Parenting with the Body in Mind

Contributed by Jody McVittie, MD

We sure hear a lot these days about the brain – and brain science. When we hear the word “brain” most of us think of the soft stuff that is inside our skull. That is, in fact, our “brain.” But it turns out that our body is not just the thing that carries our brain around. Human nervous systems are incredibly complex and there is a lot of information exchanged between the brain and the rest of the body. Dr. Daniel Siegel (a well-known UCLA interpersonal neurobiologist/psychiatrist) now refers to the entire nervous system as “the brain.” As we learn more about the nervous system, it seems that we perceive a LOT more with our bodies that we have been acknowledging in recent times. There is a surprisingly large amount of information coming from our intestinal tract to that organ in our head— and from the heart. So those sayings you have about your “gut feeling” and your “heart not being in it” are probably not so far from the truth.

So what does THAT have to do with parenting? Becoming aware of the sensations in our bodies can help us as parents learn to self regulate. We can keep our prefrontal cortex working longer. And it can help our kids too. Caroline Goodell at the Institute for Body Awareness has a simple process for teaching kids to become more body aware. When kids who are racing around focus on their bodies it helps them able to calm down internally. It brings them back to the present moment. She recommends a game called “Where are My Elbows?”

Here is how it goes. When you see a child over stimulated or out of control you can:
1. (Staying calm yourself) say, “Hold on a second! Stop. See if you can stop just for a second.”
2. Then say, “Don’t look but see if you can tell me – without looking – if your knees are bent (pause) or straight.”
3. If the child answers and starts racing around again, repeat it with another body part. Keep track of how many times you repeat this before getting results. Caroline says her kids usually needed 3 times to be able to re-gather.
Here are some other body part suggestions:
– Are your shoulders up or down?
– Are your elbows bent or straight?
– Are your hands in fists or open?
– Are your toes scrunched or flat?
– Is your tummy pushing out or relaxed?
– Is your forehead relaxed or tight?
– Is your weight more on your left foot, right foot or both feet the same?
– Is your head tilted or straight?

Pay attention to what the child is doing to decide what to ask. If you ask about different parts each time you try this it is more interesting. If the child can’t stop and check in with their body – practice at a time when they are calmer. When they get familiar with the game it will get easier to play even when they are excited or over stimulated.

The game “Where are My Elbows” is printed with permission from Caroline Goodell.
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