It is two in the morning on any given day in any hospital when Marta gives birth to her son Daniel. The moment of childbirth is, without a doubt, one of the most stressful and traumatic situations that both of you will experience throughout your lives. Neonates like Daniel come into this world with a large set of needs, drives, emotions, instincts, and sensations. Little Daniel is not aware of his needs or his emotions, he only experiences displeasure but does not understand anything. For this reason, all mammals, and primates in particular, need a significant adult to take care of us, protect us, and take care of our needs with love and respect.
The process by which we tune in to the needs of our children, we legitimize them, we cover them and we give them an explanation of what happened is called mentalization. And, as we said before, babies are not aware of what they need, their emotions or their sensations, which is why they need an attachment figure to mentalize them, or what is the same, to tell them and explain what is happening in your body, in your head or outside. Let’s take an example to better understand the concept of mentalization and its relevance. When we are changing our baby’s diaper, we don’t just say “I’m changing you because you peed”But we go further, trying to connect and make explicit their feelings, emotions and mental states: Honey, I’m changing your diaper because you feel uncomfortable and you’re dirty. You will see how clean and how good you will feel now when I change you. Ultimately, mentalization consists of putting words to the affects, or what is the same, using the left hemisphere to give meaning and coherence to the right hemisphere.
In all the trainings for mothers, fathers and teachers that I carry out I explain the importance of connecting and redirecting when faced with an intense emotional state such as anger, sadness, fear, jealousy or shame. Connect and redirect is a strategy by Daniel Siegel, psychiatrist and author of the book Child’s brain. What is connect and redirect? This strategy seeks to attend to the child’s emotion before giving an explanation.
In the connection phase We try to be empathetic with the need that the minor experiences, that is, we understand their anger, how bad it is when they feel fear or how difficult it is to assume that today their best friend is not there to play with them. We simply accept, normalize and legitimize your emotional state. To do this, we must bend down, get at their height, look them in the eye, show ourselves interested in how they are, hug them, shake their hands, etc. Once our body posture, our attitude and the passage of time have lowered the intensity of the emotion and they are calmer thanks to our connection with them, it will be time to move on to the redirection phase. We only go to this phase if we have managed to reassure them enough so that they can listen and attend to us.
For example, when our children are angry, they cannot think or have control over their behavior, which is why they need us to connect with them long enough until they have reached emotional balance. Yes, but how long is the connection phase? How long do I have to be connecting with him or her? The answer is simple: whatever the child needs. Some children need more, others less. In some situations they need more time and in others less. Sometimes it will be a few seconds, at other times the occasional hour. However, sometimes, the child does not want to be hugged or touched in the connection phase. It is normal and the only thing we can do is respect him. In that moment, he is placing the cause or blame for his anger on you. Do not take it personally, just understand and accept that you do not know how to manage emotion and someone has to download it (it has touched you). Stay close to him, although respecting that there is no physical contact, but never leave, otherwise he will feel abandoned and unconditionally watched. Be available physically and emotionally for when they need you or when they want to connect with you. If we leave the room or the place where we are, the message that we will be implicitly transmitting to the child is that expressing their emotions, being needy and vulnerable is not good, that’s why my mother or father leave. The unconscious message that we will convey to you will be: If you want me to stay, don’t cry Now if you’re going to cry, I’ll go. It is likely that as we apply the connect and redirect strategy, the child will gradually accept that there is physical contact and will see the benefits of managing their emotions in this way and with your valuable help.
In the redirection phase We try to give an explanation or a narrative to what has happened so that they can understand it. Let us remember that children do not perceive things as we adults do. Let’s imagine that Julia wants to ride a bike this afternoon after school, but does not remember that a tire is flat. The moment her father reminds her that she cannot ride a bicycle, Julia is enraged. Her father, with very good criteria, bends down, gets at her height and looking into her eyes says: “Julia, darling, I fully understand that you feel angry about not being able to enjoy your bike. It’s normal for you to be like this, the same would happen to me (while giving her a hug, a caress on the shoulder or a kiss) ”. This is one of the many ways we have to connect with our children, as it involves respecting them, looking at them unconditionally, and legitimizing their emotions. Then, when Julia’s father has seen that he has connected enough with her and is calmer, he can start the redirection phase: “Julia, you are angry because you wanted to ride a bike but you cannot because the tire is flat. Every time we want to do something and we can’t do it, an emotion called anger appears. It is normal. It happens to all of us. That is why your heart beats very fast and you feel like hitting, pushing and screaming ”. In case she is not calm enough, we must continue to connect with her and not give any narrative until she is ready to move on to the next phase. Giving a narrative or an explanation is essential for the minor.
For this, based on my teacher Begoña Aznárez, I developed the SEPA model, which are the initials of the four elements that are essential that we include in a good narrative:
Sensations (S): they have to do with the physical aspects of the body, since every time we get excited, the body reacts by accelerating the heart, sweating hands, increasing or decreasing temperature, trembling legs, goose bumps, etc. So, too, we can recognize an emotion based on how the body reacts. For example, when we see someone turn red and bow their head, we can sense that they are ashamed. The verb that we use in the narrative that we give to the child is usually “notice”. For example, you notice that your heart is racing, your hands are sweaty, you notice a lump in your throat, or your mouth is dry.
Emotions (E): at this point we label or name the emotion our child is feeling. For example, fear, anger, pride, curiosity, sadness, etc. The verb that we usually use to narrate emotions is “feel”. Keep in mind that narratives can be done in both the present and the past or future. Some examples would be you feel fear, you may feel ashamed, you feel anger, you felt jealous, etc.
Thoughts (P): ideas or thoughts are usually associated with the emotions we feel. Thus, for example, the thought associated with anger has to do with believing that something is unfair or not being able to do something we want, while in sadness it is having lost something important to us. The verb we usually use is “think”. If our child is ashamed, we can say: you think you are not up to the level of your classmates (present) o you might think that everyone will laugh at you (future).
Actions (A): in the narrative it is essential that we make explicit the conduct or behavior that was carried out or that can be carried out. Here we can use any verb. Some examples would be: that’s why you pushed your sister (past), you don’t want to play with Juan (present) o you probably want to run away (future).
Once we have briefly seen the four elements of the SEPA model, we will see an example of a coherent, respectful and child-empowering narrative proposal. In the park, Lucas has not wanted to share his favorite toy with his friend Nacho. The moment Nacho approaches to ask him and Lucas doesn’t let him, Nacho feels very angry and is tempted to attack him. At first, it is essential to connect with the emotion that Nacho feels, in addition to putting ourselves at his height and looking into his eyes, to later give him a narrative. There are many explanations that would help us redirect Nacho but here I present one: “Nacho, you feel a lot of anger (emotion) because your friend Lucas doesn’t want to leave you the toy. That is why you notice that your heart is beating very fast, you have shortness of breath and your arms are tense (sensation). It is normal that you think that it is unfair that Lucas does not let you (thought) and that’s why you’ve tried to push him and throw sand at him (action) “. Remember that a narrative cannot be given until the child is calm enough.
The elaboration of narratives in our day to day is something that requires practice and training. It doesn’t come out the first time. It takes effort and perseverance but it’s worth it. Remember that narratives can be done in any tense (past, present and future) and the four elements (sensations, emotions, thoughts and actions) can be made explicit in any order, it does not have to always follow the same disposition. And to finish, the three requirements to be able to implement the connect and redirect strategy would be the following: look unconditionally at your child, remain calm (as much as you can) and, lastly, in case you cannot You alone ask for help.
Rafa warrior He is a psychologist and a doctor of Education. Director of Darwin Psychologists. Member of the Spanish Society of Psychosomatic Medicine and Psychotherapy. Author of the books “Emotional education and attachment. Practical guidelines for managing emotions at home and in the classroom” (2018), “Stories for emotional development from attachment theory” (2019), “How to stimulate the child’s brain”(2020) and“Educate in the bond” (2020).