It’s a classic parenting dilemma, isn’t it? How do we get our kids to talk to us?
The conversation itself is even more cliché:
–How was your day?
–Anything interesting happen?
A few years ago I found myself almost literally wincing as I heard myself ask my six-year-old the “How was your day?” question as he got into the car at the pick-up circle. It’s not that it’s a bad question, it’s just that I knew it wouldn’t encourage him to talk to me.
So why was I even asking the question? Wasn’t there something else I could do or say or ask that might get him to offer some of the mundane morsels I hungered for when I’d been away from him for six hours while he was at school?
I realized I needed to be more creative when it came to drawing out meaty details about my kids’ school lives. What I eventually came up with was Continue Reading »
[Two weeks from today (Oct 4), my new book with Dan Siegel, The Whole-Brain Child, comes out! Below you’ll find the third in a four-part series where I post excerpts from the book. I hope you enjoy it.]
You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.
–John Kabit Zinn
Here’s a conversation I recently had with my 7-year-old when he wasn’t at his logical best.
My son: I can’t go to sleep. I’m mad that you never leave me a note in the middle of the night.
Me: I didn’t know you wanted me to.
My son: You never do anything nice for me, you do things at night for Luke, and I’m mad because my birthday isn’t for ten more months, and I hate homework.
Sound familiar? An encounter like this can be frustrating, especially when you’re beginning to feel that your child is finally old enough to actually be reasonable and discuss things logically. All of a sudden, though, you’re interacting with a being who becomes over-the-top upset about something completely ridiculous and illogical, and it seems that absolutely no amount of reasoning on your part will help.
This is one of those times when knowing a little bit about the brain can help us parent in more effective (and more empathic) ways.
You probably already know that your brain is divided into two hemispheres. The left side of your brain is logical and verbal, while the right side is emotional and nonverbal. That means that if we were ruled only by the left side of our brain, it would be as if we were living in an emotional drought, not paying attention to our feelings at all. Or, in contrast, if we were completely “right-brained,” we’d be all about emotion and ignore the logical parts of ourselves. Instead of an emotional drought, we’d be drowning in an emotional tsunami.
Clearly, we function best when the two hemispheres of our brain work together, so that our logic and our emotions are both valued as important parts of ourselves and we are emotionally balanced. Then we can give words to our emotional experiences, and make sense of them logically.
Now, let’s apply that information to the interaction above. My son was experiencing an emotional tidal wave. When this occurs, one of the worst things I can do is jump right in trying to defend myself (“I do nice things for you!”), or to argue with him about his faulty logic (“That’s just not true, and your birthday is actually only nine months away”). My verbal, logical response hits an unreceptive brick wall and creates a gulf between us: he feels like I’m dismissing his feelings and that I don’t understand; I feel frustrated that he’s being so ridiculous and impossible. It’s a lose-lose approach.
So I have to come to an important recognition: Logic will do no good in a case like this until a child’s right brain is responded to.
How do we do that? I suggest that we use the “Connect and Redirect” method. Continue Reading »
What we say to our kids is important, right? The words we choose play a big role as children construct their beliefs about themselves, establish a foundation for their values, and decide how they see the world. What we say matters.
That’s why we’re used to filtering what we say to or in front of our kids. Sometimes we have an internal dialogue that might include phrases like, “You’re driving me crazy, kid!” or “Are you EVER going to stop crying?” or “I can’t wait until you go to sleep!”; but we know not to say these things out loud to our kids. We’re also aware that we should avoid talking about inappropriate subjects in front of our kids, so we wait until they’re asleep before we tell our spouse about how our neighbor’s house was robbed or about the latest community scandal.
We pause and make a decision about what we say before we share things with our children. We do this because we know that what we say matters and has an impact on them.
But just as important as what we say is how we say it. Imagine that your three-year-old isn’t getting into her carseat. Here are a few different how’s for saying the exact same what:
If you’ve heard me speak before, you may have heard me talk about the upstairs brain and the downstairs brain. Or maybe you’re read about the concepts here, where I help you teach the basic information to your kids.
Right now I want to apply that information in a way that can help us deal with one of the most unpleasant parenting issues we all face: the dreaded tantrum.
The Downstairs Brain and the Upstairs Brain
The basic idea is that we can think about our brain as a house, with a downstairs and an upstairs. The downstairs brain includes the brain stem and the limbic region, which are located in the lower parts of the brain, from the top of your neck to about the bridge of your nose. Scientists talk about these lower areas as being more primitive because they’re responsible for basic functions (like breathing and blinking), for innate reactions and impulses (like fight and flight), and for strong emotions (like anger and fear).
Your upstairs brain, on the other hand, handles much more sophisticated thinking. It’s made up of the cerebral cortex and its various parts—particularly the ones directly behind your forehead, including what’s called the middle prefrontal cortex. In other words, it is literally the higher (and thus upstairs) part of your brain. This is where more complex mental processing takes place, like thinking, imagining, and planning. Whereas the downstairs brain is primitive, the upstairs brain is Continue Reading »
One day my seven-year-old became furious with me because I told him he couldn’t invite a friend over to play. He stormed off to his room and slammed the door. About a minute later, I heard the door open, then slam again. I went up to check on him, and taped to the outside of his door, I saw the picture you see here. (You can see from the drawing below that he regularly uses his artistic talents to communicate his feelings about his parents.)
I went into his room and saw what I knew I’d see: a big child-sized lump under the covers on his bed. I sat next to the lump and put my hand on what I assumed was a shoulder, and suddenly the lump moved away from me, towards the wall. From beneath the covers, he cried out, “Get away from me!”
Often at times like this I can become childish and drop down to my child’s level. I’ve even been known to say things like, “Fine! If you won’t let me cut that toenail that’s hurting, you can stay in pain all week!” (Sometimes I’ll throw in a “See if I care!” for good measure.)
But this particular day, I maintained control and handled myself pretty well. I first tried to acknowledge his feelings: “I know that makes you mad that Ryan can’t come over today.”
His response? “Yes, and I hate you!”
I stayed calm and said, “Sweetie, I know this is frustrating, but there’s just not time to have Ryan over. We’re meeting your grandparents for dinner in just a little while.”
After that, he returned to the familiar refrain as he curled tighter and moved as far away from me as possible: “I said get away from me!”
I reminded him of our rule about talking with each other respectfully, then I went through a series of responses, the ones I regularly talk to parents about. I comforted; I tried to use nonverbal connection like touch and tone of voice before I tried to problem-solve; I empathized; I tried again to explain. I even offered an incentive to talk: a playdate the next day. But at that moment, he refused to calm down or let me help him in any way.
The point of this story is a reality that people rarely talk about: Sometimes Continue Reading »
Auto-pilot may be a great tool when you’re flying a plane. Just flip the switch, sit back and relax, and let the computer take you where it’s been pre-programmed to go. Pretty great.
But I’ve found that auto-pilot is not so great when I’m disciplining my children. It can fly me straight into whatever dark and stormy cloudbank is looming, meaning my kids and I are all in for a bumpy ride. So instead, I’m always working on DECIDING how I want to interact with my kids when I discipline them.
For example, let’s talk about consequences. For most parents, when we need to discipline our kids, the first question we ask ourselves is, “What consequence should I give?” That’s our auto-pilot. But through my years of parenting, I’ve begun to significantly re-think my use of consequences.
My four-year-old, for instance, hit me the other day. He was angry because I told him I needed to finish an email before I could play legos with him, and he came up and slapped me on the back. (I’m always surprised that a person that small can inflict so much pain.)
My immediate, auto-pilot reaction was to want to grab him, probably harder than I needed to, and Continue Reading »
Q: Tina, do you have any suggestions for getting my daughter to do what I ask the first time or to help me not have to repeat myself over and over?
A: The best suggestion I have for not having to repeat yourself so much is to stop what you’re doing and focus on the situation. I usually find that the reason I’m repeating myself is because I’m preoccupied with other things and not following through immediately when one of my sons doesn’t do what I’ve asked right away. By the time I notice that he hasn’t done what I asked, I get even more frustrated because now it’s been so long since I first told him what to do.
Of course you wish your daughter would just do what you say, but one way to at least cut down on the nagging and frustration is to stop what you’re doing, Continue Reading »
Q: My almost-five-year-old son is starting to lie. I’m worried that this is starting a terrible pattern, and I don’t know how to handle the situation. I’m just really upset because I’ve always stressed how important it is to tell the truth.
A: First, take a deep breath. This isn’t anything to worry about. Most kids tell fibs at this age. In fact, lying is developmentally normal and is actually evidence of a developing conscience and moral code. He knows what he’s done is wrong, so he lies to avoid being bad or to avoid getting in trouble or losing your approval.
So now, let’s talk about how to respond. When I know my son is lying, I try not to say ,“I don’t believe you.” Instead, I say, “Why don’t you take a minute and think about what really happened and then tell me again.” Sometimes I also say, “It’s really important that you tell me the truth and tell me what really happened so I can believe you when you tell me things.” For smaller children, it’s even OK to sometimes simply say Continue Reading »
“How was your day, sweetheart?” We all know the answer we’re going to get when we ask our child this question: “Fine” (or, if we’re lucky, “Good”).
Likewise, if we are trying to teach our child empathy, and we ask, “How do you think that made your sister feel?” we will most likely get an obligatory, half-hearted reply: “Bad.”
One reason we get these monosyllabic responses is probably that our kids aren’t emotionally invested in this particular conversation. Even if they were, though there’s another factor that often keeps them from going into the complexity of a particular emotion: they haven’t yet learned to think about their feelings in a sophisticated way that recognizes the varied and rich emotional life within them.
As a result, they don’t use a full spectrum of emotions, and instead paint their emotional pictures primarily in black and white. So we typically don’t hear, “I felt really proud of myself when I hit the winning shot during PE, but I was disappointed with how I did in Science, and I’m irate about what Sarah did at lunch.” And we don’t hear, “I think that made my sister feel belittled, and that I don’t care about her.” Instead, we hear “Fine” and “Bad.”
Ideally, we want our kids to recognize that there’s a colorful rainbow of rich emotions within them, and to pay attention to these different possibilities. Without this awareness of what’s going on in their right brains, they’ll be trapped in black and white, like the old TV reruns. When they have a full emotional palette, they are able to experience the vivid Technicolor that a deep and vibrant emotional life allows.
Making a child aware of the emotional rainbow that exists within them is one of the best ways to help connect the left and right hemispheres of their brain. When they come to understand their own mind and the minds of others, they can then move beyond a black/white assumption that feelings are good or bad, happy or sad. Instead, they can begin to understand the broad spectrum of emotions they experience, and learn to name and express them. Once developed, these skills will last them a lifetime.
When we promote this type of horizontal integration in our kids, Continue Reading »
[Update: I've spelled out some of my main reasons for not being a fan of time-outs here.]
There are far worse discipline tactics than time-outs, but I think that there are some alternatives that can be better in certain situations. Few children actually use their time-out time to reflect or calm down; in fact, it can even cause them to get more upset, depending on the child. I prefer some other approaches that require my kids to get more practice using the problem-solving, empathetic, choice-making part of their brains: