Connect Before You Correct!

barin-img     Brain science has a lot to teach parents about why their kids exhibit “off track   behavior” and what the most effective responses to these behaviors are.

The limbic brain is what I call in my Parenting by Connection classes the “downstairs,” or foundation, of a child’s developing brain.  This limbic system thrives on secure, attached connection with a caregiver.  Throughout a child’s development, this part of the brain knows to scan its environment for close connection so that its primarily emotional needs can be met.  Once the limbic system’s needs are met, the prefontal cortex, or the “upstairs,” more complex part of the brain that is the center of logic and decision-making, can develop optimally as well.  The prefontal cortex, a.k.a. executive center of the brain, is not fully developed in humans on average until the age of 25!  No wonder teens act as they do :-).

When a child’s behavior goes off track (tantrum, whining, talking back, acting out, poor decision-making), it is a signal that the needs of the limbic brain are not being adequately met.  If a child is younger than 5 years old, the prefontal cortex development has not reached a point where during this off track behavior, the child can process logic or reasoning.  And the functioning of the prefontal cortex, or logic center, is dependent upon the optimal functioning of the limbic brain.  So a parent yelling or using words towards a child who is having a tantrum is not productive or effective to support the child in learning what he or she needs to learn in that moment.

As a rule, parents of young children should remember the saying “Connect Before You Correct” in responding to their child(ren)’s off track behavior.  If you want to be effective during those most challenging moments of a tantrum or slammed door, try a new approach.  Get down, get low, hold your child as they are crying, writhing or saying something rude to you.  I know it may make you feel like you are “rewarding bad behavior.”  Let that idea go for now.  It is not based in brain science!

Get down to the eye level of your child, look him or her in the eye, hold them close.  Let the emotional wave they are experiencing complete itself.  Once the tears or emotional storm has passed, and there is a calm after that storm, you can discuss how you felt and make a request for different behavior in future.  This is not the time for harsh criticism, punishment or isolation.  Your child’s brain is doing what all children’s brains do.

It is up to parents to understand what’s happening in their child’s brain and to respond appropriately.  No child intentially tantrums or cries just to make a parent angry.  There is a need that is not being met and their entire system is functioning to get that need met.  Slow down, get close, and take the time to be an anchor for your child as he or she develops and you will be happy with the results:  more cooperation, more trust, more closeness and more empathy in your relationship!

Building Emotional Understanding

I recently took a parenting class called Building Emotional Understanding and will be continuing with certification as an instructor of Parenting by Connection with a non profit organization in Palo Alto called Hand in Hand Parenting.

Being a new parent of an infant is exhausting yet quite straightforward in the sense that if you are sure feed, clothe, bathe, cuddle and put to rest your new infant, he or she will be content and eager to interact, smile, play and learn.

Toddlerhood is a different ball game in that a parent meeting their toddler’s basic needs for food, sleep, cuddling and bathing don’t always compute to calm, angelic behavior (the understatement of the century!).

So what starts to complicate behavior as kids grow? In Building Emotional Understanding, Patty Wipfler, Director of Hand in Hand Parenting, teaches that the limbic system of the brain actually requires consistent, strong, trustworthy emotional connection in order to grow into an optimally functioning, learning system. In other words, the emotional bond is as important as sleep, food and bathing in a growing person’s development and can actually be used in moments of off track behavior to help steer a child back to their calm and reasonable place.

This may seem obvious to many parents and caregivers as they often recognize the positive impact that their strong bond with a child has on that child’s security and behavior, even in toddlerhood.

What is often misunderstood is what a child needs when their behavior goes off track. In our culture, time outs and punishments have become common place responses to a toddler’s off track behavior.

In the Parenting by Connection approach that is taught at Hand in Hand Parenting, a toddler’s tantrum is an opportunity to get closer, create safety, and invite a full session of emotional release from a toddler to create a deeper bond with caregivers so that the brain’s limbic system’s need for closeness is met. A toddler can cycle through a tantrum with an adult coming closer, rather than punishing and rejecting, much more effectively and with trust in themselves and caretakers in tact.

Many busy modern parents believe they don’t have time to use Parenting by Connection techniques in their chaotic lives. The reality is that it doesn’t take more time to implement this approach; it requires more presence. So if parents work on their ability to be present with their toddlers (and older children’s) wide range of emotions, being their close connection and safety as they cycle through and release difficult emotions, they will find their attempts to “discipline” more successful and sustainable and children’s limbic systems’ are fed rather than starved, strengthening their foundations for learning and empathy as they grow.

For more information, see http://www.handinhandparenting.org and contact me at (415) 377-6791 or at kiran@rayoflightcoaching.com if you would like me to provide a demonstration of how to use these parenting and behavioral techniques with children. I give talks at doctor’s offices, Mom’s groups, preschools and provide one on one coaching as well.