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

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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