I invite you to close your eyes for a few seconds. Travel back to a memory of holding your child as a baby. This beautiful bundle of joy in your arms as you gently sway from side to side, humming an enchanting lullaby.
Go ahead. I’ll wait.
I bet your body relaxed a bit more and a smile spread across your face. Didn’t it feel like magic?
Witnessing their sweet little essence, you felt such immense love. And your love went so far and so wide and so deep that you couldn’t imagine anyone or anything hurting her.
Your toddler … your teen … the ones with the big emotions and challenging behaviors that cause you to tug at your hair and hide in the bathroom … they are still made of that magic. I know sometimes it is hard to see with the moods, power struggles, and resistance. But it is there amidst it all.
As our babies turn to toddlers, we quickly become conditioned to believe that we better get a grasp of our children’s behaviors and emotions so that they don’t rule the roost and run right over us with their own agendas. Somehow the magic we once felt becomes an overwhelming pressure to raise a good human.
We shudder at the idea that they may grow up to be disrespectful, defiant, unmotivated, entitled adults, and so we take action. The actions we take can either move our children out of the wholeness they were born into, or they can work with their nature to support their development.
Each generation has had its own idea for ensuring that our biggest fear didn’t become our reality.
- There was the spanking era which said a swat to the backside would prevent the child from being spoiled and unruly.
- Then there was the forced isolation era where kids were removed from their attachments when undesirable and inconvenient behaviors and emotions surfaced.
Now, we are in a new era, backed with research that says that these means of rearing children are not only ineffective but also harmful. This acknowledgment isn’t a shaming of our ancestors, but rather an ode of gratitude. Thank you for doing what you thought was best for me and using what resources were available to you.
It is our ancestors’ actions that led to the research that got us here. And here’s what we now know.
- Corporal punishment such as spanking negatively affects a child’s developing brain, decreasing the gray matter and connective tissue between brain cells, which influences a child’s ability to learn and adversely impacts social and emotional development.
- Social exclusion such as Time-Outscauses increased blood flow to the same areas of the brain that light up when physical pain (such as spanking) is experienced. This shows us that emotional pain is just as real and significant to the brain as physical pain.
To punish is to cause pain, blame, or shame in the name of reforming behavior. Yet when we punish a child, we trigger the release of more stress hormones in their brains, which causes a child to move deeper into the survival skills of fight, flight, freeze, or fawn. Simply put, we see bigger emotions, stronger behaviors, and more power struggles or we see a child completely shut down and abandon who they are in the name of maintaining attachment.
This long-term harm seems to outweigh the short-term “success” of raising obedient, compliant, and agreeable children.
From Punishment To Discipline
We don’t have to hurt our children to guide them … to get them to listen … or to raise good humans.
But if punitive measures aren’t the way to muscle up our authority, what is?
One word: Connection.
The research is in. Our children are more apt to cooperate with us when we develop a strong attachment with them. In doing so, they feel safe and secure, which means they move out of their survival instincts and into their “new” brain - the region that offers the freedom to explore, learn, problem-solve, and regulate emotions.
Every time we choose connection, we strengthen these pathways and increase the likelihood that our children learn these skills.
Every time we use punishment, we weaken those circuits and decrease our child’s ability to grow this part of the brain.
Most of the things we tend to discipline (or punish) as parents are actually very developmental for our children. They are born detecting threats and feeling feelings without the ability to regulate them. So, it is helpful to understand that the behavior you are seeing is the symptom, not the problem. Underneath their actions is 1) an unmet need, 2) a lagging skill, or 3) emotional or sensory overwhelm. Their hitting, screaming, crying, and hiding behind a slammed door is an attempt to regulate.
When we choose connection-based parenting, we remain curious about their development as we model and teach the desired skills.
Connection-based parenting requires us to recognize that the parent-child relationship is just that, a relationship, which means there are two different perspectives here, and two different sets of wants, needs, and desires.
It moves the needle from a top-down approach to parenting that says, I am big and you are small and what I say goes, to a bottom-up approach that prioritizes your relationship over all else.
When my children and I are pulling different ends of the tug of war rope, I like to ask myself, What is my goal here? To be right, to be in control or to connect?
When we become dug into our need to be right, we make our children wrong. And when we push our agenda without considering theirs, we power struggle.
If we want more authority for our children to respect and listen to us, it won’t happen down the path of overpowering and dehumanizing them.
Above all else, having a strong relationship with our children gives us more authority, not less. And that’s the bottom line.
Connection-Based Parenting In Action
What does connection-based parenting look like, especially during those tough, sticky moments?
1. Fill Emotional Bank Accounts
Similar to our checking accounts, we all have emotional bank accounts (EBA). It is helpful to consider the activity of this account. Have there been more withdrawals or deposits lately?
When we yell, command and demand, or react sharply to our children, there’s less in the account, which means our children are less likely to work with us and more prone to push against us.
When our children feel seen and valued as part of their family system, it fills their EBA, which means that 1) your child-parent relationship will improve, and 2) they will be more cooperative when you do ask something of them.
One way to fill your child’s EBA is to dedicate and schedule 5-10 minutes of child-led play each day. Create a chart and name it after your child, “Cleo’s Special Time,” which is a tangible way for you both to keep track of this time together. For more on this, read here. For older children, this Special Time may come once a week or even once a month for longer outings.
Other ways to fill the EBA is to offer information or ask questions instead of commanding and demanding. For more on that, read here.
Take time to also notice your own EBA. Are you feeling seen, heard, and supported? Is your cup being poured into, and how is that affecting your parenting?
2. Connect Before You Redirect
All emotions are valid, even the ones that lead to big, undesirable behaviors. Before you redirect, connect with the underlying emotion. In doing so, your children feel seen and heard (another way to fill the EBA).
When it comes to redirection, decide if you are channeling the behavior or halting it altogether. Because connection-based parenting isn’t permissive parenting, your boundaries can be empathetic and firm. Keeping limits clear and consistent is the best way to ensure that your child understands and cooperates with them.
This process may sound something like this:
- I see that this feels hard for you. It is okay to feel what you are feeling. It isn’t okay to hurt others. I won’t let you hit me. I will keep us safe.
- I see that you are jumping on the couch. Jumping is fun. You can jump on the trampoline, outside or we can play the floor is lava. You choose!
- I hear you when you say you don’t want to give the block back. It is so tricky to wait. Would you like to hand it back to your brother or would you like me to help?
- I hear you when you say you don’t want to leave the park. You really enjoyed the slides today. It is time to go. Let’s race to the car!
3. Take A Time-In
Time-Ins are daily rituals rooted in connection that help children build the skills of emotional regulation, problem-solving, impulse control, and making repairs. Through the use of feelings posters and the love of their adult, children begin to notice body sensations and manage the same unpleasant feelings that are often the cause of the challenging behaviors.
Raising children is a long game. When we lead with punishment such as threats, blame, and shame, we lose so much more than we win - namely their trust and respect. Not to mention the opportunities to support brain development and teach life skills.
When we lead with connection, children learn to regulate emotions and learn higher-level skills through the safe space of a supportive caregiver. Not only does this strengthen your relationship but it gives you more authority. Your children will want to work with you more than they want to work against you.
And that, that is a win-win.