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 In Blog, Parenting, Polyvagal Theory

By Afshan Tafler

As I sat on the couch with my son, trying to get him to do his homework, with him resisting it as usual, I felt a wave of frustration overcome me.  I just couldn’t understand why he seemingly lacked the motivation.  

So, I did what many well-meaning parents do.  I pushed a little, and a little more.  When this didn’t work to motivate him, I opted for a subtle threat: “If you don’t do this work then you will get in trouble at school.”  Unfortunately, that didn’t seem to work either.  In desperation, I aimed to increase motivation through bribery, saying “if you do this now, then you can have that candy you wanted.”  At this point I was ready to do anything to get this child to do his work.

Why was I so desperate to get my child to cooperate? Because I wanted him to him to be successful…and I believed this would make him happy.

Many of us parents want our kids to be successful in life.  But we often push our kids to attain that success – all in the name of perceived happiness being the end goal.  The challenge is, we end up disconnecting ourselves and pushing our kids further down the path of stress, and further away from the end goal of happiness.

Ironically, what research has actually shown us is happiness and perceived life success actually comes down to one main thing: MEANINGFUL RELATIONSHIPS.

If I wanted my son to be truly successful and happy in life – to learn, grow and feel motivated – then I had to actually focus on creating a secure, safe, connected relationship first.

Relationship as the foundation

The bottom line is if we want our kids to be happy, successful and continue to grow and develop, then we must prioritize connected relationships as they are the foundation for a happy successful life – for ourselves and our kids.

The longest Harvard study on happiness and life success revealed that: 

“Close relationships, more than money or fame, are what keep people happy throughout their lives, the study revealed. Those ties protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes.”

Although this finding was surprising to Harvard researchers, we know from Dr. Stephen Porges’ Polyvagal theory that we all have a Social Engagement system (a biologically wired part of our nervous system, known as the Ventral Vagal system) that is always yearning to connect and regulate with another.  There is nothing like a calm, regulated other who can connect with us, and through that relationship help us get into the safe, connected and social state of Ventral Vagal.  It is from this state that motivation to learn and grow come from.  (For more information on Polyvagal Theory and the nervous system states, read here.)

We also know from Dr. Stanley Greenspan’s pioneering work in infant and child mental health and developmental psychology, that the positive emotions that result from warm, attuned relationships contribute significantly to deep learning, brain integration and organization. 

Thus, relationships can actually improve brain growth and development.

What makes a meaningful, connected relationship?

The feeling of meaningful, connected relationships come from the process of attunement, and the positive emotions and safety that it evokes.

As Dr. Dan Siegel says, “”When we attune with others, we allow our own internal state to shift, to come to resonate with the inner world of another.”  The result of joining and attuning to another is the felt sense of being accepted, seen, heard and understood.  This attunement signals to our nervous system to move into Ventral Vagal (safe, social, connected state), and from here positive emotions are created.  These emotions, in turn, become the motivational factor that is the driving force of our thoughts, actions and behaviors.  

Dr. Stanley Greenspan found that emotions are essential for human development and are the foundation as they organize our thoughts, behaviors and learning.  Emotions fuel desire and intent, integrate and organize brain functions, regulate and motivate, and lead to more functional (vs. dysfunctional) behaviors.  Because emotions give direction to our actions and meaning to our experiences, they enable us to control our behavior, solve problems and think (Greenspan, 1998). 

What this is telling us is the feelings that come from warm, attuned relationships is actually what helps to integrate and organize complex brain functions, and help create more meaning making, which then creates intrinsic (internal) motivation to learn, be challenged and even behave better.  

Warm, attuned relationships are THE vehicle through which motivation, learning and growth happen best.

What gets in the way of connected relationships?

Unfortunately, many of us didn’t learn how to BE in warm, attuned relationships, which would have helped us to pay that forward to our kids. 

Due to traumas, disordered attachment challenges with our own parents, and passed on generational patterns, we often learned that relationships are about doing rather than being and pushing instead of accepting.  As parents, we DO so much for our kids, like work hard for them, spend money on them, teach them, and even push them to do more.  We often have a hard time tolerating being with their big emotions, and we may prioritize compliance and following the norm at the expense of staying attuned to our child’s authentic needs in the present moment. 

In addition, we may have nervous systems that have been shaped through life experience to go into Fight, Flight or Freeze easily, causing us to disconnect from our kids and not be able to attune to them from a Ventral Vagal (safe, social, connected) state.

We all have survival patterns that our kids can trigger in us that may not allow us to create the deep, meaningful, attuned relationships we would like to have with our kids.  

How connected relationships help a child’s development

Many of us believe a child’s development depends on cognitive based approaches, like directing and teaching and working on thoughts.  How many times, as a parent with young kids, did you constantly try to teach them (or test them) while playing with them?  What color is this banana? Can you say Apple? Or how about an older child? We may focus on helping them to change their thoughts and think more positively.  How often have you found your efforts ending in your child feeling annoyed by the experience or him/her ignoring and disconnecting from you?

This is because children learn best through meaningful emotional connections.  The more a child feels heard and understood, the greater the positive affect (emotions) in the experience, the more likely the child is open to learning and that the learning will become meaningful and stick.  These feelings are what help to light up centers in the brain, allow connections to be made more readily, and help a child to become more intrinsically motivated (vs. only motivated by extrinsic rewards).

If emotions give purpose to our actions and meaning to our words, then as parents, if we want to help our kids develop, we need to focus on increasing positive emotions through an attuned, connected relationship first.

How to build meaningful connections and attuned relationships

All development comes from regulation and safety first.  This is what helps a child to feel securely attached to you and engage and relate to you, creating that connected, attuned relationship from which further development can happen.

Here’s how you can create connected relationships with your kids that encourage building emotional regulation, intrinsic motivation, development and ultimately true happiness:

  1. Focus on creating a sense of safety

A feeling of safety is the first step to creating connection.  When we ourselves are regulated and feel safe in our bodies, then we can use this Ventral Vagal state to lure our child into safety and connection with us.   This in turn helps elicit the positive emotions that help a child’s brain come online, work in a more integrated way and find the meaning and motivation to be challenged into what you want them to do.

But if you find you get dysregulated easily, or are stressed a lot, then your number one focus can be to learn to regulate yourself.  If you didn’t have opportunities to learn emotional regulation (not emotional control) growing up, then you may need to learn it now, as an adult.  It’s never too late to reshape your nervous systems towards safety.

An incredible tool that can help you (and your child) rewire your system to feel more safe, social and connected is Unyte/iLS’s Safe and Sound Protocol.  This listening program has proven benefits of rewiring the old patterns connected to lack of safety and help you feel better, think better and connect better to others.

  1. Practice relating and attuning

This can only happen if you feel safe first.  The second important factor is to know how to attune to your own internal states and emotions so you can help yourself adjust when feeling triggered.

Relating and attuning also involves learning to accept our kids for who they are, honoring their individual differences, and providing the type of parenting they need to be the most successful version of themselves.

The best way to relate and attune is to join your child in play and meet them exactly where they are.  Through playful interactions that follow the lead of your child, you are attuning, connecting and creating positive affect for both yourself and your child.  When two people truly join in the present moment there is resonance that happens that creates an energy and emotional state that is beyond words.  It is a deep ventral vagal moment of connection.

Once you are in resonance and you can see your child is in a ventral vagal state of positive emotions, then you can gently challenge him/her to learn or follow your lead.  This is the best way for kids to learn and for learning to be meaningful and stick.

  1. See your child through his/her strengths

Strengths-based parenting involves being able to see your child’s strengths first. But the human brain has been shown to have a negativity bias, so we often see weaknesses and mistakes more than we see strengths.

Strengths-based parenting is incredibly connecting and liberating, as it helps us to see and focus on the positive more than the negative.  The more you focus on the negative, the more your kids focus on their own negatives and have lower self-esteem and confidence.  The more you focus on the positive, the more kids get seen for who they truly are.

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Acknowledging your child’s strengths, as much as possible when you see them at play, can really help your child to feel good about themselves and when kids feel good about themselves, they do better.

Learning a new way of being; creating a better future

I have often found it bewildering that the greatest determinants of health, happiness and success in life are having secure emotional relationships, nervous system regulation and emotional regulation, yet it’s never been taught to us in schools. 

Now that we understand that relationships are the medium through which we develop, become happy and healthy, and feel successful in life, we can prioritize building more meaningful relationships so we can build a generation of kids and families who are happier and more regulated.

About Afshan Tafler

Afshan Tafler is a Conscious Parenting Coach who helps you discover your power to transform your emotional health so you can handle life’s challenges with resiliency, create more connected relationships, and live from your full life force energy.  She helps parents with strong-willed and sensitive kids to thrive in their relationships.
You can learn more about Afshan and her services at www.illuminateu.ca

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