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.

Reply
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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The temptation to fix their big feelings can be seismic. Often this is connected to needing to ease our own discomfort at their discomfort, which is so very normal.

Big feelings in them are meant to raise (sometimes big) feelings in us. This is all a healthy part of the attachment system. It happens to mobilise us to respond to their distress, or to protect them if their distress is in response to danger.

Emotion is energy in motion. We don’t want to bury it, stop it, smother it, and we don’t need to fix it. What we need to do is make a safe passage for it to move through them. 

Think of emotion like a river. Our job is to hold the ground strong and steady at the banks so the river can move safely, without bursting the banks.

However hard that river is racing, they need to know we can be with the river (the emotion), be with them, and handle it. This might feel or look like you aren’t doing anything, but actually it’s everything.

The safety that comes from you being the strong, steady presence that can lovingly contain their big feelings will let the emotional energy move through them and bring the brain back to calm.

Eventually, when they have lots of experience of us doing this with them, they will learn to do it for themselves, but that will take time and experience. The experience happens every time you hold them steady through their feelings. 

This doesn’t mean ignoring big behaviour. For them, this can feel too much like bursting through the banks, which won’t feel safe. Sometimes you might need to recall the boundary and let them know where the edges are, while at the same time letting them see that you can handle the big of the feeling. Its about loving and leading all at once. ‘It’s okay to be angry. It’s not okay to use those words at me.’

Ultimately, big feelings are a call for support. Sometimes support looks like breathing and being with. Sometimes it looks like showing them you can hold the boundary, even when they feel like they’re about to burst through it. And if they’re using spicy words to get us to back off, it might look like respecting their need for space but staying in reaching distance, ‘Ok, I’m right here whenever you need.’♥️
We all need certain things to feel safe enough to put ourselves into the world. Kids with anxiety have magic in them, every one of them, but until they have a felt sense of safety, it will often stay hidden.

‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, but about what they feel. At school, they might have the safest, most loving teacher in the safest, most loving school. This doesn’t mean they will feel enough relational safety straight away that will make it easier for them to do hard things. They can still do those hard things, but those things are going to feel bigger for a while. This is where they’ll need us and their other anchor adult to be patient, gentle, and persistent.

Children aren’t meant to feel safe with and take the lead from every adult. It’s not the adult’s role that makes the difference, but their relationship with the child.

Children are no different to us. Just because an adult tells them they’ll be okay, it doesn’t mean they’ll feel it or believe it. What they need is to be given time to actually experience the person as being safe, supportive and ready to catch them.

Relationship is key. The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains in our way. When we feel someone really caring about us, we’re more likely to open up to their influence
and learn from them.

But we have to be patient. Even for teachers with big hearts and who undertand the importance of attachment relationships, it can take time.

Any adult at school can play an important part in helping a child feel safe – as long as that adult is loving, warm, and willing to do the work to connect with that child. It might be the librarian, the counsellor, the office person, a teacher aide. It doesn’t matter who, as long as it is someone who can be available for that child at dropoff or when feelings get big during the day and do little check-ins along the way.

A teacher, or any important adult can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
There is a beautiful ‘everythingness’ in all of us. The key to living well is being able to live flexibly and more deliberately between our edges.

So often though, the ‘shoulds’ and ‘should nots’ we inhale in childhood and as we grow, lead us to abandon some of those precious, needed parts of us. ‘Don’t be angry/ selfish/ shy/ rude. She’s not a maths person.’ ‘Don’t argue.’ Ugh.

Let’s make sure our children don’t cancel parts of themselves. They are everything, but not always all at once. They can be anxious and brave. Strong and soft. Angry and calm. Big and small. Generous and self-ish. Some things they will find hard, and they can do hard things. None of these are wrong ways to be. What trips us up is rigidity, and only ever responding from one side of who we can be.

We all have extremes or parts we favour. This is what makes up the beautiful, complex, individuality of us. We don’t need to change this, but the more we can open our children to the possibility in them, the more options they will have in responding to challenges, the everyday, people, and the world. 

We can do this by validating their ‘is’ without needing them to be different for a while in the moment, and also speaking to the other parts of them when we can. 

‘Yes maths is hard, and I know you can do hard things. How can I help?’

‘I can see how anxious you feel. That’s so okay. I also know you have brave in you.’

‘I love your ‘big’ and the way you make us laugh. You light up the room.’ And then at other times: ‘It can be hard being in a room with new people can’t it. It’s okay to be quiet. I could see you taking it all in.’

‘It’s okay to want space from people. Sometimes you just want your things and yourself for yourself, hey. I feel like that sometimes too. I love the way you know when you need this.’ And then at other times, ‘You looked like you loved being with your friends today. I loved watching you share.’

The are everything, but not all at once. Our job is to help them live flexibly and more deliberately between the full range of who they are and who they can be: anxious/brave; kind/self-ish; focussed inward/outward; angry/calm. This will take time, and there is no hurry.♥️
For our kids and teens, the new year will bring new adults into their orbit. With this, comes new opportunities to be brave and grow their courage - but it will also bring anxiety. For some kiddos, this anxiety will feel so big, but we can help them feel bigger.

The antidote to a felt sense of threat is a felt sense of safety. As long as they are actually safe, we can facilitate this by nurturing their relationship with the important adults who will be caring for them, whether that’s a co-parent, a stepparent, a teacher, a coach. 

There are a number of ways we can facilitate this:

- Use the name of their other adult (such as a teacher) regularly, and let it sound loving and playful on your voice.
- Let them see that you have an open, willing heart in relation to the other adult.
- Show them you trust the other adult to care for them (‘I know Mrs Smith is going to take such good care of you.’)
- Facilitate familiarity. As much as you can, hand your child to the same person when you drop them off.

It’s about helping expand their village of loving adults. The wider this village, the bigger their world in which they can feel brave enough. 

For centuries before us, it was the village that raised children. Parenting was never meant to be done by one or two adults on their own, yet our modern world means that this is how it is for so many of us. 

We can bring the village back though - and we must - by helping our kiddos feel safe, known, and held by the adults around them. We need this for each other too.

The need for safety through relationship isn’t an ‘anxiety thing’. It’s a ‘human thing’. When we feel closer to the people around us, we can rise above the mountains that block our way.♥️

That power of felt safety matters for all relationships - parent and child; other adult and child; parent and other adult. It all matters. 

A teacher, or any important adult in the life of a child, can make a lasting difference by asking, ‘How do I build my relationship with this child (and their parent) so s/he trusts me when I say, ‘I’ve got you, I care about you, and I know you can do this.’♥️
Approval, independence, autonomy, are valid needs for all of us. When a need is hungry enough we will be driven to meet it however we can. For our children, this might look like turning away from us and towards others who might be more ready to meet the need, or just taking.

If they don’t feel they can rest in our love, leadership, approval, they will seek this more from peers. There is no problem with this, but we don’t want them solely reliant on peers for these. It can make them vulnerable to making bad decisions, so as not to lose the approval or ‘everythingness’ of those peers.

If we don’t give enough freedom, they might take that freedom through defiance, secrecy, the forbidden. If we control them, they might seek more to control others, or to let others make the decisions that should be theirs.

All kids will mess up, take risks, keep secrets, and do things that baffle us sometimes. What’s important is, ‘Do they turn to us when they need to, enough?’ The ‘turning to’ starts with trusting that we are interested in supporting all their needs, not just the ones that suit us. Of course this doesn’t mean we will meet every need. It means we’ve shown them that their needs are important to us too, even though sometimes ours will be bigger (such as our need to keep them safe).

They will learn safe and healthy ways to meet their needs, by first having them met by us. This doesn’t mean granting full independence, full freedom, and full approval. What it means is holding them safely while also letting them feel enough of our approval, our willingness to support their independence, freedom, autonomy, and be heard on things that matter to them.

There’s no clear line with this. Some days they’ll want independence. Some days they won’t. Some days they’ll seek our approval. Some days they won’t care for it at all, especially if it means compromising the approval of peers. The challenge for us is knowing when to hold them closer and when to give space, when to hold the boundary and when to release it a little, when to collide and when to step out of the way. If we watch and listen, they will show us. And just like them, we won’t need to get it right all the time.♥️

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