Mi Casa Es Tu Casa® has pulled together some takeaways from our lively conversation with Dr. Carrie Contey, and at the end we’ve included a link to the interview.
Dr. Contey listened intently (and enthusiastically) to parents' questions, taking care to be specific with her answers and to pull back and explain concepts on a broader, theoretical level. We're so grateful to her!
1. Understanding Ourselves as Wobbly, Steady, and In-between
Dr. Contey, who has a PhD in Clinal Psychology with an emphasis in the prenatal and perinatal realms, likes to describe a person’s emotional/mental states as a continuum between “wobbly” (emotionally off-balance, under-resourced, stretched to our limits) and “steady” (rested, well-fed, safe, and grounded).
During the Covid-19 crisis she suggests that we "put a frame around this time, because you’re more vulnerable to being wobbly, and your kids are more vulnerable to being wobbly.”
Dr. Contey doesn’t expect parents to be able to pull their wobbly selves back to steady at the drop of a hat, but she emphasizes that those of us who are able to quarantine can use all this close family time to practice and play with doing just that.
2. How Our Mental States Affect Our Actions
As you can imagine, when we are steady, we operate from a more “human” brain state. We are able to let things roll off our backs more easily, to be rational and loving. A steady parent might confront spilled paint on the dining table by helping their little one clean up and emphasizing that accidents happen.
But as stress goes up, our brain state goes down, and we get into wobbly territory where we start operating from what Contey (via Dan Siegal) calls our “reptile” brain. Here, things that might not bother you if you were fully charged, set you off. Here you react instead of responding. A wobbly parent might grumble or yell some version of “I told you so” while frantically and dramatically cleaning up the spilled paint.
3. Why Our Mental State Matters so Much for Parenting
Dr. Contey emphasizes that our mental state affects that of our children. Not only do our small humans operate on their own continuum of wobbly to steady depending on how resourced they are, but they are actually constantly checking in on their parents’ brain states, and then mirroring them.
When we feel like our children are “testing” us, they’re actually plugging in to see how we are, and if we’re fully resourced and ready to play (or read, or snuggle), they’ll mirror our same higher brain state. But if we’re wobbly, we react to what we perceive as our kids pushing our buttons. In response, their little brains devolve into the same reptile state and an unpleasant feedback loop between child and parent results.
4. The Old Way of Thinking about Parenting Vs. the New Way
“The old way of thinking,” says Contey, “was, my child is misbehaving I have to discipline that." The new way is: Wow, my child has slipped out of their thinking brain.” What used to be called “misbehavior,” the whining, poking, punching, tantrums, is now seen as manifestations of under-resourced children acting from their “reptile” brains. Contey calls it, “stress behavior.”
Rather than seeing the behavior as something malicious that needs to be stopped or disciplined, we can look at our child’s behavior as a message to us, a call for help. Just that small change in perspective allows us to stop and think about what it might be that our child needs (sleep, food, snuggles, less screen-time, exercise?).
“You don’t have a bad human on your hands, you just have a deregulated, wobbly human who needs for you, as the adult, the regulator, to go inward, resource, check in on your brain state, and then help the little one.”
5. How to Deal with our Kids’ Big Emotions
Dr. Contey acknowledges that our first instinct is often to try to calm the child, to stop the aggressive behavior. But she reminds us that our child’s mental state is closely connected to our own. To end the loop, we have to calm down first (just as we are told each time we fly, she says, that in case of an emergency, our oxygen own mask goes on first).
A basic framework emerged over and over as Dr. Contey described how a parent could practice getting back to steady while their child is experiencing big emotions:
1. Go inward and check in with yourself. Breathe.
2. Empathize: “You are having a really hard time. We both are right now.”
3. Be there. Don’t try to talk too much—your child is not in a place to rationalize.
4. Stay safe and let it play out. Your child can run through the emotions without taking on extra stress from you.
“When your little one is melting down,” says Dr. Contey, “you get present. Allow your little one to safely express the emotions they’re feeling.”
If possible, stay together, but if anyone needs to be physically removed, Dr. Contey says it’s more productive if the parent steps away behind a closed door to take a breath. She says that sending a child to their room is only helpful to the parent, who gets to take a healthy pause. But it doesn’t do anything to stabilize the child’s brain state. It doesn’t make the child “think about what they’ve done” in any productive way.
6. Setting Boundaries
Dr. Contey explains that, while most people think of boundaries as hard lines we establish and then must hold ourselves and our families to, really, boundaries should be set within the context of both our circumstances and our mental state. If your child asks to do a messy art project and you say yes against your better judgment (maybe you're too busy to supervise), you're more likely to overreact when the glitter ends up all over the floor.
Boundaries are about following through on what feels right. Not only does this create a healthy family system, but, as Contey points out, it models to your child how to set boundaries. First, you check in with yourself, then you make a decision—this skill is so valuable, especially later in adolescence when it’s tempting to make choices based on what others are doing, rather than what feels right.
7. Boundaries during Covid-19
With so many mixed messages about what is and isn’t recommended for staying safe during this crisis, it’s more important than ever to stop and listen to yourself. You may have friends and family going to work, shopping in person, and eating at restaurants, while others are staying home, wearing masks, and shopping curbside.
Dr. Contey says that, “Similar to the boundaries question, it’s all in you. And there’s no right way to do this.” But the situation, she says, forces us to check in with ourselves and avoid making decisions based on what others want. It’s better, for example, to let a grandparent be upset that you aren’t visiting than to do something that makes you feel unsafe. Otherwise, during the visit you’ll be a nervous, wobbly person with a tendency to “freak out” on family and your child will feed off of that state. Not a good combination.
8. Right Now, Homeschooling is NOT as Important as You Might Think
If you have a child who was attending school, chances are you are overwhelmed with the pressure of having to do all the academic work or trying to reach all the desired cognitive milestones on your own or with little online support.
Dr. Contey proposes that, despite the hardship that this pandemic has given to some, for those of us who have the blessing of being healthy at home, it is a golden opportunity to work on our family's and our own self-discovery and growth. Now, as we are spending more time together than ever, is the best opportunity to talk about emotions with our children and learn how to process them in a healthy way, starting with ourselves.
She stresses that the emotional well-being of our children should take priority over academics during the pandemic.
Play with your child. Read to your child. Let your child play on their own. Have deeper conversations about emotions. Even if it is rough and hard to navigate, it is the only way to stretch ourselves into inner growth. Revel in untangling the messy emotional stuff that you might have missed before because your kid was at school. “I believe that the growing humans and the parent humans and the family in general is going to be stronger and much more authentic in their beingness as a result of the quarantine,” says Dr. Contey.
9. Getting Back to Steady
If we’ve learned anything from our interview with Dr. Contey, it’s that we should start with listening to ourselves. Get used to what “wobbly” feels like and what “steady” feels like—learn what you can do to return to steady. Dr. Contey asks us to find what our essentials are. Find three things that you can do in 10 seconds, 10 minutes, or an hour that recharges you.
In 10 seconds I can close my eyes and breathe. In 10 minutes I can go for a walk. In an hour I can listen to a podcast while I organize my house. How about you?
Connect with Dr. Carrie Contey on her website: www.carriecontey.com. And watch the interview with Laura Bruce, former clinical psychologist and current director of Mi Casa Es Tu Casa® below:
Visit Carrie and enjoy weekly little snippets fo wisdom from her
Alice Gray is a writer and editor living in Austin, Texas. She has attended classes at Mi Casa es Tu Casa® since her daughter was 2 years old, and is a big believer in the benefits of early childhood movement, music, language, play, and connection.