I’m guessing that most of us were raised with a voice barking from behind us, “Don’t grab! Don’t hit! That’s not nice, be kind. Do you think that was a kind thing to do? Would you like it if someone did that to you? Get over here now!”
The grownups who tried to help us in that way felt compelled. They thought, “How else is my child going to learn if I don’t teach them right from wrong? I want my child to get along with other kids and I need to correct them! What if they become disrespectful, out-of-control, spoiled children who nobody wants to be around?”
They had our best interests at heart. But not the best tools to work with. Their idea of a “lesson” didn’t have the desired effect at all.
What was intended as guidance landed on us with a thud.
Do you remember that sinking feeling from your own childhood, when your parents reprimanded you in front of others? The heat of shame melted over your face and sank down into your tummy. Your head bowed down with embarrassment and you wanted to run and hide. Or, in an effort not to crumple, perhaps you acted out again, pushing away how badly it felt to face such disapproval.
Even when we parents have made a conscious decision not to be harsh with our children, reprimands roll all too easily out of our mouths. When their behavior triggers feelings for us, those feelings make us forget that our children are good. That they are built to get along with others, have fun, try new things, and laugh with their friends. We forget that on most days, they’ll also have moments when they can’t act in concert with the best in their nature, just like we do.
Why Brains are like Trains
Here’s a way of thinking about what happens for our children, and for us, too. A train needs to stay on its track to get efficiently from one destination to another. If the train gets derailed, it can’t run until it’s put back on its track.
The train and the track are a system, a system that requires a smooth connection in order to work at all—no train-to-track connection means there’ll be no transportation at all.
A child’s brain is no different; it runs as a complex system.
Your child’s ability to use his best judgment depends on a working relationship between the brain stem, the limbic system, and the prefrontal cortex. When he can think, he knows how to treat others well. He feels connected, relaxed, and he makes reasonably good choices. But when your child’s limbic system—the social-emotional center of his mind—becomes flooded with emotion, his ability to control his impulses and to make informed choices blinks out. His behavior goes off track, and he doesn’t feel connected with anyone.
No amount of lecturing, explaining, or reasoning you do while he is in this state will help him access his better judgment. He hit, he kicked, not because he’s ignorant or insensitive, but because his mind was overrun by feelings.
Do you remember those cartoons of the Mom lecturing her child, where the caption reads, “Blah, blah, blah,” and that’s all the child hears? It's like that.
Nothing gets through, because his feelings are roiling. To recover access to his knowledge of how to relate well to others, your child’s limbic system needs to be in touch with you, to have what Dr. Dan Siegel calls a “felt sense of you” active in his mind. That sense of connection with you allows his judgment to switch back on. Your child can be generous toward others as long as he feels safe and connected to you or another caring adult. You modeling this generosity, not with words, but with your whole self, is the quickest and most powerful remedy!
Try bringing the limit, with few words and the intention to listen
So instead of reprimanding your child when he can’t think, bring the limit he needs. But don’t say much about it.
A hand on your child’s tummy, and a nudge, with “Come away from Jackie a bit. I can’t let you hurt him,” or, “I’m going to put my hand on the ball. I can’t let you grab it away from Samantha,” is plenty.
Don’t grab, don’t jerk, don’t pick a child up and stomp away.
Bring the limit confidently, to stop the offensive behavior, but do this with as little fanfare as you can. With it, bring your sweet touch and love. This is you, teaching a lesson by doing. You treat your child as though he’s good. You bring the limit that keeps him from doing a thoughtless thing.
You can find out a simple three-step way to set calm limits from Hand in Hand instructors.
If he can’t act on the feelings running under the surface in his mind, he’ll have to feel the feelings. And he’ll laugh, or cry, or have a vigorous tantrum. And this is the path to a better day.
The quieter you can be on your end, the better your child will be at shedding the tension that has grabbed onto his mind. Staylisten while he protests and lets the trapped feelings spill out at last. The lesson is, “I have faith in your goodness. I know that when you’ve gotten rid of these icky feelings, you’ll be back to your smart and cooperative self.
For a disconnected child, you offer connection.
For an off-track child, you bring the needed limit, assuming that your limit speaks volumes.
Then, you listen to your child’s big, bad feelings, so your child’s mind can return to its learning state.
You can be confident that your example, day in and day out, shows your child all they will ever need to know about generosity, thoughtfulness, caring, and sharing. When you don’t feel generous or confident, find some listening time for yourself, so you can regain your sense of connection with your child and the others you cherish.
Let’s shelve this idea that we need to teach children how to behave and let’s connect instead. Keep the bar raised high, our children deserve it and we deserve to feel good about the love and the limits we bring to them!
Here’s how it can work:
It’s every parent’s worst moment: your child hits another kid! My 4 ½-year-old son had some problems with aggression. He would hit and kick, but only with me. It started when he was three, but he’s a different child now with the help of Hand in Hand Parenting and Listening Tools.
So I was surprised when I picked up my son from preschool and the teacher told me that he had a hard day. He had fallen and scraped his leg, and really wanted to call me. There wasn’t a teacher available to help him do that. I was told that my son then threw a brush at the teacher. I was sad to hear that happened, but I knew it was coming from his fear and disconnectedness.
We’d previously made a plan to have one of his friends over after school. I wondered whether this was going to be a good idea. I could tell my son was tired and needing to reconnect with me. I checked in with him, and he really wanted his friend to come over. We had little time to be together before his friend arrived.
The boys were off and running, having a good time. Little problems with sharing and hearing each other’s limits cropped up. I stayed close by—I knew the situation was likely to be challenging for my son. When they started to jump on the bed, the other boy bumped into my little guy, and my son raised his arm to hit. I was right there. I was able to move in quickly and stop another hurt from happening. I held my son’s hand and pulled him in close to me and said, “I won’t let you hit. I’m going to keep you safe.”
My son could then feel the fear that had been rumbling since earlier in the day. He had really big eyes, and he went to swing at me. I was one step ahead of him, and I caught his arm. “I won’t let you do that,” I told him, and he just melted into me. He cried and pushed against me with the top of his head into my tummy. I let him push into my body so he could fight against some resistance. I have found that allowing him to use his body in this way helps him release the fear and pain that’s inside him, causing these misbehaviors. I stayed with him, trying to catch his eyes so he could sense my love for him. I wanted him to know that, even through the hard times, I was still there for him. I held the limit, and gave my love. I wasn’t making him wrong for what just happened, I was offering him my warmth and the safety that he had been wanting since his fall at school.
He cried for about 5 minutes or so. A deep sadness was coming out of him. I held him and listened, letting him know that I loved him.
Then, he held his head up and his friend asked him if he wanted to go play with the cars and he went off running. They had a great rest of the afternoon together. When they left we had a quiet evening and my son went to bed very early. He had a long day and did some hard work. I love it when I can be there for him in those difficult moments to help him get back on track so he can enjoy his day.
The next day after school, I checked in with his teacher to see how my son’s day went. She said that he had a very full and connected day. He started a big chase game and all the kids joined in. He met me with a huge smile and a great big hug! He told me he had something for me, I followed him to his cubby and he presented me with a napkin, as he unwrapped it he said he saved it for me, it’s a cookie from a special snack they had that day. Some of my son’s most favorite things are cookies. I was really touched.
Are you worried that your child is aggressive? Use laughter and play to reach them: 20 Playful Ways To Heal Aggression
Read about how connection helps kids face their fears and emotions
Get your free guide to setting limits