Before we discuss how to leave parental survival mode, it is essential to understand how your brain is wired to biologically react when you feel unsafe. To learn more about that, and a bit of my story, I invite you to read It’s Not Your Fault. It’s Biology: 4 Signs You’re Stuck In Parental Survival Mode.
Now, to get unstuck, where do we begin?
I would be amiss if I did not pause to ask you to consider the preciousness of your child vs. what triggers you (your tigers). The tigers we face as parents are separate from the personhood of our children, yet weariness can cause us to lose sight of that.
Behaviors associated with trauma, rejection associated with wounded attachment, symptoms associated with physical or mental illness – these are the triggers that set our nervous systems on edge. If you know you are having difficulty separating the tigers from the preciousness of your child, I encourage you to look for a picture that helps you remember WHO your child is and the feelings of hope and delight you once had. Perhaps this is a baby picture from when times were simpler, or a picture capturing the joy of when you first met. If none of these are available to you, or you did not have either of those positive experiences, you might write down this ancient scripture, or select something that helps you focus on the positive aspects of your child’s unique design and inherent worth.
Perhaps insert your child’s name:
“For you created (Taylor’s) inmost being; you knit (him) together in (his) mother’s womb. I praise you because (he is) fearfully and wonderfully made; your works are wonderful, I know that full well.” Psalm 139:13–14
Consider placing that picture or written scripture/statement where you will see it regularly – your mirror, your phone screen, or maybe in your car. Things probably don’t look or feel too “wonderful” right now. It’s ok if you are still struggling to find feelings of hope. Yet, research shows it’s still beneficial to give your mind something different to think about. By creating space to begin to think about or remember some positives, we can help our brains shift.
Step 1: Start by Practicing Awareness
Here is the good news- your brain is adaptive and despite your age it has the capacity to re-wire.
Your brain may be interpreting a need for survival and responding accordingly; yet, you can learn to recognize this and help your brain shift to “rest and digest” mode. Once your “upstairs” brain is in charge, you can access your good thinking. Our executive functioning allows us to process things, better regulate our emotions, and come up with a plan.
If you’ve been living in your “downstairs” brain for a while, it may be a bit overactive. Without awareness, as humans we tend to repeat patterns that are familiar. Our brain can get stuck in a rut.
Rewiring can occur when you give your brain new experiences. To move out of survival mode, it is helpful to first understand WHAT is happening within you and WHY.
You can become more aware by becoming curious about yourself.
Start to pay attention to you- something you likely haven’t done for a long time.
To get out of autopilot, you have to stop and start asking some questions.
Are you able to notice when you are regulated and your “upstairs” brain is in charge? How about when your “downstairs” brain is taking over? What does that feel like in your body?
What seems to trigger this shift? Take some time, as you are able, to reflect. It’s ok to ponder things afterwards, even if you “blew it.” Right now, you are figuring some things out and the goal is to have lots of grace towards yourself.
Be as specific as you can be about what you notice. Was it really a tiger or have you just gotten stuck expecting tigers? Is there anything you might try next time to help yourself engage your upstairs brain? Walk away for a moment? Sit down and take some deep breaths?
Remember, you are fearfully and wonderfully made. While you learn to pay attention to yourself, you can begin to thank your downstairs brain for doing it’s job along with this reminder:
“Thank you for trying to protect me, but I don’t need you to be in charge right now.”
It may be helpful to literally say this out loud.
Step 2: Practice Radical Self-Compassion
Radical is a strong word. Do you want to know why I chose it? Because most parents I’ve worked with are struggling with deep levels of shame and are highly critical of themselves.
What might be considered a “healthy measure of self compassion” may feel a bit “radical” if you’re starting at ground zero. You may not feel you “deserve” such grace or compassion, but you do.
You have likely been misunderstood along the way, and faced the judgement of others, as well as your own.
Like a parched mouth needs water, your heart needs a profound level of compassion.
You can begin by learning to offer this to yourself.
What your child is experiencing is very difficult, and you are experiencing that too. You are human, and it is normal when exposed to ongoing high levels of stress to be physically, mentally, and emotionally impacted.
Awareness and understanding are powerful tools. They enhance our ability to lay down judgement and offer ourselves compassion.
There is a tremendous amount of research that indicates that people who have endured great difficulties AND who learn to offer themselves genuine compassion tend to fair better long term.
Compassion regarding our imperfect reactions, our limits, our needs. Compassion allows us room to begin to heal.
As you consider this, I sincerely encourage you to begin to offer yourself genuine kindness. None of us were handed a personalized manual on how to parent our unique child.
What would you tell a friend facing your circumstances? I encourage you to take a moment to write that down.
Might you offer those same words to yourself?
If you are highly critical towards yourself (which is common for parents facing hard), how might you begin to change that inner voice? Would you talk to a friend the way you speak to yourself?
May we agree on one thing? No more beating yourself up. That inner critic has got to go!
Be gentle towards yourself. I’m quite certain you are doing the best you can right now – please practice reminding yourself of that.
That might sound like, “I am doing the best I can with what I have/know at this time and that is enough.” Listen to these words while you take some very deep breaths. You really are doing the best you can, and that really is all you can do.
With kindness towards yourself and a growing awareness you can begin to make intentional choices to signal to your upstairs brain that it is safe to take over.
Then you will be better able to discern your circumstances, make a plan, and rest, all of which are vitally important in order to have the strength necessary to support a child with complex needs.
I’m rooting for you,