From the Q and A:
"The problematic behavior we are witnessing in children are expressions of a child’s inability in the moment to respond to everything going on in and around him—sounds, noise, distractions, discomforts, emotions. Yet we react as if these are problems with a child’s character or temperament. Worse yet, children come to believe it."
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Self-Reg is all about how we deal with stress. And there sure is a lot of it around today: in our own lives, and in our children’s. That is not to say that stress is a bad thing in and of itself. The fact is that development – psychological and emotional as well as physical and neural—is driven by stress. But the stress load has to be healthy. When it’s too great, growth is stalled and can even be a set back. So it’s essential that we learn how to manage stress – our own as much as our child’s—to keep it in the zone where growth isn’t just possible but is inevitable. To do this, we need to recognize when we and/or our child are becoming over-stressed; why; and most important of all, what to do about it. Only in this way can we render parenting a rich growth experience—for the both of us!
All of this may sound straightforward enough, but there are several reasons why managing stress proves to be difficult. One is that we don’t recognize the signs of “stress behavior.” We mistakenly see what our child is doing as “weakness” or “misbehavior” and respond in a way that makes things harder on both of us. Or we don’t recognize the deeper meaning of what our child is saying with his body and his voice, or for that matter, what we are saying with our body and our voice.
Another big problem is that most of us have only a partial understanding of what stress is, and what the stressors are that engulf us today. Especially important here are the myriad stressors that we don’t recognize as such, which exert a terrible toll on our nervous system without our fully realizing this until we’re confronted with some big health problem, mental and/or physical. Heart disease, depression, and obesity: they all fall under this category.
Then there’s the problem of how to reduce stresses once you recognize them. All too often the advice we get is nice in theory but totally unrealistic. What we need are practicable methods to reduce the stress load that we can apply in the here-and-now of our hectic lives.
Ironically, one of the biggest challenges we face when we do Self-Reg is the first step: simply knowing when we’re becoming overstressed. This kind of stress-awareness seems to have been all but forgotten in the modern world, as we careen from stressor to stressor and then try to exercise some sort of internal “mental strength” to stop ourselves from spinning out of control.
Finally, there’s the matter of what to do once we realize that we or our child are over-stressed. Self-Reg isn’t about trying to escape, or find some respite from all the stress in our lives. It’s about managing our stress in a way that promotes restoration and resilience. Self-Reg is about reducing the stresses that can easily be reduced in order to free up the necessary resources to deal with those that cannot or should not be reduced. Equally, Self-Reg is about realizing that what works for someone else may not work for me, and indeed, that what works for me may not work for my child.
In many ways stress is like a cold virus, forever mutating, waxing and waning. The point is that parents have to deal with new and different stresses at every stage of their child’s life and their own. What parents urgently need is a guide that helps them recognize the signs of excessive stress, which change from one age to the next, sometimes from one moment to the next; helps them identify the varying stresses they’ll encounter at different stages in their child’s life and their own; provides techniques for reducing stress that are relevant for child and parent alike; explains how to develop “stress awareness,” again in child and parent alike; and finally, helps parents figure out self-regulating strategies that work. Self-Reg is that guide.
What compelled you to write this book?
I’ve seen so many children and youth whose life was turned around as soon as they started to do Self-Reg, but there was one child in particular, whose story I briefly tell at the beginning of Self-Reg, which told me that I HAD to write this book.
It’s the story of the young boy who had been written off as a “bad kid,” the son and grandson of “bad guys.” But all I saw when I met him the first time was a scared little 6-year-old who had some striking sensory issues, not to mention the fact that he was being raised by his grandmother because his father was in prison and his mom wasn’t around. As soon as he was able to recognize when he was starting to get over-stressed, and why, his life began to change, and for that matter, his teacher’s did as well, and through her influence, the school’s, and who knows how many in the community as a result. Here were three generations all struggling with a biological condition that we now understand and know how to respond to. And maybe the worst part of all was how he had suffered additionally from the harsh judgment of others—adults and kids alike. Once he started doing Self-Reg, we could see clearly how this boy’s stress behavior had obscured not only his gifts and his bright potential as a learner, but his capacity to contribute to those around him. Thinking about all the kids for whom this is true is something that keeps me up at night.
The more I thought about this case the more driven I felt to help as many children, teens, parents, and teachers as I possibly could. All the kids who were struggling with school or making friends or in constant conflict with their parents or who were anxious or just plain miserable for too much of the time.
When I was 16 years old I watched as my best friend’s life fell apart. He was so brilliant and full of promise, but suddenly he was taking drugs and in trouble with the law. Looking back on it I am now able to identify all the stressors he had long been struggling with and why he ultimately succumbed to his stress overload. I vividly remember staying up late one night when I was 17, writing a “Manifesto” in which I vowed to understand why this had happened and what we can do to prevent such tragedies. Essentially, I was embarking on the study of “self-regulation,” and after forty years I was finally ready to write this book.
My hope is that the book will enable readers to understand that they are over-stressed, why, and what they can do to manage their or their child’s stress load in order to recover their own or their child’s joy of life.
Your favorite book as a child was The Odyssey. Do you think it’s been a metaphor for your life’s work?
Such an interesting question! As it happens, the answer is definitely yes, in more ways than one.
I was never terribly interested in stories about “superheroes” when I was a child. But the Odyssey thrilled me, from the first moment that my sister read it to me when I was three, to becoming a major motivation for learning how to read, to re-reading so many times ever since and always discovering something new.
From a very young age, I saw the Odyssey as a parable about life: all the trials and tribulations, the ultimate reward of arriving at a safe haven. And far from being a super-hero, Odysseus was all too human: constantly saying and doing stupid things. But he recovers from his mistakes and overcomes his weaknesses: he is always thinking, always learning, always getting closer to “home.”
What do you mean by “hidden stressors”?
My own training in self-regulation was grounded in the incredible work that people like Stanley Greenspan, Georgi DeGangi and Steven Porges were doing in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They were looking at stress in premature babies in neonatal intensive care units, and the effects on their physical well-being when the stressors (e.g., noise, light, temperature) were reduced. So they were looking at “stress” in the classical sense first defined by physiologist Walter Cannon: a “stressor” is something that requires the release of energy in order to keep some internal system running smoothly.
Stress has become such a buzz-word in our culture, and invariably we think of stress in terms of the kinds of pressures we’re under: the stress of a job, money, a difficult relationship, not having enough hours in the day to get everything done. These certainly are significant stresses. But there are so many more kinds of stresses that we deal with in life: physical and cognitive as well as social and emotional.
When we look for “hidden stressors,” we are interested in all those things that cause us to burn energy to keep our “internal systems” – mental as well as physical – running smoothly. Something causing us to burn energy without our even knowing it. What is really extraordinary is how someone might be doing something that they actually regard as “relaxing” when it’s having the exact opposite effect: is leaving them much more spent and tense than when they started.
I’ll give you a great example. A friend casually mentioned to me one day that her partner was having an awful lot of trouble getting a good night’s sleep. She wondered whether it was because he would spend hours on his computer right after dinner, which he insisted was the only thing that he found “truly relaxing.” But she could see that this wasn’t true: he was so much more agitated after the computer than he was after their weekly badminton night at a local club.
He was, in fact, for the reasons that I explain in Self-Reg, addicted to a pretty violent computer game that was burning up huge amounts of energy while he played: and for several hours afterwards! Why? Because one of the effects this was having on him was that the “alarm system” deep inside his brain – which is too primitive to recognize that this was just a game – would stay on high alert, causing his heart rate and breathing to both stay elevated. That’s why he found it so hard to have a restorative night’s sleep.
That’s a great example of a “hidden stressor,” and it’s just one of the many that we discuss in the book.
You’re frequently quoted as passionately saying: “There are no bad kids.” Do you think this book will prove this fact to parents, educators, and caregivers once and for all and redefine how we all interpret behavior?
I’ve lost track of how many children I’ve seen in my work across Canada, the United States, and around the world. Not just thousands, but easily tens of thousands. And in all those children, I have never seen a bad kid.
Kids can be selfish, insensitive, and even spiteful. They can refuse to pay attention, be quick to shout or push, or be disobedient or downright hostile. The list goes on and on. I know—I’m a father myself. But a bad kid? Never.
We all have moments when we immediately label children as “bad.” We might say “unmanageable” or “impossible” or “the problem kid” or use a clinical label like “ADHD/ADD” or “Oppositional Defiant,” but no matter what you call it, our conclusions can be harshly judgmental.
The problematic behavior we are witnessing in children are expressions of a child’s inability in the moment to respond to everything going on in and around him—sounds, noise, distractions, discomforts, emotions. Yet we react as if these are problems with a child’s character or temperament. Worse yet, children come to believe it.
There isn’t a single child who, with understanding and patience, can’t be guided along a trajectory that leads to a meaningful life. But stereotypes of “the difficult child” color our views, as do our own hopes, dreams, frustrations and fears as parents. Don’t get me wrong: some children can be a lot more challenging than others. But often our negative judgments of a child are just a defense mechanism, a way of shifting the blame for the trouble we’re having onto the child’s “nature.” This can make a child more reactive, defensive, defiant, anxious, or withdrawn. But it doesn’t have to be that way. It never has to be that way.
What do you hope Self-Reg does for parents and families, educators, therapists and other healthcare providers?
I suppose the short answer to this critical question is: make their job easier, more rewarding, and much less of a strain. And of course for children: to help them discover their own sense of calm, so they can be comfortable in their own skin, enjoy learning and life, and feel better prepared for the bumps and challenges along the way.
I’ll never forget a mom who came rushing up to me one day in the supermarket a few months after we had met with her and her daughter. There we were, standing in the middle of the produce aisle, and she started to cry and told me: “I can’t tell you how it feels. It’s like this huge weight has been lifted off our shoulders.” Not just for her but for her child, too. They were finding a better way to “be” with one another through everyday ups and downs. And just as important, they had rediscovered the joy between them.
That’s the perfect metaphor of what Self-Reg does: by experiencing the enlightenment of knowing when we are over-stressed, why, and how to reduce our stress-load, we start to feel lighter. Later that day I had a meeting with our clinical team and joked that maybe we should have called Self-Reg “blubber,” because stress is just like gravity—it weighs us down—and Self-Reg makes us feel buoyant.
What’s the one piece of advice you hope readers will take away from this book?
To think beyond buckle down and try harder. We hear that all the time. We say it to ourselves. We’re told we should have more willpower, more self-control over what we eat, or drink, or say. We are drawn to the idea of willpower as the secret to achievement. But not only does concentrating on willpower do little to help us battle our demons, it can actually have the opposite effect; for the harder we push for self-control the harder it can become. We need to focus instead on how to enhance our, or our child’s ability to self-regulate.
Self-regulation completely changes what we think, feel, see, and do, and every bit as important, what we don’t think, feel, see and do! Rather than berating ourselves for a lack of self-control, or constantly exhorting our child to “make a greater effort,” we need to recognize why we have an overpowering craving, or why our child gives up at the slightest hurdle. That’s what self-regulation ultimately teaches us: that the secret to a successful and satisfying life lies, not in somehow “strengthening” our willpower, but in reducing the intensity of the impulse, the urgency of the urge.
I'll be posting a review of the book later this month, but you can go ahead and check it out at Amazon now!