Dr. Laura Markham, clinical psychologist specializing in child development and parenting, without who I have NO idea how I would do this “mom thing”, believes the key ingredient to a collaborative and well-behaved child is connection. A child who believes we are on their side is happy to collaborate with us. On the flip side, a child who refuses to cooperate is more than likely feeling disconnected in some way to their parent. The key point in making that connection is that a child needs to believe he is being heard; we need to honour his feelings. The child needs to believe that we get him and that his big feelings are okay, that they are allowed and acceptable.
All feelings are acceptable, but not all behaviours are. This is where parental guidance comes into play. We can teach children constructive ways to behave in response to their feelings, but the feelings themselves are natural and genuine. But first and foremost, if we want our children act from our behavioural suggestions, there needs to be a connection, a certainty on the child’s part that we are on their side, and that their feelings (no matter how big or scary) are acceptable and welcome.
So, returning to the importance of connection, Dr. Markham (2012) states the following (p. 60):
“The most obvious sign that your relationship with your child needs some repair work is defiance. Children will always have priorities that differ from ours, but they want to feel good about their relationship with us, so they actually want to cooperate. When they don’t, it’s usually a signal of disconnection. So defiance isn’t a discipline problem, it’s a relationship problem.”
As a parent, this quote has been the single most valuable thing I’ve learned. Every time any of my children behave in a way that makes me want to “correct” them, if I know that they already know the behaviour they are exhibiting is unfavourable, I ask myself what they could be needing in that moment. I ask myself if they could somehow be feeling disconnected. More often than not, it is quite easy to look back and find a pattern of a busy week with less one-on-one attention than usual, or a preoccupation that may have made me appear more distant,… A deliberate attempt at reconnecting by offering my time and attention is way more often than not the solution. I mean, who doesn’t want to be seen and heard? When we sense our spouse doesn’t see us, doesn’t hear us, or takes us for granted, even we, as adults, are less than enthused to collaborate! And we kind of want to throw a tantrum — sometimes we do!
Of the many challenges of raising small children, defiance and tantrums are often the ones parents struggle with most. In those moments of emotional overload, kids are desperate for our help. Unfortunately, it is often in those times that we abandon them and isolate them (by putting them in time-out for example).
A tantrum is an expression of bubbling emotions that the child doesn’t know how to work through. It’s overwhelming. Toddlers build up stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline as they are faced with the stresses and challenges of daily life. To release them, toddlers can move, cry, yawn, and sweat. As adults, we have additional discharge mechanisms for those biochemicals, such as thinking and talking through things. Toddlers aren’t so lucky.
The toddler’s immature frontal cortex (left, logical side of the brain that likes words) can’t yet override their emotional centres (right, impulsive side of the brain) to process strong emotions verbally. Instead, to release the physiological residue of their fears and frustrations, toddlers tantrum (Markham, 2012, p. 102). They don’t enjoy it. They would much rather feel connected and cherished but when their emotions hijack them, their brain development isn’t sufficient to maintain rational control. Their physiology helps them restore equilibrium by having a meltdown to release all those feelings and the accompanying biochemicals. In those intense times, children need us to accept them and their intense, out of control feelings.
Keeping all that in mind, think of yelling, spanking, and punishing for a moment. What do these do to connection? That’s right, they weaken it and make the child feel like they, as a person, are inadequate, that they cannot trust their feelings. They feel badly about themselves and only act out more (see “Punish and They Will Learn” – But What Exactly Will They Learn). The long-term consequence is a broken emotional compass and the unfortunate cycle of negativity and self-hatred. No human who loves and accepts themselves fully will ever feel the need to hurt others. It is in moments when we love ourselves least that we act the worst towards others.
Additional Resources — Maintaining Connection
As we can see, connection is imperative to effective communication with our children. In Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, Dr. Markham offers a practical action guide to help us build and maintain a strong connection with our children (Markham, 2012, p. 64-86). This highly useful resource addresses the following topics regarding connection:
- Your child’s emotional bank account (p.64)
- What’s so special about special time (p.65)
- Daily habits to strengthen and sweeten your relationship with your child (p.70)
- Use connection to get your child out the door in the morning (p. 73)
- Use connection to make bedtime easier (p. 76)
- Ten ways to become a brilliant listener (p.78)
- But how do I get my child to listen to me? (p. 81)
- When your child just shuts down (p. 83)
- When you and your child are stuck in negativity (p. 85)
Markham, Laura, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting. New York: Penguin Books, 2012.