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.

11 Comments

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

Reply
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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Big feelings, and the big behaviour that comes from big feelings, are a sign of a distressed nervous system. Think of this like a burning building. The behaviour is the smoke. The fire is a distressed nervous system. It’s so tempting to respond directly to the behaviour (the smoke), but by doing this, we ignore the fire. Their behaviour and feelings in that moment are a call for support - for us to help that distressed brain and body find the way home. 

The most powerful language for any nervous system is another nervous system. They will catch our distress (as we will catch theirs) but they will also catch our calm. It can be tempting to move them to independence on this too quickly, but it just doesn’t work this way. Children can only learn to self-regulate with lots (and lots and lots) of experience co-regulating. 

This isn’t something that can be taught. It’s something that has to be experienced over and over. It’s like so many things - driving a car, playing the piano - we can talk all we want about ‘how’ but it’s not until we ‘do’ over and over that we get better at it. 

Self-regulation works the same way. It’s not until children have repeated experiences with an adult bringing them back to calm, that they develop the neural pathways to come back to calm on their own. 

An important part of this is making sure we are guiding that nervous system with tender, gentle hands and a steady heart. This is where our own self-regulation becomes important. Our nervous systems speak to each other every moment of every day. When our children or teens are distressed, we will start to feel that distress. It becomes a loop. We feel what they feel, they feel what we feel. Our own capacity to self-regulate is the circuit breaker. 

This can be so tough, but it can happen in microbreaks. A few strong steady breaths can calm our own nervous system, which we can then use to calm theirs. Breathe, and be with. It’s that simple, but so tough to do some days. When they come back to calm, then have those transformational chats - What happened? What can make it easier next time?

Who you are in the moment will always be more important than what you do.
How we are with them, when they are their everyday selves and when they aren’t so adorable, will build their view of three things: the world, its people, and themselves. This will then inform how they respond to the world and how they build their very important space in it. 

Will it be a loving, warm, open-hearted space with lots of doors for them to throw open to the people and experiences that are right for them? Or will it be a space with solid, too high walls that close out too many of the people and experiences that would nourish them.

They will learn from what we do with them and to them, for better or worse. We don’t teach them that the world is safe for them to reach into - we show them. We don’t teach them to be kind, respectful, and compassionate. We show them. We don’t teach them that they matter, and that other people matter, and that their voices and their opinions matter. We show them. We don’t teach them that they are little joy mongers who light up the world. We show them. 

But we have to be radically kind with ourselves too. None of this is about perfection. Parenting is hard, and days will be hard, and on too many of those days we’ll be hard too. That’s okay. We’ll say things we shouldn’t say and do things we shouldn’t do. We’re human too. Let’s not put pressure on our kiddos to be perfect by pretending that we are. As long as we repair the ruptures as soon as we can, and bathe them in love and the warmth of us as much as we can, they will be okay.

This also isn’t about not having boundaries. We need to be the guardians of their world and show them where the edges are. But in the guarding of those boundaries we can be strong and loving, strong and gentle. We can love them, and redirect their behaviour.

It’s when we own our stuff(ups) and when we let them see us fall and rise with strength, integrity, and compassion, and when we hold them gently through the mess of it all, that they learn about humility, and vulnerability, and the importance of holding bruised hearts with tender hands. It’s not about perfection, it’s about consistency, and honesty, and the way we respond to them the most.♥️

#parenting #mindfulparenting
Anxiety and courage always exist together. It can be no other way. Anxiety is a call to courage. It means you're about to do something brave, so when there is one the other will be there too. Their courage might feel so small and be whisper quiet, but it will always be there and always ready to show up when they need it to.
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But courage doesn’t always feel like courage, and it won't always show itself as a readiness. Instead, it might show as a rising - from fear, from uncertainty, from anger. None of these mean an absence of courage. They are the making of space, and the opportunity for courage to rise.
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When the noise from anxiety is loud and obtuse, we’ll have to gently add our voices to usher their courage into the light. We can do this speaking of it and to it, and by shifting the focus from their anxiety to their brave. The one we focus on is ultimately what will become powerful. It will be the one we energise. Anxiety will already have their focus, so we’ll need to make sure their courage has ours.
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But we have to speak to their fear as well, in a way that makes space for it to be held and soothed, with strength. Their fear has an important job to do - to recruit the support of someone who can help them feel safe. Only when their fear has been heard will it rest and make way for their brave.
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What does this look like? Tell them their stories of brave, but acknowledge the fear that made it tough. Stories help them process their emotional experiences in a safe way. It brings word to the feelings and helps those big feelings make sense and find containment. ‘You were really worried about that exam weren’t you. You couldn’t get to sleep the night before. It was tough going to school but you got up, you got dressed, you ... and you did it. Then you ...’
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In the moment, speak to their brave by first acknowledging their need to flee (or fight), then tell them what you know to be true - ‘This feels scary for you doesn’t it. I know you want to run. It makes so much sense that you would want to do that. I also know you can do hard things. My darling, I know it with everything in me.’
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#positiveparenting #parenting #childanxiety #anxietyinchildren #mindfulpare
Separation anxiety has an important job to do - it’s designed to keep children safe by driving them to stay close to their important adults. Gosh it can feel brutal sometimes though.

Whenever there is separation from an attachment person there will be anxiety unless there are two things: attachment with another trusted, loving adult; and a felt sense of you holding on, even when you aren't beside them. Putting these in place will help soften anxiety.

As long as children are are in the loving care of a trusted adult, there's no need to avoid separation. We'll need to remind ourselves of this so we can hold on to ourselves when our own anxiety is rising in response to theirs. 

If separation is the problem, connection has to be the solution. The connection can be with any loving adult, but it's more than an adult being present. It needs an adult who, through their strong, warm, loving presence, shows the child their abundant intention to care for that child, and their joy in doing so. This can be helped along by showing that you trust the adult to love that child big in our absence. 'I know [important adult] loves you and is going to take such good care of you.'

To help your young one feel held on to by you, even in absence, let them know you'll be thinking of them and can't wait to see them. Bolster this by giving them something of yours to hold while you're gone - a scarf, a note - anything that will be felt as 'you'.

They know you are the one who makes sure their world is safe, so they’ll be looking to you for signs of safety: 'Do you think we'll be okay if we aren't together?' First, validate: 'You really want to stay with me, don't you. I wish I could stay with you too! It's hard being away from your special people isn't it.' Then, be their brave. Let it be big enough to wrap around them so they can rest in the safety and strength of it: 'I know you can do this, love. We can do hard things can't we.'

Part of growing up brave is learning that the presence of anxiety doesn't always mean something is wrong. Sometimes it means they are on the edge of brave - and being away from you for a while counts as brave.
Even the most loving, emotionally available adult might feel frustration, anger, helplessness or distress in response to a child’s big feelings. This is how it’s meant to work. 

Their distress (fight/flight) will raise distress in us. The purpose is to move us to protect or support or them, but of course it doesn’t always work this way. When their big feelings recruit ours it can drive us more to fight (anger, blame), or to flee (avoid, ignore, separate them from us) which can steal our capacity to support them. It will happen to all of us from time to time. 

Kids and teens can’t learn to manage big feelings on their own until they’ve done it plenty of times with a calm, loving adult. This is where co-regulation comes in. It helps build the vital neural pathways between big feelings and calm. They can’t build those pathways on their own. 

It’s like driving a car. We can tell them how to drive as much as we like, but ‘talking about’ won’t mean they’re ready to hit the road by themselves. Instead we sit with them in the front seat for hours, driving ‘with’ until they can do it on their own. Feelings are the same. We feel ‘with’, over and over, until they can do it on their own. 

What can help is pausing for a moment to see the behaviour for what it is - a call for support. It’s NOT bad behaviour or bad parenting. It’s not that.

Our own feelings can give us a clue to what our children are feeling. It’s a normal, healthy, adaptive way for them to share an emotional load they weren’t meant to carry on their own. Self-regulation makes space for us to hold those feelings with them until those big feelings ease. 

Self-regulation can happen in micro moments. First, see the feelings or behaviour for what it is - a call for support. Then breathe. This will calm your nervous system, so you can calm theirs. In the same way we will catch their distress, they will also catch ours - but they can also catch our calm. Breathe, validate, and be ‘with’. And you don’t need to do more than that.

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