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Are you going to let her get away with that?

True personal story:

When my oldest daughter was about 8 months old, she got over-stimulated and grabbed an adult relative hard enough to cause pain.  We pulled her off, apologized, went into another room and helped her calm down.   About 20 minutes later, I apologized for my daughter’s behavior again to my relative.  Her response surprised me.  She said:

“Are you going to let her get away with that?  Shouldn’t you give her a little swat on the butt?”

At the time, I think I simply said that no, I wouldn’t be spanking my infant.  But, years later, I still often think of that brief exchange because of the stark contrast between “conventional” parenting wisdom and what–thanks to research–we now know.

To start with, did you know that when a baby or child is upset, the part of their brain that learns best is turned off?  When they are crying, dysregulated, hungry, overtired, “wired,” or “fried,” they can’t really learn.  So all the words, all the lessons, all the good advice you give them during that time?  It pretty much goes in one ear and out the other.  And it’s not their fault, either.  Their brains (and yours and mine, too!) are hard-wired to work this way.  Furthermore, in those over-stimulated situations, the part of the child’s brain that IS working is a primal, emotional, impulsive, defensive part of the brain.  You aren’t going to change the fact that the primal brain is primal, trust me… what you can hope for instead is to help your child improve their skills at managing their own dysregulation, so that they can get better and faster at bringing their more sophisticated brain functions back online.  That’s not going to happen for any 8 month old; we’re lucky if our 8 year olds can do it some of the time.

So, the next time your child is really upset, don’t try to “teach them a lesson.”  Instead:

  • Press the pause button on your own words and reactions.
  • Take a deep breath and help yourself either stay or return to calm.
  • Then, share your calm energy with your child, with the simple goal of helping them get back to their normal, higher-functioning self.
  • And for those children old enough to take your advice, save it for a later time, when your child’s brain and body are back in their normal, peaceful state.  That’s the very best time to teach!

When we rely solely on punishments to change behaviors, we either end up unsuccessful (for example: the prison system) or somewhat successful with negative side effects (for example:  poor relationships between parent & child, aggression in the child towards others, increases in lying and hiding behaviors, etc.)  To create a life-long positive relationship with our children, we have to approach shaping their behavior with gentleness, consistency, flexibility, and understanding.  Punishments don’t do any of those things—at 8 months, 8 years, or 18 years.

What we now know… is to limit our lecturing, work to understand why our kids misbehave, create an environment that supports the behaviors we want, create cooperation and mutual respect, and focus on the positives.  This creates healthy adults, better parent-child relationships, and it works.

***If you like this post, click over to this one on a similar theme that I wrote last year: If not punishment, then what?

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You say you want a revolution…

When people come to see me, it’s generally because they are seeking change.  Something isn’t quite the way they want it to be: they want to grow, or help their child grow.  That desired change?—it begins in the brain.

Scientists used to think that brains stopped growing after a certain age, but thankfully we now know better.  Modern neuroscience has proven that the human brain is “plastic”—it can change and grow throughout life.  This is great news, because it means that we can change and grow throughout life—we can change our habits, our beliefs, our expectations, our fears.  Understanding and acquiring what the human brain needs in order to learn, change, and grow is a necessary step in the revolution you seek.

Dan Siegel, psychiatrist, researcher, and one of the founders of the Interpersonal Neurobiology movement, identifies 7 fundamentals that are necessary for brain growth.

  1. Sleep.  Sleep is so important, and modern parents (and kids) just do not get enough.  I myself often remind parents that sleep deprivation is listed in the Geneva Convention as a form of torture.  It’s really important, so make sure your whole family is getting enough.
  2. Good nutrition.  You already know this one—but eating more fruits, vegetables, avoiding highly processed foods, limiting sugar and sugary drinks are all ways to help the body—and therefore the mind—work better.  Dr. Siegel also singled out getting enough of the nutrient Omega 3 as particularly important to the developing mind.
  3. Physical activity.  Adults and children need daily exercise and activity, including both weight-bearing and aerobic activity.  Exercise is proven to regulate mood and improve focus.
  4. Novelty.  Our brains are quick and smart because they look for patterns—you don’t have to discover how a water faucet works every single time you visit a new bathroom, thank goodness.  But the shortcuts our brain takes when it recognizes a pattern actually work against us when we want change.  So, try to mix things up, introduce playfulness or humor, or change the scene somehow in order to bring a little novelty into the situation.  It will make your brain sit up and take notice!
  5. Focus of attention.  What are you paying attention to?  Your focus drives energy and information through certain circuits of your brain.  More energy and information=more growth.
  6. Safety.  Without this, the brain doesn’t learn and grow well at all.  It is absolutely essential.
  7. Mindful awareness.  This is your mind’s ability to observe as opposed to reacting.  I sometimes call this the opposite of the “Whack-a-mole” mode.   Instinctual reactions are helpful when you are yanking someone out of the way of a speeding car, but in most parent-child conflicts, that’s not the part of the brain you want running the show.  Brain growth is improved when we are able to pull ourselves out of our instincts.

If you want to foster change and growth, prioritize the items on this list.  The more of the above 7 elements you can put in to place for yourself or for your children, the easier and longer-lasting growth can be.

Teasing

Is your school-aged child being teased? Kids can really be mean to
each other, and when our kids hurt, we hurt, too. The older they get,
the harder it is to fix things for them. The good news is that there
are concrete, positive steps you can take to help your child handle
teasing.
Respond to this problem on two levels.

  1. First, focus on your child’s emotional needs. Don’t rush to
    problem-solving too fast. Allow your child to feel their feelings and
    vent them in a safe place with a safe person (you!) Actively listening
    (which includes eye contact, focus, repeating back, and empathetic
    noises like “uh-huh,” etc.) will actually provide a measure of relief.
    It feels good to tell your story to someone who cares and is really
    listening.
  2. Then, when your child is done venting, ask if he wants your help,
    and if so, how he wants you to help. You may discover that all they
    wanted was to talk about it. That really happens! Even kids sometimes
    just want validation, not problem-solving. Alternatively, your child
    might ask for a “fix.” Depending on your child’s age, a phone call to
    parents or teachers, etc might be appropriate. However, no one can
    really make them stop, so we’d better move on to level two.

One of the most important things we parents must do for our kids is prepare them for The Real World.
The Real World is imperfect and full of unfairness, bullies, and
cheating. Much as we might like to, we cannot shield our kids from
teasing (or other unpleasantness) for their whole lives. It will find
them, so we’d better teach them how to deal with it on their own.

Here are steps to take and lessons to teach your child in order to
better equip him to deal with teasing (or other crummy peer behavior).

  1. Overall ego-strengthening. If a child feels anxious about a
    particular aspect of themselves, they are likely to react more when
    teased. The reaction is the teaser’s reward. (This is why some people
    say to “just ignore them”). But, a child who can recognize her own
    diverse strengths will have an easier time internally rejecting the
    rude comments. If your child doesn’t feel sensitive or vulnerable to a
    comment, they won’t react. This makes it less ‘fun’ for the teaser, so
    it won’t happen as much.
  2. Humor. Nothing disarms like humor. There’s a great scene in the old Steve Martin movie “Roxanne
    where his character (who has a very large nose) makes fun of a guy who
    had made fun of his nose. Steve Martin embarrasses his teaser by
    humorously pointing out that the teasing comment was uncreative and
    common. What a way to reclaim the upper hand!
  3. Insight into the other person’s possible motivations. It helps to
    know, for example, that kids sometimes tease because they feel insecure
    themselves. This also emphasizes the important life lesson “It’s not
    about you,” which can be powerful and life-changing.
  4. Teach your child the power of not being defensive. “Yeah,
    I’ve got a big nose. And, I’m the 4th grade champion at basketball.
    Wanna play?” In this example, the child being teased acknowledges the
    truth in what the bully is focusing on (which eliminates any ‘sting’,
    and the shifts the power) then refocuses the conversation onto an
    aspect of himself where he is powerful and capable.

I hope that these ideas are helpful. For more information, or to ask
questions, leave a comment or send me an email through the website!