On a recent visit to a new family’s home, I entered the house only to be greeted by two huge dogs barking at full volume. They were jumping up and down higher than me, showing their teeth, and trying to break free from their owner’s grasp to come at me. I could barely greet the parents over all the noise but the toddler I was coming to see seemed oblivious to the commotion. I, however, was tense.
Because I wanted to get in there and meet this child and his family, I crouched down toward the ground and held my hand out, my palm facing away from the dog. Both dogs proceeded to smell and lick my hand furiously. Their barking quieted and their activity lessened. Once both of the dogs realized that I was not a threat to them, and that I was not going to hurt them, they bowed their heads to me so that I could pet them. By the end of the session, I ended up with one in my lap, a whole lot of dog hair on my pants, and slobber on my hands. Clearly, I was no longer considered a threat!
I recently listened to Dr. Tina Payne-Bryson, co-author of No-Drama Discipline and The Whole Brain Child, speak about this very thing. As she shared her wisdom about discipline with young ones, she talked again and again about the idea of communicating “no threat” when we are correcting our kids. Why do you want to communicate “no threat”? In a nutshell, the human brain is physically incapable of thinking, learning, or processing when it senses danger. If our intention with discipline is to teach, you simply cannot do it if your child feels a sense of threat. It will be physiologically impossible for him to receive the message that you are trying to teach.
You may be wondering what constitutes a threat to your child’s brain. Simply posturing over your child, yelling, or verbally threatening her can create this feeling. It could also be internal. Perhaps your child’s physical body is under duress due to unknown dietary issues or low blood sugar. Perhaps her sensory system is on overload and she cannot handle all that is coming at her. Depending on your child and her temperament, it could take a lot or just a little to put her over the edge and create a sense of threat to her system.
The following very short video by Dr. Dan Siegel, the other co-author of the aforementioned books, explains very simply how the brain works under stress and threat, but also how it functions when calm.
I have used this model of the brain in the palm of your hand with so many parents (and children). In a nutshell, you will see that if you are stressed or feel a sense of threat, then your brain (at least the rational, thinking part of it) stops working. It cannot function. The only thing you can do is fight, flight, or freeze. So, if you think of your kid’s brain in this way then you realize that you have to help him be calm in order to access that thinking, rational part of his brain.
As you communicate “no threat” to your child, it creates a feeling of safety and security, calms her down, and allows her to regain control of that rational, thinking brain, which she needs in order to learn from you and to make a better choice for herself. This is particularly important in children with special needs so that they can access that higher-level brain function and understand the situation to their maximum potential.
This is huge! When the focus is on reducing threat, that is going to change how you talk with your child in those discipline moments. But that’s not the only change. It is also going to change how you posture your body, even how you look at and sit with him. And when this type of connection is our focus then there is no room for punishment, shame, and blame. Understanding this concept is transformative and will undoubtedly strengthen your connection to your child.
4 Ways to Make Sure You Really Get Through to Your Child
1. Crouch down to below his eye level.
2. Relax your posture, your muscles, and open your body to face toward him.
3. Soften your expression to one of curiosity and compassion (this is one of the hardest!).
4. If he will allow it, place a gentle hand on him to establish connection. If, due to sensory reasons, your child cannot tolerate the touch, simply be close to him.
By doing these things, you are not just communicating “no threat” to your child, you are letting her know that you are a loving and supportive person in her life. You are ready to help contain all of her big feelings. You will help her regain control of herself. Most importantly, you are connecting with your child.
It is from this place that you can then begin to teach and guide your child to learn the valuable life skills that you want for him.
Do you feel like you have tried everything? Are you feeling frustrated and fed up with your child’s behavior? This is not something you can do alone and I am here to help. The Deeply Rooted Parent was designed specifically to give hope and help to parents of children birth through age 5 with special needs to face the challenges of behavior through kindness and firmness. Would you like more support on this journey? I am here to help you personally through parent coaching so that you can feel like the strong and loving parent that you are. I also invite you to like The Deeply Rooted Parent on Facebook and take a look at my website where you will find resources and guidance to help you.
Photo courtesy of Emily Kidd