As parents we often have those days when everything goes wrong. You wake up late, the kids seem to have lost their ears, lunches didn't get made, shoes can't be found and you hit every stop light on the way to school. You find yourself screaming, your kids melt down and you feel like you couldn't "parent-fail" much worse. You get a moment of peace as the kids head off to school. You take a deep breath and start to cry. "Why can't I keep it under control?" "Why can't I just let it go?" "Why do I just snap?" These are all questions parents ask themselves at one time or another.
I'm here to tell you it’s not a parent-fail, it is parenting without knowing about the window of tolerance.
The window of tolerance is a term coined by Dr. Dan Siegal to describe the "zone of arousal" in which a person is able to function most effectively. When in this zone, we are typically able to readily receive, process, and integrate information and are able to respond to the demands of everyday life without much difficulty. This is particularly true of parenting! There is no more demanding time in which stress and your environment will push you out of this optimal zone than the season of parenthood.
When in the window of tolerance, you are in the "zone" and it means your brain is responding to stimuli effectively and you are on point. As a parent you are able to think rationally, reflect on what is happening, and make those myriad of decisions with calm. When we get stressed we can have times where we become either hyper- or hypo-aroused and outside of our "Optimal Zone". Hyper-arousal is also known as the fight/flight response. This is when we are on edge, we are anxious, our thoughts race, we are emotionally reactive, and we get snappy. Whereas, Hypo-arousal also known as the freeze response, creates feelings of emptiness, lack of thought, disconnection, and feeling "out of it." In either of these states, a parent can no longer process stimuli and the environment effectively. This is all because our brains are not functioning well. When we are not able to think rationally or make decisions we become dysregulated. We become reactionary to our environment and the people in it or we become rigid and have to have things "our way!" It is during these times that we have moved out of our window of tolerance and our ability function as a healthy parent is diminished.
Every person is different. Some of us have small windows resulting in strong, often intense, emotional reactions. Those with larger windows are able to handle situations calmly and with increased tolerance for the chaos of parenting. It is important to remember that our environment affects our behavior, with our sense of safety and security being the most important. When we have a sense of safety and security we can move through these difficult situations as well as successfully manage our stress levels. If life is particularly stressful, such as having: multiple young children at one time, a work/life imbalance, financial strain, health challenges, etc.; we can become more easily hyper/hypo aroused and our ability to parent the way we want decreases. We become depressed and anxious parents, and we are not alone.
I’ll let you in on a little secret, learning about the window of tolerance and how our brain functions gives us a "superpower" as parents. It allows us to learn to how manage our own stress and this is then transferred to our children! When we find ourselves out of the optimal zone, we need to learn to ground ourselves and strive to be present in the moment. By learning to regulate our bodies we teach our children to do so as well. The result is both of you move into your windows of tolerance. Not only does this make you a better, more connected and calm parent, it allows your child to regulate their own emotions and thus their behaviors!
By focusing on our body sensations we can calm and soothe ourselves and our families and help everyone learn emotional regulation skills. The more a parent practices this, the wider both our own and our children's windows widen. With this wider window, managing stress, adapting to spontaneous challenges, and quick thinking, which is key to parenting, is much more possible. This is an adaptive superpower that parents can learn by managing their own windows of tolerance and mirroring this for their children. This makes home a happier place to be.
Children are just beginning to learn how to regulate their emotions. Part of learning how to regulate them is giving your child the permission to express their full range of feelings and helping your child identify the emotions they are feeling. You’ve got to “name it to tame it!” When this is paired with your superpower of maintaining your own window of calm, helps your child regulate their feelings through co-regulation. Co-regulation is an important first step in helping your child learn self-regulation. When your child is able to regulate their emotions, they can have positive peer interactions. Children who struggle with regulating their emotions may demonstrate anger, aggression, or become withdrawn or anxious. This impedes their ability to develop social competence, and your child may have a harder time making or keeping friends. Peer relationships are a vital part of childhood and humanity, as we all know!
What's the best way for a child to learn emotional regulation skills from their parents? Play!
That’s right Play. Play allows for learning and coping mechanisms to be established and repeated, thus developing healthy neural integration. All of this is possible through the power of play, it’s innate ability to reach children with their own language and in their own space. As a child comes into their own window of tolerance, their limbic system (emotional center) activates and develops new pathways. These new pathways increase social-emotional skills (being able to read others’ emotions and react appropriately). Another name for this is the SEEKING system, and it is activated by playing and can only happen when a strong emotional connection is present. This is where a parent's ability to be aware of their own window is valuable, as it allows the parent to regulate both themselves and their children. When we are in our windows of tolerance we can appropriately connect with our children emotionally and share a space for them to activate their seeking system.
When the seeking system is activated, children have an appetite for life, curiosity, drive, motivation to be creative, new ideas, and living life. Play releases dopamine, the pleasure hormone in the brain. Dopamine allows for the emotional and rational brains to work together and regulate emotional behavior as well as increase stress-management in the brain and body. Our physical and mental states are closely linked and strive to be integrated to keep our windows of tolerance wide. Science tells us that by having healthy relationships and large amounts of playful connections, a child’s brain develops healthy organization and neural patterns. This makes for a happier, healthier child.
We all have days where we feel like awful parents. We may yell, cry, or not really care about what our children are doing, and that leaves us and our children feeling terrible. When we are more aware of our own mental state and the window of tolerance we are given the chance to change and grow. With our window of tolerance Superpower we can recognize when we are out of whack and correct ourselves. Once corrected we are able to interact with our children and create a calming, regulated environment where connection rules. Through play and our strong emotional connection with our child, we practice co-regulating and thus share our ability to regulate our emotions with our children. In the end our superpower allows our children to learn emotional regulation themselves (self-regulation) and creates calmer parents. Our children are then more aware of their own emotional states, as well as others, and increase their social awareness. We, as parents, can help our child develop important life-long skills of socio-emotional development. Using our Superpower to help our kids regulate are the moments of parenthood that we can be proud of!
Window of Tolerance pdf here
When you Feel Like a Bad Parent pdf here