Show up and connect with your child in difficult moments

As a mom of three boys, Dr. Tina Payne Bryson uses her experience in the parenting trenches to help other parents as the founder and director of the Center for Connection. 

Dr. Bryson, who is a trained child and adolescent psychotherapist, focuses on the whole picture, rather than focusing on behavior and symptoms. “I focus on peeling back the layers to try to figure out what’s happening and look at the role of relationships as they relate to a child’s emotional and behavioral world.”

This is the emphasis in Dr. Bryson’s books as well.  “Experiences change the brain. As parents, we are not just influencing the minds or the characters or the behaviors of our kids, but the actual architecture of how their brains get wired. The most important experience that we can provide them in terms of how that brain gets wired is their relationship with us.”

The goal for parents is to provide a secure attachment to a kid. When it comes to discipline challenges Dr. Bryson says, “Often those bad behaviors are a child’s expression of a big stress response that they are trying to communicate to us. With these auctions, the child is saying ‘I don’t have skills in this area yet.’ Every time our kids are at their worst and falling apart, that’s a moment we can really show up for them.”

As parents, you, yourself may not have been parented in the ideal way in the past, but if you are present with your child and understand the issues that you have as a parent, you can help your child understand themselves and what he is experiencing. Hopefully, things will then go smoother, and you will have a child that grows up securely attached in a healthy way. 

Handling the emotional tsunamis 

Every child and situation is vastly different, so there is no perfect parenting formula. However, by exploring relatable scenarios and having Dr. Bryson share effective strategies, you can try these with your kids to help boost compliance and better behavior. 

Scenario 1: A three-year-old toddler wants things his way and refuses to follow requests or stay in time out. Dr. Bryson says that this is actually a good thing. “Developmentally, this is exactly where he should be, testing limits of how the world works. Discipline is always about teaching because the long term goal and the purpose of discipline is that the child is self-disciplined. If you’re using repeated opportunities as moments to teach your child and build skills, then they will have better strategies and better skills to handle themselves in the future.”

In terms of time outs, Dr. Bryson says, “Timeouts are never supposed to be punitive. That’s not what the research suggests, and the formula is different for each individual child. The research does suggest that it’s really about pulling your attention away from the misbehavior, creating a pause, like not reinforcing what’s happening and then rejoining with your kid.”

Natural Consequences versus Logical Consequences

Scenario 2: A nine-year-old just launched the remote across the room and broke a mirror because of some slight injustice. You are standing there right at the moment the mirror shatters and she looks at you with big eyes waiting for your response. 

Here we are reminded to address the feeling, address the behavior and move on. Dr. Bryson is hesitant to give formulas because so much depends on your kid and the situation. In this case, yes the child had a meltdown, but no doubt  didn’t mean to shatter the mirror. 

Before delving into how to address the feeling and behavior, it’s important to distinguish between a natural consequence and a logical consequence. A natural consequence is something that happens as a result of their action. The child got upset and as a result, the mirror broke. A logical consequence is something you do to the child that makes sense given the crime, for instance, having the child pay to replace the mirror. In this scenario, the broken mirror is a natural consequence, so she has already seen the impact for her behavior and may either feel startled, remorseful, or possibly still angry. 

Work through it as a team

The first step is to take a calm breath to make sure that you are able to calmly approach the situation. Next, depending on how your child responds to touch, put your arm around her and say, “You got so mad,” and then begin to tell the story. Have her share what happened by asking the child to explain. Try to keep the talking to a minimum, but use guiding phrases like, “I know you didn’t mean for that mirror to break. Did that surprise you?” Ask questions, pause to allow your child to feel and encourage her to work it through together with you. 

Following this exchange, you can say, “It’s totally acceptable to be mad, but it’s not acceptable to throw things because people could get hurt or something could break. Now that you saw that happen, what do you think we should do now? What should we do about the mirror?” t this point, we can hope she will say she’s ready to clean it up or get a new mirror. You can share that you have ideas, but want to hear hers first. You can then frame this as a learning opportunity, and discuss what she could do differently next time.

Some kids are receptive to sharing how she feels the moment of a meltdown. You can start this conversation by asking your child, “What did that feel like in your body when you threw the remote?” 

Kids are actually pretty good at describing the feelings in a creative way. 

Turning down the dial

When we get angry, we have a lot of nervous system arousal. It’s almost like the volume dial gets turned way up, and we can actually teach kids that when they get that sensation in their body, they can release some of that nervous system arousal. 

This is an opportunity to talk to your child about what to do when he or she gets that feeling leading up to a meltdown or tantrum. It might just mean to get up and walk. If you think you may say or do something you wouldn’t be proud of just walk away. 

Once you’ve identified the feelings your child experiences in similar situations, here are some strategies to teach them:

5 ways for kids to calm down

  1. Jumping up and down and moving their body, like having them make a swinging or rocking motion.
  2. Screaming into a pillow. 
  3. Breathing where their exhale is longer than their inhale.
  4. Asking for help. 
  5. Crying, yelling and laughing all release nervous system arousal. 

Connect before the redirect

By sharing in your child’s accomplishments and disappointments, you can help teach them how to work through his or her feelings appropriately. When you address the situation in the moment, it can build competence, confidence and mastery. In disappointing situations, you can give them empathy to help them work through it. By saying phrases such as, “That’s so sad” or “That really startled you when the mirror broke,” you give empathy and connection. By giving empathy, you are able to connect with them before redirecting the behavior. 

Teaching your child these skills will ensure she handles it better for next time there’s a big emotion, frustration or hurt. 

Communication is key

One of Dr. Bryson’s favorite activities to do with parents is have them write a list under the title “discipline problems.” She asks them to think about one kid and list 2-3 of the biggest discipline problems that drive the parents most crazy or what they worry about most. Then, she asks the parents to cross off the title “discipline problems” and in its place write “skills my child needs to learn.” 

It’s a mindset shift from admonishing a behavior right away to being curious about the root cause and then helping the child build skills in that area.

Building resilience in children

A key in helping your child to become more resilient is to first and foremost approach any behavior with curiosity as parents and as professionals. Dr. Bryson says, “You want to make sure that what you’re seeing is still in the window of what is considered developmentally appropriate. For a six-year-old child who melts down at the slightest discomfort and lacks the resiliency normal for that age, that may be more abnormal than a one-year-old having a tantrum every time she is put in her car seat. When you approach the situation with curiosity, you can tell that your child is having a stress response, so it’s important to train yourself to be curious about what’s causing the kid’s nervous system to go into a threat state over something relatively normal.”

One of the most influential ways you can help build resilience is practice. Dr. Bryson says,“What makes kids resilient is practice dealing with difficult things with enough support. This is key because when we overprotect our children and never let them feel disappointed, they don’t get to practice sitting with difficult feelings.”

A strategy to work with your child on being more comfortable with uncomfortable feelings is to talk it through with him. You can let him know that while he is disappointed, you are there with him. “When we allow him to feel it with enough support so he can tolerate it without going into a massive threat response, he gets practice sitting with that uncomfortable feeling.” As the child gets older, the goal is that he will learn to do this more independently. 

Teaching your kids these strategies is what Dr. Bryson calls “working your emotional regulation muscles.” As with any muscle-building, it takes time, effort and techniques to see improvements. 

Blowing up doesn’t mean you blow it

As with any exercise, there are better days than others. Even if you end up screaming and yelling at your kid, those are opportunities to learn from. It’s perfectly fine as long as your child is safe. You can say, “I need to calm myself down to have a productive conversation about this,’ which is a good model behavior for your child to see.

Your kids will learn from you as a model, and if you are perfect all the time, they won’t be able to relate, which could be a source of anxiety. Even if you lose it and make threats you won’t be able to follow through with, Dr. Bryson says, “It’s actually beneficial for your kids to hear you say, ‘I really blew that, I wish I had done that differently,’ and go through the process with them. Discipline is about learning, and parents are learning, too. Connection is what drives everything, so when you do something that gets in the way of connection, reconnect, go back and fix it.”

Links and Resources:

For more helpful strategies and practical resources, go to where you can find links to her social media information, books and podcasts.

Dr. Phil Boucher on Instagram

@DrPhilBoucher on Twitter

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Dr. Phil Boucher


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