Self-Reg with Dr. Shanker


00:00:00    Alyssa

You're listening to Voices of Your Village. This is episode 156. Oh my gosh, what a dream it is for me to bring this episode to you. I got to hang out with someone that I have such deep respect for; whose work I have followed for a while and who has been such an influence in my work and the work that we get to do together. Dr. Stuart Shanker the author of one of my favorite books of all time, in fact the only adult book on the holiday gift guide: "Self Reg: How to Help Your Child and You Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life". Dr. Shanker is Canada's leading expert in the psycho-physiological theory of self-regulation. You know how you dream of like meeting your heroes and you imagine how they'll be and what they'll be like I have been able to interview a number of people that I have such deep respect for on this podcast and this was one of those where I, as I was coming to this interview, was so nervous because I love him. And let me tell you, he is as magical as I ever dreamed him to be. He was so warm and present and kind. Truly truly a dream episode that I'm really excited to bring to you. Before we dive in I wanted to let you know that we got so many questions leading up to this episode because I asked you for what you would want to hear in an episode about self-regulation with kiddos and we got so many questions that we decided to do a free webinar series. We're doing a webinar, I'm going to offer it at five different days and times so that hopefully you can find a time that works for you to come on live and hang out with me and dive into this. We're going to talk about what it looks like to calm the nervous system and do this work with kids. In December, we talked about calming our own nervous system as adults and what self reg practices can look like for us as adults. In this webinar series, we are talking about what this looks like with kiddos. So from what you're listening to this podcast episode, we're going to dive deeper live with me. You can head on over to to find the day and time that works for you. We have two webinars next week and three the following week. Find a time where you can come on live because at the end I will be doing a Q&A where you get to ask your questions. Head to to find the time that works for you for this totally free webinar. I can't wait to hang out with you live and dive deeper into this Jazz. For now, enjoy hanging out with this human that I am so grateful to have had the pleasure of getting to hang out with, Dr. Stuart Shanker. All right folks. Let's Dive In!


00:03:06    Alyssa

Welcome to Voices of Your Village a place where parents caregivers teachers and experts come to support one another on this wild ride of raising tiny humans. We combined decades of experience with the latest research to create the modern parenting Village. Let's dive into honest conversation about real parenting challenges. So it doesn't have to be this hard. I'm your host, sleep consultant, Child Development specialist and passionate feminist, Alyssa Blast Campbell. 


00:03:43    Alyssa

Y'all, our Village grew so much in 2020. We went from about 5,000 folks to 50,000 folks in a year. And as this Village grew, I kept wanting a space where we could all hang out where you could ask your questions and I could support you and the systems that we had in place just weren't sustainable as our village grew; I could only get to so many DMS a day. We created The Village Membership as my dream space where we get to guide you on this journey where you have a place for you can ask our team questions and we can guide you; where you can ask our team questions and we can support you in real time. I wanted not only for you to have access to our Tiny Humans Big Emotions and re-parenting courses, but I wanted to be able to walk alongside you in implementing them. What does it look like in the day-to-day to be doing this work? I wanted a spot where you could bring a partner or a co-parent and dive into these conversations and where we could continue to pour more resources and bonus workshops and webinars and pour into you so that you feel equipped day in and day out to navigate this journey. You don't have to do it alone. It takes a village. Come on over and join our village membership at the lowest price. It'll be just 34 dollars a month or 349 for the year to save over one month's worth of membership and get access to your very own emotion processing bundle box, currently out of stock and only available for our annual members. I really wanted to make sure it was affordable for you. So we are giving you access to both the tiny humans big emotions and re-parenting courses as well as so many tools and resources. A weekly Q&A session a place to find an accountability partner and empathy buddy on this journey another parent or caregiver who's walking alongside you here who you can connect with and access to challenges and webinars that are going to be exclusive for the village members. It takes a village to raise these kids and we've got your back head on over to to sign up today before the membership access runs out. We are closing membership access on Thursday, February 4th. So head on over right now to get access to this at I love getting to do this work with you to raise emotionally intelligent humans and show up as the people we want to show up as. 


00:06:41    Alyssa

Hey everyone, welcome back to Voices of Your Village. Today, I'm here with Dr. Stewart Shanker who has asked me to call him Stewart and that's hard for me because the respect I have for you is outrageous. When I was preparing for this interview is going through not just a questions in our community, but I found myself being like I don't want an hour of your time, I want like a lifetime of learning from you. It was so hard to condense all of like, if I get an hour, what questions do I ask? Your book, "Self Reg: How to Help Your Child and You Break the Stress Cycle and Successfully Engage with Life", It was the first time I was teaching infant-toddler at the time when it came out and got it right in 2016 and I was like, oh my gosh it finally spoke to what I was experiencing as an infant toddler teacher at the time and I actually had a kiddo in my classroom who had just started and when she was born was in the NICU for a little while and when she came into my classroom, we had, like, a real, pretty, like, quickly immediate connection to each other. We just got each other from the get-go and she was one of my most challenging kids for sure and I was hearing from my admin that I needed to let her cry a little bit more and just things that didn't feel right for me. 


00:08:05    Dr. Shanker

Interesting, yeah.


00:08:06    Alyssa

And then I read your book and I was like, "oh!" And I passed it along to my administration and I was like, "This is what it is! This is what I'm trying to do!"


00:08:13    Dr. Shanker

Awesome. Awesome. 


00:08:15    Alyssa

Oh, it's such a game changer. Can you share with our village before we dive in a bit about your background and kind of what led you into this work? 


00:08:23    Dr. Shanker

Well, you know what? Let's start with the story you just told. I got trained in psychiatry by an American psychiatrist called Stanley Greenspan and Stan did a study back in 1989-90 with Stephen Porges and Georgia Degangi, and they went in to the NICU and they were looking at preemies that were really struggling and what they did was they reduced as many stressors as they could. So I'll give you one example as you know; in a NICU you've got all these alarms that are going off and, you know, it's code red and all the all the staff rush over to, say, a preemie whose oxygen level is drop below to 93%. And so what Stan did was they got rid of the alarms and they used haptic signals, the things that we have on i-watches now, and they coach the nurses, you know, when you get one of these alarms very calmly just, you know, walk over. So what we want to do is we want to really lower the stress as much as we can on these babies and the results were astonishing and the results were that the babies all started to put on weight, started to thrive and they cut the average length of stay in the in the NICU in half. So, that was my introduction to this and I had been studying something called self regulation was the perfect example of a theory that was developed by an American the beginning of the 20th century. And the rest is where we are today, Self Reg. Alyssa, is that a good enough answer? 


00:10:11    Alyssa

Yeah, I fully accept it. Yes. Yeah, that's awesome. And now I mean you are knee-deep in self reg for sure with so many different things that you are doing up in  Canada. Yes, in Toronto? 


00:10:26    Dr. Shanker

Actually, we just launched an international, we're now around the world.


00:10:30    Alyssa

Awesome. That's so rad for everyone around the world. One of the biggest questions that came in from folks was: "What's the difference between self-regulation and self-control" and this is very much highlighted in your book. If you want to give us a little overview? 


00:10:44    Dr. Shanker

So it's a really interesting question actually because when I came back to Canada, so, I had been working on a theory that was developed for mechanical systems. They were looking at self-regulating, basically, computers. How can you design a computer that will learn and regulate itself with different stimuli? And so everything I did was on what's called a psychophysiological definition of self regulation, which means how we manage stress. I'll come back to that in one second, okay? So, when I came back to Canada, I was writing about this, but I was really writing about the psychophys and somebody from the Ministry of Education got in touch with me and they had self-regulation on their report card and the idea was to tell parents that your kid was either really great at self-regulation, not so great or really needed to work on it. And I looked at this and I was kind of horrified because I was thinking as a parent I wouldn't know what to make of this. And in fact it probably, you know, like I have two kids that would never ever get anything other than a "needs to work on this" but it was grounded in a theory that was totally alien to all the work I've been doing and it was really a version of self-control that your kid has to learn how to manage, monitor and manage, their emotions, their attention and you know, I was thinking about that and I think you know, you know, that's pretty hard for me and I was an adult. To ask a little kid to do this is, you know, it's a stretch but there's a deeper issue. There is a reason why I think we need to stick with the original definition, which is very different from self-control. And the reason is this: all kids self-regulate. They do it probably before birth, but certainly at birth. And what happens at the moment of birth is a newborn is overwhelmed with stress. The stress of you know, breathing, temperature, light, sound all these things that they really sheltered from inside the womb and so they start to manage their stress right away and if you're a pediatrician or someone like you who teaches this, we have certain warning signs. If a child is sleeping all the time, like 16 18 20 hours a day. That's a warning sign for us. If the child refuses to engage with us, really shuts down, that's a warning sign and those are primitive ways of dealing with stress and they're what we call maladaptive. What we mean by that is that a maladaptive way of dealing with stress might work for a moment, but it creates more stress down the road. And all of the work I was doing was with young children on the spectrum. And typically these kids find social stress to be more than they can handle and so they do things like gaze-avert. "Gaze Aversion" is actually a way of self-regulating but it's maladaptive and the reason it's maladaptive is because kids really need to engage with their primary caregivers to learn language to develop their emotions their emotion recognition. So, by shutting out the caregiver, what was happening was they were dealing with their stress of the moment, but it was creating an awful lot of stress a couple of years down the road when they needed language when they needed mind-reading and so all of the work we were doing was really trying to go back in time to the original cycle, phys-definition, which is basically how you manage stress. Do you manage stress in a way that is growth-promoting or in a way that actually impairs growth? And that's what suffering is all about. 


00:14:58    Alyssa

This reminds me in our village, we call it coping mechanisms versus coping strategies. 


00:15:03    Dr. Shanker



00:15:03    Alyssa

And our mechanisms being those, like, numbing agents


00:15:08    Dr. Shanker

Yeah, that's exactly right. 


00:15:09    Alyssa

Yeah. So for folks tuning in, like, that's the language that we often use around that and when we're looking at this, can you break down for folks, what is your body going through throughout the day that affects your nervous system? You mentioned, like, a newborn comes out and it's, like, lights and sounds and so much stimuli. How does this affect your ability to self-regulate throughout the day? 


00:15:33    Dr. Shanker

So that's a great question. And I don't know if you can do this for your listeners, we use a chart that was developed by An American psychologist called Bob Thayer. It's called a "Thayer Matrix" and and you can download it for free from our website and it's a really great way for parents to see where their kid is in terms of how much energy they've got and how much tension they've got. And so basically let's start with a you know, a fundamental question. So I use this term, you know, babies have been assaulted by stress, but maybe people are going to be confused by that because, you know, you think of stress you think of the stress of a job or money. So how do we call these as stress? And to understand this, we have to go back to the very original definition of what a stress is. This goes back to the beginning of the 20th century. A stress is anything that requires us to burn energy, glucose, in order to stay within some sort of what we call a "functional range". So I'll give you an example. Our bodies are designed to maintain an average internal body temperature of around 98.6. In the original example when he was explaining what stress, is the guy who invented this, Walter Bradford Cannon, said cold temperature is a stress. It's a stress because it triggers energy burning reactions in the body like shivering, teeth chattering which generate heat and that keeps that internal body temperature around 98.6. So anything that requires us to burn energy, and I'll explain what that means in one second, anything that requires that is a stress. It could be a physical stress. It could be an emotional stress, social stress. When we get with older children, we start to work on cognitive stress and pro-social stress. So five different domains of stress. What happens when you have a stress? Well, some stress is really good, right, so we want our children to be able to deal with stress, you know, stress of exercise, the stress of going to school. These are beneficial stresses. The problem is when they are over stressed when it's too much stress and to understand what's going on here, when you have a stress, it triggers something. I don't want to go too technical, but it's called the autonomic nervous system and it has two branches, two components the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system, what it does is it triggers if you haven't stress it triggers a hormone that raises your heart rate. So think about when you get stress, right and you know stress of exams, you can really feel your heart beating. That's exactly what's going on with those preemies I was talking about; they had very very high heart rates and that's expensive. That's using up an awful lot of glucose. Then we have another system which counteracts that and it has a different set of hormones. So that's the parasympathetic and what it does is it brings your heart rate back down when a kid has too much stress in their lives when they're over stressed, that mechanism for bringing them back do wears out. It loses it's elasticity. And it gets harder and harder for them to recover, to restore, to repair cells to digest their food. The reason why Stan's NICU research was so important, was by reducing the stress, they were giving that parasympathetic system a chance to recover. What we find, is in 100% of the cases of the kids that we worked with that were having trouble, they had a parasympathetic nervous system that was exhausted. They had way too much stress in their lives. And you know, if you're going to yell at them or you're going to try to punish them, you're just going to add to their stress load instead. You got to figure out why is this little kid so stressed? What are the stresses that my one month old, that my one-year-old, what kind of stresses are putting such a heavy load on their heart? And you know what? We can always figure this one out. You just have to become a stress detective. 


00:20:18    Alyssa

I like that, a stress detective.


00:20:19    Dr. Shanker

By the way, I was teasing you. I was teasing you before we started about being a baby whisperer, but in my experience there is such a thing. Stanley Greenspan was a baby whisperer. And baby whisperers have this sort of intuitive awareness of when a baby is overstressed and why the baby's overstressed. And that's why they're so effective. Because knowing what they're seeing they can now begin to reduce the stress load on this kid and the kid does better. 


00:20:49    Alyssa

Yeah. Yeah, I think you know after working with hundreds of kids, especially infant-toddler, it's a skill you can develop. When we chat about this in our village we talk about it as like a sensory bank and then withdrawls. 


00:21:04    Dr. Shanker

That's great. That's really good. 


00:21:08    Alyssa

Yeah, thank you. And for me, it was helpful to like have that visual because the withdrawals column before, like, diving into this work it didn't make sense. Like you said, like, stressors where we think of stress in my life and I'm like, "I'm stressed", it's not like, "oh the lights are too bright" or "there's sound in the background" that comes up for me, you know, and so when we were breaking this down about kids, I think one of the things that's key is noting, like, what are those stressors that maybe we don't think of as adults as categorized stress? Do you know what I mean? 


00:21:39    Dr. Shanker

Yeah. Can I give you a great story?


00:21:44    Alyssa



00:21:45    Dr. Shanker

Okay, so we were we had a family come to see us at our clinic and they had a young son. He was about 14 years old. He had Asperger's and they came to see us because he refused to have Thanksgiving dinner with Grandma who'd come all the way out of town and he went to his room wouldn't come out. And so they felt that he was being really anti-social. And he was rejecting the family and so they came to us as sort of, you know, a family in crisis. And so we're sitting around the table and we're just chatting, you know, just to get to know each other and our mental health clinicians said to him. So what'd you do last night? And he said the whole family had gone to some famous steak joint and everybody had steak except him. And he said "boy, it sure looked good though, those steaks." And so she said to him,"Well, why didn't you have a steak then?" He had a hamburger instead, and he looked at her like she was 


00:22:49    Alyssa

an idiot and he said, "you know", and he made a gesture like this with knife and fork and she said to him "You mean, the knife and fork bothered you with the steak?" He said "Yeah", she said "Why?" It's the sound of the cutlery on the plate. He was very very sensitive to it; he had something called misophonia. So she said to him "Is that why you eat the hamburger?" And he again, he looked at her and he said, you know like "Oh duh, you eat it with your hands!" And so we got the penny dropped and she said "is that why you didn't have dinner with with Grandma because everybody was using cutlery?" And he said, "of course", he said "I always have dinner with the family when they have finger food." So, you know, it was a wonderful moment when we saw that, you know here he had this heightened sensory response to something that you and I wouldn't even notice. But for him, it was like somebody dragging their fingernails on a blackboard and it was really really strongly aversive. And so what he was doing was he was trying to protect himself. He was trying to self-regulate. It was maladaptive, because he was, you know, creating all this family tension. And the solution was it was one of those things where we never got around to therapy, all we did was we said to mom, you know, let's switch the paper plates and you know, if we want, you know, there's actually other things that you can do to reduce the stress load on the kid. But it's fascinating how once you start to think about this you start to realize that what you thought was a misbehavior is in fact a stress behavior. And as soon as you see that everything changes, your whole attitude changes. And now you're on the pathway to recovery to healthy trajectory. 


00:24:47    Alyssa

Now, you get to see the kid differently. 


00:24:50    Dr. Shanker

Yes. You see the kid differently


00:24:52    Alyssa

One of the lines in your book that is, I keep it right at my desk, is if a child is in a depleted state, he's going to find it much harder to resist an impulse. For me, this was like a reminder that I need over and over to fill that sensory bank. But when I'm thinking of, we often get this question from folks that it's like "well my kid knows not to hit and they can tell me that I shouldn't hit my brother. I shouldn't do this behavior outside of the moment, but they're still doing it. How do I kind of like break that cycle of dysregulation so that kids can have a more regulated nervous system throughout the day," is a big question that comes up in our village. 


00:25:38    Dr. Shanker

So you just said two things there that I think are huge. So the first thing is, right, we call it reframing the kids behavior. So what we tell all of our parents and all of our teachers is that when you get any kind of behavior that you know, you think is inappropriate whatever first ask yourself why and then ask yourself why now? And the reason we do that is it sort of makes a pause so you don't react instead, you know, we get that little moment where we can just reflect now. The second part of your question is that when a child's overstressed and those stresses they can be, let's take a kid that's in school and a kid who's very sensitive to noise, or other kids, or here's a real interesting one: a lot of the children that we work with had what's called poor body-sense, poor proprioception. And what that means is for most of us, you know, I can sit on any kind of chair and I can find myself a position where I'm comfortable. Doesn't have to be, you know, really padded or whatever but for a kid that has poor proprioception, just sitting up on the carpet can actually be a huge stress. And so what happens is, you know, it's got a wonderful teacher, "Let's all sit on the carpet and we're going to have story time" and he starts to poke other kids and he refuses to sit still and we don't stop and ask ourselves, why is he doing this now? And we don't consider, well, maybe it's that he feels claustrophobic with other children. Maybe he's feels unsafe in his own body. And so when we work with kids like this, what we found was if we could change the seating, if we could, you know, find a seating that he felt more secure, if we could do some exercises so he could feel in touch with his body or whatever, once we go down this road, then we don't get these disruptive behaviors. Now, there's another part here and this is sort of like the hidden part of, you know, I want to come back you being a baby whisperer. So we have a channel, a brain-to-brain channel with the kid. And it's called now, the term they use is the "inter-brain". And so it's my assistant deep inside my brain, called the limbic system, is hooked up with the same system in the child. If I feel at all irritated, annoyed, aggravated with the kid, it doesn't really matter what I say because my limbic system sends its own message and it sends the message that I'm really pissed off, I find you annoying, you're a disturbance. And so without meaning to, I can be saying all the right things and I can be smiling, but my tone of voice or my eye gaze, it's sending a very different message and when a kid is overstressed already. That's all he hears. You don't hear the words all you here's our the limit cues. And so what we find is once we start to do this once we start to reframe our when our perceptions of a kid, our own anxiety really just disappears. We become calm and those are the messages that we send to the child. We literally share our calmness with him. He picks up that calmness. And by the way, we've gone into situations where you would not think this was possible and it always is. 


00:29:33    Alyssa

Yeah, it's awesome. Those mirror neurons are so rad, can be so rad. 


00:29:37    Dr. Shanker

Exactly, exactly. 


00:29:41    Alyssa

And so for folks tuning into that, like, this might be something they didn't grow up with and they might be building their own self reg skills as parents, as teachers, as caregivers. What does this look like if they're finding themselves in a dysregulated state? What are tools that they as an adult can tap into so that those mirror neurons can coregulated so that we can bring the calm.  


00:30:05    Dr. Shanker

you know, we've been overwhelmed recently with calls from America. You guys are undergoing a real, real spike in any kids, but guess what, you know, your country's gone through a very stressful experience and Mom and Dad are stressed. And, you know, you're stressed to begin with and now we've got all  the stress of covid, the stress of politics. And so what's happening is it's a sort of, you know, we use a term in self reg, it's called red brain, and red brain is when your strong negative emotions, let's say anxiety, are running the show. So what we have to do is, you know, we really want to help our kids, we see this really punishing stress load on, I'll just use Canadian kids now, this is serious. But I can't do anything unless I can first address the self reg needs of Mom and Dad or of the teacher and so our slogan is suffering starts, you know, the emphasis is on self. It starts with self. 


00:31:14    Alyssa

Yeah. I love it. I love it and I think so many of us need to hear it. I had the privilege of working with a colleague to create what we call the collaborative emotion processing method and it's five components and only one is adult-child interactions and the other four are about us.


00:31:30    Dr. Shanker

That's really interesting. 


00:31:31    Alyssa

And I think that we often overlook that right? We are like, "what do we say to the kid? What do we do in the moment with the kid?" And when we leave ourselves out of the equation, it doesn't super matter what we do in the moment with the kid. 


00:31:44    Dr. Shanker

Have you done that with educators as well? 


00:31:46    Alyssa



00:31:46    Dr. Shanker

That's good. 


00:31:47    Alyssa

Yeah with the Early Childhood birth to five and with parents. And that's kind of what my work is based around. 


00:31:54    Dr. Shanker

That's really great. 


00:31:55    Alyssa

Yeah, thanks, it's a joy to get to do. And so for folks tuning in who either have multiple kids or are in a classroom state, how do you help multiple kids that are in a state of dysregulation? Like, you're at the dinner hour and you're getting stuff ready and it's maybe after school and things are moving a lot and it feels like chaos. Or in a classroom setting when I mean, I had nine one-year-olds, right? There was like always some sort of stimuli somewhere happening. And so what is this look like? How do we help folks who have multiple kids at one time to support?


00:32:30    Dr. Shanker

 So there's sort of two different ways of answering that with what we do and what we don't do. So, let's start off with what we don't do. What we're not going to do is, obviously, we're not going to raise our voice, we're not going to yell. But also, we're not going to resort to, say, devices as a way of occupying the kid and the problem with that is, we have lots and lots of research on this now, but basically you're avoiding the situation instead of you know addressing it head on. Now, when we go into, let's take as an example, we do a lot of work in schools that are in a state of high distress. And so you go into a classroom and you've got 20-25 kids and they're really bouncing off of each other, but there's a very strong likelihood that they're coming from family backgrounds which are dysregulating in their own right. So the first lesson here is that there's no magic bullet here. There's no, you know, I wish I had you know, like, some magic word that would get everybody to calm down. So what we do is we use a Spanish word, paulatinamente, and what it means is that step by step you're going to get there. And so what we started to do is we look at our environment, whether it's at the home, or in a classroom and we start to figure out what are the what are the things that I can do to reduce the sensory load in this environment. Now I can start to introduce that maybe what you're going to do is reduce the lighting or have some comfortable seating, different options. Now, what we're going to do is we're going to start to look at are there activities or experiences that we can bring in that the kids find calming, that they find regulating. So it could be music, I have a friend called Raffi, and so we found Raffi's music has this magical impact on children, but the biggest one is the following. So, to teach this we use a video by a guy called Michael Jr. and he's a Catholic comedian. You can download this, and he's making a home movie of the birth of his daughter and talk about a newborn that's overstressed. She's lying on a cold table. she's scared, she's cold and she's really really dysregulated. So it's worth downloading this just to see what happens in a split second. He forgets all about that he's making a movie and he shifts into a dad who wants to protect his child and he he starts a mantra' and he says to her "it's okay, sweetheart, daddy's here" and the kids stops crying instantly. Now, she doesn't know what the hell he's saying, she's an hour old, but the tone of voice, he lowers his pitch a couple of notes. He slows it down, and what she's responding to is his voice and what we find over and over is that you have a magical tool as a parent as a teacher and that's your voice. Slow it down, calm it down. If you're a parent then a little bit of touch, if you know what kind of touch they like, do they like, you know, scratching or whatever, kids are all different. But what we're going to do is we're going to totally shift from any kind of disciplinary response to soothing. I know you're overstressed. Now, what can I do and if it's siblings that are after it, I've got two kids and I'm Dr, Self Reg and trust me, I can't do it with my own kids. Sometimes, separation works. But the key here is always going to be when you're processing what that was all about trying to figure out what were the stresses that led up to this and there's always ways answers and then we can move forward and that's what we mean by "paulatinamente", the next time, I'll know that I had all the warning signs. Maybe this wasn't such a great idea to take them to Chuck E. Cheese or I don't know what you got in Vermont, but you know, we're constantly reflecting on what what happened and then moving forward.


00:37:28    Alyssa

I love that you noted reducing the stimuli and our role in doing that. I know as a teacher, it's so hard to tap into that in the moment, right? When there's chaos around, I'm feeling chaotic inside and so for me even just lowering the lights a bit if you have the ability to do that, it reminds me of Michelle Obama, but the opposite: "When they go low you go high", but when they go high, I'm going low. 


00:37:56    Dr. Shanker

No, that's great. I love it.


00:37:58    Alyssa

You know? And really being able to do that. It's so hard to do in the moment. Because our insides are saying to do something else. 


00:38:05    Dr. Shanker

So Alyssa, can I give you another story 


00:38:08    Alyssa



00:38:09    Dr. Shanker

Okay, so this is in the book in this one's stuck with me always. We had a mom come to see us and she'd had a wonderful relationship with her child. And the kid hit puberty and everything fell apart and that's not uncommon, right? I mean, that's a different lecture, you know, what's going on in a teenage brain? It's a bit chaotic but the driver in all this, the reason they came to see us, was that she was having these fights with her daughter every single night and from her perspective, the daughter was nuts. It was totally irrational and  so she was going to explain you know, that you're being irrational and then it always started off with the best of intentions and then two hours later, the door slammed and and they hadn't gotten anywhere and this was night after night. So finally she came to see us because the daughter was starting to self harm, to cut, and so we're sitting around the table and we said,"Okay, so here's what we want you to do. Don't say anything. Okay, so we're not going to we're not going to lecture. We're not going to explain, we're not going to talk and if you feel absolutely compelled to say something to your daughter, tell her that you love her and that's it. And within a couple of days of her first session with us, the daughter had asked, we have a clothing line up here and all the kids were wearing what's called a "root sweatshirt" and it was a pink root sweatshirt and she wanted one of these. So, Mom was a working mom in that she took off her lunch to buy her the sweatshirt and they didn't have pink ones, they only had gray so she bought the gray one. This is a 13 year old kid so you can imagine the scene that they had. All hell breaks out at bedtime again and Mom wants to yell at her. I won't swear on on your podcast, but you it was not nice what she wanted to say to her. But she said but the doctor said I'm not allowed to say anything except I love you. So she left the bedroom, she went out into the hall and she did some breathing exercises that we talked about, calm yourself down, and then she came back in and turned off the lights in the bedroom. And the kid was sitting on the bed. Now when the child's in this state, you know, this is typical what I'm describing. It's very typical for say a three-year-old, not so typical for a 13 year old, but the thing about the brain is, when the brain is overstressed and you know, I think about it 13 years old, you've got a lot of stress is going on in life, a lot of social stresses, the brain actually regresses to the neural state of a three-year-old. The needs that that kid had that teen had were the needs of a three-year-old. So what she needed was she needed mommy to be soothing. So we have a real problem when kids go into this state and the problem is they can't actually process what we're seeing and the more we talk, the more that talking becomes a stress. And so, you know, we're doing our best as a parent, you know, we are going to explain, "you really are pretty" and "you're so bright and you're such a--" you know, all of those words are stressors in their own right. That's why we didn't want her to talk. And so what we wanted to do was we wanted her to, you know, she turned off the lights, but the other thing we wanted to do was of all the mechanisms for dealing with stress, the number one, the most important, is called social engagement. It's that connection with Mom and Dad or grandparent or best friend. But in that overstressed state, she'd broken off social engagement. She created this barrier between her brain and Mom's brain. So we want to get that connection cooking again. And the best way to do it is through physical touch, but we have a problem here. Because language itself, it's suppressed and you need permission, you can't just barge in and start to touch the kid; that will just send the kid right round. So you have to get her permission. How do you do that when the kid can't talk? Now, language may get blocked but nonverbal communication doesn't. This is the original communication between a baby and a caregiver. So, gestures, eye gaze all those things. So, what we asked her to do was--we want her permission to touch her. We want her permit. Basically this was a kid who loved, when she was a child, loved being scratched. Kids, they melt when we get the right kind of physical touch with them. So what we suggest was, you ask the child, the ideal way to do this is put your finger inside their fists and you just say "Would you like me to scratch your back? if you would squeeze my finger." And that's exactly what she did and you know, she gets back a little squeeze. Now, what you've done is you've now re-established that interbrain connection, you've now re-established social engagement the kid, no longer feels alone is no longer frightened. And this is the most frightening thing there is for a child, is to feel that I have to deal with this by myself. So, Mom is there sitting in the dark the child is lying on the bed. Now Mom is scratching her back just the way she did when she was three and within a few minutes 15 minutes the kid is ready to go to sleep. Now these were fights that were going on for two hours and the last thing she says is "I need to sleep now. I love you, Mommy." Listen, very interesting. First of all, her language has come back. Now, she can she can use language to tell Mom that I'm tired and I want to sleep. But the "I love you, Mommy" is this experience has launched deep inside her as something called the hippocampus. It's in her deep brain, the memories of when Mom soothed her. Okay. So Mom saying, holy s***. This is really this is magical stuff, you know, I got the kid to sleep and and there was no shouting and now Mom starts to feel guilty about it. So she's rehearsing what she's going to say to the child the next morning and she's going to say juror, look I'll leave work early. I'll pick you up from school and we'll go to the outlet and will find the pink sweatshirt. And the next morning the kid comes downstairs smiling wearing the gray hoodie. So it's a really important lesson for us because what we thought was the stress wasn't the real stress that was going on here was the stress of trying to navigate her way through teenage social dynamics and not having that sort of anchor with Mom that she'd had all her life. And so when we talk about this distinction I made between maladaptive and an adaptive or growth-promoting ways of dealing with stress, the most adaptive the most beneficial way of dealing with stress is going to Mom and Dad. I had this experience with my own son last night. He's 19, and still resisted talking until he started to talk. So, there's all kinds of layers here. And I guess the part I find most hopeful is that, you know, we've seen an awful lot of kids and thousands and thousands and thousands and I've never once seen a kid who didn't have the same need and never seen a kid that didn't respond to having his his or her stress lowered and re-establishing that connection, that brain-to-brain connection. So that's what we do. 


00:47:05    Alyssa

Yeah, it's so powerful and so many things came up for me. I think one of the things that can be challenging in this is our desire to speed it up. 


00:47:16    Dr. Shanker



00:47:18    Alyssa

You know? We'll get folks who are like, okay, we have we outlined five like phases of emotion processes and our first score phases are just focused on connection and nervous system regulation and the very last one is problem solving when we can access. 


00:47:33    Dr. Shanker

Love it. 


00:47:36    Alyssa

People will be like, okay, well I did this and I did this, like, "check check check" and they're refusing coping strategies because they might not be ready to tap into that. 


00:47:46    Dr. Shanker

That's right. That's right. That's right. I love everything you just said 


00:47:49    Alyssa

But it's so hard to wait in the moment when we're like well, I've done it. I've done everything I can do and I like that you noted that it was okay for that Mom to walk away and do some deep breathing. I think sometimes there's this feeling of if we walk away, the kid will feel abandoned or they'll be some sort of disconnection there. But the reality is we can't connect until we are regulated and in this space to connect. 


00:48:15    Dr. Shanker

You're gonna have to come work with us!


00:48:18    Alyssa

Please, that's a dream! But I think that that is something that's so hard to do. And especially when we're looking at younger kids, where maybe the two-year-olds following you as you take space, and that it can be hard to regulate that nervous system to to do this and to come back to a place of connection. Can you speak to what it looks like for some kiddos--and I have a very different nervous system regulation than my husband's, right? 


00:48:46    Dr. Shanker



00:48:46    Alyssa

And so, he would love it if in the moment I would stop talking to him, I would give him a little space let him regulate and then we can come back together and connect when he's ready. And for me I go into overdrive and am like let me talk through it. Let me just fill all of this silence and have to work really hard not to do that. And so I'm a human who as a kid really benefited from having a hug or having that deep touch and now also in adulthood as well in different ways and for him, he benefited from having like a rocking chair to go to and get some vestibular input. 


00:49:25    Dr. Shanker

Terrific, terrific point. 


00:49:27    Alyssa

So what does this look like in terms of figuring out who's the kid in front of me? And what do they need for their regulation? For Zach, my husband, if I were to touch him in that moment that's dis-regulating and so how do you navigate that? 


00:49:44    Dr. Shanker

So, this kid, we got called into a school and you know, we'd gone through our problem-solving and, you know, we're the experts and he was 10 years old and we came to the conclusion that what he needed was  some quiet space to himself. Not a punishment room or anything like that, but we thought really what he needed was, you know, just it was a little office off the principal's office. So, you know, we're convinced that we knew exactly what he needed and we get called back a week or two later and the kid is even worse. And so, you know, we had this novel idea. Let's ask him. So we asked him, you know, this doesn't seem to be working, why not? Because he was a kid that we were quite certain was  overly stressed by other children in the classroom that's why he needed a break. And he says to us, "the problem is, I can't stand the quiet! If you could put a radio inside this room for me--" and so we did we put a radio in and then he was fine. And so one of the things that we learn and this is hard when you're dealing with little with infants, so remember, you know, they don't have the language; they can't tell us, but they show us in all sorts of ways. And so what we learned how to do is we learned to read all kinds of little signs and it could be the complexion, the color of their skin on their face, or the back of their hands. That's a good indicator of when a child's overstressed. Or it could be their eye gazing. We have all these little things, and I suspect that that's what you're teaching is one of the things you're teaching is how to read these signs that are telling you. Now, for us this is always a trial and error process, you know, we're going to try things and learned a couple of things, a couple of huge lessons. First of all, no two kids are the same. So every single kid has unique sensory thresholds and sometimes you know, they are bizarre like the things that we would never have guessed. But you know, if you begin to reframe and look at the difference between misbehavior and stress behavior, you can start to figure it out. So that's the first lesson every, kid's unique. And the second lesson is the little buggers change on you every week. So, you know, what was a stress, you had it all figured out last week and now you have to start all over again, but, you know, we learn how to read these signs and I'm going to guess that there are moments that even Zach wants a hug, so it's really becoming responsive in the moment, you know, seeing that this is not a time for me to hold you. This is not a time for me. This is the time to just maybe just be here quiet. So, you know, for us it's a constant learning experience, but we have certain indicators and the the indicators are invaluable. One of them is what's my child like when they wake up in the morning? Are they smiling? Are they happy? What's my childlike at bedtime, you know, is it easy for them to go to sleep? Do they welcome the sleeping? We look at things like their appetite. Like the regularity of, you know, whatever they're doing and let me add what is one of the most important discoveries that we made I don't know that this is in the book in self reg, it's in a later book, in so many of the families that we worked with, Mom and Dad, or whoever were actually pretty good at this. They were pretty good at figuring out what the child's sensory needs were that, you know, it's called individual differences, figuring out how to respond, they were actually pretty good at this. And the problems started when the kid went off to say preschool or school. And here what the issue is, is so we finally we drew a distinction between what we call robust and fragile attachment. So I can have in robust attachment, basically what that means is that the kid is securely attached with his primary caregivers, and I can switch the caregivers and that kids gonna do fine. That kid can deal with any range of new experiences or new interactions. Fragile is very different, so the fragile, these are kids that were in fact securely attached with Mom and Dad because Mom and Dad had learned how to avoid certain stresses, whatever, but when the kid entered into a school setting, so you now have an educator who maybe doesn't understand this child, doesn't have this background knowledge or maybe even worse, who sees the child as misbehaving and needing discipline. And then what can happen is that it now looks like I have an attachment disorder with Mom and Dad. So an awful lot of the work that we do is trying to empower parents, you know, you have to if you see if you sense that your child's educator is really not responding to your child's needs, go in and talk about it. Tell them what you know, share experiences; share and don't abandon. Don't think that, you know, like, I can just turn my child over, no! And you know what? I think this is true whether they are an older teenager or young adult or kid. So that's one of our big lessons. 


00:56:11    Alyssa

Yeah. I love that and it gives parents that advocacy role. Yeah, I dig that. One thing that I am curious to hear your thoughts on the role of like crying and experiencing emotions. Like I'm thinking of the work around emotional agility and ability to experience sadness without trying to rush it away or grief or frustration or anger. And when we reference in our work, we created I fully made it up, but it helped me visualize. I called the triangle of growth and at the base of the triangle is our sensory systems and then emotional development and language; the idea being that I want to support sensory regulation before we can work on emotional regulation before we can talk and access language 


00:57:02    Dr. Shanker

Yeah that's great, that's great


00:57:04    Alyssa

I'm a huge fan of the visuals it helps me. 


00:57:06    Dr. Shanker

Yeah, it's really really really really great. 


00:57:09    Alyssa

Thanks. But, so in this, when a kid is say, dad, just left for work and they're crying and they're feeling sad or when kids would get dropped off at school, we might feel this rush to help them stop crying, to rush away that sadness and so how do you balance the co-regulation in supporting the nervous system regulation with allowing them to feel?


00:57:35    Dr. Shanker

You know, there's a real technical term for what you just described. It's called the “affect diathesis" hypothesis and the point of it is that as parents there are certain emotions that we are uncomfortable with and it's different for every family. So in my family, you know, if it was anything of a sexual nature, my dad was great. Oh we can talk about sex, you know, and and I'm sure as a five-year-old, I knew more than most adults but anger was a different issue. So we weren't allowed to be angry and so I could be having this wonderful, co-regulated, experience with with my dad and then you know you're a kid right? You get angry about something and he would just stop-- "you're not allowed to be angry!" And so what happened was growing up I had associations with anger that somehow I associated with a kind of shame, like it was a shameful experience to be angry at somebody and that's not healthy, right? So because you're going to get angry and you want to be able to express your anger, and so what we find when we work with families, is that what you're describing, typically, it's around emotions that they're uncomfortable with, that they try to short circuit the process. I love what you said before, "you're going to speed it all up", no, but this is a baby or an infant that's experiencing these emotions working through them, and what they need from from us is, of course, loving support. What they need from us is that feeling that, you know, I'm not going to leave you at this point. I'm not going to withdraw, I'm still here and I can be a supportive presence, but I have to allow that child--what you're talking about is allowing that child to experience these different emotions and to work through these different emotions and it's real hard, right? Like I mean, I find it really hard. 


00:59:47    Alyssa

Yeah, it's really hard. We have two courses for parents and now we are only selling them together because we realize you can't do this work without both of them one is our Tiny Humans Big Emotions course, like, guiding parents this work and then the re-parenting course, which is the work of what makes me uncomfortable? What's coming up for me?


01:00:08    Dr. Shanker

Oh you're doing that? 


01:00:10    Alyssa

Yeah. Yeah, and so I'm like, thank you for this answer, this is what we found. We sold them separately and now you can only get them together because we realize--


01:00:21    Dr. Shanker

That's great. 


01:00:22    Alyssa

--so many folks would come into Tiny Humans Big Emotions wanting to know what to do with their kid, and we would end up leading them also to re-parenting for what do we do with ourselves and what's making us feel so uncomfortable? Or maybe what's leading to us saying but I feel like they need to be punished or we are talking with someone who was like, okay, I get all that. I'm going to help him regulate his nervous system. But 


01:00:45    Alyssa

what's the consequence and accept that and we were like, oh, let's dive into why you feel like there needs to be a consequence. 


01:00:55    Alyssa

Yeah, that's just terrific. 


01:00:57    Alyssa

Yeah, thanks. I'm so glad that you kind of brought those in together, that so many of us are going to have things coming from our childhood in our social programming and cultural context around what's allowed and what isn't and doing that work is hugely important. 


01:01:13    Dr. Shanker

You know, I'm just reading a book right now by a guy called George Lakoff because I'm trying to understand what the hell's going on in the US with the polarization. And so what he talks about is he draws his distinction between two very different kinds of parenting styles. One of them is authoritarian and one of them is authoritative. And so I have this little kid and, you know, they're two years old and I'm already programming them to be a conservative or programming them to, you know, to be nurturing and so what's happening is that the limbic system which is, you know, driving everything in the early years of life, is actually being wired by these early interactions. The problem that we have is that it's very difficult; limbic system operates, we call it beneath the threshold of conscious awareness. So, I can have this associations, you know, that means that Johnny didn't try, that means that Johnny is lazy didn't make the effort or I can have the opposite parenting style that says no, no, you know, there's something else going on Johnny finds it over stressful or whatever. So, how do we, when we see that these things are getting wired very early in life, how do we address it? How do we get past the polarization that you guys have got right now? And I think you just put your finger on it with your two courses: you do it through awareness. You become aware of these patterns and it's a real eye-opener for everybody to say, oh my goodness, you mean, I'm reacting the way my great-great-grandfather was? When we become aware of these things that's when change starts. 


01:03:09    Alyssa

Thank you, that's so perfect. The method that I referenced earlier that we co-created, Lauren and I, collaborative emotion processing at the cornerstone of all of the components is mindfulness, which for me is awareness. 


01:03:22    Dr. Shanker

Yeah. That's it. There you go. 


01:03:24    Alyssa

Yeah, you're speaking to my heart! We often get folks, we do work in sleep as well, again coming back to we want to support folks with sleep if we're going to do this work if you're exhausted, and you know, we don't practice cry it out for what I think quite obvious reasons, but we also get people who are in these two camps in it. We are working to find that gray area and I think the key in parenting is in the gray area. And we want that black and white, you know, we want to, like, do this and don't do this and I was just talking about this with social media. I was saying how I see this on social media a lot in accounts that are growing or being shared and going viral and it's that black and white where there's a comfort in somebody saying do this don't do this and I'm just never going to do that. I'm always going to find that gray area. And I think that it's so key to be able to pause and take a good look around. 


01:04:28    Dr. Shanker

So that's why we do why, and why now.


01:04:30    Alyssa

Yeah I love that. I love that. So okay again I don't want an hour. I want a lifetime of this. So where can folks find your work and access more tools from you? We will link everything that you mentioned in here, we will link it in the transcript, but where can folks find more and snag your books? 


01:04:52    Dr. Shanker

So if you go onto the website, there's all kinds of things they can download for free and some of the things that I find really useful like the stress inventory, where you start to learn that, oh my goodness, you know, these are stresses that I never would have dreamt. Like, we're going into Christmas now, and I've always had a nightmare, my kids get overly stressed by presents and there was a real shock to me to discover that most kids get really stressed by presents. So, okay, so you go onto the website and get all kinds of free stuff and the last book, the new book, I think it's a real important one because there's three books here, it's a trilogy, so the first book was for teachers. The second book, the one you read that's for parents. But the third book is, you know, the suffering book is really about a child's social emotional needs. But what about learning? What about cognitive? What about intelligence? And so to me right from the start I've always hated what's called determinism. I hate it with a passion one of the things that Stan taught me was when you do self-reg, you're not saying, you know, I can turn, any child into a Bill Gates or or Stephen Hawking. Yeah, but what you are saying is that you never really know how smart a kid is, where their gifts are what their and so what we want to do is we want to figure out what's holding my child back. They're called limbic breaks, and if I can figure out those limbic brakes and release those brakes, guess what, that kid is going to blow you away. And so our final message is, so, you can give them all the materials that we've done but our final message that we want everyone to really take to heart is, having spent my life doing this, I can now tell you that the tens of thousands of children that I've seen I have never ever seen a bad kid. There isn't such a thing. Okay. And so what I'm hoping for is if I can figure out you know, what are the stresses with this kid, how can I release this? Oh my goodness, you know, I have yet to have an experience where that child, you know, you see the child differently and this new kid is going to blow you away. 


01:07:23    Alyssa

I love it, we will link to all of those things for folks in the transcript if you're on the go or not able to jot things down right now. It was an absolute dream to get to meet you and hang out with you and get nerdy with you. 


01:07:36    Dr. Shanker

I had a lot of fun with you. I have one question for you. Okay? 


01:07:38    Alyssa

Please, please!


01:07:40    Dr. Shanker

Is that a tin roof? 


01:07:42    Alyssa

It is! My house is from 1876--


01:07:45    Dr. Shanker

Oh, my goodness it's gorgeous. 


01:07:47    Alyssa

Thank you. Thank you so much. Yeah. We have been restoring It room by room. Yeah. 


01:07:55    Dr. Shanker

Okay, so you give a message to Zach from me. So, to have a tin ceiling in a house in Canada, that makes you some sort of, I don't know, superstar. 


01:08:08    Alyssa

I will let him know Zach's background is in architecture and he's been restoring things room by room. The surprise thing actually brought up one thing for me that I just wanted to share yesterday. I'm currently pregnant and--


01:08:22    Dr. Shanker

I thought you were glowing! 


01:08:24    Alyssa

Oh thank you, and my nephew yesterday, we were talking on the phone. I just entered my third trimester and he was like, "Aunt Lys, why are you finding out what you're having, a boy or a girl?" And I was like, "You know, I'm just excited for the surprise!" And he said "oh, I am not a person who's excited by suprises." Like, I love that!


01:08:48    Dr. Shanker

I'm going to use that for my next book!


01:08:50    Alyssa

Right? So good. Thank you so much for hanging out with me. This is awesome. 


01:08:54    Dr. Shanker

Okay, keep it up. 


01:08:58    Alyssa

Thanks for tuning in to Voices of Your Village. Check out the show notes for this episode and all past episodes at Did you know that we have a special community for all of you to be a part of so that we can all gather together to raise emotionally intelligent humans? Head on over to Facebook, search Seed and Sew: Voices of Your Village and dive into that Facebook group. We cannot wait to hang out with you and collaborate on raising these tiny humans. If you're digging this podcast head on over to Apple podcast, scroll down, click those stars and leave a review. It really fills my heart to hear from all of you. 


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