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Parenting with the Brain in Mind

Connect and Redirect: helping children feel seen & heard in order to create a secure attachment.

By: Lindsay Rosser


Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist #87065, Integrative Body Psychotherapist

Most of us still rely heavily on outdated behavioral systems to discipline our children. Using everything from time-outs, behavior charts and prizes to coerce our children into making good choices. These interventions are rooted in B.F. Skinner’s mid-20th-century philosophy that human behavior is determined by consequences and bad behavior must be punished. Over time, neuroscience has opened our eyes to new possibilities and discipline techniques that are far more effective.

I believe knowledge is power so, before we talk about strategies to try with your child, I’d like to take you on a brain excursion. Trust me, knowing more about the brain will help you make sense of those intense moments with your child. You know…the ones where the world turns upside down over a cookie? And you’re thinking “What the heck do I do here?” or “Everyone is looking at me…this is so embarrassing!” You’ll have practical techniques to try by the end of this article so, hold tight and bear with me through this Brain 101 course.

What We Know About the Brain

Dr. Dan Siegel, author of The Whole Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind, discusses brain anatomy in an intuitive way. We have two major parts of the brain that help us feel and make sense of our feelings. The prefrontal cortex (PFC), the “upstairs brain,” and the amygdala (AMG), the “downstairs brain.” Please see graphic at the beginning of this article to see where the PFC and AMG sit in the brain.

The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the section of the brain that:

  • integrates the rest of the brain functions and serves as a witness to the other brain functions. You know that wise inner voice that calms us down and tells us how to best handle a situation? That’s your PFC talking.
  • helps us to regulate our moods
  • helps us control our impulses and be reflective, instead of reactive
  • helps us to be empathetic and attuned to other people
  • helps us think abstractly — which includes both the ability to plan ahead and see the consequences of our choices

The Amygdala (AMG) is the section of the brain that:

  • functions as the body’s alarm circuit, especially for feared stimuli which can warn us when we are in imminent danger
  • helps us with our automatic, instinctive responses which we need to survive
  • can trigger aggressive and highly emotionally responses —  also known as a tantrum

The problem is just like the body, brains mature at different speeds and different parts of the brain develop sooner than others. The amygdala is fully developed at birth and the prefrontal cortex does not finish developing until our mid-20’s. Because of this, children and adolescents do not have the capacity to always make rational decisions or control their emotions. With this knowledge, we can breathe easier knowing the brain plays a role in irrational, intense feelings and behaviors. We can be empowered with techniques to use when our child is having a difficult time regulating their feelings.

So what do we do with this knowledge of the brain in regards to how we parent? Well, further research demonstrates that the PFC is strengthened in children who have a secure attachment in relationship with their primary caregiver(s). The Reflective Parenting Program (RPP), a 10-week series based on research in attachment theory and neuroscience, and several books written by Dr. Dan Siegal, can help parents learn how to create a secure attachment with their child. Now, let’s learn some ways to start this process…

Parenting Tip - “Connect and Redirect”

Dr. Siegal’s work is chock-full of practical tips for parents. “Connect and Redirect,” is one of them and recognizes that when our kids are fraught with emotion and physicality, trying to address them with words and reason will not work. You know how this goes…your child is having a tantrum and talking to them or trying to solve the problem just is not working as you’d hoped it would.

In these moments, we first must connect emotionally to show our child they are seen and heard. We call this limbic attunement. In fact, you are helping send soothing chemicals to their overwhelmed amygdala that danger is not near and that they will survive this terrible feeling. When their brain feels understood and soothed, we can then redirect our children with our adult brain tools — such as problem solving or setting boundaries.

As discussed earlier, children do not have the brain capacities we as adults do — we must stay calm and contain our feelings to model how to activate the part of the brain that can help them self soothe. Easier said than done, right? It’s hard to stay emotionally regulated when someone is yelling, kicking and throwing a full blown fit. We are not perfect and we will lose our cool at times and that is OKAY. When we regret how we’ve handled a situation, we can learn to repair those moments as well, which only continues to strengthen that secure attachment we’ve been talking about… but, that technique will have to wait for a future blog post :)

Now, here’s how the “Connect and Redirect,” technique looks step-by-step:

Step 1: Connect

  • Logic and reason will not work. We cannot use rational thinking to talk someone out of their feelings. To adults with fully developed brains, logically, our child’s urgent need for that specific pink sprinkled cookie, is not that big of deal…but, it is to them, and that is what matters.
  • Use nonverbal signs
    • Physical touch
    • Empathetic facial expressions
    • Nurturing tone of voice
    • Nonjudgmental listening. For example, “I can see you’re angry. You really want that cookie.”
    • Over time, with experimentation, you will learn your child’s unique ways to self-soothe. By offering them options and tuning into their needs, you are giving them the lifelong gift of emotional regulation. Go you!

Step 2: Redirect

  • Sometimes the emotion just takes time to pass, which takes patience on our end. Our children do not understand the transient nature of feelings as well as we do.
  • Children may just need to eat or get some sleep. Yup…it can be that simple.
  • Don’t forget rules about respect and behavior still apply. Just because we are empathetic, caring people does not mean there are no rules.
  • Inappropriate behavior (as defined by your family) remains off-limits even in moments of high emotion.
  • Discuss misbehavior and its consequences after your child has calmed down.

Offering this type of emotional attunement to your child, allows them to feel seen and heard - a vital message children need in order to develop a secure attachment with you. If you have specific questions about how to use this technique with your child, I’d be happy to help. Parenting is not a one-size-fits-all approach. Your child is as unique as their fingerprints and requires an individualized approach which can be challenging to find :) Good luck and happy connecting and redirecting to you all!

References

Siegal, D.J., Bryson, T.P. (2012) The Whole Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. New York, New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc.