Introducing Brain-Body Parenting
- March 13th, 2022
I was at an outdoor cafe recently when I watched a familiar drama play out at a nearby table. A little boy was enjoying an ice cream cone when his dad announced it was time to go. The child, not quite ready, kept licking happily, not budging.
“Let’s go!” the dad repeated, voice raised.
The boy stayed put, whining in protest. Dad, now red-faced, picked him up. “You just made a very bad choice! No TV tonight,” the father said, carrying the child as he charged up the street. “Put me down!” the child implored as they disappeared around the corner. “Put me down!”
I have no doubt that father thought he was doing the right thing—just like the parents who put their fussy toddlers into time-outs or the ones who react to an older child having a meltdown with something called “planned ignoring.”
For years, so-called parenting experts have explained that the sort of behavior that little boy was displaying is intentional and manipulative—that kids throw tantrums as a way to get something, or to get out of something.
That’s just not true. And it’s time to change our parenting accordingly. And that’s why I wrote Brain-Body Parenting.
As a child psychologist. I’ve observed thousands of children interacting with their parents, siblings and classmates. Here’s what I’ve come to understand: When their physiology reaches a certain level, the tantrums aren’t volitional. They are a child’s instinctive response to stress.
In short, kids don’t throw tantrums. Tantrums throw kids.
When young children seem agitated and out of control, when they’re crying and their heartbeats race and they throw their bodies around uncontrollably, they’re not doing all of that intentionally to manipulate their parents or caregivers. Rather, the child’s autonomic nervous system is responding to stress by directing the child to react in ways that help the child to feel safe in his or her body.
That’s not just what I’ve observed. It’s supported by the latest neuroscience research.
Stephen Porges, a psychiatrist at the University of Indiana and the University of North Carolina, coined the term neuroception to describe the way our neural circuits distinguish whether situations or people we encounter are safe, dangerous, life threatening. That explains why children who feel threatened react by fighting or fleeing—or sometimes just freezing.
Sometimes kids are simply reacting to being pushed beyond their limits. Lisa Feldman Barrett, a leading neuroscience researcher and psychologist at Northeastern University, explains that humans have a “body budget.” When are budgets are flush we feel good. When we run at a deficit, we feel bad. When children are out of control, it’s usually because they’re physiologically depleted, and their body budgets are shot. Again, behavior like what I saw in the little boy with the ice cream cone aren’t intentional acts of misbehavior, but rather the body’s reaction to stress.
A tantrum may seem like an emotional outburst, but it’s actually a physiological event. In other words, it’s not the child’s mind that’s leading the way. It’s the child’s body.
What children need in these difficult moments isn’t discipline or a time-out or to be ignored. They need the opposite. They need connection and compassion.
I watched that child at the cafe go from happy to defiant to teary to screaming. It’s no wonder his father was so frustrated. But what if instead of threats and a raised voice, the dad had projected calm? What if instead of “No TV for you!” he’d said, calmly, “I know this is hard for you, sweetheart.”? And then help his son regulate his body while maintaining the plan to leave the café.
When we project our own calm state on a child having a tantrum, we can have an impact on their physiological state. We can help the child regulate himself or herself. To borrow Dr. Barrett’s language, a human being running at a deficit needs a deposit from another human being in the form of connection, calm and regulation.
To many parents responding that way might seem counterintuitive. We’ve learned from our own parents or teachers or others that we need to be firm with our kids and not “give in”—that we help them best by withholding, ignoring, and disciplining. That’s familiar, but my clinical experience over the past 30 years as well as the wisdom of relational neuroscience tells a new story. I’m so excited to share that story with you in Brain-Body Parenting.