breath, you have given yourself a moment to rethink before yelling out those choice swear words!
Use soothing tones and quiet surroundings. Your vagus nerve runs throughout your whole body, connects to your body’s stress functions, and acts as your body’s natural reset button. Using quiet tones, deep breathing and soothing sounds activates this nerve allowing your whole body to relax. This is also a great opportunity to create a lowlight, quiet environment to ask your children questions about how the day made them feel, or what their thoughts and feelings are on what they perceive around them.
Exercise. Exercise is a great way to calm your body and quiet the anxiety. Physical activity also gives you a chance to spend time with your children doing something together that shows them you are there for them no matter what, even when the news and events from the day may make them think otherwise.
Children are looking for us to have the answers, even if we feel like we don’t. It’s okay, you don’t have to have all the answers. You just need to present a space to your child where they know you are listening, where you are modeling a calm, receptive demeanor, and overall you are providing them safety from the, sometimes hostile, confusing, and overwhelming, surrounding environment.