Why does he keep running out in the road? “He doesn’t listen when I tell him to stop.” What happens next? “I chase after him, take him by the hand and bring him from the road to the yard.” Then what happens? “He screams and I can’t stand it so I let him go.” What does he do? “He runs back in the road.” Are there any downsides to this pattern of behavior? “He could be seriously injured.” What do you think should be done? “I can’t deal with his screaming.”
This is a fictitious discussion but one that typifies many peoples hopelessness to change destructive behaviors in their child. The emotional response and stress involved in providing a firm behavior response is overwhelming. Parents would certainly not let their child run out in the road no matter how intense their emotional response. The same fortitude exerted in changing behavior regarding safety can be exerted in managing other behaviors. Attached parents are hardwired to feel emotions when their child is upset. It is part of the attunement and mirror neuron system programmed into parents’ brains. The emotional response is a healthy part of why we can love so much and be in tune with our children’s needs, to help them physically and emotionally; however, this same emotional response can interfere with appropriate parenting responses necessary to guide children’s behavior. Parenting Utopia would consist of parent and child continuously harmonized in delightful interaction. From the time of birth nature dictates that the parent child relationship will be a roller coaster of closeness separated by disruptions in harmony driven by complex emotional and physical needs of both parents and children. The key is to foster attachment through attunement to emotional and physical needs and simultaneously recognize when disruptions are necessary for the good of developmental progress.
Back to our example of the young lady on the rope course in the first blog. I believe these parents had prepared for this difficult moment of discord by masterfully doing a few things. I discussed these in more detail in the last blog post. First they had a plan. Second they developed a warm connection with their daughter. Third they prepared her for what was to come through discussion, instruction, teaching and practice. Fourth they provided for influences outside the parent child relationship to help her adjust through the learning process. Fifth, they laid the foundation for successful adaptation through consistent responses in the past during difficult times of temporary disruptions. Sixth, they lovingly and empathetically guided her to the point of progress with encouragement and support. Once they prepared for the inevitable disruption in their relationship harmony and the moment of advancement came they did something very important. THEY SHUT THEIR MOUTHS! Sounds cold, but they did it – just shut up. Stop talking. Not one word. Not even a grunt. They just stood there masterfully with a look of serenity, love, empathy and support on their faces but no mouth moving. The child looked at her parents and pleaded for reprieve but what she saw was the fortress of her securely attached parents convincing her with their body language that she could do this.
That moment of looking back mirrored an instant compilation of her parents’ collective love, teaching, attunement, and pattern of consistent emotional response to their daughter. The pressure was so strong for the parents to cave in. Their inner alarm of attachment discord must have been booming. Their minds were probably racing with “What kind of parents are we?” “What do all these people think?” “What if she fails? – will she ever be able to accomplish anything in this world?” “Can she ever hope to have any self-esteem and mature to a capable adult?” As their inner pressure built so did the danger of meddling. Even one word could have sabotaged the ordeal because it would have diverted the energy of the task at hand back to parent child negotiation which would have quickly accelerated to pleadings with increased emotional intensity and zero progress. The more the girl pleaded, the higher the stakes for undermining progress because of the principle of intermittent and inconsistent reinforcement which I explained in the last blog.
Some children adapt quickly and some adapt slowly. This is one of the many personality traits parents need to come to appreciate in their children. This girl adapted slowly and her parents were prepared for a drawn out transition. This did not cause them frustration which would have also undermined her progress by drawing attention away from the rope course and placing it on the parent’s emotions – thus increasing the child’s own distress.
Much necessary preparation enabled this moment of accomplishment. Without a strong bond, planning, teaching, and a foundation of collective and consistent appropriate emotional mirroring from both parents, they never would have made it to this initial platform of resilience in the first place; the experience might have melted down into complete chaos at the initiation of adaptation.
There is a delicate balance between temporary disruption in relationships and attunement necessary for secure attachment. If the girl were to stumble and bruise her arm on the rope, this would not be a moment for separation in silence. Her parents would attend to her needs until she was prepared again to press forward. Likewise they wouldn’t send her out until her safety harness was attached. The key is that all preparations are made as discussed in blog three and the only issue the child is facing is the emotional challenge of temporary disruption.
Some children do have mental health conditions that prevent adaptation. Just like we wouldn’t expect our girl on the rope course to scale across ropes in a wheelchair if she had cerebral palsy, we can’t expect children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Mood Disorders, Learning Disabilities, Autism or other significant mental health problems to perform like kids with minor adjustment problems. Indications of these types of problems are significant and pervasive difficulty in different settings creating global dysfunction or intense problems in one area of life functioning, preventing adaptation. If you’re concerned about serious issues preventing behavior adjustment, a consultation by one of our Canyon View pediatricians should be done before attempting behavior change.
Once the girl mastered the few first few steps she was off to an exhilarating world of adventure and achievement. Her parents were quick to catch up and congratulate her accomplishment with reconnecting hugs. The next separation came quicker and soon parents and child were harmonized in new play they could jointly enjoy.
John Bennett M.D. FAAP
Understanding Your Child’s Temperament, William Carey
Parenting From The Inside Out, Daniel Siegel