Now we know it is just brain science: children learn (grow, feel safe, thrive) best when they feel connection—or as Alfred Adler and Rudolf Dreikurs taught us, “a sense of belonging and significance”.
Extensive research shows that we cannot influence children in a positive way until we create a connection with them. It is a brain (and heart) thing. Sometimes we need to stop dealing with the misbehavior and first heal the relationship.
When children feel strongly connected to you, they are simply more open to your influence.
Connection creates a sense of safety and openness, while punishment, lecturing, nagging, scolding, blaming, or shaming create fight, flight, or freeze.
I also want to point out that it is a mistake to think that giving children whatever they want is effective. Rescuing, fixing, and over-protecting are not good ways to create a connection. Effective connections are made when both child and adult feel belonging and significance.
One of my favorite examples of “connection before correction” is, “I love you; and the answer is no.”
Staying connected to our children and creating an environment which is conducive to them feeling calm and safe does not mean ‘no boundaries’. Absolutely kids and teens need boundaries. It’s how the world works. We all need to live within certain limits of behavior. What it means is doing what we need to do to maximize their capacity to learn the lessons that matter.
Sometimes there will be a need for consequences, and sometimes there won’t be. We need to be mindful of not putting consequences in place just for the sake of feeling as though we’re doing ‘something’. Sometimes a conversation with us will be more meaningful than anything.
If you’re guilty of jumping to correct undesirable behavior without connecting first, it might be for one or more of the following reasons:
- It’s faster and more efficient to get right to the point
- You believe the other person values your candor
- You’re busy and have more important things to do
- You feel the behavior needs to be corrected immediately
Sometimes these reasons hold. However, when we focus on correcting behavior all the time without investing in the relationship, at some point, the relationship degrades and the correction falls on deaf ears.
Correction through connection. Here’s how it works.
When the brain perceives a threat, the body goes into fight or flight. This happens with all of us. The perception of threat happens quickly and generally out of our awareness. This response is an instinctive one, not a rational one, meaning that it can have little to do with something actually being a threat. It’s about the way the brain perceives what’s happening – and the brain will always perceive yelling, or any response that shames or belittles, as a ‘threat’.
When the body is in fight or flight, the thinking brain (the prefrontal cortex) shuts down. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that can process rational information, think through consequences, learn, or plan a better way to do things next time.
When it’s shut down, there is no way our children can learn anything.
Any idea that yelling or speaking harshly to children will help them learn important lessons, is so misguided. It might be well-intended and it’s misguided. We know this from science and our own experience.
Think about it for a moment. Would you be more likely to learn from someone who is shouting at you, or reminding you of your mistake?
Our children are no different from us.
Yelling, shaming and humiliation will fuel defensiveness more than it fuels the learnings that come from self-reflection. It will take them away from us at a time they need our influence and guidance the most.
For our children to learn, we need the prefrontal cortex switched on – and yelling, or anything that shames or humiliates them will always switch it off. This will happen regardless of how close we are to them.
There’s no doubt you love your children fiercely, entirely, and with everything in you, and that isn’t what this is about. If you are close, this might give you more grace when it comes time to reconnect, but yelling will still shut down their capacity to learn.
The fact that you and your child are close does not mean the brain is less likely to perceive threat. This is driven by instinct.
When shouting or shaming comes from an important adult, it can make the world feel even more unsafe.
The reason for this lies in our wiring. Human babies are born unable to protect themselves from threat. Instead, they are born wired to attach to a bigger, stronger adult who can take on the protective role for them – a parent or caregiver.
As children grow, they will slowly take over the role of protecting themselves, but that parent or primary caregiver will always be an important part of their safe base in the world. When a child is disconnected from a parent or important adult, the world will feel more fragile.
The end game is for us to guide our children and teens through to adulthood in a way that will help them discover the best versions of themselves.
For this to happen, they need the safety of us so they can be open to our influence and wisdom along the way. There are also important lessons they will discover for themselves through self-reflection, mistakes, failure, and we can be instrumental in making this process safe. We risk steering them away from learning from their mistakes if we associate shame and fear so strongly with messing up.
8 Ways to Connect to Your Child
- Spend special time with children. What could create a greater connection for your child than to know you enjoy spending time with him or her.
- Listen. Really listen. Stop doing whatever you are doing and give your child your full attention
- Validate your child’s feelings. Don’t we all feel connected when we feel understood? Acknowledging feelings can help children learn that feelings are always OK, but how we act on those feelings is not always OK. Empathy also helps children feel understood, which again helps them feel calmer and more receptive.
Correction: “You cannot grab things without asking first! Give that toy back to your brother!”
Connecting first by acknowledging feelings: “I can tell that you really want to play with that toy, it’s cool! And, we must ask first. Let’s try again.”
- Share your feelings and thoughts when appropriate. Remember that children will listen to you AFTER they feel listened to. Children feel a connection when you respectfully share something about yourself. Respectfully, means no stories about walking miles in the snow.
- Focus on solutions WITH children after a cooling off period. There is that word “with” again–because it is a golden bridge to connection.
- Ask curiosity questions to help children explore the consequences of their choices instead of imposing consequences on them. Sincere questions open the heart and the rational brain—equaling connection.
- Hugs. There are times when all of us need nothing more than a hug. So simple and effective! Hugs (and any form of physical affection) release oxytocin, a “feel good” neurochemical, into the brain which helps the child calm down and be more receptive.
Correction: “I’ve asked you five times to put away your toys. Do it now!”
Connecting first with a hug: “Oh, come here, buddy (Big Hug). I see toys that need to be put away. Do you need help, or can you handle it alone?
- Say, “I love you.” Start with these three words (spoken in a warm, heartfelt way), and whatever comes next feels softer.
Correction: “No, you cannot have ice cream before dinner, so stop asking!”
Connecting first with I love you: “I love you, and the answer is no.” When delivered with compassion and kindness, the “no” doesn’t feel quite so bad.
When children feel a connection, they feel belonging and significance. Often that is enough for misbehavior to stop.
Once the connection is made, children are then open to respectful correction.
Two great methods for finding solutions are family meetings and joint problem solving. These are powerful tools that respectfully involve children in learning and use their personal power in contributing ways. Connection is created as part of the process.
None of this means we have to get it right all the time. Let’s kick this idea of perfect parenting out the door. Let’s not do that to ourselves and let’s not do that to our children. It’s okay for them to see us modeling the courage to be imperfect.
So, make it a habit to play, laugh, listen, hug, empathize, and share your love with your child in good times and bad. That strong, connected relationship will be the foundation for the future, when your child is a teen or young adult, and you pray that your influence still counts!