Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press

Go slow, voice low


Humans can regulate each other’s nervous systems. Does that sound weird? Less weird, I bet, when I put it this way: When we act anxious, our children pick up on our energy and become more anxious. When we act calm, our children pick up on that energy and become calmer.

One session at the Zero to Three conference, on early childhood development, was a good reminder.

Clinical psychologist Serena Wieder talked about the importance of controlling the signals we send.

When your 9-month-old falls, notice the difference between getting anxious (rushing over with “You’re OK! You’re OK!”) and staying calm (making reassuring sounds).

You increase or decrease the intensity of your child’s emotion. It’s something you do all the time without thinking about it. But it’s also a superpower you can consciously use to guide behavior.

Pay attention to your

  • voice: try a quieter volume, soothing tone, slower speed
  • actions: use very slow movements and gestures
  • touch: loving, gentle, supporting hands
  • proximity: move in close from across the room; get down at eye level

Your children are sending signals, too, about how they’re feeling in the moment.

And they send these signals, Wieder said,  just before they act. Maybe your kindergartener comes toward you with pretend tea and a big smile: she wants to share. And you reach for your child with your own big smile. Maybe your baby gets mad and makes a face: she’s about to bite. You can cluck with a soft “No, no, that’s not safe.”

When you read your child’s signals (even a newborn’s) and swiftly respond, you can head off behavior you don’t want — or make a sweet moment sweeter.

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