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Correcting Behavior vs. Talking About Feelings
Several years ago I first watched Jo Frost’s Super Nanny back in England and was intrigued by her no-nonsense approach to parenting that seemed to get great results in just a few days. Super Nanny would enter the homes of overwhelmed parents with out of control children and work her magic, using many different tools for implementing order, such as the “naughty step” – a time-out discipline tool that would leave many a toddler shamed into submission.
Years later, as a trained infant mental health specialist I wanted to see how the behavioral techniques compare to Mindful Parenting, so I revisited American Supernanny with Deborah Tillman. I was encouraged to see that the “naughty step” had been revised as the more neutral “calm-down corner”. The results seemed to be working well and the tone of the discipline was much less shame driven, however with all the emphasis on behavior I was left wondering about the lack of instruction on how to address the toddlers’ feelings that were driving the behavior.
Mindful Parenting approaches children’s behavior in a specific way. The idea is that everything a child does is a communication and it is our job as parents to be curious about their experience. In doing so we create a connection with our child where they feel understood and secure in their attachment. As we think about our child’s experience we also build something called reflective capacity – the capacity to think about our child’s inner mental states and respond in a way that feels attuned and containing. This is a key component to building a secure attachment relationship. As parents build this capacity, the child becomes able to think about other people’s states of mind and better regulate himself.
Whilst discipline tools are essential for handling behavior, ignoring the feelings behind the behavior increases the likelihood that the problem will return. Feelings left unattended can fester like an untreated wound and sticking a Band Aid on it is not going to heal the bigger issue. Tools such as the “calm-down corner” are an excellent way to correct behavior as long as there is a heart-to heart afterwards where parent and child connect over the feelings fueling the acting out. When the mood is peaceful in the house it is a perfect time to engage with your child through play and allow a conversation to open up that lets your child know you are curious about their internal world. This is a gift that helps your child feel secure and more likely to share their deeper feelings with you. The earlier they get use to doing so the better, so that they have the tools for expressing themselves when they enter their teenage years.
Here is an example for how the conversation might go with a verbal child:
Parent: “You were pretty upset earlier when you hit your sister, did something happen that made you mad?”
Child: “She was crying a lot and you were holding her and I wanted you to play with me.”
Parent: “Ahh! I see. You were mad because she was getting a lot of attention from Mommy and that didn’t feel good”
Child: “You always talk to her more than me”
Parent: “Thank you for telling me how you feel, I can see why that would make you mad. I will try to make sure I am paying attention to you too. Can we think of a way you can let me know if it happens again so you don’t hit your sister, because hitting is not okay? Could you use your words and let me know you need a hug?”
Child: “Yes mommy I can try.”
With a less verbal child it is still important to have a conversation because they will understand the intention behind you trying to connect with them. An example might be:
Parent: “You were pretty upset earlier when you hit me, I’m thinking something happened that made you mad and I’m not sure what it was. Perhaps you were wanting me to talk to you instead of using my phone.”
Child: Nods enthusiastically as mom nails the interpretation of the hitting.
Parent: “Ahh! I understand. It is hard when you want my attention and I don’t give it to you. Hitting my body is not ok but you can pull my shirt instead, like this, or say “Mommy!””
For further tips and ideas about how to address your child’s feelings visit wellbabycenter.org/blog .
Annabelle Safinia is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist working with families and parents at Well Baby Center. She is also the Group and Counseling Coordinator and Mindful Parenting Group facilitator/trainer.