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Episode summary:

Dr. Mona Delahooke joins Susan for an absorbing conversation about how to shift from simply managing a child’s difficult behavior to supporting their nervous system when they move toward dysregulation. Great information about the role of the brain and co-regulation in helping children cope with sensory overwhelm, frustration, and disappointment.

Mona Delahooke, PHD. is a licensed clinical psychologist with more than thirty years of experience caring for children and their families. Mona is a senior faculty member of the Profectum Foundation and a member of the American Psychological Association. She is the author of Beyond Behaviors: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children’s Behavioral Challenges, the new book, Brain-Body Parenting, and is a frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant to parents, organizations, schools, and public agencies. She lives and works in the Los Angeles area.

Things you'll learn from this episode:


How parents can help children regulate their emotional states through our own regulation (co-regulation!)

Why emotional literacy is a developmental process

How we can shift our focus on children from managing behaviors to regulating nervous systems

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Episode Transcript

Speaker 1: (00:09)
Hello, and welcome back to the Parenting Without Power Struggles podcast. I'm very glad that you're here. This podcast is about helping you have more fun, more joy, few power struggles as you raise your kids. And I'm your host, Susan Stiffelman, the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles and Parenting with Presence. And I'm really happy to have this way to share with you. Some of the things I've learned in my many, many years as a teacher, a marriage and family therapist, a parent educator, and a mom. We cover everything under the sun here when it comes to parenting with guests like Tina Bryson, Kristin Neff, Janet Landsbury, Julie Lythcott Haims, Maggie Dent. Oh gosh, Judith Orloff, Rachel Macy Stafford, Debbie Reber. So many wonderful and wise speakers. So I hope you take advantage of all the wealth of wisdom to it's being offered here. Before we get started, please make sure that you're visiting Susan to see and take advantage of everything that we offer for parents.

Speaker 1: (01:12)
We've got a monthly Parenting Without Power Struggles membership program. For those of you who want ongoing personal support from me, there's a co-parenting with a narcissist support group for those who need that kind of help. And over 30 deep dive, 90 minute master classes on everything parenting like our recent class on the gifts of ADHD with Dr. Ned Hallowell, the resilient brain with Dr. Dan Siegel topics like mealtime, money, chores, siblings, and we have a super fun family friendly singing and songwriting class coming up with Thorald and Isaac Koren, the Brothers Koren, on Celebrating Every Voice. This is for parents and kids. So check it out at today. My guest is Dr. Mona Delahooke, oh man, you're in for a great conversation. I love Mona and I love her work. And today, today I wish I had a drum roll. Her brand new book is available Brain-Body Parenting, how to stop managing behavior and start raising joyful resilient kids. This book is a game changer. Mona sent me a copy last year to review it. And honestly, I underlined almost every sentence. It was kind of ridiculous. I had pages with turn down corners big. Yes. In the margins. Anyway, I'm thrilled and delighted to share with you a recent conversation that we had have a listen and we'll come back for the wrap up.

Speaker 1: (02:42)
Hello, Mona.

Speaker 2: (02:44)
Hi Susan.

Speaker 1: (02:45)
Oh my gosh. One of my truly favorite people. So I am so excited to talk about your work and especially this new book that truly it is I'm. I I'm hesitant to use so many fancy words because then people think, oh, you just say that, but I mean, it it's a game changer. So let me start with your bio and then we'll move into what this is all about. This idea of brain, body parenting. Dr. Mona Delahooke is a clinical psychologist specializing in the development of infants children and their families. She's worked extensively with the multidisciplinary team, supporting children with developmental behavioral or emotional delays for over 20 years in the areas of developmental screening assessment and early intervention services. Dr. Delahooke is the author of the outstanding book beyond behaviors thought that you couldn't do anything better than that last book, but your brand new book, which is the game changing book is Brain-Body Parenting.

Speaker 1: (03:47)
So I know you and consider you a friend and have seen this process in the last year and a half or so as you've been working on this book and then ushering it out into the world, and it's really something very special. In this book, you're offering an approach to parenting based on the most recent research in neuroscience and child psychology. So instead of it being kind of a top down approach to behavior management that focuses on the thinking brain, you're teaching parents to consider the essential role of the higher nervous system and, and, and you're claiming, and I, and rightly as I understand it, that this is what produces the feelings and behaviors that we wanna help our children through. So give me like a top down look at this book and what you're doing and what you're trying to share with parents.

Speaker 2: (04:39)
Well, thank you for, of all, for having me on and talking about it with me because it is, it's kind of become my life's purpose is to help us wow. To help us understand what produces human emotions. But most importantly, I think I'm interested in resilience because I know that when I was raising young children, I didn't feel resilient all the time and in our world, especially after the pandemic, resilience really means flexibility through change and to raise flexible children who can go through ebbs and flows of life as they happen. And they will continue to happen, just gets me really excited. So the research, essentially what we found out, we meaning clinicians and the world about the brain from those, doing the research, which is young research, you know, relational neuroscience has been around for several decades and that in real time, that's not that long, right, right.

Speaker 2: (05:51)
For clinical practice, like education, for example, even mental health to take what is being looked at in, you know, in labs and in theory, and then figure out what it means for us as regular people, as parents, as clinicians. So here's the kind of the, the shift in what the research is saying. And especially now is that the radical, but simple idea that emotions don't come from our brain, they start in the body. So one of the researchers that I'm really following closely, and she's one of the 1% most cited neuroscientists in the world, Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett, she has a theory called the theory of constructed emotions. And she tells us that sensations in the body are what inform, not just for our kids, but for all of us, those sensations in the body get encoded as basic feelings like I'm feeling good, I'm feeling bad.

Speaker 2: (07:00)
I'm feeling yucky. I'm feeling sick, those basic feelings eventually through how we are socialized can become emotion words. So that's one, that's one part it's when we talk to kids. And when we think that we can teach children how to, to be emotionally literate by just teaching them words, to pin onto pictures and books, for example that's missing the boat on the body. And that's, so that's one thing I think our, our parenting literature is pretty cognitive centric, meaning, and I believe me, this is no blame, no shame. I talked my kids up one brain and down the other for trying to have them teach 'em to be resilient and, and know their emotions, but, but emotional regulation that, that real emotional literacy is a developmental process. And the core of it that I believe Dr. Steven Porges has really pinpointed is something called physiological state co-regulation.

Speaker 2: (08:11)
So that is basically helping our children's body calm through their storms, through our own calmness, through our own ability to understand and observe ourselves. So we're really talking about a new shift in going from thinking about how we talk to our children from how we look at their, what we call bio behavioral markers, to understand what's going on deep inside of them. Yeah. And that becomes our way to customize our parenting to their nervous system. Not to just what some expert says is the right thing to say, right? Like do this and your child will be fine. It's more about studying your child and yourself, sorry for such a long experience.

Speaker 1: (09:04)
No. Yeah. So, I mean, and, and there's so much built into that response. So we're looking now, you mentioned this idea of regulation, and I talk about it a lot in my work. A, a lot of us are really interested, not in focusing on how to get a child to behave, or as you said, what should I say? So that they'll behave. Yes. But understanding more why, why it's difficult for them too. And we use the word regulation or dysregulation to kind of explain that when the nervous system will, or the, the organism of the child is dysregulated out of a regulated state, then inevitably they will move in a direction that either pulls them internally into toward a shutdown state or, or probably first into a more fight or flight state. Can you elaborate on that? You talk about that out the pathways, and I love the book, cuz it's so simple, but so clear.

Speaker 2: (10:01)
Oh, thank you. And I love how you, I, I just love how you said it in a sentence that is the shift between managing behaviors and focusing on supporting nervous systems. So we are, it's, it's understandable that we focus on managing behaviors. Of course that's important, right? We want our children to be well behaved and if they do something wrong, we need to teach them. But the focus on managing behaviors, like you said, becomes less important when you go beneath that. Yeah. To, to look at what is causing that child to throw a remote across the room, for example. Yeah. Or to, to punch their sibling or yell at you and say something really hurtful. Yeah. There's something propelling that beyond a child, just trying to be a bad kid or, you know, being rude. There's, there's something and it's called distress. It's called a stress response, which like you said, can go through either through several pathways of our actual autonomic nervous system.

Speaker 2: (11:14)
That is our O you know, our automatic nervous system. That is what connects one of the big, long pathways that connects our brain to the rest of our body, through the VA nerve. And when you have a shift in your body state, feel from go, goes from feeling calm and connected and able to grade your, your thoughts and your, and your body movements, when you move away from that subconsciously into that fight or flight state, what I call the red pathway, just think of as, when you go red then you are no longer really in charge exactly. Of what you want to, to say or do, and your body needs to move. So when we see our children start to, or feel ourselves, start to move in that direction, essentially when we feel out of control, when they feel out of it's a good signal that discipline isn't really going to help or, or, you know, putting the, you know, taking away a privilege or putting 'em in a timeout or, or moving their behavior chart down, those kinds of things actually add to a child's sympathetic nervous system reactivity and make them more stressed.

Speaker 2: (12:39)
Yeah. So and, and I guess if, if listeners are wondering, does that mean that we are permissive or let them do whatever they want? Absolutely not. We can still hold nice firm, bad boundaries of what's. Okay. And what's not okay, but still be empathic to that. Child's nervous system being in need of what we call social engagement, that kind of right. Warm, loving adult that is gonna share their calmness, share their calmness with the child so that the else starts to feel calm themselves. And that's the, that's the kind of the guts of co-regulation is sharing our calmness.

Speaker 1: (13:23)
You know, I have a few friends who exude that and you're one of them. I have another friend. I sometimes just call her answer machine, cuz she almost never picks up. And by the, the end of it, one of the things she wrote an amazing book called go only as fast as your slowest part feels safe to go. And she end that line with and remember go only as fast as your slowest part. And I just feel more regulated. She has passed that on as you do when you're in the present. And we know this is what we do with babies, we don't try and talk our babies out of they're upset because we don't even, we know that they can't engage on a cognitive level. So we skip that and we just are as calm and comforting as we can, but our children still need that. And then of course in a lot of my work, I'm interested in what gets in the way of parents being able to go to that place of calm, how we deny ourselves, the things that support that.

Speaker 2: (14:24)

Speaker 1: (14:25)
But you said something a minute ago about moving. Can you elaborate on that when a child is moving to, into that kind of red zone?

Speaker 2: (14:33)

Speaker 1: (14:34)

Speaker 2: (14:35)
Yeah. So and by the way, what you, what, there's a word for what, you've just what you just said in terms of baby, we, we understand that babies need us to basically regulate them for everything. Right. They can't change themselves. They can't feed themselves. They can't so themselves, we really readily do that for babies. But when a toddler, when a toddler starts to walk and talk assert themselves and they seem so, you know, they seem so adult, like really, sometimes they can accept a, a limit and, and we're thinking that they always can and that they have self control, that's called the expectation gap. And that's another myth that I think we need to bust in that, oh my goodness. Controlling and, and accepting disappointments is a huge developmental. Not only in milestone, it's a process. It just happens over time, over many years, but toddlers and young children and even elementary school children, it's I get it.

Speaker 2: (15:42)
It seems like just because they are, they can do something all some of the time that they should be able to do it all the time, but that's actually not how brain development works and that that brain, body neurodevelopment works. Right. So, so how does it work? Well in the polyvagal theory, the idea is that our different nervous systems CA you know, evolved to serve important purposes, and the main purpose is protection. So when a person experiences, or I should say detects threat, subconsciously, meaning we're not always aware of it, the body is aware of it. So there's this process. I call the safety sensor in the book that it's a subconscious threat detection. It could, could be something that is invisible likely is it could be something like a smell or a sound or a, or a thought or idea that comes upon a human that sends the nervous system into this, this need to move.

Speaker 2: (16:50)
And, and essentially movement is the care characteristic of the sympathetic nervous system. And if you think about it, yelling, screaming, hitting, running, punching, kicking, spitting, those, those are movements, right? And the more, the more agitated the movement, the more vulnerable the child or the adult, the nervous system is, is feeling it's, it's detecting high levels of, of, of threat. And again, this does not mean that children are detecting, are not feeling safe in your home. It's this is something different than that, right? Yeah. This happens in safe schools where with great teachers, subjective, it's not objective. It's subjective that our little humans are not mirror images of us. They have their own reactivity say to, even to separation, to, to, to separating from parents. We're, I'm seeing a lot of separation fears right now, school refusals. Yeah. Mommy and daddy, please don't go out to, you know, their date night and the child is just screaming and kicking cuz they don't want their parent to go out at night because of this hard transition from the pandemic and other crazy things going on in the world that they are exhibiting these, these stress related red pathway behaviors that are really protective and are temporary.

Speaker 2: (18:21)
So if you, if you feel that your child is, is overreacting to a lot of things right now especially as we transition through the pandemic it's, it's a common, protective behavior we are seeing in children. Of course it's not, it's not easy, it's hard, but there are ways to support children through it.

Speaker 1: (18:48)
So this is the child who is now either internally just in their body experience or by some perception of what's going on outside of them has moved toward that fight or flight kind of aggressive protective behavior. And we know that that's often what we associate with tantrums and meltdowns and things like, yeah, but there's yet a further distance that they can go if they're, you know, state of hyper arousal. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Speaker 2: (19:19)
Well, if, if the, if the, their body is experiencing a certain amount of that kind of stress where they're over arou where they are in a highly reactive state for either too long, or if, if the stress is too big, then we have that other instinctual response that you described. It kind of like a turtle, like you go inside that would be the dorsal VA or the blue path pathway where people start to disconnect and actually conserve energy. So the hallmark of that pathway is conserving movement. Here's where you'll see kids who don't wanna play. And that's a very big sign. If a child doesn't wanna play because that's their natural language they don't wanna communicate. They may look through you rather than at you. And they may seem kind of hopeless. This is a, you know, this is a pretty serious state if it, if it persists for weeks or months.

Speaker 2: (20:25)
But I really wanna emphasize that all of the, and then there are, there're also blends of the pathways that that scientists are looking at, but for these three main ones it's important to remember that they're all protective and therefore adaptive. So a child who's in a big tantrumy response, their body is trying to get back to feeling okay again. So we know that humans, all of us go through these different pathways through throughout the day. How many of us don't feel like down in the dumps for 10 minutes or an hour, right? It's, it's natural. But what we want to look for is if your child is like living there, if they're 80% of the day, they are disagreeable, agitated, refusing things, tantruming even toddler, we wouldn't expect 80% of the day. We'd expect little parts of the day. So that's why it's useful to look at.

Speaker 1: (21:27)
Can you share one or two things someone can do, particularly with a child is showing that stress response and, and moving into, or in the red zone. When you talk about movement, what is something I'm not saying that they can do this every time, but if a parent had the wherewithal, they had the time in this space in the moment, how could they help their child?

Speaker 2: (21:51)
Yeah. So since we, we know the Biomark, they're called biomarkers, but what the body looks like, and I explain it in the book, but when you see the child moving from the green to the red, you know, and you can see it in the facial expression, their posture they're, if they're gripping, if they, if they start to sweat, if their face starts to get red, there's these little signs we can look for. So look for them as quickly, as soon as possible so that we can even maybe prevent a, a full blown tantrum. But here's a basic little formula that is useful for when we see child start to leave us and move into that other pathway or any of the other two pathways, it's called resonate and respond R R and resonate means that we actually don't prioritize our words, but we prioritize witnessing the child's distress.

Speaker 2: (22:48)
So it would be so something like slowing down enough to, to look toward the child and, oh, wow. You know, you, I, it's not what you say. It's like, okay, I see this is honey. This is hard. Or oh, oh my goodness. Okay. Mama's here, daddy's here. Let's see. Let's see. And you're kind of resonating with that energy that shows the child that you are, it's called attuning and, and matching. And you kind of move in the same frequency as the child. It's not like you're sitting there going, okay, you're upset, you know, but you're like, okay, I see you. I'm paying attention. There's a problem here. And I am gonna help you, honey. So that's the powerful resignation that Dr. Portis calls witnessing that I so think is, is an underused tool. Is that sometimes like, even as an adult

Speaker 1: (23:53)

Speaker 2: (23:54)
Right. When you're really upset, doesn't it feel good for the, for your partner to just like, look at you and say, wow, I, I hear you. Wow. That's rough. Or how can I help if you're really upset? Right. It's like, so the resonating is one thing we can do, just letting them know we see what's happening and, and your work helps us know how to stay in the game with that. Because in order to show up, we have to show for ourselves. Yeah. Right. We can't pour from an empty cup. And this co-regulation thing has to do with our capacity to, to be there emotionally for, for our human children. And of course, we're not gonna get it right all the time and that's okay. We don't have to, right. We can repair when we're not there. Yeah. So the resonating, and then the second thing we do is we respond.

Speaker 2: (24:48)
And in the book, I talk about the different ways we can tabulate and customize our parenting based on the soothing strategies that work for your child. So we go through all the sensory systems and see what soothing strategies work, because kids are different. Some children would like to have a hug. Some don't wanna be touched, some want to hand on their shoulder or on, on their head. Some would prefer you to just stay away. Some like to have a song song, some like quiet. So we go through each of the sensory systems because that's, again in this, in this initial process, it's not what we say, but it's how we are. That's most important. And I think that's one of the key takeaways in, in, and of course there's a lot that we can say to them afterwards. And we, we talk about that in the later chapters, but in the, in the, in the co regulation piece, it's, it's a lot of it is sharing our emotional nervous system state with our children and a lot of science behind that in the study of something called emotional contagion.

Speaker 1: (26:03)
It's I, I remember when I read the first book that I emailed or called you and said, oh my gosh, oh my gosh. Oh my gosh, because you were leading up to what this newest book is gonna offer. I cannot think of a, of a parent of any age that should not read this book. I mean, it's just so rich. And, and in particular, what you're talking about there, you're not spouting from the mountain top, you know, you're really saying let's here is a very simple action noble plan, like an action plan. Yeah. And you guide parents through the specific questions in each area of their sensory development and input. So that that parent can customize for their particular child, what will help soothe the child and bring that child back to a regulated state. And this is why I love that.

Speaker 1: (26:55)
You, you say we don't teach a child to self-regulate, it's not a teachable thing, but you're helping the child with your own presence. Co-Regulate yeah. And you're including the child to some degree, depending on the child and helping reflect on, well, what does quiet, do you think you like the lights bright, or do you like the lights dim? Do you think you like it when, when you're feeling overwhelmed, do you think you, you would rather be in a quiet space or with a little music? What kind of music? And now that child is starting to notice and take, have some agency in terms of how to, to take those tiny baby steps toward being able to stay steadier when life is a little stormy

Speaker 2: (27:37)
You say it better than I can. Oh, I, I love that. Everything you just said. Absolutely. Yes. That's exactly what we do,

Speaker 1: (27:47)
But I love, and it's rare to find someone who's really teaching parents and, and providing kind of a game plan for parents to include their children, not in the let's name, our feelings, which can be helpful, but is not, certainly not what you're talking about, but much deeper than that to help the child start to get to know their nervous system. Like I know my nervous system finally, and I know if I'm really tired I am not a good person to have with a lot of people or a lot of noise. I can drive all the way an hour and a half to, to visit someone and enjoy having the car. Quiet, no radio, no podcast, no nothing. It's, but I'm learning and we can help our children. Right. And

Speaker 2: (28:38)
It's so beautiful. And I'm learning too. I mean, it's, I think I'm always gonna be learning because for a large part of my, of my life, as a mom, as a working mom of three, I operated outside of an awareness of my nervous system. Wow. And I was, I happened to my nervous system likes a lot of movement and I think it was, I think it's probably because when I slow, when I, especially back then when I slowed down, then, then I realized how many problems I had, how freaked out I was. So it was adaptive, you know, it's so like, it's amazing how our nervous systems help us. But yeah, I, I just so grateful for your roof reflections and it's, it's a gift to, in the chapter on self care. It's also a real big gift to our physical health because some of these many of these practices that allow us to develop awareness of our body state are implicated in reduced inflammation for adults later on. So it's incredible that, that something that's emotionally good for our kids can actually help you have less hypertension in your fifties and sixties, you know, and lower blood sugar levels. I mean, the studies are amazing about these practices that allow the body to slow down and allow us to develop the ability and the, and the ability to tolerate having some moments of self-awareness. That's what mindfulness is all about.

Speaker 1: (30:31)

Speaker 2: (30:32)

Speaker 1: (30:33)
All right. Well, everyone, this is if you only buy one parenting book a year, please buy this book and please Mona tell people, cuz I know that you're doing various things to help parents, you know offer support. So you've got this wonderful book please share your website and whatever else might add to the wonderfulness. It's all about,

Speaker 2: (31:01)
Well, my website is Mona de and Drella hook at Facebook and Instagram and Twitter. And just, yeah, it's a pretty unusual name. So Google it there. It's, there's not a lot of Dr. MOS out there. And I, yeah, I, I, I have a new website looking forward to having there, there are free videos on there. There's a blog and a lot of free stuff and other opportunities for training. So yeah, right. Happy to have people visit there.

Speaker 1: (31:37)
You know, we did a class last year. I know we're gonna do another one this year. It was one of our most popular classes. I can't wait either. It was such a joy and I've always been super interested in the brain, even though I barely understand anything. It just, it's so clear to me that who we are is way more complicated and who our children are than what we see on the outside. That everything makes sense when we look through the right lens. So

Speaker 2: (32:05)
That's so beautiful and you're right. It is so complicated. And even the, the top scientists they admit they only know a tiny bit about the brain. So the good news is for people like us, normal people like, you know, I'm not a brain scientist, I'm just a translator that the con we can, we can understand the concepts in a global way and still put them to use in our parenting and in our clinical work. So it's like you said, it's not, it's not scary. It's, it's, we can know the global concepts and, and leave the, all the the technical details to the researchers to work on for the next few years. And then we'll update as we go. Yeah.

Speaker 1: (32:51)
Any, anything you would like to suggest or encourage parents to try this coming week aside from, you know, taking all this in and, and rethinking perhaps with the help of your book, like how they might be viewing their child's behavior, but what's something someone could do this week?

Speaker 2: (33:10)
Well, I've noticed, I don't know if it's going around, but I've noticed something really awesome in the world. And that is I've people when they are touched by something or when they need some support, just putting their hand over their chest, over their heart. And so I'm thinking the, the main thing I think we need to do as parents right now is think to ourselves, be gentle, be gentle on myself, be gentle on myself, tell yourself that you can be gentle on yourself because there's a lot happening. You're, you're going through a lot. It's an unprecedented time. And so maybe that gentle hand on your, on your heart or on your cheek somewhere will help you remember that you matter, and you'll get through this. And you're not alone.

Speaker 1: (34:04)
Yeah. That's so beautiful. Thank you again, Mona. This is Dr. Delahooke. You and the new book is

Speaker 2: (34:12)
It's Brain-Body Parenting. How to stop managing behaviors and start raising joyful resilient kids.

Speaker 1: (34:19)
I'm all over it. Thank you, Mona.

Speaker 2: (34:21)

Speaker 1: (34:23)
I hope you enjoyed our conversation. I learned so much every time I talk with Mona do check out her brand new book, just release today, Brain-Body Parenting. If you're finding these podcasts helpful, I would love it. If you'd take a moment to leave a quick rating or write a review, we've really reached so many with the series hundreds of thousands, partly because so many of you are sharing the episode with your friends and your community and just cheering us on. So thanks so much for that. You can also hit the subscribe button and that way you'll be notified. As soon as a new episode is released. Remember, stay in touch, get your regular doses at You can get our free newsletter and see all the other kinds of support that I offer and do check out the upcoming family event, celebrating every voice with the Brothers Koren, whether you're a music afficionado or you can't really carry a tune, we're gonna have so much fun together, making music. All right, then taking a breath. I'm so grateful that you've joined me for our conversation today. Remember, no matter how busy life gets, look for those moments of sweetness and joy, stay safe, stay well. And I'll see you next time.