How to To Build Influence With Kids and Teens Through Emotional Connection

How to Influence Behaviour With Kids and Teens Using Emotional Connection

Limit-setting can be a tiresome, thankless task, and the perfect kindling for fiery exchanges between kids and the adults who love them, but it’s also an opportunity to strengthen our connection with them as we nurture their growth. One of our most important tasks is to teach the children in our lives how to be in the world in a way that is life-giving, empowered, whole-hearted and healthy. To do this, we need influence.

There are different ways to influence behaviour but not all of them will work the way we’d like them to. Kids naturally want to make us happy and proud, but they also have the very important jobs of learning, experimenting, and developing their own beautiful minds. We want this for them, but it also means that sometimes they’ll do things that will be spectacularly messy. 

Generally, if kids are behaving in a way that falls short of our expectations there’s a good reason:

  • We’re expecting them to do something which developmentally they aren’t ready for (e.g. expecting a three-year-old to share, expecting a teen to do everything you ask.
  • They’re experimenting with the world and their place in it, by experimenting with where the limits are, (which completely normal and healthy);
  • They’re experimenting with their independence from you (also completely normal and healthy);
  • They feel disconnected, angry or shamed and they’ve stopped trying to win approval;
  • There are no clear rules and/or no consequences for breaking the rules – anything goes.

The way we respond can open them up to our influence, or shut them down. 

Building your influence through emotional connection.

Children who are emotionally connected will be more likely to measure their behaviour according to your response. If they sense your disappointment (provided it doesn’t spill into shame and anger), they will be motivated to do the right thing to re-establish their feelings of closeness and connection with you. They will also be more likely to seek out your advice, your ideas and your opinions, and to let their connection with you influence the development of their own values, ‘What would mum/dad want me to do? What would they do?’. They will also feel less need to lie or keep secrets to avoid consequences. 

Building Influence: Why boundaries without emotional connection won’t work. 

Using punishment, criticism, or shame to influence behaviour weakens the emotional connection between you and your child or teen. Instead of building their willingness to engage, listen, and learn from you, tight rules and harsh punishments are more likely to create anger and resentment and leave kids feeling misunderstood or unheard. They’re no different to us like that.

Strict rules and harsh consequences will probably make kids do what you want them to do. The thing is though, it’s likely that their behaviour will be driven more by the motivation to stay out of trouble, rather than  an intrinsic motivation to do the right thing, or their own set of developing values, or their identification with yours. They’ll be more likely to change their behaviour to avoid trouble, without necessarily changing their attitudes thoughts or feelings about what they’re doing. 

When there are too many rules, there are less opportunities for kids to develop the ability to think for themselves. They’ll be less likely to explore their behaviour, ask for direction, or engage in a conversation about why the rules are important.

But emotional connection without boundaries won’t work either.

When there’s warmth and affection without boundaries or rules, kids are given less guidance and and more freedom than they can manage. Overly permissive parents will often try to influence behaviour using treats, gifts or bribery. There’s nothing wrong with treats or the odd bribe to encourage behaviour you want to see more of, (‘If you give soccer a go, we can go for ice cream afterwards), but it should never be used as consequences to redirect bad behaviour, (‘Stop hitting your brother and I’ll let you watch tv.’) 

When there is plenty of warmth and affection, but not enough boundaries, influence is limited. Without boundaries, opportunities for kids to develop self-control and self-discipline are also limited. 

Building Influence Through emotional connection.

Your strongest source of influence with your children is your emotional connection with them – strong limits, but with compromise, warmth and mutual respect. The goal here is for children to develop the capacity to make healthy decisions on their own. The demands and boundaries need to be clear, but they need to be guarded with warmth, nurturing and an openness to the child’s wants, needs and feelings. Here are some ways to build your emotional connection and use it as your power base to influence behaviour. 

  1. Discipline, not punishment.

    Discipline is about teaching, not about punishment. When kids mess up, let the consequences be driven by the lessons you want them to learn. For example, your teen told you she was going to a study group, but she actually went to a party. The breach isn’t the party, it’s the dishonesty, so let the consequences be driven by that. The consequences then, might look like a grounding, rather than a loss of privileges.

    ‘I want to give you freedom, but it’s important that I can trust you to use that freedom in a safe way. I’ll give you freedom when you give me honesty. We need time to build the trust again. How do you think we can do that?’ If the ideas she comes up with don’t hit the mark, suggest that no going out for a couple of weeks – not to prove a point, but to have time together to build the trust between you both again.

  2. Sometimes this might mean no consequences.

    If they’ve done the wrong thing but they come to you to talk about it, that in itself might be enough. If they show regret, insight and learning, is there any more that can be gained from further consequences? They’ve trusted you with the information, and that isn’t easy. It takes guts to own up when you’ve done something wrong. You can be disappointed and proud at the same time – let them know that.

  3. Acknowledge and validate.

    Kids will all feel big feelings, and sometimes these feelings will drive behaviour that isn’t so adorable. This is a great thing – it means they’re human. Acknowledge the feeling by naming what you see without trying to understand or change it. ‘You seem angry with me. I get that. It’s annoying when you want to keep playing but you have to pack up isn’t it.’  Research has shown that labelling an emotion can soothe the nervous system. It also gives space for them to slow down and explore the need that’s driving the emotion. Anger for example, is usually a sign that something is blocking a goal. What’s is it that they want? What’s getting in their way? What’s another way they can get what they need? If they are sad, something is missing. Help them to slow down and explore what it is. If they’re scared, what do they need to feel safe? Is the fear real? Or is it something they’re imagining? Children learn the most about emotions when they are emotional, but sometimes they need the space and support to help them find the lesson. 

  4. Words of understanding before advice, requests or consequences.

    Understanding doesn’t mean agreeing. It means you’re open to what they have to say and to looking at things through their eyes. When they know that you ‘get it’, they will be more open to your advice and your requests, and they’ll be more ready to take on any lessons they need to learn. ‘I understand how important it is to you to spend time with your friends. I know you weren’t wanting to do the wrong thing, but you have to let me know where you are. It’s not okay to stay out later than I’ve asked, and then not pick up the phone when I call. If you want the freedom to spend time with your friends, I can give you that, but there are also things you need to do so that I know you’re safe.’

  5. Let the limits be on behaviour, not needs, wants, wishes or feelings.

    Let all feelings be okay, because they are. What’s not okay is the behaviour those feelings drive. Kids won’t stop getting angry because we tell them not to, or because we punish them for it. Ditto for jealousy, frustration, impatience or any other feeling that needles all of us from time to time. It’s still up to us as parents to decide what behaviour is okay and what isn’t. When they learn they can trust you with what they’re feeling, they will have the space to safely explore why they feel the way the do. They can experiment with better ways of being, with you as the lamplight gently guiding their way. 

  6. Have strong limits, but let there be room for disagreement and objection.

    It’s important that kids know their own mind and how to use it. This will become increasingly important as they get older. If we’ve never given them the opportunity to disagree or to say no to us, how do they find the words and the trust in their judgement when they are confronted with peer pressure, or risky choices. The things they do with us are practice for the real world. Let them know that as long as they are respectful, they can disagree with you and say no to you, but you are still the parent and the final decision is yours. The more open you are to what they have to say, even if it pushes against you, the more heard they will feel and the more they will be able to trust your judgement and guidance.

  7. And offer choices.

    Kids and teens are stuck between wanting to be more grown-up, more independent, more capable, but also wanting to be looked after and protected by you. Let them see they can have both. Being close to you and having limits doesn’t mean they have to surrender their power. Empower them by giving them choices within the limits you’ve set. ‘I understand you want to stay up later, but you need a decent sleep on school nights. How about you can go to bed when you want on Fridays, Saturdays and holidays, but you try to be in bed by 9:30 on a school night.’ For younger ones it might look like, ‘I know you don’t want to wear shoes. I get that – shoes can be annoying sometimes – but it’s important that you have something on your feet when we go to dinner. You choose which ones. Any ones you like.’

  8. If they’re old enough, involve them in a discussion about the rules and consequences.

    There will be some rules that aren’t up for discussion, but there may be other things that can be reached through compromise and a calm, respectful swapping of ideas. The more you can do this on the smaller things (cleaning their room, what they spend their money on, the clothes they wear etc) the more influence you’ll have on the bigger things. The more you teach them that you’re open to what they think and what they need, the more they’ll return the favour when it matters most.

  9. Don’t take their mistakes personally.

    We all have the right to make our own mistakes. It’s how we learn and grow. It can be difficult not to take mistakes kids make personally sometimes, (‘What have I missed?’ ‘What have I done wrong?’ – sound familiar?) but we can’t do their growing and learning for them. Getting too involved in their mistakes can steer our response and make us either more angry and frustrated, or more tempted to ‘fix’ it for them – which makes it less likely that they’ll open up next time. 

  10. Listen and be available for the little things as much as the big things.

    They need to know that if it’s important to them, it’s important to us. If we want them to come to us with the big things when they are older, we need to be available, attentive and responsive to the little things when they are younger. For them, it’s always been big.  

And finally …

Children naturally want to do the right thing. Sometimes their idea of the right thing and our idea of the right thing will be worlds apart. This is how it’s meant to be. We expand their world, they expand ours, which is why it’s so important to set limits in a way that will widen the likelihood of them hearing what we say, and telling us what we need to know. Kid are naturally geared to seek security, love, and understanding. They will be curious, they will experiment, and they will explore. Along the way they will make mistakes. Some of them will be monumental. The challenge for us as the adults in their lives who love them, is to influence them away from behaviour that could land them in trouble, without dulling their curiosity, their openness to us, and their wild, beautiful spirits.

10 Comments

Wilma Brokaar

Hi Karen Simply love to read your blogs. I love your way with words and your humor. But most of all i love the content.
I am currently setting up my business to facilitate workshops for professionals, working with families and for foster carers. With a focus on safe , attuned relationships, social-emotional development and recovery from trauma. I’ll certainly pass on a link to your blogs to participants of my workshops. Cheers
Wilma (Perth, Australia)

Reply
Simba

I’m in Sydney. If you ever need a volunteer over from the east side, be sure to write back.

Reply
Wilma

Hi Simba Thank you so much for the offer. Not sure if you suggest being a volunteer if I come to Sydney or you coming to WA to volunteer/assist with a workshop?? Wilma

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Faine H

Hi Your article was very helppful. I myslef am strugglimg with my 19 year old daugher.I have tears in my eyes reading your advice. Thank you. ❤

Reply
Eriona

Loved reading this article.
As a busy working mum, running to get things done, tired by the end of the day, we do loose patience sometimes but everything I read on this article makes so much sense.
Thank you

Reply
Cindy

I am a counselor in a middle and elementary school in Colorado. So many of your articles are helpful to parents and I love to pass them on. I was wondering if you ever publish the articles in Spanish. We have many families in our community who are Spanish speaking and could benefit from your knowledge and wisdom.

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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.
When things feel hard or the world feels big, children will be looking to their important adults for signs of safety. They will be asking, ‘Do you think I'm safe?' 'Do you think I can do this?' With everything in us, we have to send the message, ‘Yes! Yes love, this is hard and you are safe. You can do hard things.'

Even if we believe they are up to the challenge, it can be difficult to communicate this with absolute confidence. We love them, and when they're distressed, we're going to feel it. Inadvertently, we can align with their fear and send signals of danger, especially through nonverbals. 

What they need is for us to align with their 'brave' - that part of them that wants to do hard things and has the courage to do them. It might be small but it will be there. Like a muscle, courage strengthens with use - little by little, but the potential is always there.

First, let them feel you inside their world, not outside of it. This lets their anxious brain know that support is here - that you see what they see and you get it. This happens through validation. It doesn't mean you agree. It means that you see what they see, and feel what they feel. Meet the intensity of their emotion, so they can feel you with them. It can come off as insincere if your nonverbals are overly calm in the face of their distress. (Think a zen-like low, monotone voice and neutral face - both can be read as threat by an anxious brain). Try:

'This is big for you isn't it!' 
'It's awful having to do things you haven't done before. What you are feeling makes so much sense. I'd feel the same!

Once they really feel you there with them, then they can trust what comes next, which is your felt belief that they will be safe, and that they can do hard things. 

Even if things don't go to plan, you know they will cope. This can be hard, especially because it is so easy to 'catch' their anxiety. When it feels like anxiety is drawing you both in, take a moment, breathe, and ask, 'Do I believe in them, or their anxiety?' Let your answer guide you, because you know your young one was built for big, beautiful things. It's in them. Anxiety is part of their move towards brave, not the end of it.

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