I’m pulling this thread from my last blog post — and it’s not just HOW an ounce of prevention can be worth a pound of cure; its WHY. In my post, Whole Brain Parenting, we uncovered some hidden facts about how a child’s brain develops. We learned that we are often operating on unreasonable expectations about what those little brains are able to access — like logic and reasoning. Most importantly we learned how parents, grandparents and caregivers can all contribute to the “integration” of all the complex parts of our children’s amazing brains. We needed this foundational information and understanding.
Most of this knowledge has come from intensive, extensive research in neuroscience, psychology and behavioral science. It has dramatically shifted how we are addressing family, relationship, behavioral and mental health issues. The major pivot in counseling and treatments has been in a committed focus on “integration” of all parts of our brain. The good news is that due to neuroplasticity, we can foster this integration all throughout our lives. The optimum time to invest in this “integration” is in childhood.
And that brings me to WHY. Why it matters. Why we should care.
Emotions matter. Our emotional landscape needs to be integrated into our experiences, into our complex brain processing. It’s time we normalize being emotional. Our emotions are part of our inner compass.
Those who were raised with a lot of dysfunction and emotionally disregulated parents went armed into parenthood with a long list of the things they would not be doing to their kids but still lacking the knowledge of how young developing brains work.
Well intentioned, but still misinformed, the new parenting pendulum swung too far in the opposite direction. In attempts to make our kids feel safe, we became helicopter parents; in our attempts to make them feel special and valued, we created awards and medals for everyone; and to soothe, we showered them with ice cream, bribes and too much acquiescence. This methodology also did not foster emotional and brain integration.
On the one hand, we told kids to “stuff” or “get over” their emotions; on the other hand, we dismissed their emotions or told them sweetly “oh honey, you shouldn’t feel that way.”
Bypassing the emotional component of how we make sense of the world literally leaves us with a poorly operating internal GPS system.
As a result, we move from teen-hood to to adulthood with very little knowledge or awareness that our brains and nervous systems have stored up over two decades of experiences, emotions and stories to help us make sense of the world we grew up in. That internal storage unit can be both a treasure chest and a Pandora’s box. We unconsciously rummage through it like a small child in her costume box, randomly choosing which prop we will lean on when we are hijacked by strong emotions, old triggers, mixed messaging and our default mode negativity bias. This is where we come out of that internal storage unit wearing outgrown behavioral patterns and protective emotional armor. Cue up flight, fight, freeze or fawning.
There were two big missing pieces in old traditional parenting paradigms: understanding how young developing brains actually work — AND — understanding the important role that emotions play in both brain and body.
One major distinction with the Whole Brain Parenting approach is that we are keeping our expectations realistic about our child’s developing brain and we are facilitating the slow and natural integration process as they mature.
The other big distinction is that we are fostering self awareness by helping them identify their emotions and understand how those emotions make them feel — in their bodies and in their knee jerk reactions to how they want to respond.
No more bypassing this essential component of our inner compass.
Instead of sending our kids into adulthood still relying heavily on fight, flight, freeze or fawn responses when they inevitably get hijacked by strong emotions, we can hand them a well-stocked toolkit of skills and practices that will help guide them to stay in control, make clear-headed decisions and empower them to be the best versions of themselves most of the time.
An ounce of prevention is truly worth more than a pound of cure.
There is an important caveat to Whole Brain Parenting: Parents have to do their homework.
Yes, it does take more skill to parent this way and perhaps a little more effort in the early stages. However, over time, the benefits of this newer, healthier approach will mean more connected teaching opportunities and fewer unproductive, emotional tugs of war. Imagine being able to witness our kids really gaining traction with their self-awareness and recognizing on their own where they could do a little better.
What’s in your toolbox, mom and dad?
Brushing up on our own self-awareness will reveal the areas that we want to shore up before we begin shifting from disciplining to teaching. Cultivating more patience and calmness is number one. Honing our active listening skills is number two.
Now let’s dive a little deeper into some of those toolkit resources that are the super-powers of Whole Brain Parenting:
When we can help our children name their emotions, we are teaching them a whole new vocabulary. Not only will they become better at understanding what they are feeling for themselves, they will be able to communicate more clearly to us what they are experiencing.
Brene Brown’s extensive research for over 20 years offers compelling reasons why emotional literacy is so empowering:
Most of us only readily identify 3 key emotions — angry, sad or happy. The truth is that our emotions and experiences are very nuanced; we often are feeling several emotions all at once. Some are even competing emotions which can be really confusing to a child. The bigger our emotional vocabulary, the better we are able to name and understand the nuances. This is emotional granularity. Kids can learn an expanded emotional vocabulary as readily as they learn how to describe in great detail their favorite toy or TV show.
Different emotions can actually show up very similarly when we are observing them. We are not mind readers, not even with our kids, and we may unconsciously respond to an emotional state thinking it is “anger” when it is really “scared to death”. We might think our kids are being stubborn and uncooperative when they are simply overwhelmed and trying to sort things out in their young brains.
Kids need an emotional vocabulary to help them identify what they are feeling; and to be able to understand how those emotions make them feel in their body. They can learn that emotions ebb and flow (you’d be surprised how comforting this is to a child.) Most importantly they can learn that emotions are our own internal warning lights to pay attention to what is important to them. When they are quite young, this might be more about a treasured toy but as they get older, they will learn to trust these emotional flashing lights when it comes to their core values. The best way to help them navigate peer pressure down the road, is to teach them early and often about their gut instincts. Emotional literacy and self awareness are the bedrock of gut instincts.
We also need to teach our children to process their emotions. There is no right or wrong, good or bad when it comes to emotions. Even as adults, we can tell ourselves that we “shouldn’t be feeling angry or envious” but the truth is, we simply do feel angry or envious in some circumstances. Owning these emotions and reflecting on them gives us insight.
As Carl Jung has advised “what we resist, persists.” Far better to sit with our truth than to try to ignore it. We gain more knowledge about ourselves and what matters most to us when we stay with our strong emotions and get curious. How many times have you over-ridden a feeling of anger only to discover it had morphed into resentment?
The same is true for our kids. We will learn a lot about what is going on in their inner world when we listen to gain understanding. This means giving our kids our undivided attention and not rushing them. We need to listen attentively, so that we can gain understanding about their inner world. A parent’s challenge is to resist the urge to chime in with advice or admonishment which will surely interrupt this teaching moment. We may discover that our kids are wrestling with confusion over mixed messages they receive. (News flash — we often are not following the same rules we put out there for our kids; they see it, they internalize it, and it gets thrown into the pot when they are trying to make sense of their own emotions and events).
Listen to understand; remember that they have limited capacity to fully engage all parts of their brain. Let’s be honest, so do we often have limited capacity — because we are exhausted, stressed out, hungry or drained. It’s part of being human. We aren’t striving for perfection here. We are striving for greater understanding, a heaping dose of grace and lots of empathy.
Self Control and Emotional Regulation:
Young children do not yet have the ability to integrate their “lower” brain where they are feeling all their emotions with their “upper brain” where logic and reasoning help to guide us BEFORE acting on our emotions. And let’s be honest, as adults we can easily bypass this more mature ability when we too are hijacked by strong emotions, exhaustion or overwhelm.
The Whole Brain Parenting approach is for us to be the “training wheels” for this developmental integration process. The training wheels are “co-regulation”. The key is staying calm, using a softer tone of voice and making a sincere supportive connection.
We may think that this tactic is often reserved for emergencies, like when the airlines tell us to put our oxygen mask on first before helping a child…..but the reality is that the more we employ this strategy in our everyday interactions with our kids, the more likely they will imitate our calmer responses in times of stress.
How often do you catch your children repeating back to you the admonishments or reasoning that they hear day in and day out? Kids are our best mirrors for cultivating our own self-awareness. This is good news — because it normalizes how hard it is to be human and be “perfect” all the time. Outside influences, the daily grind and our unattended emotions take their toll on all of us.
These moments are teaching opportunities too. Simple, self-care practices like taking a break, going for a walk, reading a book, listening to music, or a taking a few deep calming breaths — this is what we can be offering to ourselves and our kids. Much more effective than blowing up and losing it.
Newsflash: We will inevitably blow up and lose it. And that is also a teaching opportunity. Dr. Dan Siegel offers this very reassuring truth: Rupture and repair is the gorilla glue of our relationships. We build trust and deepen connections every single time we acknowledge that we messed up and offer a sincere apology, and back it up with making amends. The best way to put a bow on that repair is a great big warm and fuzzy bear hug.
Very few of us have gone through life without experiencing how someone broke our trust and never apologized. It could have been a parent, or other authority figure, but we were left feeling that they lacked accountability and could no longer be trusted. We probably looked for more proof too — and we often find it because that is where we put all our attention. A break in trust can create a relationship that feels like death by a thousand paper cuts. Every future infraction causes pain and distrust. We stockpile those experiences and we fiercely guard against it.
This seems to be a natural segue into the next tool for our life skills toolbox:
Guard Rails and Boundaries:
We hear the word “boundaries” a lot these days. Yet few of us really were taught to use boundaries in the empowering way they are intended. Brene Brown offers his key insight about boundaries: “Compassionate, boundaried people stay in their integrity.”
If we sit with this, and really reflect on it, we can see that boundaries are guardrails for us all throughout life. Our personal boundaries are how we not only protect what is most important to us — they help us communicate clearly to others what our values are; what is acceptable and what is not in our relationships.
When our kids are little we use guardrails all the time to protect them from harm. It starts with the kid gate at the top of the stairs when they become mobile. We use socket protectors on electrical outlets, car seats, protective helmets for scooters and bikes, and filters on our devices.
Unfortunately we get a little too “loosey goosey” with the boundaries they need for a lifetime when we are teaching them what is appropriate behavior and what is not. Oh how quickly our little ones learn to become master negotiators — wearing us down til we honestly can no longer hold that boundary. Sure, eat the box of cookies before dinner; ride your bike without shoes if you think you know best. It is true that their consequences will also be learning experiences….an upset tummy or a bruised toe, but it doesn’t foster that longer term goal of integration and the pre-loading of good decision making skills.
The following excerpts from the book No Drama Discipline by Dr. Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, PhD help us reframe our concept of boundaries and provide the key motivation to wanting to use them effectively in teaching our kids.
“Deep, empathic connection can and should be combined with clear and firm boundaries that create needed structure in children’s lives” — (excerpted from No Drama Discipline)
Connection isn’t the same thing as permissiveness. Connecting with our kids during discipline doesn’t mean letting them do whatever they want. In fact, just the opposite. Part of truly loving our kids — and giving them what they need — means offering them clear and consistent boundaries, creating predictable structure in their lives, as well as having high expectations for them. Children need to understand the way the world works: what’s permissible and what is not. A well defined understanding of the rules and boundaries helps them achieve success in relationships and other areas of their lives. When they learn about structure in the safety of their home, they will be better able to flourish in outside environments — school, work, relationships — where they’ll face numerous expectations for appropriate behavior. (excerpted from the book, No Drama Discipline).
Our children need repeated experiences that allow them to develop wiring in their brain that helps them delay gratification, contain urges to react aggressively towards others, and flexibly deal with not getting their way. (from No Drama Discipline).
The absence of limits and boundaries is actually quite stressful — and stressed kids are more reactive. So when we say no and set limits for our children, we help them discover predictability and safety in an otherwise chaotic world. And we build brain connections that allow kids to handle difficulties well in the future. (from No Drama Discipline)
Like any new skill that we are trying to improve, setting boundaries will be most successful if we start with things we can actually follow through on. A little advance planning about a realistic and do-able boundary will help prevent the heat of the moment overriding common sense. As an example, instead of loudly announcing “that’s it, I’m throwing all your birthday presents away”, we can say and follow through on the more rational “you will not be able to play with your new toy for an hour.” (feel free to trade an hour out for 15 minutes — both will seem excruciatingly long for both parent and child initially).
The more you practice setting and holding boundaries, the easier and more natural it becomes for you. Ironically, it also becomes the comforting guardrails for kids. Kids thrive in consistency and predictability. Boundaries aren’t punishment — they are simply the guidelines and guardrails.
What becomes very transformational when we teach our kids the importance and value of boundaries is that we give them one of the greatest tools for their lifetime. A child who knows how to set and hold boundaries will not easily be influenced by others who try to talk them into things they don’t like, and they will not accept inappropriate behavior from others. They will inherently know their own worth, be guided by their core values, and trust their gut instincts.
Teaching our children clear and consistent boundaries will reinforce their confidence in having their own back, being honest about their needs and being responsible for their actions.
The benefits of boundaries go both ways — they keep us in our integrity – and they hold others accountable for their actions and behaviors (without unnecessary drama, meltdowns, anxiety and stress).
Many of us adults struggle to set and hold our own boundaries:
we say “yes” to things we want to say “no” to (we are afraid of disappointing someone or rocking the boat);
we don’t speak up when someone is disrespectful to us (we wouldn’t tolerate someone disrespecting our kids, but we cut them slack when it is aimed at us);
we push through when we are exhausted (because we think we will be judged if we ask for help).
Remember that we have many teaching moments throughout our daily lives to actively demonstrate to our children the role that boundaries can play in the quality of our lives. Those little reflecting mirrors known affectionally as our kids will gain a lot of traction in their life skills by osmosis.
How many times have you watched your small child struggle with something that just touches your heart deeply? You can almost feel yourself having a “Benjamin Button” moment and becoming six again. You remember so well how it felt in that moment. That is empathy in action.
We can only get to empathy by being very aware and attuned to our own inner feelings and experiences. This is the critical piece of emotional integration that helps us become skilled in our relationships. We have to be able to access what it actually “feels like in our bodies” when we are hurt, scared, lonely or confused.
When we help our children to become self-aware, to express out loud to us what they are feeling inside (in their hearts, in their muscles, in their clenched fists or gasping- for-air sobs), we are helping them connect to compassion and empathy.
This highly developed inner awareness of how emotions and experiences feel inside of us becomes the key to understanding how others might also feel in similar circumstances. It is the heart to heart connection.
Even a young child can grasp how a sibling might be feeling on the inside as she stares at her favorite toy, broken into pieces on the living room floor. In that present moment, integration is happening for those two children. Each instinctively knows how the other is feeling.
A skillful parent can tap into these “inside emotional feelings” when they are teaching their children about getting along with others. Rather than shaming or embarrassing our kids into an apology or different behavior, we can use empathy to help them become aware of the consequences of their actions. They may not “get it” right away when they are so young, but it sets the stage for meaningful relationship skills when they are older.
Tying It All Together:
Are you beginning to see how all these life skills fit together like puzzle pieces? The integration process of the parts of our brains AND the addition of plugging in to our emotions provides us with the most transformational inner GPS system for life.
When we teach our children the importance of their emotions and give them language to identify them, we expand our capacity to understand them and to give them the tools they need to become their best selves.
Each of our children are so uniquely different. Ask any parent who has more than one child and they will tell you how unbelievable it is that two kids raised the same way can be so remarkably different.
We don’t want to change the innate personalities of our children. We often delight in the remarkable ways they are uniquely different. It’s just that it can be so challenging to figure them out.
This is where Whole Brain Parenting becomes such a remarkable pivot point. All the tools and skills we are teaching to our children help us to realize how we are all wired so differently and have a genuine appreciation for those differences. What is important to one child barely registers for another. Our “other awareness” becomes more attuned.
The more we know ourselves, the better we become at getting to know others. To be able to learn this in our own homes, with our family members, is the best educational environment we could ever have. Not only will our children have a solid life skills toolbox, they will have had nearly two decades of integration and practice when they are ready to launch into adulthood.
Watch this short YouTube Video with Dr. Dan Siegel entitled Why Attachment Parenting Matters.
He explains how to talk to our kids about what they are feeling in their bodies when their emotions are in play.
He also explains what is going on in those little developing minds….
This brief conversation will really jumpstart your Whole Brain Parenting process