Wired to Connect - Discipline Shouldn't Hurt

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Across many studies of mammals, from the smallest rodents all the way to us humans, the data suggests that we are profoundly shaped by our social environment and that we suffer greatly when our social bonds are threatened or severed.  When this happens in childhood it can lead to long-term health and educational problems.  We may not like the fact that we are wired such that our well-being depends on our connections with others, but the facts are the facts. - Matthew Lieberman, neuroscientist and author of Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect [1]

Are we being too soft on our kids? I hear that a lot - that parents are "too soft." The idea that we are supposed to be hard on children and that anything less is poor parenting is disturbing and harmful.

We understand about the human brain, connection, attachment, and the value of relationship much more now than ever. We know that the relationship we have with our children affects their development, literally wiring their brains.

Let's go to a little neuroscience 101, because it's important to understand a little bit about how the brain works in order to understand why child discipline needs to change.

I'm no doctor or neuroscientist, so I'm going to directly quote one here. This is from Amy Banks, M.D., director of Advanced Training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at the Wellesley Centers for Women; instructor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School; and author of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Relationships and Brain Chemistry.
Neuroscience is confirming that our nervous systems want us to connect with other human beings. A good example of this is mirror neurons, which are located throughout the brain and help us read other people's feelings and actions. They may be the neurological underpinnings of empathy - when two people are in conversation they are stimulating each other's mirror neuron system. Not only will this lead to movement in similar muscles of the face (so the expressions are similar) but it also allows each to feel what the other is feeling. This is an automatic, moment to moment resonance that connects us. There have been studies that look at emotions in human beings such as disgust, shame, happiness, where the exact same areas of the brain light up in the listener who is reading the feelings of the person talking. We are, literally, hardwired to connect. [2]

This is really interesting in the context of the parent-child relationship when we look at mirror neurons. Think about what happens with those mirror neurons when you scowl, slap, smack, or yell at your child. As their brain searches to read your feelings and actions, it begins to light up in those same areas - irritation, anger, aggression, and frustration.  However, what lights up in their brains when you approach them with softness, gentleness, and empathy?

The distress of social pain is biologically identical to the distress of physical pain. What causes social pain in the context of the parent-child relationship? Rejection. Isolation. Dr. Banks explains:

I believe that one of the seminal studies that supports a relational neurobiology is something called SPOT (Social Pain Overlap Theory.) A group of researchers at UCLA, looked at the overlap between social pain and physical pain. They designed a benign computerized experiment that gradually excluded people from a multi-player game. What they found was the area that lit up in the brain for that kind of social rejection—the anterior cingulate—was the exact same area that lights up for the distress of physical pain. So the distress of social pain is biologically identical to the distress of physical pain. Most people in our culture understand that physical pain is a major stressor, but we often reject the idea of social pain. [2]

When asked if this can impact a person's physical health as well, Dr. Banks says:

Yes, being pushed out of social relationships and into isolation has health ramifications. In fact, there was a book done by health advocate Dr. Dean Ornish, called Love and Survival. There has been study after study done on the positive impact of loving relationships. What he had said at the time in that book was that if we had a drug that did for our health what love does, it would far outsell anything that has ever been made. The efficacy is that potent. But we downplay the importance of love and connection in a culture based on the success of “the rugged individual.” People in our culture need to understand that healthy connection can reduce pain on all levels. [2]
Yes, we are a culture that downplays love and connection and holds tough discipline in high esteemWe train our children by use of pain; either physical pain or social pain. Which is really quite a paradox as children don't learn well through pain. The fear created by being hit or feeling the threat of disconnection from a primary attachment figure triggers the fight or flight response. By it's very nature, this bypasses the rational mind and puts people in attack mode, thereby inhibiting learning.

Why are we having such difficulty in letting go of tough discipline? There's a scientific answer for that as well. The idea that pain or discomfort should accompany lessons is still deeply rooted in our culture, and though the tides are slowly turning as the evidence against it continues to pile in, the use of physical or social pain is still the main method of disciplining children. Dr. Michael Shermer says this:

We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations... Once beliefs are formed the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, which adds an emotional boost of further confidence in the beliefs and thereby accelerates the process of reinforcing them, and round and round the process goes in a positive feedback loop of belief confirmation.

Dr. Shermer outlines the numerous cognitive tools our brains engage to reinforce our beliefs as truths and to insure that we are always right.[3]

Basically, we have formed our belief in tough discipline because our families, friends, and culture still support it, and once we have formed that belief, we keep looking to justify it, so we disregard the scientific evidence that proves us wrong. Some of us, of course, are open and receptive to this "new" information, and while I'm sure there's a fascinating scientific explanation for that as well, spiritually I feel that many of us are being led to this path of love and connection.

Blah blah neuroscience. What do I DO?
I knew you were going to ask that. Instant messaging, fast food, magic pills - we like instant gratification, which is another reason smacking and time out are so popular. One thwap and the kid stops immediately. Easy. Instilling real self-discipline takes more time and effort, just like calling a friend up for a chat, preparing a nutritious meal, or exercising regularly, but the payoff is greater. Here are some tips for putting away the tough discipline and teaching through connection.

Before Misbehavior:

Build your relationship. This is the foundation and you can't build anything until you have this. How? Start where you are. If your child is an infant, build trust by responding to cries quickly and with empathy. Bond by lots of talking, touch, and eye contact. If you have a young child, play is the key to connection. Spend quality time every day entering your child's world, connecting through play and stories and snuggles. Learn their love language. With older children, get to know them, really know them - what they like and dislike, how they feel about things, what makes them excited, what they are passionate about. Talk with them, not to them. In all stages, model the behavior you want from your child. Showing them how to be is more powerful than telling them how to be.

Teach proactively. Don't wait for an issue to arise before you teach your child. Teach about handling emotions and life situations through play, when everyone is calm and happy. Use toys to act out scenarios. Role play. Practice at home things like eating in a restaurant or sitting through a service or class. Put on a puppet show to raise awareness about bullying or some other issue your child will face. Look through magazines and point out faces and talk about the emotions of those people. Talk about what you watch on television or what they heard at grandma's house. Teach them calm-down techniques like deep breathing before they get angry. Children are more receptive to lessons when calm, and engaging through play enhances learning.

During Misbehavior:

Remove your child from the situation. If he hit his friend, take him to a private area and get him to calm down. Figure out what prompted him to hit. The action is a clue. Find out what it's pointing to and look for the solution. He may need more emotion coaching, tools to calm himself, a nap, or some food. Hitting him to teach him not to hit isn't the answer.

Is your tween giving you attitude? Walk away. Refuse to be talked to disrespectfully. That doesn't mean you start talking to her disrespectfully to teach her that lesson - that's counterproductive. Simply "I won't be talked to like this. I'll be happy to talk with you when you can be respectful."

Did your child bring home terrible grades and you know he didn't try? It's a problem that needs a solution. Talk with him. Sure, taking his electronics away will make you look pretty powerful, but how does it teach him study skills or motivate him to make better grades? Is he facing a problem at school? Is he being bullied? Is he struggling in a relationship at home? Does he need a tutor? Is he suffering from low self-esteem? Find the root of the problem and work on correcting it. It takes more work than removing electronics, but you won't always be there to take his stuff away. He needs to learn how to manage himself.

Is your daughter whining? Whining is a more mature form of crying, and while it can be very grating on the nerves, it's a signal of a deeper issue. Ignoring the child might make whining stop temporarily, but you need to know why she's whining in the first place. Does she feel powerless? Maybe she needs more choices. Is she overtired? Adjust bedtime.

After Misbehavior:

The hitting scene is over, your child's brain is now regulated (calm), now you teach. Refer to "Before the Misbehavior." Tween's attitude is better? She's now ready to talk respectfully? Refer to "Before the Misbehavior." The child with the bad grades? Follow up with him and his teacher. The way you do that really depends on what you found out was the reason behind the bad grades in the first place. When you come from a place of teaching rather than controlling, you'll know what to do. Whining over? Teach her about communication skills and strong voices.

Quick Summary:

1. Connect! Build your relationship. Build trust. Be on the same team. Work with, not against.

2. Misbehavior is communication. What is it saying? Look for the problem causing the misbehavior. Dr. Neufeld says, "The guiding principle of the incident is to do no harm." Please watch this. Correction doesn't need to be snappy or harsh. Also, it is helpful to approach it with the idea of building up rather than tearing down. Try "I see you're very angry. I'm going to take you to our calm place so you don't hurt your brother. I know you wouldn't want to hurt him. You're a really good sister." Or "Wow, you must be upset to speak to me like that. It's not like you to be disrespectful. Let's talk when you're feeling ready." Or simply "The walls are covered in marker. Here, use this to wipe it off."

3. After you get through the incident, move back into connection and teaching. Show them how to repair relationships and forgive others by modelling it now.

As you can see, positive parenting is quite the opposite of permissive parenting. It is highly involved, proactive parenting. The answers aren't always clear and easy. A good guiding principle: How does this affect our relationship?

[1]  http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-we-are-wired-to-connect/
[2] http://www.wcwonline.org/2010/humans-are-hardwired-for-connection-neurobiology-101-for-parents-educators-practitioners-and-the-general-public
[3] http://www.michaelshermer.com/the-believing-brain/


Positive Parenting is more than a parenting book. It's a guide to human connection. Rebecca provides a roadmap for creating happy, deeply connected families where children and parents alike are able to rise to their fullest potential.”  --Amy McCready, author of The “Me, Me, Me” Epidemic

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Rebecca Eanes, is the founder of positive-parents.org and creator of Positive Parenting: Toddlers and Beyond. She is the author of 3 books. Her newest book, Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide, will be released on June 7, 2016 and is available for pre-order now. The Newbie's Guide to Positive Parenting and a co-authored book, Positive Parenting in Action: The How-To Guide to Putting Positive Parenting Principles in Action in Early Childhood are both best-sellers in their categories on Amazon. She is the grateful mother to 2 boys. 


  1. Thank you for providing an intelligent and kind discussion of alternatives to spanking and why discipline takes time. I love to see others "fighting the good fight" and am so happy to have found you!

  2. Wonderful article, after reading it twice, for better understanding, better comprehension, more than ever before we need to raise our children with love, respect, connection and discipline. Great article, THANK YOU! Best regards from Mexico!


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