The Brain Science That Changes Parenting

Wednesday, September 16, 2015 No comments

I have been fascinated by neuroscience for several years now. In fact, learning about basic brain function and child development is why I chose to leave conventional parenting methods behind. I’m certainly no neuroscientist, and I still don’t understand the deep complexities of the brain, but I’ve come to understand the basics through No-Drama Discipline by Drs. Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne-Bryson.

Dr. Siegel is a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine. Dr. Bryson is a psychotherapist and the Executive Director for the Center for Connection. What they share in their book is huge, paradigm-shifting information that every parent needs to know. I’m going to share with you just a snippet that I feel is extremely important. Of course, I recommend adding their book to your library.

Let’s divide the brain into parts. The lower region of the brain is what Drs. Siegel and Bryson refer to as the “downstairs brain.” This is made up of the brainstem and the limbic region. The brainstem is our primitive “reptilian” brain and is responsible for operations such as breathing, digestion, and regulating sleep cycles. The limbic system houses our strong emotions. The downstairs brain is well developed at birth, so your child feels all of the strong emotions from the get-go, but managing those emotions is not a function of the lower brain.

The upper region, or upstairs brain as the authors call it, is made up of the cerebral cortex, the outermost layer of the brain. The upstairs brain is responsible for logical thinking, reasoning, making decisions, planning, regulation of emotions, empathy, morality, and much more, and this is very underdeveloped at birth. In fact, it won’t be fully formed until the mid 20’s.

Why does this change everything?

It takes the information we’ve been fed for years, such as the idea that a child who hits is just being mean and needs punished or that a toddler having a meltdown is being manipulative and needs ignored, and blows it completely out of the water. None of that is true! A child having a downstairs tantrum (true emotional overwhelm) cannot just stop the tantrum no matter how much you threaten or bribe her to, because she’s locked in her primitive downstairs brain and cannot access the part that houses reason. A child who hits someone has lost access to his very underdeveloped upstairs brain and is reacting from his primitive brain. He’s not mean – he’s simply not capable of controlling his emotions and behavior all the time.

Does this excuse bad behavior? Do we just let it go since they can’t help it? ..Finish reading this article over at Creative Child 

For more of my Positive Parenting articles featured in Creative Child Magazine, click here.

The Best-Kept Secret in Parenting!

Thursday, September 10, 2015 No comments

“It’s the relationship of the child to the adult responsible for their care that is the most significant factor in the unfolding of human potential.” – Dr. Gordon Neufeld

Dr. Gordon Neufeld is a Vancouver-based developmental psychologist with over 40 years of experience with children and youth and those responsible for them. A foremost authority on child development, Dr. Neufeld is an international speaker, a bestselling author Hold On To Your Kids and a leading interpreter of the developmental paradigm.

I recently had an opportunity to listen to him speak on The Great Parenting Show, and what he said is so profoundly important that I want to try and summarize it, because I don’t want this to be the best-kept secret anymore. What is this secret?

It’s the relationship of the child to the adult responsible for their care that is the most significant factor in the unfolding of human potential. 

Attachment, not behaviorist approaches. It’s not the discipline tricks or techniques that we use to try and modify behavior that makes children want to be good – it’s the quality of our relationship! This has the potential to profoundly change the way we parent since much of parenting is still based upon behaviorist techniques that actually erode the relationship.

For example, time-out is a social exclusion technique that is supposed to be emotionally painful enough to deter the unwanted behavior, yet when we exclude children, when we withdraw the invitation to exist in our presence, as Neufeld puts it, the relationship gets damaged. The same is true for removal of items and privileges. When we say to the child, “Whatever it is that you are attached to, whatever you care about, I will take that away from you when you are not good,” this essentially is corroding the very thing that makes them want to be good.

Neufeld outlines the 6 stages of attachment in his book, Hold On To Your Kids, and those have been summarized here. I want to point out for this particular discussion stage 3 - belonging or loyalty.
It is during this stage, which occurs around 3 years of age, where the child begins wanting to be good and do right for the parent if the attachment bond is strong. In stage 5, the child becomes very emotionally involved, giving his heart to whomever he’s attached. Neufeld says, “There is nothing more important to hold sacred than the child’s desire to be good for you…when we have a good relationship with somebody, we naturally desire to be good for them and make things work for them.”

This is where we have taken a dreadful wrong turn in our parenting, because when children begin to test boundaries, we act as though they do not want to be good for us, and we start using tricks and techniques that push them away rather than bringing them close. These techniques – time-out, removal of beloved items, and certainly spanking – make no sense when we understand that the relationship is the most significant factor of all.

This knowledge makes parents then ask the question, “But how do I discipline? If time out and taking things away aren’t good, how to I stop bad behavior?” We ask because we are still looking for tricks! We have been so conditioned to believe that we must do something to the child to stop poor behavior that we cannot rest in the knowledge that a close, connected relationship will cause the child to want to behave.

This, of course, doesn’t absolve us from needing to teach our children how to manage their behavior – that is parenting – but the teaching is done in the context of the attachment. Point the child in the right direction (instill your values, show them what is expected, model well, talk about emotions and behavior) and make sure you have her heart. If you have her heart, you don’t need anything else.
Here is a 3 minute video of Dr. Gordon Neufeld explaining the effectiveness and consequences. There are several other helpful videos found at this link.

This article was originally posted on

For more of my Positive Parenting articles featured in Creative Child Magazine, click here.

The #1 Reasons Parents Yell and How to Turn It Around

Wednesday, September 9, 2015 No comments
Guest post by Andy Smithson, Tru Parenting

It wasn't the traffic you endured while running the kids to football, band and dance practice. It wasn't really the announcement of “I have to pee” that came from the back seat the moment you left the driveway. I wasn't even the constant noise and quarreling between your son and daughter that set you off. It wasn't the pile of paperwork your boss threw at you at the end of your work day, or the mess on the floor when you entered the front door of your house, or the dinner that needed to be prepared and then cleaned up that sent you over the edge. You thought you could handle just one tantrum, one “NO, NO, NO!” But, you started to wonder after the third “No” just how much you could take. It wasn't any one of the one million things you had to do today that sent your voice into the stratosphere. It was all of them combined, plus One More Thing!

We've all heard the idiom “the straw that broke the camel's back.” If you are like most parents, you have probably been that camel at some point or another. Although our children are not generally the “cause” of yelling, they can be awfully adept at performing the behavior that often seems to be “the last straw.” The kids end up getting the tail end of our stress and overwhelm.

But I've never met a parent that likes to yell. So why do parents yell?

What parents said was the #1 reason for yelling at the kids

I recently asked parents across social media groups and channels what they felt were the top reasons parents yelled at their kids. The comments and responses came rolling in. Hundreds of parents weighed in and I was surprised by the top responses, not because I disagreed, but because I thought that kids would get more of the blame. We are either a more insightful and enlightened generation of parents or more self deprecating. Not sure which. Either way, there was no disputing the top results. Parents sighted personal, internal issues far more than external triggers such as their children's specific behaviors.

The #1 reason parents reported that they yell, by a long shot, was stress and overwhelm. Behaviors like “not listening, slow pokes or bedtime struggles” certainly came up, but they did not dominate the discussion as I had anticipated.

We can all relate. I've felt it. You've felt it. The proverbial straw that breaks the camel's back can be anything. Sometimes its a food complaint at the dinner table. Other times it's that shoe that you swore you asked them to pick up a half hour ago. Regardless of what it is that leads us to lose it, we can usually trace it back to the overall load rather than the one specific act.

It happens to all of us, but don't worry, there is help and relief!

When it comes to stress and overwhelm there are basically 3 choices we can make, or better yet, we can implement all 3. We can...

  • Decrease our stress
  • Increase our tolerance
  • Manage the stress we've got more effectively

Here are 3 suggestions of specific ways we can do a little of each in our daily lives and lead to less stress and overwhelm and subsequently, less yelling.

  1. Say “No” more often. This can be easier said than done. It takes some serious introspection and wisdom to see and acknowledge our own limits and then to respectfully communicate those to others in our lives. But, if we want to have more and greater quality time with the people that are most important to us, we have to learn to say “no” to more “stuff” that we fill our lives with. You don't have to do everything. Say it with me... “It's okay to buy the Oreos rather than baking the gourmet desert for the school function. It's okay to to limit some of the extra-curriculars.” If you find yourself struggling with setting boundaries and saying “no” to things in your life, I often suggest the book “Boundaries” by Dr. Henry Cloud.
  2. Practice chilling out every day. You have more power than you think you do over your emotional state and reactions. I teach my counseling and coaching clients a skill I call the Quick Calm Technique and often utilize several meditation practices to help parents learn to increase awareness, tolerance and conscious, mindful responding. Our ability to tolerate and eliminate distress is both a physiological and mental activity. It takes regular practice to get good at it.
  3. Change how we look at stress. We can learn to experience stress differently by simply changing how we view it. Kelly McGonigal is a stress researcher that taught people for years that stress was “bad” and to avoid it like the plague. Through continued study she found that this view of stress was actually more harmful than the stress itself. In her TED talk, “How to Make Stress Your Friend” she explains that when we come to recognize our natural stress response as a natural and positive response that helps our body and mind prepare for challenges, we can actually change our biology and physiology surrounding that stress and have much more favorable outcomes. Stress can actually be “good.” Designing some specific positive self talk around our stress can be a simple way to start changing our view and turn overwhelm into greater strength and success.

The implementation of these 3 skills regularly can set the stage for dramatic changes in our own lives and in the lives of our kids and families. You will have less stress as well as get better at stress. You don't have to let the little things add up anymore. When our load is lighter and our ability to carry that load is strengthened our kids no longer have to play the role of the “straw that broke the camel's back.” They get to play the role of the learning, growing silly little boy or girl. They get to play the role of your child.

Sometimes we need help

Remembering all of these skills and techniques and staying accountable to following through with the practice required to master our stress and overwhelm often requires having help. We like to think that we can do everything on our own, but it just ends up stressing us out more. It's not the knowing that is the hard part. It's the doing that is the hard part. This is why Andy has created the “Stop Yelling in 21 Days Coaching Course.” It is a complete and comprehensive course that will fit any schedule and budget. It will give you the tools, inspiration and support you need to relax a little more, decrease your stress and overwhelm and finally stop yelling!

Register for the Stop Yelling Course Here.

Helping Our Kids Cope with Stress

Friday, September 4, 2015 No comments

I recently had the pleasure of reading Susan Stiffelman's book, Parenting with Presence. One of the chapters that struck me most was called "Helping Our Kids Cope with Stress." In this chapter, Susan outlines some the alarming recent studies about our adolescents:

Research conducted by the University of Michigan stated that 10% of high school sophomores and almost one in eight seniors admitted to using illegally obtained medications (study drugs) to keep up with their workload....

Thirty percent of teens reported feeling overwhelmed, depressed, or sad as a result of stress...

In the past 60 years, the suicide rate has quadrupled for males 15-24 years old and doubled for females of the same age. Suicide rates for those between the ages of 10 and 14 increased by more than 50% between 1981 and 2006...

The AAP released a study noting that stress hormones can have a significant long-term impact on a teen's body. Stress can unleash chemicals that interfere with the development of neuronal networks in the developing brain as well as inhibit the development of new neurons in growing brains..

In her book, Susan offers practical solutions for helping our children cope with stress. I will outline those here.

1. Connecting in Real Life. A strange thing is happening in this day and age. Somehow we are more connected than ever through social media and constant availability via cell phones, yet we are more lonely. The connection is superficial. These cyber connections don't allow us to truly be seen or heard, and as we are more and more plugged in, we get increasingly more distant in our unplugged lives. Feeling isolated or disconnected is a significant contributor to stress. Susan says, "Being connected in a shallow way to the entire world can prevent us from being deeply connected to those closest to us -- including ourselves."

A genuine, close connection with a loved one is one of the most effective antidotes to stress. "Children who have durable, reliable attachments with healthy loved ones are much better able to cope with life's stressors," Susan says.

How do we connect? I wrote 10 ways to connect to your child here. (These are my tips, not Susan's.)

2. Managing Change and Uncertainty. Life will always throw unexpected wrenches in our plans, and learning to be flexible and handle these unexpected situations is a key buffer against stress. Susan suggests 2 ways we can help our children handle uncertainty. One is through modeling, of course. Children are watching how we handle stressful situations, from waiting in a line that is taking forever and possibly making you late to your next appointment to delayed flights, your reactions often become their reactions. Therefore, learning to manage stress yourself is vital to teaching your children how to manage it. Second, Susan suggests "making friends with the worst-case scenario." For example, discuss what might happen if you are late to your next appointment or your flight does get delayed. Yes, it will be inconvenient, but you will be okay. Children need to know that.

3. Having fun. Susan tells us, "Helping our children isn't just about teaching them how to cope when things aren't going well. It is also about infusing their days with enjoyment." We know that laughter is an antidote to stress. Find ways to have fun with your children. Turn up the music and dance. Watch comedies together. Enjoy life with each other!

4. Persisting. Susan highlights the importance of developing inner resources to push through stumbling blocks and to keep trying when success eludes us. Teaching children that happiness and peace can be achieved even if we don't reach all of our goals or if things don't go the way we'd planned is key in helping them cope with stress. Once again, what we model as parents is largely what teaches these lessons. She advises letting them hear you ask, "Will this be an issue in five years - to two days?"

Here is an article on teaching young kids persistence. 

5. Paying attention to your child's stress. Watch for signs of anxiety and depression. Make sure children know they can trust you with whatever they are doing through by maintaining open lines of communication and a trusting relationship.

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, children with depression may display these symptoms:
  • Depressed or irritable mood
  • Difficulty sleeping or concentrating
  • Change in grades, getting into trouble at school, or refusing to go to school
  • Change in eating habits
  • Feeling angry or irritable
  • Mood swings
  • Feeling worthless or restless
  • Frequent sadness or crying
  • Withdrawing from friends and activities
  • Loss of energy
  • Low self-esteem
  • Thoughts of death or suicide
When symptoms last for a short period of time, it may be a passing case of “the blues.” But if they last for more than two weeks and interfere with regular daily activities and family and school life, your child may have a depressive disorder.

6. Practicing mindfulness. Susan recommends practicing mindfulness each day, ideally in the same place and around the same time, as a small family ritual. She offers several practices in the book, so I will just highlight one of them that I like best called "follow the breath." Sit comfortably with your child and ask them to pay attention to the breath coming in, noticing the air coming in through their nostrils. Is it warm or cool air? Ask them to follow it as it makes it's way into the lungs, and feel how the chest rises and falls. Instruct them to refocus on the breath if their mind starts to wander, and to be quiet for a few breaths. Doing this short exercise for a few minutes each day is one way to help your child learn to cope with stress.

There are many nuggets of wisdom to be found in Parenting with Presence. It's a great addition to your positive parenting library. One of the things I love about this book is the "Making It Practical" section at the end of each chapter. Susan doesn't just give lofty ideas about being an attuned and present parent, but she offers practical advice on how to implement each idea she covers, and that is really helpful both for someone new to this philosophy and for seasoned parents as well.

Does Positive Parenting Reward Misbehavior?

This is post #3 in my “Debunking Myths about Positive Parenting” series. In post one, I debunked the myth that positive parents just want to be friends, and in post two, I set the record straight on the false assumption that we do not discipline our children. Because Positive Parenting is centered around connection, I often advocate for practices such as time-in rather than time-out when misbehavior arises and being emotionally supportive through tantrums as opposed to ignoring them.
These ideas often draw the reaction of “but isn’t that rewarding tantrums and misbehavior?!” The short answer is “no.”

The long answer is “the whole foundation of positive parenting is not based upon rewarding or punishing behavior but rather upon understanding what is driving a child’s behavior and giving the child the knowledge and skills needed to not only govern his own behavior but to grow into his own full potential as an emotionally healthy and secure adult.”

I usually give the short answer. You can see why.

However, the long answer is much more accurate, and I’d like to try to explain further so as to debunk this myth for good.

When we look at behavior in terms of something we need to reward (with the intention of getting the child to perform well again) or punish (intending to deter the behavior), then we are essentially trying to control the child. This may seem to work for a while when children are young, but control over another person is just an illusion. You can’t really control how they will act when you’re not around, and that is one of the reasons why I’ve decided to drop the act and instead teach my children how and why to control themselves. After all, that’s the end game of discipline, isn’t it? Self-discipline?

If they’re going to really absorb my words and heed my advice on how to govern themselves, then they need to be in a healthy, connected, secure relationship with me. That’s why I chose time-in over time-out, because I needed to first connect with my hurting child before I could show him a better way. I use the past tense here because my children are now too old for time-in and we’ve moved on to problem-solving. However, what I came to understand some years ago was that my connection to my children was not a reward but a lifeline. It wasn’t something I could dangle like a carrot in front of their noses, offering a sense of security, trust, and unwavering love only when they behaved well and yanking it away when their behavior was off-track. I discovered that their connection to me was, at least in part, what inspired them to do better.

Why be concerned with what is driving the child’s behavior? Does it really matter? Isn’t the goal just to make them stop the misbehavior? When we only look at behavior, we stop seeing the child and only look with an intent to judge whether we need to reward or punish. When we look behind the behavior, we see that little struggling human, our little human, who needs our help with something. Suddenly we can see that a tantrum isn’t a ploy to drive us insane but a signal that our little one is utterly emotionally overwhelmed or that hitting her friend wasn’t a calculated assault but a momentary loss of control due to an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex (which helps us stop and think before we act and houses empathy) and a really overdue nap. Then we can treat the person, not the symptom. We can see we need to teach coping skills which will serve her much better than 3 minutes in a corner. By looking beyond rewards and punishments, we can focus our attention on teaching whatever our little human needs to know in order to do better. Oh so far from permissiveness, this takes presence, time, effort, and attention.
Additionally, when we look at the reason behind the behavior, we seek to understand this small person. We all need to feel seen, heard, and understood. Not only does this boost his self-esteem, helping him to feel worthy and loved, but research shows that feeling understood actually increases physical and social well-being.
Because I mentioned in my long answer the goal of growing an emotionally healthy, secure adult, I want to briefly list the traits of healthy families that promote good emotional health. To read about this more in depth, read the article here.
  1. Free expression of thoughts and feelings. Positive parents accept feelings and limit actions.
  2. Equality and fairness.
  3. Healthy communication.
  4. Healthy boundaries.
  5. Problem-solving.
I hope this article articulated more clearly the reasoning behind looking beyond rewards and punishments and debunked the myth that our actions (leading to connection) reward misbehavior. The whole goal is to raise a child who is self-disciplined, secure, and happy, so in way, yes, it is a reward for everyone. The reward is a happier life for your child and a better relationship for you.

Article originally posted at on

For more of my Positive Parenting articles featured in Creative Child Magazine, click here.

4 Parental Behaviors to Avoid

Tuesday, September 1, 2015 No comments

Dr. John Gottman is a world-renowned relationship expert. Through many years of research, he has discovered 4 behaviors that we should avoid if we want to have strong, healthy relationships. He calls these behaviors the four horsemen of the apocalypse because they are sure to bring about the end of a relationship. Having a healthy, connected relationship with our children is what enables us to influence and guide them throughout childhood; therefore, having knowledge and understanding of these 4 pitfalls and their antidotes can help you build a better relationship with those most precious to you – your children.

Horseman #1: Criticism
Parents often use criticism in an attempt to motivate a child to do better, but criticism rarely motivates. It tears down. Criticism is pointing out something negative – basically shining a spotlight on the child’s flaws and negative traits. The problem is that, according to Dr. Julie Gottman, “kids take in all that criticism as a way of reflecting who they are.” It makes children believe that there is something wrong with them. I’ve said before that parents should be the people who see the best in our children and shine the spotlight on their good qualities. Children can’t see and live up to the best in themselves if we’re always pointing out the worst.

Examples of Criticism:
“You’re so clumsy.” “Why can’t you ever remember to make your bed? What is wrong with you?” “Look at this mess! You’re too lazy to clean your room.” “You’re spoiled rotten and don’t appreciate anything!”

What are kids really hearing in these phrases? Be more careful to not spill your drink? Please be responsible and make your bed? I’d like for you to tidy your room? I wish you were more appreciative? No. They’re hearing: You’re clumsy. You’re stupid. You’re lazy. You’re spoiled. Any motivation to do better is squashed under the weight of shame.

The Fix:
Leave out character judgments and use “I statements” to state what you want. “Oops, it spilled. I want you to get a cloth and wipe it up.” “I want you to make your bed, please.” “I want you to clean your room before you go to your friend’s house.”

Horseman #2: Contempt
Contempt is criticism coming from a place of superiority. It comes out as name-calling, sneering, eye-rolling, sarcasm, hostile humor, and mockery. Interestingly, contempt not only predicted how relationships would go but it predicted how many infectious illnesses the listener would have in the coming year! I can only conclude from that information that talking down to a child tears down more than his self-esteem.

Examples of Contempt:
“Stupid brat!” “Are you ignorant? Why would you do that?” “You wouldn’t even think of picking up your clothes, would you?” “Aw, look at the little baby crying again! Wah wah!”

The Fix:
The antidote for contempt is respect. Treat your child with the same respect you want her to treat you with.

Horseman #3: Defensiveness
Defensiveness is described as a reaction against feeling personally attacked; self-protection through righteous indignation or playing the victim. In the parent-child relationship, the parent may feel defensive when he realizes he was actually in the wrong or when a child points out the parent’s flaws (criticizes the parent). Basically, defensiveness says “the problem is not me, it’s you.” It’s avoiding taking responsibility by placing blame on the child.

Examples of Defensiveness:
“I wouldn’t have yelled if you’d have done what you were told!” “I shouldn’t have called you stupid, BUT you made me so angry.”

The Fix:
Accept responsibility for your part in the problem, and listen to how your child is feeling with an attempt to truly understand her position. “I shouldn’t have called you stupid. I’m sorry.” “I apologize for yelling. I lost my temper.” ...continue reading at CreativeChild

For more of my Positive Parenting articles featured in Creative Child Magazine, click here.