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.
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