- “Jack, 9, is often impatient and mean with his four year old sibling.”
- “Kevin, 6, always assumes others do everything to him on purpose, and reacts aggressively when it’s usually accidents.”
- "Alexa, 12, is increasingly disrespectful at home, and defiantly talks back more and more often.”
Do any of these stories sound familiar? Many parents ask me why children and adolescents seem to have a knack of turning small annoyances into big problems, and if anything can be done to help them grow up. Until recently, we thought parents just needed to be patient and handle the ups and down of childhood as constructively as possible. The last decade of research, however, has revealed that the parenting and learning context we provide for young children can actually boost some of their brain development. New conversational methods can be used to skillfully activate relevant brain areas, and increase the likelihood that children will manage their emotions, and think and act in a more mature way. The new and perhaps surprising part is that you don’t necessarily want to have the conversation that teaches your child a lesson at the time of an emotionally loaded incident.
For example, imagine your older child is sitting maliciously on your youngest’s favorite stuffed animal. Since you’ve already asked him twice to leave his sister alone, you find yourself raising your voice and saying “Why in the world are you doing that? Stop right NOW, can’t you see how upset your sister is? What would it be like for you if I sat on your lego construction, huh?...” We are often tempted to teach a skill during, or right after challenging moments. In my experience working with hundreds of families, parents - even the ones who are abusive - generally have good intentions but their choice of action does not always have the intended effect.
Few parents know that physiologically, when their child experiences intense negative emotions, there is a reduction of blood flow to the more logical and reflective part of the brain (the frontal lobe), and children become less likely to hear and register the crucial life lesson. Moreover, when adults also become exasperated, children end up having to deal not only with their internal negative emotions but also with those of the adult, when they can’t even handle their own. As a result, the lesson children do remember is not the one you intended; rather, they conclude that you are mean.
“The brain that generates the poison is the best to find the antidote.” (Beaudoin, 2010). But for your child's brain to find its perfect antidote, it needs to focus on the internal experience of the struggle, and sort things out, instead of focusing on surviving your adult anger. There are real constructive ways adults can ask children gentle questions which allow them to articulate, explain, explore, think and take mental steps, questions your child can hear in the moment. So you can say things like:
- “Honey, please stop this. What’s going on with you? Help me understand why you’re doing this.”
- “I can see that you have a lot of mad feelings right now, and they’re getting you to hurt your sister. How about we take a break and calm ourselves down, then we’ll talk.”
After the storm, an important job begins: relentlessly and purposely observing your child’s behaviours until you notice a glimpse of the very skill you’d like to support. For example, you can try saying something like: “Hey, if you have the temptation to sit on her favourite stuffy again, and manage to not do it, can you let me know? I’d love to hear about how you control those mad feelings. I’m sure you do it sometimes since it’s not always easy to have a little sister." Or with children like Kevin and Alexa above, “It would have been easy to be mad at me today when I picked you up late from school, but you weren’t, and I appreciate your patience." Noticing a child’s effort offers a truly golden opportunity to boost, articulate, support and develop the child’s burgeoning skills and invisible neural network.
"Children become who they practice to be." (Beaudoin, 2014). From a brain development standpoint, noticing allows repeating. It is often more effective to develop a skill contrary to a problem, than to try eliminating the problem directly.
Marie-Nathalie Beaudoin, Ph.D., has published numerous professional articles and books, including the internationally popular “SKILL-ionaire in Every Child: Boosting Children’s Socio-Emotional Skills Using the Latest in Brain Research”.