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The Brain

Bunks Are Good for Brains: The Neuroscience of Sleepaway Camp

[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.

 

 

Is It Really Just a Phase? Five reasons not to freak out

Your three-year-old won’t sit peacefully at the dinner table.  Your five-year-old won’t join in at parties.  Your nine-year-old is still asking to sleep with the light on 

People tell you, “It’s just a phase.”  But is it?

Yes.  Most likely, it is.  Whether we’re talking about sleep, eating, toilet training, homework meltdowns, or anything else, here are five reasons not to freak out about this particular phase in your child’s life.

 

  1. Your child’s brain and body are changing rapidly.
    So rapidly, in fact, that your little one will be practically a new kid in six months or so.  You’ll be amazed at how many of the things she can’t or won’t do now, she’ll be able to do then.  You’ll also wonder why you worried so much.
  2. Life keeps changing.
    Just when you think you have something figured out and you’re on top of your game, something changes. A tooth comes in. A cold comes on. You move. A sibling is born. Transitions and surprises keep us from ever really being in control.  Even human development isn’t predictable and linear; it’s more of a “two steps up, one step back” kind of thing. That means that even if you were able to figure out the “correct answer” for responding to this particular phase, things would turn upside down as soon as you solved the riddle anyway.
  3. You get lots and lots of opportunities.

Don't let fear rule you and lead you to expect things from your child that he’s not developmentally ready for yet. Just because he’s not falling asleep by himself at four, doesn’t mean he never will.  You will have lots of opportunities to help him develop this skill as he gets older. It's rarely too late to teach lessons or introduce skills, so do it at a time when it works best for you and your child. 

 

  1. Right now is all you have to worry about.

You don’t have to be concerned about what your child will be like at 15, or 20.  You really don’t.  So don’t give in to the temptation to worry that this phase will last forever.  Your daughter won’t be biting her friends when she leaves for college.  She won’t have a hard time sitting at a dinner table.  Think in smaller chunks of time. Think about semesters or seasons. Give your child a few months to work through this phase, and know that as long as you’re there loving her, guiding her and providing a consistent presence in her life, she’ll get through it and learn the skills she needs.

 

  1. The struggles are part of the process.
    Believe it or not, you’ll probably miss this phase at some point down the road. Think about how other phases that seemed unbearable passed rather quickly in retrospect. Dr. Berry Brazelton reminds us that as kids grow up, periods of disorganization often precede organization.  That means that kids often go through difficult phases right before they accomplish something new.  So think of the struggles as little bumps in the road on the path to amazing growth and development.

 

 

My 12-Year-Old Wants to See R-rated Movies. Should I Let Him?

I get asked lots of questions about parenting, and some of them are really hard to answer.

This isn’t one of them. 

I have plenty of friends who are good parents and let their tweens see R-rated films.  And while that does create some conflict in our household when my son doesn’t get to go along when his friends head to the theater, I feel really confident about my position on this issue.

Here are my reasons:

What we know about the brain.

One fundamental, brain-based truth is expressed in the phrase “neurons that fire together, wire together.”   That means that our experiences, which cause neurons to fire in the brain, create associations that impact future experiences and behavior.  This is true for older adolescents and adults as well, of course, but for an 11- or 12-year-old, there’s more danger because they aren’t developmentally prepared to deal with some of the content they’re exposed to in certain movies.  And once children are exposed to something, there’s no taking it back. 

I’m not saying that if preteens see a movie that, for instance, glorifies drug and alcohol abuse, they’ll automatically turn into addicts.  But when they see a lifestyle that looks that fun and exciting, it can be hard not to see it in a positive light.  Neurons have fired and subsequently wired.

Nuances can be lost on young adolescents.

Most tweens are simply not socially and emotionally ready to be exposed to the sophisticated nuances of sexual and relational situations that arise in certain movies.  (Language and even violence actually worry me less, although I know that’s not the case for everyone.)  The issue is that my son, for example, isn’t always going to notice that the racist character making all the jokes is being criticized; or to see that the meaningless sex might lead to some pretty negative consequences for both parties.  Put simply, his still-developing brain just isn’t ready yet to consider issues in a larger context.  In a couple of years, things will be very different, but for now, his brain is what it is.

These are the peak sensation-seeking years.

Researchers at the University of Missouri conducted a study that found that more exposure to sexual content in movies between ages 12 and 14 was linked to an increase in sensation-seeking (or risk-taking) behaviors, which included earlier sex and unprotected sex, among other things.  What’s worse, the increased sensation seeking can last into the early twenties.

Adult sexuality can be impacted now.

There is also research that shows that early sexual exposure impacts sexual preferences in adulthood.  Exposing our kids to sexual situations that are not based on love and respect could create problems later.  If neurons have wired together and linked up the ideas of sex and, say, abuse or mockery, a child may grow up to be guided by those same linkages and expectations.

Saying no has other benefits

Even though it makes things difficult, it’s not a bad thing for my son to see my husband and me decide not to go along with what “everyone else” is doing.  Plus, some of the parents we’ve told that we don’t let our son see R-rated movies might be impacted by positive peer pressure and reconsider their position.

 

Before I close I want to recommend a resource for parents: commonsensemedia.org.  Here you can find detailed information and recommendations about appropriate ages for each movie (or book or video game) you’re considering, and the information is presented in a way that’s full of, as the name implies, common sense.  My husband and I consult this site when making a decision about a movie or game to buy.   

There are plenty of parenting issues I’m not sure about.  But on this one I feel very clear about the need to protect my son a little longer.  When it’s time for him to see more adult-oriented movies, we’ll watch them with him and discuss some of the content, using it as an opportunity to talk about ethics, morality, and how to treat people.  For now he may think we’re the strictest and lamest dorks alive, but we’re doing what’s right for him, and he’ll know it in some future decade.

  

To see the original piece at mom.me, click here.

Playing and Learning: Imaginative games that teach social and emotional skills

When kids play, they learn.  And playing just for the sheer pleasure of it is fantastic.  But at times, you may want to find games that teach lessons as well. 

Here are some games you can play with your children to teach them social and emotional skills.

What would you do if . . . 

This is a game where parents present hypothetical, age-appropriate situations that ask kids to consider how they might deal with difficult situations they face.  For young kids you might ask whether it’s ever OK to lie.  For a school-age child, you might say, “If you saw someone being bullied in the lunch room, and there were no adults around, what would you do?”  Questions like these can be interesting to children and help develop their moral and ethical sensibility.

  1. Role-play

    Switch roles with your child.  You be your child, and let her be you.  Mutual empathy can go through the roof when we simply see things through the eyes of another person.  Yes, I said mutual empathy.  It’s never bad for a parent to walk a mile (or even a few steps) in the shoes of her kids.

    Trust fall

    This classic youth-group game lets you emphasize the point that you’ll always be there for your child.  Have her face away from you and fall backwards with her eyes closed, believing that you’ll catch her.  Then talk (briefly) about what it means to really trust someone.

    Expectation challenge

    You can raise some interesting questions by complicating the normal rules  of pretend play.  For instance, if you’re the super-villain being chased by your child, the hero, you might fall down and pretend to have sprained your ankle.  Your child must then consider whether and how to help someone, even if that person is the bad guy.

    Why was that cashier rude?

    When someone has been less than polite, play the “What caused that?” game.  Simply asking the question can begin to create empathy, since the answers could range from “Maybe her mom never taught her to be polite” to “I wonder if something bad happened to one of her kids.”

    Sardines

    In this variation on “Hide and Seek,” one person hides and the rest of the group tries to find him.  As each subsequent person finds the hider, that person squeezes into the hiding place.  Teamwork and cooperation are necessary to succeed.

    Amoeba

    Another “Hide and Seek” spinoff that requires people to work together.  In this case, the seeker searches for the hiders, and when each person is found, she joins with the seeker to find the other hiders.  With each subsequent “find,” the amoeba grows.

    Show me what it looks like when you feel...

    Ask your the child to act out different emotions, showing what feelings look like on our face and body.  This can create an emotional vocabulary and also develop more self-awareness.

    Guess how I’m feeling

    This is a twist on the previous game.  Here you act out a feeling and have your child guess your emotion.  Again, empathy and emotional intelligence are the goals here. 

    Telephone

    
Remember this one?  Have the whole group sit in a circle, and pass along a message from one person to the next.  Depending on the size of the group, you might want to go around twice.  It can be hilarious to see how much the message changes as it’s passed from one person to the next.  Use this as an opportunity to talk about the importance of communication and really listening.

 

 View this piece (as a gallery with photos) at mom.me.

Should I Use a Leash on My Child?

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.

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Click here to read the rest of the article.

 

 

Ten Bites of a Quesadilla: Transforming Moments through Creative Discipline

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 lofty 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.

Five Reasons I’m Not a Fan of Time Outs

More and more, I find myself questioning time outs as an effective discipline strategy.  I’ve written some about this already, but now I’d like to go into my reasons in a bit more depth. I know lots of loving parents who use time outs as their primary discipline technique.  I’m not saying that time outs are completely unhelpful; more that I don’t think they’re the best alternative we have when it comes to discipline—the goal of which, remember, is to teach.

 

Reasons I’m Not a Fan of Time-Outs:

#1.  What we know about the brain. 

Because I know that brain connections are formed from repeated experiences, I don’t want my kids’ repeated experience to be isolation, which they may view as rejection, when they’ve made a mistake.

What I DO want them to repeatedly experience is doing things the right way.  So, instead of a time out, I’ll often ask my kids to practice good behavior.  If they’re being disrespectful in their tone and communication, I might ask them to try it again and say it respectfully.  If they’ve been mean to their brother, I might ask them to find three kind things to do for him before bedtime.  That way, the repeated experience of positive behavior is getting wired in their brain.

 

#2.  False advertising and missed opportunities. 

What’s the point or the goal for a time out?  It’s supposed to be for a child to calm down and reflect on his or her behavior.  In my experience, time outs frequently just make children more angry .  And how often do you think kids use their time out to reflect on their behavior?  I’ve got news for you:  The main thing they’re reflecting on is how mean parents are.

When they’re reflecting on their horrible luck to have such a mean, unfair parent, they’re missing out on an opportunity to have experiences of building insight, empathy, and problem-solving.  Putting them in time out misses a chance for them to practice being active decision-makers who are empowered to figure things out.  We want to give them practice at being problem-solvers, and at making good choices.  You can do your kids a lot of good by simply asking, “What are you going to do to make it better and solve this problem?”  Given the chance once they’re calm, they’ll usually do the right thing, and learn in the process.

 

#3.  Time outs often aren’t linked to the misbehavior.

Usually, we want to choose consequences that are directly and logically connected to the misbehavior.  Using a broom to whack the TV means the broom is put away until the child can make appropriate choices with it again.  Riding a bike without a helmet means no riding for a few days.

Time outs, though, often don’t relate in any clear way to a child’s bad decision or out-of-control reaction.  As a result, they’re often not as effective in terms of changing behavior.

 

#4.  Time outs are too often used as punishment, as opposed to a teaching tool.

Even when parents have good intentions, time outs are often used inappropriately.  The idea behind time outs is to give kids a chance to calm down and pull themselves together.  Then they can move from their internal chaos into calm.

But much of the time, parents use time outs punitively.  The goal isn’t to help the child return to her calm baseline, but to punish her for some misbehavior.  The calming, teaching aspect of the consequence gets totally lost.

 

#5.  Kids need connection. 

Often, misbehavior is a result of a child inappropriately expressing a need or a big feeling.  She may be hungry or tired, or maybe there’s some other reason she’s incapable in that moment of controlling herself and making a good decision.

Like, maybe she’s three, and her brain isn’t sophisticated enough to say, “Mother dear, I’m feeling frustrated that we’re out of my favorite juice, and I’d like to respectfully request that you put it on your grocery list.”  So instead, doing her best to express her crushing disappointment, she begins throwing toys at you.

It’s during these times that she most needs our comfort and calm presence.  Forcing her to go off and sit by herself can feel like abandonment to the child, especially if she’s feeling out of control already.  It may even send the subtle message that when she isn’t perfect, you don’t want to be near her.

 

Again, if done appropriately with loving connection, such as sitting with the child and talking or comforting – often called a “time-in” – some time to calm down can be helpful for children.  But there are often more nurturing and effective ways to respond to kids than to give them a time out.

 

If I Could Tell You Only One Thing about Discipline

Discipline is a complex and complicated subject.  I could write a whole book about it.  In fact, I’ve already started working on one. But when we talk about effective discipline and how parents can achieve the results they want when they interact with their kids, it can actually be it pretty simple.  If it were a math formula, it would look like this:

 

WARMTH  +  AUTHORITY  =  EFFECTIVE DISCIPLINE

 

The research is really clear on this point.  Kids who achieve the best outcomes in life – emotionally, educationally, and relationally – have parents who raise them with a high degree of warmth and nurturing, or what I like to call emotional responsiveness, as well as a high degree of authority, where clear boundaries are communicated and enforced.  Their parents remain firm and consistent in their boundaries, while still interacting with them in a way that communicates love, respect, and compassion.  Warmth and authority are the two sides of the effective-discipline coin.

 

The first side of the discipline coin:  Warmth

When we nurture our children and attune to their internal world, we allow them to know and believe that they are seen, heard, loved, and approved of by their parents.  Then they’ll interact with the world around them based on that belief, so that their brains are wired to expect that their needs will be met in intimate relationships.  On the other hand, if a parent repeatedly shames and criticizes his or her child, then the child learns that relationships are based on power and control.  He will store up all kinds of negative emotions that will be expressed either externally through bullying and aggression, or internally through depression or anxiety, but either way he’ll be forced to seek bigger and bigger ways to get his needs met.  His brain won’t develop in ways that make it easy to problem-solve and reflect on his experiences; instead, he’ll most likely live his life reacting.  He’ll operate from a primitive reactive brain, instead of a thoughtful proactive brain.

It’s absolutely vital that parents nurture their children and do all that they can to offer them love, compassion, and understanding by consistently meeting their needs, even when the kids are difficult and act out with “bad” behavior.

 

The second side of the discipline coin:  Authority

It’s just as vital, though, that parents remain the authority in their relationship with their children.  Kids need boundaries so they can understand the way the world works, and what’s permissible, versus what crosses a line.  A clear understanding of rules and boundaries helps them achieve success in relationships and other areas of their lives.  Our children need repeated experiences that allow them to develop wiring in their brain that helps them delay gratification, flexibly deal with not getting things their way, and contain urges to react aggressively toward others..  By saying “no” and drawing boundaries for our children, we’ll help them know that rules exist that offer safety and predictability in an otherwise chaotic world.

 

Discipline as a Two-Step Process

Emotional responsiveness plus authority.  They go hand in hand, and when we discipline, we need to communicate both to our children.  You can think of it as a two-step process that can happen in either order.   You provide boundaries in a matter-of-fact tone:  “You know the rule about wearing your helmet, and I’m sorry, but you broke that rule, so now the skateboard can’t be ridden for the rest of the week.”  And, you offer empathy regarding the emotional effect of the consequences:  “I know that my taking your skateboard away makes you really sad.”  You can even combine the two steps with a statement like, “I’m letting you face your consequence because I love you, and it’s my job to teach you about being safe and how to be a responsible person.”

We want our kids to learn that relationships are about respect, nurturing, warmth, consideration, cooperation, and respecting other people.  When we interact with them from a perspective of both warmth and authority – in other words, when we repeatedly pay attention to their internal world, while also holding to standards about their behavior – these are the lessons they’ll learn.

I’ll close by emphasizing the point that was a bit of a revelation to me when I first understood it in relation to my parenting:  It really is possible to be calm and loving, and to connect with our children emotionally, while disciplining them and setting clear boundaries.  I don’t always do it, and neither will you.  But it’s important, and it’s healthy and helpful for everyone involved, when we combine clear and consistent consequences with loving empathy.

 

 

 

 

Common Discipline Mistakes Even the Best Parents Make: Part 1

Because we’re always parenting our children, it takes real effort to look at our discipline strategies objectively. Good intentions can become less-than-effective habits quickly, and that can leave us operating blindly, disciplining in ways we might not if we thought much about it. Here are some parenting mistakes made by even the best-intentioned, most well-informed parents, along with practical suggestions that might come in handy the next time you find yourself in one of these situations. Common Discipline Mistake #1: We lay down the law in an emotional moment, then realize we’ve overreacted.

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

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. A couple of objections kept nagging at me when I read Vendantam’s 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 safe and loved, which would offer the added benefit that she’ll learn to better express her feelings, and reign those emotions in more quickly and appropriately in the future.

A Different Take on Spoiling

The other day a reporter asked me to respond to a few questions about spoiling, and what it means for our kids. With the holidays coming up, this seems like a pretty timely subject. Here’s how I answered the reporter’s questions about what spoiling is, and just as importantly, what it’s not. WHAT IS SPOILING? DOES IT HAVE TO DO WITH MONEY SPENT? TIME? NEVER SAYING NO? ALL OF THE ABOVE?

Let’s start with what spoiling is not: Spoiling is NOT about how much love and time and attention you give your kids. You can’t spoil your children by giving them too much of yourself. In the same way, you can’t spoil a baby by holding her too much or responding to her needs each time she expresses them.

SO HOW DO WE SPOIL OUR KIDS?

The Whole-Brain Child: The Opening Pages

The moments you are just trying to survive are actually opportunities to help your child thrive. At times you may feel that the loving, important moments (like having a meaningful conversation about compassion or character) are separate from the parenting challenges (like fighting another homework battle or dealing with another melt-down.) But they are not separate at all. When your child is disrespectful and talks back to you; when you are asked to come in for a meeting with the principal; when you find crayon scribbles all over your wall: these are survival moments, no question about it. But at the same time, they are opportunities—even gifts—because a “Survive Moment” is also a “Thrive Moment,” where the important, meaningful work of parenting takes place.

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

Logic will do no good in a case like this until a child's right brain is responded to. 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.

Increase the Family Fun Factor: Making a Point to Enjoy One Another

Do you ever feel like you’re spending most of your time disciplining your kids and carting them from one activity to the next, and not enough time just enjoying being with them? If you do, you’re not alone; most of us feel this from time to time. Sometimes it’s easy to forget to just have fun as a family. Yet we are hardwired for play and exploration as well as for joining with one another. In fact, “playful parenting” is one of the best ways to prepare your children for relationships and encourage them to connect with others. That’s because it gives them positive experiences being with the people they spend the most time with: their parents. Of course children need structure and boundaries and to be held accountable for their behavior, but even as you maintain your authority, don’t forget to have fun with your kids. Play games. Tell jokes. Be silly. Take an interest in what they care about. The more they enjoy the time they spend with you and the rest of the family, the more they’ll value relationships and desire more positive and healthy relational experiences in the future.

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 highly sophisticated, controlling some of your most important higher-order and analytical thinking.  Because of its sophistication and complexity, it is responsible for producing many of the characteristics we hope to see in our kids:

  • Sound decision-making and planning
  • Control over emotions and body
  • Self-understanding
  • Empathy
  • Morality

In other words, a child whose upstairs brain is properly functioning will demonstrate some of the most important characteristics of a mature and healthy human being.

Two Different Tantrums

What does all this have to do with tantrums?  Well, when your child begins to throw a fit of some sort, one of the first questions you should ask yourself is whether it’s an upstairs tantrum or a downstairs tantrum.

An upstairs tantrum originates in the upstairs brain, and this is the strategic tantrum.  Here the child is control of himself and is willfully and manipulatively acting upset to achieve a desired end:  to get a toy he wants, to stay at the park longer, whatever.  He is purposefully employing tactics to get things his way.

When you see an upstairs tantrum, in the words of Tina Fey, “Shut it down!”  Do not give in.  Your child is in control of himself and is trying to make your life so unpleasant at this moment that you choose to do something other than what you’ve already decided is best.  Never negotiate with a terrorist.  You should still be nurturing and respectful to your child, but your primary response should be to set and maintain a boundary.

If, however, you determine that your child is undergoing a downstairs tantrum, your response should be much more nurturing and sympathetic.  If he’s so upset that he’s legitimately and honestly out of control, then he needs you in this moment.  When you determine that he’s unable to regulate his emotions and actions, then it’s unjust to punish him or try to discipline him.  If you ignore him when he’s in this emotional distress state, it’s like ignoring him when he’s physically in distress.

If his downstairs brain has taken over, he can’t remain calm and make good decisions, no matter how much you demand that he do so.  Even if you give him what he wants, he’ll continue to lose his mind.  In that instant, your job is to use a soothing voice and nonverbals (like touch and empathetic facial expressions) to help bring him back from the emotional precipice so he can regain control of himself.  Then, once he’s calm, you can talk to him about making good choices, and you can handle whatever disciplinary issues you need to address once he’s recovered and it’s actually a teachable moment.  While you’re still going to maintain boundaries, your main emphasis in these moments is comfort.

 

The Point:  Remain Flexible, Providing Both Boundaries and Nurturing

The point here is not to get rigidly locked into one response for every tantrum.  Instead, do what’s most loving.  I know, I know.  People always say that the proper way to address a tantrum is to ignore it.  But if it’s an upstairs tantrum, you should directly address the inappropriate way your child is communicating, and if it’s a downstairs tantrum, he may need you to help him calm down and pull it together.  You’ll need to employ boundaries and nurturing in both cases, but if your child is still in control, emphasize boundaries; and if he’s lost control, emphasize comfort.  Even though it can be challenging, try to look beyond how difficult your child is making things for you in this moment, and provide him with what he most needs right now—clear communication about where the boundaries are, and lots and lots of love.

When a Parenting Expert Loses It: How NOT to Discipline a Preschooler

Here are some things parents say to me about their discipline frustrations:

--I feel like I just put my daughter in time out all the time and don’t know what else to do when she’s misbehaving.

--I don’t feel like I have an overall theory of discipline.  It’s more that I just do whatever comes out at the time.  Sometimes my reaction or instinct is really good, and other times I’m being just as immature or reactive as my toddler.  I just feel like I need to give more thought to it and have a plan.

--I feel disempowered.  I think I’ve been told a list of things that I should NOT do –spank, yell, etc. – but I don’t know what I CAN do, other than just take a toy away.  So I find myself making empty or meaningless threats ("Do that again and you’re going to be in BIG trouble!") and then I’m just so frustrated.  I don’t know what to do in the moment.

Do these parents’ comments resonate with you?  I can certainly identify.  I remember how clueless I felt as a new parent, and even though the stories often end up being funny in retrospect, I’m embarrassed at how I responded at times when my kids acted out.

 

The Parenting Expert Gets Taken Down by Her Own Reactive Brain

One day my three-year-old got mad and hit me.  I guided him to his time-out spot at the bottom of our stairway, sat next to him, and smiled.  I lovingly (and naively) said, “Hands are for helping and loving, not for hurting.”

While I was uttering this truism, he hit me again.

So I tried the empathy approach:  “Ouch!  That hurts mommy.  You don’t want to hurt me, do you?”

At which point he hit me again.

I then tried the firm approach: “Hitting is not OK.  Don’t hit any more.  If you’re mad you need to use your words.”

Yup, you guessed it.  He hit me again.

I was lost.  I felt I needed to up the ante.  In my most powerful voice I said, “Now you’re in time out at the top of the stairs.”

I marched him up to the top of our stairs.  He was probably thinking, “Cool!  We’ve never done this before. . . I wonder what will happen next if I keep hitting her?”

At the top of the stairs, I bent over at the waist, my pointer finger wagging, and said, “NO MORE HITTING!”

He didn’t hit me again.

He kicked me in the shin.

(As he points out these days when we re-tell the story, he was technically obeying my no-hitting instructions.)

At this moment virtually all of my self-control was gone.  I grabbed his arm and pulled him into my room at the top of the stairs, yelling, “Now you’re in time out in Mommy and Daddy’s room!”

Again, I had no strategy, no plan or approach.  And as a result, my young son was simply enjoying wielding his power as his increasingly red-faced mother yanked him from location to location in the house.

By this point I was alternately cajoling and scolding and commanding and reasoning (waaaay too much talking): “You may not hurt mommy.  Hitting and kicking is not how we do things in our family. . . Blah blah blah. . . .”

And that’s when he made his big mistake.  He stuck out his tongue at me.

In response, the rational, empathetic, responsible, problem-solving part of my brain was hijacked by my primitive, reactive brain, and I yelled, “IF YOU STICK THAT TONGUE OUT ONE MORE TIME, I’M GOING TO RIP IT OUT OF YOUR MOUTH!”

In case you're wondering, I don’t recommend in any circumstance threatening to remove any of your child’s body parts.  This was not good parenting.

And it wasn’t effective discipline, either.  My son dropped to the ground, crying.  I’d scared him, and he kept saying, “You’re a mean mommy!”  He wasn’t thinking about his own behavior at all—he was solely focused on my misbehavior.

What I did next was probably the only thing I did right in the whole interaction, and it’s essential each time we have these types of ruptures in our relationship with our children:  I repaired with him.  I immediately realized how awful I’d been in that reactive, angry moment.  If anyone else had treated my child as I just had, I would’ve come unglued.  I held my young son close and told him how sorry I was and allowed him to talk about how much he didn’t like what had just happened.  We retold the story to make sense of it for him and I comforted him.

 

How Would I Handle This Situation Now?

I usually get big laughs when I tell this story because parents so identify with this type of a moment, and I think they enjoy hearing that a parenting expert has these moments, too.  Virtually every time I tell the story, someone raises a hand and asks, “What would you do now?  How would you handle this situation differently?”

For several reasons, I’m not a fan of time-outs anymore, especially for a child this young.  Instead, once my son had hit me the first time, I would have used a simple, four-step approach.

  1. Address the feelings behind the behavior:  “Wow, I can see that you’re feeling really frustrated.  Do you feel mad?”
  2. Address the behavior: “Hitting hurts.  No hitting.”
  3. Give him alternatives.  Tell him what he can do instead:  “Be gentle with mommy’s body.  It’s OK to be mad, but when you are, you can tell me about it, or even hit the pillow, like this.”
  4. Move on:  “Hey!  Let’s go outside and see if there are any worms on the sidewalk.”

Some people may wonder about consequences for my son’s actions.  For an older child, you might choose to make consequences a part of the discipline process.  But as I always say, the purpose of discipline is to teach, not to give consequences.  If consequences help teach, then it might be appropriate to use them.  But I believe that for a child this age, the most effective approach is to address his feelings and the behavior, tell him about a more appropriate response, then move on to other things.

I’m guessing you’d agree that this four-step approach might be even more effective and loving than threatening to remove a body part.

 


To Sticker or Not to Sticker

One question I get asked from time to time is how I feel about using rewards and incentives to motivate kids to do what we want them to do.  You know the drill:  You set up a system where, for every day your daughter practices her piano, she gets a sticker, and once she earns a certain number of stickers, she gets a special treat or privilege. When I ask parents why they feel reluctant about using an incentive system like this, they usually name one or more of these reasons:

  • “Rewards are externally based, and I want my kids to choose to do the right thing because they’re internally motivated.”
  • “I’m afraid my children will become addicted to getting rewarded for every little thing.”
  • “I don’t want to reinforce materialism by giving my kids more things.”
  • “Why should I reward them for doing what they should be doing anyway?”
  • “They’ll expect to receive external rewards or everything they ever accomplish in life.  I’ll have to give them a reward for doing whatever it is forever!”

I understand these fears, and I applaud parents for being so intentional about what they’re conditioning their kids to expect.  But I’m actually a proponent of using rewards with kids at times for certain things.  Here’s why:

If you wait for intrinsic motivation, you may be waiting a long time.  After all, how many five-year-olds do you know who feel internally compelled to consistently pick up their dirty clothes, or brush their teeth twice a day?

Reward systems don’t have to stay in place forever.  Remember when you were potty training your child, and you offered him a sticker, or a piece of candy, every time he used the toilet?  Well, now that he’s a few years older, do you still have to coax him into the bathroom, talk him through the whole experience, then clap like a maniac while handing out an M&M every time he has to go?  Of course not.  What we reward can become habit, which means that it no longer requires external incentives.  Instead, it’s been internalized, so rewards are no longer necessary.

Rewards don’t have to be things.   Some of the best rewards are privileges that are good relationship-builders as well.  Some rewards I’ve used effectively are an extra story at bedtime, a family movie night, getting to go on a walk after dinner, getting special time playing a game with mom or dad, a water balloon fight, and getting to choose what we have for dinner.  Be creative!

You’re reinforcing good habits.  When humans experience a reward – either internal or external – for our behavior, we get this little squirt of a chemical called dopamine in our brain.  It’s a neurotransmitter that makes us want more; it’s pleasurable, so our brain says “Do that again!”  Scientists who study addiction point to these dopamine surges as factors that lead people to maintain a certain habit or addiction, even when they know it’s bad for them.  But we can also help produce dopamine squirts that reinforce positive and healthy behaviors—like practicing the piano, or doing something nice for a sibling.  The studies on neural plasticity (or how the brain changes) show that mass practice wires the connections in the brain, so if we give kids an external motivation for doing something, we’re encouraging mass practice of the desirable behavior.  So, whether we provide a kind word or a star on a chart, and our child feels delighted, we reinforce that that particular behavior is worth doing again.  Basically, you’re shaping your child’s behavior and laying the groundwork for more positive results in the future.

Again, I understand why some parents have misgivings about rewarding their kids. I’m especially sympathetic to the concern about kids receiving compensation for doing something they’re already supposed to do.  But to a large extent, I believe that the drawbacks are outweighed by the benefits of shaping our kids’ behavior in ways that will help them create good habits and intrinsic motivation in the coming years, and even into adulthood.