Correction Through Connection. As it turns out, there is no other way.

As part of discovering their very important place in the world, our children and teens will often behave in ways that are, let’s say, wildly short of ‘adorable’. They will explore, experiment, push to find the limits, and exercise their independence. As parents, this can be triumphant and wonderful to watch. At other times, it can bring us to our knees. We might yell, say things we regret, or say reasonable things in ways we regret. We’re human. It’s going to happen.

Sometimes though, yelling or responding in ways that shame or belittle our young loves might be more a part of our every day and less about something that happens when we’re at the end of ourselves. Our parenting heart might know this isn’t how we want to be responding, but whether through exhaustion, frustration, or a lack of options, it might be where things have ended up.

The problem is that any response that disconnects us from our children also kills our influence and their capacity to learn the lessons that will grow them. If we’re looking to support our children and teens towards a better way to be, the only way to do this is through connection.

Correction through connection. Here’s how it works.

When the brain perceives a threat, the body goes into fight or flight. This happens with all of us. The perception of threat happens quickly, automatically and generally out of awareness. This response is an instinctive one, not a rational one, meaning that it can have little to do with whether or not something is actually a threat. It’s about the way the brain perceives what’s happening – and the brain will always perceive yelling, or any response that shames or belittles, as a ‘threat’.

When the body is in fight or flight, the thinking brain (the prefrontal cortex) shuts down. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that can process rational information, think through consequences, learn, or plan a better way to do things next time. When it’s shut down, there is no way our children can learn anything. Any idea that yelling or speaking harshly to children will help them learn important lessons, is so misguided. It might be well-intended and from a yearning to guide our children as best we can, but it’s misguided. We know this not only from science but also from our own experience. Think about it for a moment. Would you be more likely to learn from someone who is shouting at you, or reminding you how ‘not-great’ you are, or from this:

‘I know you’re a great human. I know that for certain. That decision you made didn’t end so well, but I imagine there was something that might have felt okay about it at the time. What made it feel like a good idea?’ Then, ‘I get that. I’ve felt that way myself. How do you think it went wrong?’ And finally, ‘What might be a better thing to do next time?’ Or, if needed, ‘Is there anything I can do to make it easier for you to do that?’. Or, ‘Things seem pretty upside down right now. What might you be able to do to put things right?’

Our children are no different from us. Yelling, shaming and humiliation will fuel defensiveness more than it fuels the learnings that come from self-reflection. It will take them away from us at a time they need our influence and guidance the most. For our children to learn, we need the prefrontal cortex switched on – and yelling, or anything that shames or humiliates them will always switch it off. This will happen regardless of how close we are to them.

But they know how much I love them. 

Yes. They absolutely do. There’s no doubt you love your children fiercely, entirely, and with everything in you, but that isn’t what this is about. If you are close, this might give you more grace when it comes time to reconnect, but yelling will still shut down their capacity to learn.

The fact that you and your child are close does not mean the brain is less likely to perceive threat. This is driven by instinct. When shouting or shaming comes from an important adult, it can make the world feel even more unsafe. The reason for this lies in our wiring. Human babies are born unable to protect themselves from threat. Instead, they are born wired to attach to a bigger, stronger adult who can take on the protective role for them – a parent or caregiver. As children grow, they will slowly take over the role of protecting themselves, but that parent or primary caregiver will always be an important part of their safe base in the world. When a child is disconnected from a parent or important adult, the world will feel more fragile.

Why your connection with them is everything.

The end game is for us to guide our children and teens through to adulthood in a way that will help them discover the best versions of themselves. For this to happen, they need the safety of us so they can open up to our influence and wisdom along the way. There are also important lessons they will discover for themselves through self-reflection, mistakes, failure, and we can be instrumental in making this process safe. We risk steering them away from learning from their mistakes, if we associate shame and fear so strongly with messing up.

Discipline was never meant to be about punishment. It comes from the word ‘disciple’, as in ‘to teach’, not ‘to punish’. Teaching our children the lessons that matter will only happen when they are in a brain state which is consistent with feeling safe. For them to be open to rational information, ask questions, reflect on their behaviour, and think about a better way to do things, the prefrontal cortex needs to be on board. This will only happen when they are feeling calm, safe, and connected to a trusted adult. 

There are also times the fight or flight response will often happen independently of anything we’re doing. It can happen, for example, if they know they’ve done something wrong, if they’re fighting with a sibling, stressed because of schoolwork, anxious – there are so many things that can shift their bodies into a state of fight or flight. If we want them to be open to learning, our connection with them will be vital in bringing them to a space in which this can happen. 

When our kids or teens feel close to us, they get a juicy dose of oxytocin. This calms the fight or flight response and lets the prefrontal cortex switch on. Every time we are physically close to them, speak gently and warmly, hold or touch them, their brain will release oxytocin. Oxytocin is the bonding hormone which is released when we feel close and connected to our important people. The amygdala, which drives the fight or flight response, has receptors for oxytocin. It’s the part of the brain that will throw the body into fight or flight, but it’s also wired to calm down when it feels safe. The way it feels safe is through social connection. When we gently move close to our children, let them know we see them, loan them our ‘calm’, the amygdala will (eventually) calm down. It will release its hold, switch off the fight or flight response, and make way for the prefrontal cortex to switch back on.

But isn’t this just being ‘soft’? 

There is often a perception that unless we are responding with a harsh tone, or with harsh consequences, we’re being soft or permissive, or we’re failing to teach our children important lessons. No. Just no. Emotional pain does not equal learning. In fact, it stomps all over it. Good parenting is not measured by what we teach them. It’s measured by what they learn. So the question is not so much how do we punish them, but how do we teach them? We teach them by opening the way to us, and we do this through connection. It’s the only way. 

The idea that kids need to be punished, or that they need to feel the sharp edges of us to learn their lessons is ridiculous. It’s based on behaviourism – the idea that the only way to shape behaviour is by using external cues. This is one way to shape behaviour, but it’s best left in the ’60s when neuroscience wasn’t there to show it the door.

Using punishment (yelling, humiliating, forced exclusion as in time-outs) will make children behave in a certain way, but they will be more motivated by the need to stay out of trouble than by an intrinsic sense of what’s right. This might work okay for a while, but it can be fickle. What happens when we aren’t around? When there is less threat of a negative consequence, how will this play into their decision-making? If we’ve taught them that we aren’t safe for them to come to when they mess up, they won’t come to us when they mess up. When this happens, we lose our influence, and so do they. 

This is not about permissive parenting.

Staying connected to our children and creating an environment which is conducive to them feeling calm and safe does not mean ‘no boundaries’. Absolutely kids and teens need boundaries. It’s how the world works. We all need to live within certain limits of behaviour. What it means is doing what we need to do to maximise their capacity to learn the lessons that matter.

Sometimes there will be a need for consequences, and sometimes there won’t be. We need to be mindful of not putting consequences in place just for the sake of feeling as though we’re doing ‘something’. Sometimes a conversation with us will be more meaningful than anything. 

Our children’s behaviour is a reflection of a need or gaps in their skill set. It’s not a reflection of who they are, and it’s not a reflection of our parenting. The consequences should open up our opportunity to meet those needs or fill those gaps, not make them hungrier. When we disconnect from them, we lose our capacity to influence their behaviour. It’s a loss for them and a loss for us. 

And it’s NOT about perfect parenting. Parents are human too.

None of this means we have to get it right all the time. Let’s kick this idea of perfect parenting out the door and let’s do that with full force. Perfection. Ugh. Let’s not do that to ourselves and let’s not do that to our young loves. It’s okay for them to see our imperfections, and it’s okay for them to lay theirs bare in front of us. 

We won’t break them if we yell sometimes. They will learn from our mistakes, and we will learn from theirs. When we get it wrong, we have the opportunity to be the people we’re asking them to be – self-reflective, humble, open to our flaws, self-compassionate, and willing to grow through it all. When they get it wrong, we have the precious opportunity to understand more of the intimate detail of them – what hurts them, what overwhelms them, what they tell themselves to make a bad decision feel like a good one. Most importantly, we get a glimpse of what they need from us.

And finally …

Our children are here to learn and we are here to teach them. They will make plenty of mistakes along the way. So will we. When we can see their mistakes as opportunities to guide them, or as information about what they need from us or the world, we empower ourselves to empower them. We will be less likely to take their behaviour personally and more able to give them what they need, which so often is us – our influence, our guidance, our teaching.

They can only learn from us when they are feeling safe. This isn’t always easy – sometimes we will be completely over it all, but it’s when they are at their worst, that they will need us more than ever. If you can’t love them out of a bad decision, be the one to love them through it. It will be the most powerful, most soulful, most meaningful way to teach them a better way to be.

20 Comments

Kim D

This is a brilliant article. I was working with ‘Connection before Correction’ when I used to look after my 4 year old Granddaughter and it works. The outdated ‘authoritarian’ style of relating doesn’t work as it causes disconnect, shame, lack of trust, amongst other things, share this article. The effects don’t show up until much older. The writer here is spot on. Also, the work of Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson is super helpful. Connect then redirect. Brilliant article. Keep sharing the great work.

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Campbell

This was such an important article for me to find. I am mother to a highly intelligent very emotional and intense five year old boy. He is so sweet and tender hearted but oh his temper. It is exactly like his highly intelligent very intense father. Both his father and I were raised in homes where our parents yelled and they hit. A lot. Our parents frequently tell us that our son needs physical correction to develop that healthy “fear”. Ugh. I can’t even. I very often worry that bc I flat refuse and reject anything that resembles my own childhood that I am not able to properly guide my little man. Mostly bc I find myself thinking very often what would have happened to me if I had screamed or been defiant the way my son is on a daily basis. I don’t want to break him I don’t want him to be afraid of his parents. But I want him to be a good person. I wan t him to be a good and kind friend. This article will help me remember that I don’t have to “punish” him to discipline him. Being able to recognize his anxiety for what it is and help him to reconnect and reset WITH me and not away from me. Thank you. This is a very stressful time in our country. Being able to find very helpful information to help our kids through this endless insanity is enormously helpful. Thank you thank you.

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Amy

I love your writings. We are struggling with our teenager right now and your wisdom helps me so much. Thank you

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Fatima Y

This is a great article. What an eye opener. It has put so much in perspective for me. Thank you for providing patents with a loving caring n effective solution for handling children. I feel that the connection strategy will work for many many issues of children in addition to anxiety.
I attend a forum ‘step parents are people too’ at meetup.com I m going share it with the host.

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sonia

Bravo Karen,

You have presented such an uplifting and practical guide to any adult working with children as they journey through their formative years to their own adult lives. Thank you for taking the time to share!

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David H

As a teacher I like to lead with my heart because I don’t mind being disappointed from time to time rather than not trusting. However, when should students be held accountable for their actions? Some are in so much pain that they take it out on the innocent and that is their habitual response to a stressful situation and this is more commonplace. They seem to respond to negativity. They believe that is how you get something done. The issue runs deep and has been reinforced that it would take longer than a school year of positivity to transform.

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Gaby

I love the way in which you explained what we know of how our brains work! Super well written and explained! As parents we desperately need this!
One aspect I didn’t see addressed was the parent’s brain state and how important it is for our brains to be regulated in order to help our children. That’s the hardest part or at least it was for me. It does bring the most lasting change though.
Thank you for writing this!!

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Jennifer

I loved this article. It was a great reminder for me. But I was wondering what you would recommend for those children who are verbally abusive? Almost everyday, I am told by my 11 year old 2e child to shut up, stop talking, that I’m an idiot etc. Anytime there are boundaries set. I don’t yell in response or answer negatively. When I try to talk or validate his feelings, he tells me to stop talking.

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Karen Young

Your home still has to have rules, and as the parent, it is for you to make sure those rules are upheld. Let them know that what they are doing isn’t okay and do this with strength, then come in a name what you see. ‘No! It is NOT okay for you to speak like that to me – EVER.’ The boundary is important. Then, let them know that you see their anger – ‘I can see your really angry with me and I want to understand what’s happening, but I cannot do this while you are shouting and being rude to me.’

Then, when they are calm, speak very clearly and lovingly and firmly about their behaviour. Ask about how they are going to put it right, what happens to you when they speak like that, and what happens inside them that they feel like that is how to get your attention. Children need to feel the safety of our edges. When there are no rules and there is no guard rail, it feels unsafe. It is understandable that their behaviour may be a call to you to show them that you care enough to let them know where the boundaries are. The main thing is to do it without shame and without separating yourself from them. You can be firm AND loving. They need you to let them know you’ve got them, and one of the ways we do this is by lovingly and firmly letting them know when they’ve crossed the line.

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Heidi S

Absolutely love this! And wish I had this information when my children were young. But I will pass this on to them for their children and I will also practice for my grandkids! Thank you, Heidi

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Paulina

Thank you ✨
This is the single best article on parenting that I’ve ever read.
I feel every word. As a daughter and as the the mother that daughter became.

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Erin

I agree with everything this article states. But I do not know how to put it into practice. I have a son with multiple special needs and I parent him with compassion and an understanding of where his choices stem from. I work very hard to be soft with my voice- supportive- present- and not authoritarian bc that just triggers him. But when he hits his sister bc he’s overwhelmed or refuses to leave the car and I can’t leave his sibling alone in the house- what then? Thank you!

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Sheryl E

Best article I’ve read regarding this topic. Already printed and ready to share! Thank-you! Glad my friend shared this article on social media!

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Perla

Fantastic post! Thank you, so beautifully and simply explained. I will be handing this out from now on rather than trying to find the words to explain this! Thank you

Reply

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We teach our kids to respect adults and other children, and they should – respect is an important part of growing up to be a pretty great human. There’s something else though that’s even more important – teaching them to respect themselves first. 

We can’t stop difficult people coming into their lives. They might be teachers, coaches, peers, and eventually, colleagues, or perhaps people connected to the people who love them. What we can do though is give our kids independence of mind and permission to recognise that person and their behaviour as unacceptable to them. We can teach our kids that being kind and respectful doesn’t necessarily mean accepting someone’s behaviour, beliefs or influence. 

The kindness and respect we teach our children to show to others should never be used against them by those broken others who might do harm. We have to recognise as adults that the words and attitudes directed to our children can be just as damaging as anything physical. 

If the behaviour is from an adult, it’s up to us to guard our child’s safe space in the world even harder. That might be by withdrawing support for the adult, using our own voice with the adult to elevate our child’s, asking our child what they need and how we can help, helping them find their voice, withdrawing them from the environment. 

Of course there will be times our children do or say things that aren’t okay, but this never makes it okay for any adult in your child’s life to treat them in a way that leads them to feeling ‘less than’.

Sometimes the difficult person will be a peer. There is no ‘one certain way’ to deal with this. Sometimes it will involve mediation, role playing responses, clarifying the other child’s behaviour, asking for support from other adults in the environment, or letting go of the friendship.

Learning that it’s okay to let go of relationships is such an important part of full living. Too often we hold on to people who don’t deserve us. Not everyone who comes into our lives is meant to stay and if we can help our children start to think about this when they’re young, they’ll be so much more empowered and deliberate in their relationships when they’re older.♥️
When we are angry, there will always be another emotion underneath it. It is this way for all of us. 

Anger itself is a valid emotion so it’s important not to dismiss it. Emotion is e-motion - energy in motion. It has to find a way out, which is why telling an angry child to calm down or to keep their bodies still will only make things worse for them. They might comply, but their bodies will still be in a state of distress. 

Often, beneath an angry child is an anxious one needing our help. It’s the ‘fight’ part of the fight or flight response. As with all emotions, anger has a job to do - to help us to safety through movement, or to recruit support, or to give us the physical resources to meet a need or to change something that needs changing. It doesn’t mean it does the job well, because an angry brain means the feeling brain has the baton, while the thinking brain sits out for a while. What it means is that there is a valid need there and this young person is doing their very best to meet it, given their available resources in the moment or their developmental stage. 

Children need the same thing we all need when we’re feeling fierce - to be seen,  heard, and supported; to find a way to get the energy out, either with words or movement. Not to be shut down or ‘fixed’. 

Our job isn’t to stop their anger, but to help them find ways to feel it and express it in ways that don’t do damage. This will take lots of experience, and lots of time - and that’s okay.♥️
The SCCR Online Conference 2021 is a wonderful initiative by @sccrcentre (Scottish Centre for Conflict Resolution) which will explore ’The Power of Reconnection’. I’ve been working with SCCR for many years. They do incredible work to build relationships between young people and the important adults around them, and I’m excited to be working with them again as part of this conference.

More than ever, relationships matter. They heal, provide a buffer against stress, and make the world feel a little softer and safer for our young people. Building meaningful connections can take time, and even the strongest relationships can feel the effects of disconnection from time to time. As part of this free webinar, I’ll be talking about the power of attachment relationships, and ways to build relationships with the children and teens in your life that protect, strengthen, and heal. 

The workshop will be on Monday 11 October at 7pm Brisbane, Australia time (10am Scotland time). The link to register is in my story.
There are many things that can send a nervous system into distress. These can include physiological (tired, hungry, unwell), sensory overload/ underload, real or perceived threat (anxiety), stressed resources (having to share, pay attention, learn new things, putting a lid on what they really think or want - the things that can send any of us to the end of ourselves).

Most of the time it’s developmental - the grown up brain is being built and still has a way to go. Like all beautiful, strong, important things, brains take time to build. The part of the brain that has a heavy hand in regulation launches into its big developmental window when kids are about 6 years old. It won’t be fully done developing until mid-late 20s. This is a great thing - it means we have a wide window of influence, and there is no hurry.

Like any building work, on the way to completion things will get messy sometimes - and that’s okay. It’s not a reflection of your young one and it’s not a reflection of your parenting. It’s a reflection of a brain in the midst of a build. It’s wondrous and fascinating and frustrating and maddening - it’s all the things.

The messy times are part of their development, not glitches in it. They are how it’s meant to be. They are important opportunities for us to influence their growth. It’s just how it happens. We have to be careful not to judge our children or ourselves because of these messy times, or let the judgement of others fill the space where love, curiosity, and gentle guidance should be. For sure, some days this will be easy, and some days it will feel harder - like splitting an atom with an axe kind of hard.

Their growth will always be best nurtured in the calm, loving space beside us. It won’t happen through punishment, ever. Consequences have a place if they make sense and are delivered in a way that doesn’t shame or separate them from us, either physically or emotionally. The best ‘consequence’ is the conversation with you in a space that is held by your warm loving strong presence, in a way that makes it safe for both of you to be curious, explore options, and understand what happened.♥️
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#mindfulparenting #positiveparenting #parenting
When children are struggling to physically control their bodies, we support them in ways that strengthen. If they’re struggling to write, for example, we don’t punish or shame them. We guide them and show them by doing ‘with’. We also lift them up, ‘I know you can do this. Keep going. You’re getting better and better.’ We also don’t wait for perfection. ‘You wrote a number 4! Nice work you!’ We sit with and do with, over and over. We also give them a break when they get frustrated or upset.

It’s the same for behaviour. Big behaviour comes from big feelings or attempts to meet valid needs. (And all needs are valid.) It is this way for all of us. When we’re upset or angry, the last thing we need is for someone to tell us we can’t be, or to lecture or shame us. Kids are the same.

With kids and teens though, there can be a sense that we need to ‘do’ something in response to big behaviour, so we lay down punishments or consequences with a view to teaching a lesson.

But - unless the consequences make sense (punishments never do), they risk teaching lessons we don’t want them to learn:
- that the environment is fragile and won’t tolerate mistakes. 
- that secrecy and lies are a safer option than coming to us. 
- shut down. They put a lid on expressing big feelings. The feelings will still be there, but they aren’t getting the vital guidance from us on how to calm them (through co-regulation). The risk is that they will eventually call on unhealthy ways to calm the fierce stress neurobiology that comes with big feelings.

Consequences have to make sense. Maybe it’s to repair or reconnect. Discipline has to teach. It’s not about what we do to them but about what we nurture within them. Is that trust and the capacity to learn and grow? Or is it fear or shame.

Often the only response that’s needed is a loving conversation with us. ‘What happened?’ ‘What were you hoping would happen?’ ‘What did you need that you didn’t get?’ What can you do differently next time?’ ‘How can you put things right?’ Because if discipline is about learning, the most powerful consequence is the strong, loving conversation with us that lights their way and speaks softly to the safety of us.♥️

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