Thoughtful parenting: From tantrums, tears to reflection, learning
When we think of discipline, we often think, “Aaaargh! My child is acting so spoiled and out of control. I’d better get a handle on this with some strong discipline!” Then, we try to figure out the appropriate punishment or consequences to help our child get with the program.
At our best, we try not to overreact with angry outbursts ourselves. In the book “No Drama Discipline,” authors Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson teach us how to rethink what it means to effectively discipline our children. They give us simple strategies to tame the tantrums and meltdowns, as well as help our kids develop the life skills they need; self-awareness, self-soothing, relationship skills, impulse control and problem solving. The premise is that discipline is not so much about consequences for bad behavior as it is how we respond and teach our children how to manage their big emotions and solve their own problems.
There is a useful analogy for how a child’s brain develops — the upstairs brain and the downstairs brain. Picture a two-story house. The downstairs brain includes the brain stem, responsible for basic functions such as breathing, heartbeat and scanning the environment for danger, and the limbic region, which houses our emotions and memories.
The upstairs brain, the cerebral cortex, is the top part and the smart part responsible for higher-level thinking such as organizing, planning, impulse control, reasoning, empathy, self-awareness and problem solving. When a child’s upstairs brain is activated, he’s more likely to be successful in school, navigating the academic learning expectations as well as the social stressors. He can slow himself down, think before he acts, control his emotions and consider others’ feelings — good stuff.
Babies are born with fully developed downstairs brains, but the upstairs brain is still under construction. Brain science tells us that it doesn’t finish developing until … wait for it … 27. That’s right parents: Get ready for the long haul; adolescence lasts through the 20s.
We love it when our kids are behaving from the upstairs brain, because that looks like cooperating, staying calm, using reason and thinking about their actions. But the fact is, it is hit or miss with kids. When kids are struggling with big feelings of anger, despair, frustration, excitement or fear, the upstairs brain will often shut down while the downstairs brain is activated.
Neurochemicals, such as adrenaline and cortisol, flood the nervous system, and the fight-or-flight response is amping them up with all sorts of energy. It can be like watching an angry grizzly bear. Often, it’s these crazy times when we swoop in and decide discipline is in order. The problem is, these are the times kids aren’t able to learn, and there’s a good chance we parents have gotten so angry or stressed we aren’t in a position to teach anything decent, either.
This brings us to the main discipline strategy in the book: Connect before you redirect. When you see your child lose it, freak out, come unglued, go ballistic, flip their lid (literally they have flipped their prefrontal cortex right out of functioning), the first thing to do is get control of your own reaction. When kids are dysregulated, the best thing we can do is to stay regulated ourselves. Take a deep breath (a long exhale automatically activates the parasympathetic nervous system — called the rest-and-digest part of our nervous system, and lets us and those around us know we are going for cool and calm), and ask yourself two questions: What is my child feeling right now, and what does my child need to learn right now?
Step two is to connect. Let’s say your child is angry because his brother has antagonized him and he feels disrespected. It pushes old buttons for him. He’s starting to yell and get red faced.
Say something that shows you see his feelings: “It looks like you’re having a tough time right now. You’re really angry at your brother.”
Words don’t really matter at this point, as the limbic brain is not language based (that’s upstairs brain material). Don’t sweat the words; just show in your body language and your facial expression that you understand your child right now, in this moment, and you care that he or she is struggling. Parenting experts call it “attunement.” Being present with their tough feelings is like a gift you give them.
Something for parents to know is that when our kids are misbehaving, it’s often a sign of dysregulation rather than defiance. When kids are dysregulated, we can help them learn the life skill of calming down and solving problems thoughtfully. Emotional connection improves your relationship, so when things get tough, you and your child can get through it together.
Alison Hobson, LCSW, is a counselor at Strawberry Park Elementary School and has a private therapy practice working with children, adolescents, adults and families. She runs support groups for children and parents. Find her at Roger Reynolds & Associates, 970-879-5520 or at psychologytoday.com.
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