Ten Bites of a Quesadilla: Transforming Moments through Creative Discipline

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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.

 

7 Ways to Deal With a Toddler’s Tantrum

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I have a new post up at mom.me.  It begins like this:

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I recently wrote about why we should be grateful when our little ones throw a tantrum. But aside from understanding that a tantrum is normal and even healthy, what else can we do when we’re actually in this kind of high-stress moment with our kids? I don’t believe parents should ignore a tantrum. When children are truly out of control, that’s when they need us the most. We still need to set clear boundaries, but our response should always be full of love, respect and patience.

Here are seven suggestions for dealing with a toddler’s tantrum:

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View the whole gallery here.

8 Reasons to Be Grateful for Tantrums

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Here’s a new post on Mom.me.  It begins like this:

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Grateful?  Really?

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 . . .

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Click here to check out the whole piece.

My Appearance on “The Circle” morning talk-show in Australia

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My Appearance on “Conversations with Richard Fidler”

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Yesterday I spent a fun hour with the delightful Richard Fidler on ABC Radio in Australia.

You can listen to it here.

 

 

Why We Should NOT Ignore a Tantrum — or — Where NPR’s Health Blog Missed the Boat

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Several people have asked me recently about Shankar Vendantam’s post on NPR’s Health Blog, where he writes about a subject I’ve discussed a good bit:  tantrums.  In Vendantam’s article, he discusses a recent study that appeared in the journal Emotion, where scientists examined different toddler sounds that typify a tantrum.

I find the whole study – which analyzes the patterns of sound and action that usually accompany a tantrum – absolutely fascinating.  And I’m grateful to any scientists (in this case Michael Potegal and James A. Green) who offer us new information that can help us better understand our children so we can be more loving and nurturing as we interact with them.  I also want to mention Vendantam’s book The Hidden Brain.  I haven’t read it yet, but it’s on my “get to” list, since I understand that it raises some really interesting questions regarding how much our brain drives who we are, even without our awareness.

Having said all that, a couple of objections kept nagging at me when I read Vendantam’s blog post about Green and Potegal’s science explaining “what’s behind a temper tantrum.”  Specifically, I kept wanting to hear less about how parents can “get a tantrum to end as soon as possible” (though I totally understand this desire and have felt this way during many of my own children’s tantrums), and more about how parents can be emotionally responsive and present when their kids are upset.

In other words, I wanted a tantrum to be presented not only as an unpleasant experience that parents can learn to manage for their own benefit, but instead as another opportunity to make a child feel Continue Reading »

Surfing the Waves of an Emotional Tsunami: When Your Kid’s Upset, Connect and Redirect

[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.]

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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 »

Upstairs and Downstairs Tantrums

Summary Bullets:

  • A child’s tantrum may originate in the upstairs brain, meaning the child is in control and is using the moment to intentionally achieve a desired end.  In moments like these, parents should respond with love, but set clear boundaries and avoid rewarding manipulative behavior.
  • If, however, the tantrum originates in the more primal downstairs brain, and the child is truly out of control, then the parents’ response should be less about setting boundaries, and more about nurturing the child and guiding him back into a state of calm and control.

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 »

I Like to Move It Move It! (revised)

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We tend to think that our emotions reside in our brain.  And they do, but they also can begin with our bodies.  In fact, by the time you realize that you’re anxious, your body has already known for a while—your shoulders are tight, your jaw is clenched, your stomach might be churning.  By the same token, you can make yourself feel more calm and peaceful, just by focusing on your body.

Try it right now.  Wherever you are, pay attention to your body for the next few seconds.  Take a deep breath, then slowly let it out.  As you do, relax your shoulders.  Do you feel that?  Do you feel some of the tension in your body begin to dissipate?  Do it one more time.  Deep breath, relaxed shoulders.  Do you see how you can feel more calm and serene just by adjusting what your body’s doing?

The reason is that our emotions are intensely connected to the sensations of the body.  Because the nervous system runs throughout the body and is part of the brain, what our body does significantly impacts our brain, including the way we experience our emotions.

This is great news, because it’s just one more example of how we can intentionally influence, to a fairly significant extent, how we experience the world.  We can’t always choose how we feel, but in important ways, we really can influence our own emotions. You might have heard about experiments where Continue Reading »

Do You Discipline on Auto-Pilot? (revised)

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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 »

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Ten Bites of a Quesadilla: Transforming Moments through Creative Discipline

Helping Kids Deal with Anxiety about School–Part 1

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