The ‘feel-good’ toolkit (a simple tool to increase feelings of calm and safety in our children), Tool within the Multilevel Emotion Regulation Theory (MERT).
In challenging situations, or when tension is building up, we can use this simple tool. It will help to create feelings of safety, calm and belonging, and will help build emotional resilience, enable us to bond with our children and teens, and prevent unnecessary escalation by strengthening the Baseline (energy-level and emotional resilience) of our child and ourselves.
Help to calm down and feel better
Giving a child a non-disturbing attention moment regularly will help them to prevent any further tension from building up, and will soothe existing tension. We can achieve that in several ways by helping our child to release feel-good hormones and modelling to them how to release them independently later in life.
We can adapt the frequency of such moments to the stressors in our lives and our child’s. The more stressors, the more often we can apply the feel-good moment. For example, if our child is starting something new and might be nervous about it, or if we have many social obligations that we find challenging and we can’t cancel, we raise the frequency to support ourselves and our child.
First, it is handy to be aware of the different feel-good hormones: oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin and endorphins. These are mentioned in Feel-good hormones: How they affect your mind, mood and body – Harvard Health. Being aware of these enables to see how they affect us and to put in place simple practical tools so we can help our children to release these hormones in themselves.
The original function of oxytocin, the “love hormone” or “bonding hormone”, is to facilitate childbirth. It plays a crucial role in social bonding, trust and emotional connections, promoting feelings of warmth, intimacy and attachment in relationships. Oxytocin enhances empathy and social awareness, making individuals more attuned to the emotions of others, which can lead to greater emotional support and cooperation within social groups. This hormone is also associated with stress reduction and the soothing of the body’s stress response, contributing to a sense of calm and emotional stability during times of social interaction or distress. Overall, oxytocin fosters emotional intimacy, strengthens social connections and promotes feelings of emotional security and well-being.
Some ideas of how to get oxytocin released
- Breastfeeding creates a positive feedback loop, so both mum and child benefit at the same time.
- Cuddling in a way that our child appreciates, everyone prefers to be touched in a specific way, their ability to enjoy cuddling may fluctuate depending on their level of overwhelm. Also see the Cuddle Alarm
- Massaging stimulates oxytocin release as well, teens might only allow us to massage their head, feet or hands
- Exercising strenuously, for example martial arts training
- Let the children run up and down the stairs ten times as fast as they can while we are encouraging them to go quicker while counting and clapping enthusiastically in our hands cheering them on
- Music stimulates oxytocin too, that might be by listening to music, together or alone with headphones on or making music or singing together, bonding in a musical setting.
- Listening to soothing voices of the people we love, telling us lovely things to hear also stimulate release of oxytocin
- Holding hands when doing shopping with our child
- Giving a hug to our teen
- Cuddling together on the couch while watching TV will also release oxytocin
Dopamine plays a central role in the brain’s reward system, contributing to feelings of pleasure, satisfaction and reward, which can enhance overall emotional well-being. Dopamine reinforces positive behaviours and motivates individuals to pursue goals and experiences that bring them joy and contentment. It also plays a key role in regulating mood, helping to maintain a positive emotional state when dopamine levels are in balance. Furthermore, dopamine is associated with motivation and the sense of achievement, fostering a sense of purpose and accomplishment, which can have a profound impact on one’s emotional state and overall life satisfaction.
Some ideas of how to get dopamine released
- We can our children eat more food high in tyrosine, which is what dopamine is made of: poultry, dairy, avocados, bananas, pumpkin and sesame seeds, and soy
- A change in consciousness may also trigger the release of dopamine, so we could do some simple mindfulness exercises, like Tine’s body scan or a simple breathing exercise with our children
- Proposing and naming small and achievable goals, “let’s bring something to Granny (who’s ill)”; “would you like to draw a happy picture or help me bake a cake? What shall we do?” Celebrating the achieved goals – “Granny will be happily surprised, wouldn’t she!” – can stimulate dopamine release.
- Listening to favourite music can trigger the release of dopamine, creating a playlist for when our child can do with a dopamine boost, can be a great tool (and can also go into the cool suitcase).
- Engaging in new and challenging activities, learning new skills, or trying new experiences can increase dopamine levels by providing a sense of novelty and reward. The new or challenging activity doesn’t need to be big, just tiny steps towards a bigger goal will work just as well. When trying new skills or experiences it is important that they are within the success experience range on the periphery of our comfort zones, meaning they offer a sense of novelty without being overwhelming or plain scary.
- Postponing gratification for something the children like doing, which enables maximum enjoyment (and dopamine release). It will help them learn to enjoy the feeling of longing, of joyful anticipation. For example, to young children we announce a tea with a special snack break some time in advance, or with teens we might plan an outing in advance and talk about how fun it is looking forward to this outing.
Serotonin plays a critical role in regulating mood and emotional stability, contributing to feelings of happiness, contentment and overall emotional well-being. Serotonin is associated with a sense of calm and relaxation, helping to alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression. Serotonin acts on many different parts of the brain to affect a variety of functions and behaviours, it also plays a role in regulating appetite and sleep, both of which are closely linked to emotional health. Overall serotonin brings emotional stability and a sense of inner peace.
Some ideas of how to get serotonin released
- Enjoying sunlight (or light therapy) will help release serotonin, going for a daily walk when the sun is shining, gardening together with the children, letting them have their own little plot where they can choose what to grow, spending time together in nature, going camping all helps
- Working out, biking, lifting weights, also stimulate release of serotonin in combination with endorphins (which create the “runner’s high”).
- Eating complex carbohydrate sources, such as vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains. When you eat complex carbs it gives a better chance of creating serotonin in your brain
Endorphins are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. When released, endorphins create feelings of euphoria and pleasure. Endorphins help reduce the perception of pain and discomfort, providing a natural and powerful source of emotional relief and stress reduction. Endorphins can also act as natural mood boosters, helping to alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Some ideas of how to get endorphins released
- Exercising at a moderately intense pace, that can be walking fast or another activity, like the running up and down the stairs as mentioned above
- Stimulating acupuncture pressure points or book an acupuncture treatment with needles to enhance the release of endorphins, here you can get guidance about some pressure points to release endorphins
- Meditation – through focussed deep breathing we can calm our mind and ease our pain, which stimulates endorphin release
- Aromatherapy with scents that you enjoy with essential oils
- Singing, dancing, playing an instrument, we release a rush of endorphins
- Laughing out loud, being silly, watching funny animals videos’ will help release endorphins, besides serotonin and dopamine.
- Spending time outside in the sun, catching ultraviolet light also stimulates the release of endorphins.
Our sexual feel-good moments
Our sexual experiences, whether it is with a partner or on our own, can be a huge contributor to feeling good and relaxed, due to the release of endorphins and oxytocin. Also endorphins promote the release of other hormones that are involved in feelings of love.
Often we feel awkward talking about any sexual feel-good moments. Modelling this worth of sexuality, their ability to release endorphins and oxytocin, can be a challenge.
If you are in a loving relationship with your spouse, you can model physical affection by holding hands or hugs, and demonstrating “us” time by date nights and showing that you make time to be alone together.
Children will pick up our message ‘Sexuality is a worthy part of life’ without any need for words.
We might also want to help our teen, besides embracing it as a normal part of life, to be aware that pleasuring themselves is a very adequate way to calm themselves and feel better. If we don’t feel comfortable talking about it we can leave just a book for them to find with information about masturbation, so they feel confident that we think it’s normal and know they have our approval in the privacy of their room.
Step 1. Use our knowledge
First, we use our expert knowledge about our child. All children have different preferences; some children love to be touched, some don’t, some love to move, some don’t, some are active in the morning, some in the afternoon, etc. Whether something will work can also be dependent on the level of tension that has been built up. So it’s up to us to assess each situation. What would help our child most to feel better and to calm down in their specific state of mind and their specific situation.
We can make an adapted list in our mind based on the above ideas to stimulate release of feel-good hormones and that might include lots of actions that we can execute without our child being aware. For example, the food that we make for them, aromatherapy, going regularly for walks and gardening when the sun shines etc.
However, when we need our child involved in any idea we take we need to ensure that we are approaching them without an agenda.
Step 2. Calm ourselves before
Before approaching our child, we should focus on upping our own baseline by doing the 4-7-8 breathing technique. After that, we can focus on our child, as we know we won’t bring any unnecessary tension to the equation and risk triggering our child in a stress response.
Step 3. Giving without expectations
We approach our child smiling (this will help us feel positive and help teens to experience us as neutral) knowing this is a good moment, they are rested and fed, touch them if they appreciate that, and say something like:
To a child: “Hi Sweetheart, what do you say, shall we go for a walk/ Let’s go for a walk (dependent on the child)” with a smile in our voice.
Or to a teenager (wanting to get some massaging in the mix to calm them):
“I’m doing this course on reflexology (whatever the idea), can I practise on your hands and feet?” (Keep it sweet and short.)
And if our child responds “no” we just smile and say “Thank you for considering”, walk away and do whatever we have proposed ourselves if that is possible, to model we are not emotionally dependent on our children, so we are not providing them with any false sense of safety in the cycle of emotional and sensory overload.
We don’t expect anything back or get distracted by the grumpy reactions of our teens. This way we’re building our emotional credit with our child, helping their emotional resilience and strengthening our bond.
We are kind to ourselves
When we support our child, teen (or partner) in this way, we can acknowledge our effort by writing in our PowerBook, a notebook used specifically to compliment ourselves on using Awareness Mantras through the day and in which we collect ways that we can use for strengthening our Baseline, such as activities we find soothing. The PowerBook is the most simple way to build our Baseline independently of others, for example, an entry might be:
“I’m proud and grateful to be aware that I had a helpful action”.
Trust the process
If you didn’t manage to give the support you would have liked to, don’t worry. Write down in your PowerBook or say out loud or in your head:
“I’m proud and grateful to be aware that I had a not helpful thought/feeling/action (choose whatever was applicable)” Read more about the Awareness Mantra.
Followed by the 4-7-8 breathing exercise to prevent any not helpful thoughts about yourself that will drain your energy further.
To be able to change behaviour we have to be aware of it, and the Awareness Mantra is a good tool to help move that forward.
By doing this you are strengthening your own emotional resilience and energy level (Baseline) whether you manage or not to live up to your own expectations.
Trust the process. If we are able to embrace the awareness and prevent ourselves to be distracted by our emotional reactions in the form of unhelpful thoughts, feelings, or actions change will eventually follow. And even if we don’t remember to use the Awareness Mantra at the time, it is still effective when we use it in retrospect.
Take the time to adjust, reconnect and rebalance in this process of change.
If our child has a ‘cool suitcase’, and if not you might consider starting one, reflect upon what can be a valuable add-on to put in it.
©2023 Simone de Hoogh, senior coach and educational and parenting consultant, and founder of PowerWood. All posts by Simone de Hoogh
Written with help of ChatGPT.
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