Parenting is transformative.
Few experiences are as transformative as parenting. At its core, parenting is about transformation. One of our most important jobs as parents is to witness and influence the evolution of our children from wrinkly newborns with raw nervous systems into integrated, whole humans who know who they are and how to be in the world. And parenting obviously transforms us as well. There are smaller transformations—we learn to do most things “one-handed” while carrying a baby on our hip; we begin to eat at McDonalds; we memorize the names of dinosaurs; we learn to play video games again; we even buy a mini-van (which for some is a bigger transformation than for others). And there are huge, life-changing transformations—we adjust our priorities; we make sacrifices that cost us greatly; we learn to live with worrying and “what ifs”; we forever expand our hearts.
Along the way, we become more creative than we ever knew possible. I’m not talking about the creativity of artists, song-writers, or novelists. I’m talking about the creativity that’s required for survival for anyone caring for children. I knew I’d been forever transformed by my role as a parent when, in my attempt to get through to my non-compliant little streakers, creativity sprung forth from desperation and I made up a song with a chorus that began, “No naked butts on the furniture.” (Unfortunately, it was so catchy that one day I actually found myself singing it in the car by myself. As I said, parenting changes us.)
What’s more, transformation isn’t limited to people. We can also use our creativity to transform moments, so that the situations and circumstances we face can change into something else. Moments can be transformed for the worse, like when our downstairs brain shifts into overdrive and a sweet, bedtime cuddle turns into a fierce battle, complete with crying, wailing, and gnashing of teeth for all involved. But likewise, we can transform moments for the good of ourselves and our children, so that an ordinary, everyday parenting challenge is converted into an opportunity for growth, connection, and relationship. And to do this, it almost always requires creativity.
Creativity allows us to transform a battle and a disconnection into an opportunity to bond, to play, to teach, and even to develop the higher parts of our kids’ brains. I don’t always achieve this goal, but when I’m able to, I’m reminded of just how powerful it can be when we use our creativity to transform the moments we’re given.
Challenge transformed into opportunity.
For example, while eating at one of our favorite Mexican food restaurants, I noticed that my four-year-old had left the table and was standing behind a pillar about ten feet away. As much as I love him, and as adorable as he is most of the time, when I saw his angry, defiant face coupled with his repeated tongue-thrusting aimed at our table, “adorable” wasn’t the word that came to my mind. A few diners at surrounding tables noticed and looked at my husband and me to see how we were going to handle the situation. In that moment, Scott and I felt the pressure and judgment of those watching and expecting us to lay down the law about manners at a restaurant.
There are many ways to respond in moments like these. But in this moment, two choices popped into my mind as I walked over and crouched down eye-level with my son. Option #1: I could go the traditional “Command and Demand” route and open with a clichéd threat uttered in a stern tone: “Stop making faces. Go sit down and eat your lunch or you won’t get any dessert.”
Knowing my little guy, this verbal and non-verbal confrontation would have triggered all kinds of reactive emotions in his downstairs brain—the part scientists call the reptilian brain—and he would have fought back like a reptile under attack. The situation would just escalate with this approach.
Or, Option #2: I could tap into his upstairs brain in an effort to get more of a thinking—as opposed to a fighting/reacting—response.
Now, I make plenty of mistakes as I parent my boys (as they’ll freely tell you). But just the day before, I had given a lecture to a group of parents about the upstairs and downstairs brain, and about using everyday challenges—the survival moments—as opportunities to help our kids thrive. So, luckily for my son, all of that was fresh in my mind. I went with Option #2.
I started with an observation: “You look like you feel angry. Is that right?” (Remember, always connect before you redirect.) He scrunched up his face in ferocity, stuck out his tongue again, and loudly proclaimed, “YES!” I was actually relieved that he stopped there; it wouldn’t have been at all unlike him to add his latest favorite insult and call me “Fart-face Jones.” (I swear I don’t know where they learn this stuff.)
I asked him what he felt angry about and discovered that he was furious that Scott had told him he needed to eat at least half of his quesadilla before he could have dessert. I explained that I could see why that would be disappointing, and I said, “Well, Daddy’s really good at negotiating. Decide what you think would be a fair amount to eat, and then go talk to him about it. Let me know if you need help coming up with your plan.” I tousled his hair, returned to the table, and watched his once-again adorable face show evidence of doing some hard thinking. His upstairs brain was definitely engaged. In fact, it was at war with his downstairs brain. So far we had avoided a blow-up, but it still felt like a dangerous fuse might be burning within him.
Within fifteen seconds or so, my son returned and approached Scott with an angry tone of voice: “Dad, I don’t want to eat half of my quesadilla. AND I want dessert.” Scott’s response perfectly dovetailed with my own: “Well, what do you think would be a fair amount?”
The answer came with slow, firm resolve: “I’ve got one word for you: Ten bites.”
What makes this un-mathematical response even funnier is that ten bites meant that he would eat well over half the quesadilla. So Scott accepted the counter-offer, my son happily gobbled down ten bites and then his dessert, and the whole family (as well as the restaurant’s other patrons) got to enjoy our meals with no further incidents. My son’s downstairs brain never fully took over, which, lucky for us, meant that his upstairs brain had won the day.
Again, Option #1 would have not only escalated things, but it also would have missed an opportunity. My son would have missed a chance to see that relationships are about connection, communication, and compromise. He would have missed a chance to feel empowered that he can make choices, affect his environment, and solve problems. In short, he would have missed an opportunity to exercise and develop his upstairs brain.
And I hasten to point out that even though I chose Option #2, Scott and I still wanted to address his behavior. Once our son was more in control of himself, and could actually be receptive to what we had to say, we discussed the importance of being respectful and using good manners in a restaurant, even when he’s unhappy.
Challenge met, opportunity seized, moment transformed. (This time, at least.)
It’s all about watching for the opportunities.
As parents, we look for all kinds of ways to teach our children, to nurture their development. And it’s great to take them to the museum, to piano lessons, to the observatory, to a baseball game. But we also want to pay attention to the rich, minute-by-minute opportunities we’re given, and creatively transform these moments as well. What this requires—and there are plenty of times when I’m not very good at doing it—is that we take ourselves off of auto-pilot and look at each moment with fresh eyes. And though it isn’t easy by any stretch of the imagination, when we can step back and achieve a certain amount of critical distance from the situation at hand, that’s when we can begin to transform moments. And really, that’s just about the most we can hope for as parents. We can work hard to remain watchful for moments—hundreds of moments, large and small, throughout the day—and transform them, and allow them to transform us and our kids as well.
I keep hearing from parents whose kids are dealing with anxiety as a new school year begins. Here’s what I tell them.
Most parents are mindful about their words. But our nonverbals also speak volumes to our kids.
In fact, we’re communicating all the time, often without even thinking about it. Consider the last time you were with your kids at a piano recital, or a religious service. You know, one where they really had to stay quiet. When the squirming began, you might have been able to give a look or a touch that said, “This event is very important to me, and I need you to sit still, but I love having you here with me. It won’t be too much longer.”
Or, you might have pulled out a completely different look, one that was offered with eyebrows raised as high as possible, and kind of means the opposite of “I love having you here with me.”
Your child’s whole day can turn on something you’re not even cognizant of, something that’s not even said. Something as simple as your smile—or your touch—can soothe a disappointment and strengthen your bond. Or your nonverbals can do just the opposite.
I’m not saying there won’t be times when you’ll get completely exasperated with your kids. Or that they won’t misread something you’re communicating and get upset. Mistakes will be made on both sides of the relationship, of course. But we can still be intentional about the messages that we’re sending.
Here are four things you do not want—and four more that you do want—to be saying to your kids, even when you don’t utter a word.
Nonverbal Messages You DON’T Want to Send:
A deep, huffy sigh = exasperation.
The message: You wear me out. I can’t stand you right now, and I blame you for making things so hard on me.
A clenched jaw or gritted teeth = fury.
The message: I am furious with you and could explode at any moment. I’m unpredictable right now. Be afraid, very afraid. I’m not really in control of myself, and this is how people act when they are really mad.
Frantic rushing around = stress.
The message: Don’t talk to me right now—and if you do, make it quick. I’m fragile at this moment, so if you stress me out any further, I might lose it. You better walk on eggshells and not make my life any harder.
Aggressive body posture = anger.
The message: You better do what I say—and now! I don’t care how you feel or what the circumstances are. I’m going to fight until I win, and I’ll continue to escalate and become more aggressive until I do. Power, control, and aggression are how I get what I want here.
Nonverbal Messages You Do Want to Send:
A big ol’ squinty-eyed smile = delight.
The message: I think you are fantastic, and you fill me with joy. You bring fullness and wonder into my world and I love being with you.
An authentic belly laugh = appreciation.
The message: You are funny and clever, and I enjoy you. I want to join with you in how you see things. You have my attention and I’m having fun with you.
A locked-in, responsive look = empathy/compassion.
The message: What you’re sharing with me right now is crucial—more important than anything going on around us, more important even than anything I could be saying right now. I hear that you’re really upset, and all I want to do at this moment is listen to you and be present—so I can comfort you the best I can.
A loving touch = support/camaraderie.
The message: I know you face a big day at school with challenges I’m not always aware of, but this little shoulder massage while you eat your Lucky Charms says that I’ll be thinking of you, missing you, and eager to see you again this afternoon. And this Family-Movie-Night foot rub while we watch Monsters Inc.—for the sixth time—says that although I won’t always I have just the right words to say, I will always be here for you.
This article originally appeared on mom.me.
[The following interview appeared in the December, 2013 edition of the official magazine of the American Camp Association. You can read the original interview here.]
Tina Payne Bryson, PhD will be delivering the opening keynote address at the 2014 ACA National Conference in Orlando. Bryson is the co-author (with Dan Siegel) of the bestselling The Whole-Brain Child, which is now in seventeen languages. She’s a pediatric and adolescent psychotherapist who speaks to parents, educators, clinicians, and camp leadership all over the world. She is a school counselor and the child development director for Lantern Camps. Tina earned her PhD from the University of Southern California, where her research explored attachment science, childrearing theory, and the emerging field of interpersonal neurobiology. ACA sat down with her and asked her a few questions.
You’re known as someone who teaches parents and educators about the brain. Is that what you’ll talk about at the ACA conference?
It’s true that I spend most of my professional time talking to people about the brain. But it’s also true that I’m a mom of three boys, and I’ve become a huge proponent of the camp experience over the last few years as my boys have attended Camp Chippewa in Minnesota, and as I’ve visited with camp directors and counselors and learned more about the important and meaningful work they’re doing.
Put these two roles together — the brain lady and the mom who’s passionate about camp — and you get someone who can go on and on explaining to parents, mental health professionals, and anyone who will listen just why camp is so beneficial for the developing brains of kids. I’m quite excited about the tremendous consilience between what camps are doing, can be doing, and what we know about optimal brain development.
Tell us about the influence camp has on kids’ developing brains?
When I visit a camp and consult with the leadership team there, I usually have two main messages. Number one: Whether you know it or not, you’re significantly impacting the brains of the young people you work with every summer. In fact, it turns out that the things that build the brain and are best for kids’ development are also the very things that are important for running a successful camp with high camper and counselor retention and successful recruitment.
And number two: if you know just a few basic facts about the brain, you can be even better at everything I just mentioned. Knowing just a little about the science of how the brain changes in response to experiences, particularly relational experiences, can help camps be even more successful — in all kinds of ways.
Your first point is that camp builds the brain?
Right. Bunks are good for brains. All the things that camps and parents say that camp does for kids — promoting independence, confidence, friendship-building, resilience, thriving, character, grit, etc. — these are undoubtedly real outcomes for kids who have quality camp experiences. But why do these outcomes occur? How do these changes happen in short periods of time, and then over years as well? How do we explain this?
The brain. I could go on and on about cutting-edge brain science and how it relates to the camp experience. For the sake of time, I’ll briefly introduce you to one part of the brain that’s responsible for these skills and character qualities, and show you how it relates to the good, meaningful work that goes on at camp.
I want to introduce you to the middle prefrontal cortex. It’s right behind the forehead and eye sockets and is the front most part of the frontal lobe. It gives us the ability to do all kinds of important things: regulate our body and emotions, have insight into ourselves and others, feel empathy, communicate in an attuned way, bounce back after failure, adapt to new situations, make thoughtful choices, and overcome fear. That’s pretty much what’s needed for a successful life with good emotional and mental health, meaningful relationships, and the conscientiousness to make things happen in the world.
And camp can help develop that part of the brain?
Whether camps have thought about it in those terms or not, yes. And that’s the exciting part for the camp world: We don’t just influence kids’ minds and help them feel more confident. We actually change the structure of their brains.
Experience changes the brain. And yes, I mean the actual activation and wiring of the brain. Particularly when experiences are emotional, novel, and challenging, the repeated experiences kids have alter the actual architecture of the brain. It’s like a muscle. When it’s used, it grows and strengthens. So, when kids have camp experiences that require them to overcome fear, be flexible, handle their emotions (especially away from their parents), be persistent to master something, build relationships, and so on, it builds this important part of the brain. And by the way, this can happen in even more significant ways when counselors are trained to handle emotional reactivity in campers in ways that reduce reactivity and promote resilience.
But the main thing to know is that when the structure of the brain changes, the function of the brain changes. This means that camps can play a role in how these kids function in the world, and ultimately who they become as adults, even on a neuronal level.
It’s so great that camps that are intentional about all facets of the camper experience and how they train their counselors already inherently provide the kinds of experiences that activate and build this “character” part of the brain. That’s why we can see significant changes in kids who have camp as part of their lives.
So you’re saying that camp aids in this development because of the challenges children face when they’re away from home?
Yes, that’s part of it, but it’s about much more than just the challenges, because kids have lots of challenges in their everyday lives as well. One thing that’s unique about camp experiences is that camp is usually fun, so kids are willing to work harder and tolerate more frustration and setbacks because they’re having a good time doing it, and they’re doing it in the context of relationship. They see their peers pushing through as well, and when staff is well-trained, kids have mentors or counselors who are empathic about the struggle, but still encouraging them to endure — pushing them to continue to learn and try. Then they face the frustrations and persist through the challenges. This is one way “grit” gets built in the brain.
So that’s your first message to camp directors you work with. That camp helps build the brain. What’s the second point?
The second is that knowing some of these basic facts about the brain can help directors and counselors be even more successful–both at helping develop great kids with the time they have them at camp, and at running a successful camp with high retention rates and happy campers and parents.
What can camps and camp directors do better?
First of all, even when camps are already doing some really fantastic things in terms of social and emotional and character development, they often aren’t as savvy as they could be about communicating in their recruitment materials how their program and decisions are contributing to that development.
It’s about thoughtfully and strategically communicating to parents all the great stuff camp is doing for kids. Learning and using the language that child development experts know can make a big difference. With so much vying for children’s time, most parents want much more than just fun or better tennis skills for their kids. They want to feel confident that their child’s time is spent in ways that lead to their child thriving and being successful.
Can you give us an example of how camp does this?
There are dozens of ways that camp traditions and activities make kids better people and help them develop specific skills, like sustained attention (archery and riflery), overcoming fear (in safe but challenging activities), and serving others (helping with kitchen duties). If a camp can speak the language to make those connections, they’ll attract more parental interest.
Speaking this language also allows camp directors and leaders to clearly communicate to their staff each summer that there are more things going on than just the activity itself.
You’re talking about staff training.
Yes. We want staff to keep in mind that in addition to the skills of sailing, counselors are also teaching kids about frustration management, flexibility, responsibility, etc. I love training the staff at Camp Chippewa each summer, and one of my main messages to the young counselors is always, “You’re doing more than just hanging out and keeping kids physically safe — you’re the relational safety net as well.”
This is the science of interpersonal neurobiology. When kids feel connected and protected, when their needs are predictably and sensitively responded to, it actually builds the middle prefrontal cortex that I talked about earlier. There’s a hierarchy that staff should understand. When kids feel safe (physically, socially, emotionally), their social engagement system and receptivity circuitry can turn on. As a result, they’re more willing to build friendships that make them want to come back. These friendships and counselor connections are a buffer against stress and homesickness and struggles. And they build character skills. In the attachment literature, this is referred to as “a secure base,” and when kids feel secure, they are capable of moving toward independence and they are better able to make friends.
So camps must create a culture and community of safety and connection. When they provide this kind of relational connection, they become the kinds of places kids want to return to summer after summer, and that parents want to keep sending their kids to.
So relational safety nets help retention rates?
Right. And there are all kinds of ways to foster this kind of relational environment through programmatic decisions. This is a lot of what Michael Thompson, the co-founder of Lantern Camps, and I are doing through Lantern Camps, where we visit camps and evaluate their programs, helping them not only provide better training for staff, and more intentional experiences for kids, but also communicate these important ideas to their staff and to parents in their recruitment materials.
Aren’t camps already doing a lot of this?
Yes. The good ones are. Like I said, I am already a believer that camp can be a magical, transformative place for a child. In fact, I expect that down the road, when I think about the top experiences that made the biggest difference in who my boys turn out to be, going to Camp Chippewa will be on that list.
What I’m saying, though, is that many camps — and often, even good camps — can do even better at being intentional about what they want to accomplish. We’re talking about honoring tradition and what’s working great, while also evolving, refining, and being more intentional.
Sometimes, a camp’s automatic and unexamined ways of doing things aren’t the most effective strategies — for dealing with homesickness, or difficult personalities, or emotional meltdowns, or whatever — and they’re not optimal in terms of what the science tells us about child development. Many camps are still doing a lot of what doesn’t work very well, which leaves kids feeling disconnected. As a result, they have a negative experience and don’t want to come back. I try to teach staff the same things I tell parents in my office, and teachers at the schools I visit. I try to help them learn how to decrease emotional reactivity and get kids quickly back to a place of feeling adaptive, stable, connected, and receptive to having fun.
I’ll say again –camps impact kids — and their brains — in hugely positive ways. Bunks are good for brains. After all, it’s experience that changes the brain. So when kids have experiences that challenge them emotionally, when they’re given opportunities to make friends that are outside their typical circles, when they have to keep working at a skill to achieve mastery — these are the kinds of experiences that change the connections in the brain regarding kids’ capacity for persistence, how they see themselves, and how healthy they can be, both emotionally and relationally.
I really don’t know what to say. I’m heartbroken and speechless.
Facts are still coming in, and I’m just beginning to process everything myself. What we’ve learned is that close to thirty people, including many children, were killed by a gunman this morning at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
I really don’t know what to say.
None of us do.
But if we’re parents, we’ve got to decide how to address a horrific event like this with our own kids. We have to find the words.
The events just took place a few hours ago, so I reserve the right to change my opinion. But here are my thoughts on a first hearing, based on some questions I’ve already been asked.
Should I talk to my kids about what happened?
Usually, I’m in favor of arming children with as much information as possible. But in this case, if you have young, even school-age, children, I’d be very careful about how much you tell them about what happened in Newtown. It can be overwhelmingly frightening to a child (or even an adult) to hear that a person has carried a gun into a kindergarten classroom and begun killing kids and their teachers. If your children haven’t heard about the shooting, I advise you not to open the door to that world. It’s terrifying.
What if my kids have already heard?
If your children hear about the shooting from friends or the news or some other source, then it becomes paramount that you talk with them about what they’ve heard. In this conversation, aim for four main goals:
Begin by asking a few questions. Find out what your child knows and how they are feeling. A good question to ask is, “How did you feel when you first heard the news?” or, “What was your first thought?” Listening is crucial here, because it will allow you to assess where your child is, emotionally, at this moment, and also because it will give you information that should guide the rest of the conversation.
Let your child lead the conversation.
Don’t give your child more information then they need or already have. They don’t need pictures drawn for them. Answer their questions, and show them the respect of taking their inquiries seriously. But address their concerns and curiosity without delivering extraneous information that will create more confusion and anxiety.
Help your child feel safe.
This is your highest priority right now. Information is important, but contextualize everything so that your child feels safe. Explain how rare the situation is, and that they have no reason to expect that it would happen at their school. Promise that you’re always watching over and protecting them. Let them know they can absolutely count on you and that you will always try to keep them safe.
Be willing to return to the subject, but only if your child needs to.
Later today, or tomorrow, or next week, your child may need to talk more about what happened. If so, talk more. But if your child has moved on and isn’t showing any signs of worrying any more about it, then let them move on. Don’t create anxiety by bringing it up again and again.
What do I do if I feel terrified myself?
I know that these types of terrible (but extremely rare) occurrences make us want to pull our children closer, and protect them more. And yes, you should hold your child close tonight and be grateful. I know I will. But don’t allow your fears and anxieties to rage so much that your child misses out on freedoms and opportunities that produce mastery and competence. And remember, too, that kids are very perceptive. Be careful not to communicate so much of your own fear that you make your own anxiety theirs.
I feel a deep, deep sadness for the people of Newtown. Tragedies occur, and far too often, we’re left without any answers. I wish I had more answers right now, both for myself and to offer you. All I know to say as we watch from afar, is that we should let this remind us of our responsibilities to our own children: to listen to them, to protect them, to cherish them, and to communicate to them—as fully as possible—how much we love them.
I’ve recently written two articles for mom.me about communicating with tweens. Here’s the one about talking with your pre-teen daughter.
She’s not a teenager yet. But she’s sure not a child anymore, at least in the way she used to be. Just last week her school notebook contained pictures of cute puppies. Now she actually talks about cute boys.
One foot in childhood, one in adolescence. Sometimes sweet and playful, sometimes moody and sensitive. She’s a tween.
How do you talk to her? Here are some suggestions.
I have a twelve-year-old son. Sometimes it’s easy to talk with him, but sometimes, it’s just not. Here’s an article I wrote about communicating with pre-teens.
Attitude. Moodiness. An emerging desire for autonomy. A growing connection to friends that appears to coincide with a decreasing connection to parents. Any of that sound familiar? If you have a son who’s a tween—a 9- to 12-year-old—then chances are at least some of that rings a bell. And most likely, one of the challenges you’re facing at the moment is how to talk to your no-longer-a-child but not-yet-a-teenager son. Here are some suggestions.
Here’s a new post on Mom.me. It begins like this:
I know what you’re thinking: “File this one under ‘You can’t be serious.’”
But I am serious.
Nobody likes a tantrum: not your little one, and certainly not you. But even though we don’t enjoy our kids’ tantrums, there are plenty of reasons to be grateful for the times when they get the most upset.
For example . . .
As you can see here, I recently made a brief appearance on “Good Morning America.” I was asked to share my opinions on whether or not to use a “leash” on a small child. Only a minute fraction of what I said ended up in the actual segment, so I wrote up my thoughts in an fuller article. You can read the whole article at Mom.me (where it’s already generating a great deal of discussion). Here’s an excerpt from the piece:
You see it at the mall, at the airport, at Disneyland. A small child wears a monkey backpack, and the monkey’s tail is a tether held by the child’s parent. A leash.
Lots of people react pretty strongly against leashes for children. I even hear the practice described as “inhumane.” When I asked a friend about it, his tongue-in-cheek response was, “That’s how you get them to sit and stay.”
In my opinion, a leash is like so many other parenting tools and techniques. It’s not inherently good or bad. What matters is how it’s used: how it’s presented to the child, how and when the parent uses it, what the child’s temperament is, and why the parent is using it.
For example, I can see why a mother of young triplets might use a leash when she takes them to a crowded store. Or why the dad of an impulsive 2-year-old who has a history of bolting might feel the need to use it in airport security because he’s also attending to a 4-year-old. In fact, I’m not sure that a leash in these cases is all that different from buckling kids into a stroller to keep them contained. And, further, it might be a better alternative to what I’ve seen in parking lots, where I sometimes see a parent yanking a child’s wrist in rough ways.
In other words, I understand that in certain situations, a parent may have tried everything and eventually decided that a leash is the best way to protect her child until the child has a little more capacity for thinking and controlling impulses. Some parents are truly afraid for their child’s safety, and that fear is legitimately based on the child’s past behavior. I’ve talked to many caring parents who decided to use some form of a leash when it became a basic safety issue for their overly impulsive child who was, say, 18- to 36-months-old. And some parents feel that this provides them with a basic security that allows them to be more engaged and playful with their child.
However, all that being said, I do have three main concerns about using a restraining device like a leash.