Recent brain science discoveries have shown us the importance of connecting with our children when they are at their worst. Much like when a child has skinned their knee, children need us to go toward them when they are in emotional pain, too. For many of us, moving toward a child who has "flipped their lid" is not always natural or easy. An emotionally upset child can trigger many reactions in a parent, and can open a backpack full of feelings, leaving us unsure about how to support such big emotions.
Gordon Neufeld and Gabor Mate's book, "Hold on to Your Kids, Why Parents Need to Matter More Than Peers" offers what they call guiding principles for keeping attachment strong when moving toward discipline. I appreciate that these principles are somewhat open to interpretation (instead of specific tools). This allows families to apply them in a way that feels best to them. Here are some bullet points from their book, with a few of my own observations thrown in!
- Use connection, not separation: Avoid separation as a response to behavior. Withdrawing affection or decreasing proximity can be frightening to a child who is feeling out of control. Increase proximity instead. Stay close and let them know their big emotions are not scary to you. This can range from holding them to simply staying in the room with them. If you have a child whose emotions escalate when you are present (or your own emotions are escalating), it may help for you to take a personal time out... but let them know you will be right back, "I am going to take a quick break and get a drink of water. I will be right back with my water." Remember, when you are gone, it is not the time to ruminate, but to breathe! Make sure when you return you are ready to help your child learn a better way!
- When problems occur, work the relationship not the incident: Make it clear that the relationship is not in danger. Try to keep your own feelings in check and don't take things personally. Pause if you need to before approaching. Remember to pay attention to what Dan Siegel calls "shark music" (that inner voice/fear that may color your reaction). Does your shark music make you think they will never learn to manage themselves, will never develop empathy, or even will live in your basement until they are 30?? Do you often think, "Here we go again!" when approaching your child's emotional turmoil? Putting those fears on pause before helping your child will make a difference!
- When things are not working for your child, draw out the tears instead of trying to teach a lesson: The key to building adaptation and resiliency when a child is facing the frustration of unfulfilled desires, or when things can't be changed, is to allow futility to sink in. We as parents can't protect from this (and in fact, may even be the cause of it), but we can offer comfort and remember that these "lessons of the heart" can only be learned after the futility is felt. According to Dr. Dan Siegel, this dance involves four steps:
- Connecting: Getting close, touching gently, dropping below their eye level, palms up in an understanding gesture.
- Validating: "You are really angry right now!"
- Pausing: Because haven't they heard enough from us?
- Reflecting: "I know you were having a really good time. You weren't expecting to have to leave so soon." Let your child know you have their back and are on their side.
- Solicit and value good intentions: Intention is the precursor to learning, and needs to be carefully nurtured. Try phrases like:
"Can I count on you to give it a try?"
"Will you be ready when it is time to leave?"
"Do you think you can handle it now?"
"I'm glad you didn't mean to, that's important!"
- Try scripting the desired behavior instead of demanding maturity: Provide cues for what to do and how to do it. Remember, there is a big different between "can't" and "won't." Many deeds of misbehavior are actually associated with a child's inability to do something. Take the focus away from the behavior that is causing trouble and focus on the action that is desirable. Don't forget, discipline is about teaching a better way. We would never say the alphabet one time and expect our child to know it perfectly. The same applies for teaching appropriate behavior. Luckily, we have lots of opportunities to script a better way!
- When unable to change your child, try changing the child's world: If other techniques don't work, look to see if you can alter situations and circumstances that trigger the problem behavior. Focus on what your child is reacting to, and let go of trying to change your child. Be a detective. Look at your child's behavior from a sense of curiosity. As Dan Siegel says, "chase the why!" Plus, changing the environment can be a relatively easy thing to test out!
Connecting with your child when they are upset and focusing on long-term solutions is really Communication 101! The techniques we use in our adult relationships can apply to children. Connecting is a basic human need. As Dr. Gottman (relationship guru) says, we have many opportunities for connection each day. We can either turn toward those opportunities and strengthen relationships, or turn away. With a little practice, we can reap the benefits of turning toward and keeping connections strong with our child.
The PAC Newsletter is produced by parents working in the PAC Communication
Committee. The aim of the newsletter is to help co-ops communicate among themselves,
inform families about important dates, ideas, related classes and seminars,
Cooperative Preschool solutions and techniques from other preschools. It
also advertises teacher openings, and fundraising activities.