Parent-Child Connectedness Takes Us Beyond Emotional Intelligence

I couldn’t have stopped crying even if I had wanted to. I don’t remember now why I was crying, but I remember the look on my father’s face as he begged me to stop. “What am I going to do with you? All the neighbors are going to think you’ve gone crazy!” It was summer and the windows were open. And I was experiencing heartbreak like only a four-year-old can.

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Forty years later, what has stayed with me is the deeply jarring alienation brought on by my father’s inability to cope with, let alone understand, my emotional experience. He just wanted it to stop. How could my father, who I adored beyond words, plead with me not to express an experience that clearly needed his comforting and attention? Shame and confusion were layered over whatever the original hurt may have been. If my father complained that I no longer told him anything when I was a teen, he was reaping seeds he planted when I was very small and needed him to listen.

Connecting with children when they express their emotional experience supports the essential elements of the parent-child relationship. A parent like my father, who begs their child to stop feeling their feelings, at the very least misses a wonderful opportunity for connection, attunement and emotional closeness that could have been used to strengthen the parent child bond for life. Not that it’s always easy to connect with children in these moments. Setting aside your agenda and stopping to warmly devote your attention to a child screaming their way through the grocery store is farther than most parents would want to take this model. But building acceptance into a connected relationship wherever possible has clear, measureable benefits.

The Education Training Research Associates, (ETR) with funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, conducted a literature review on the effects of parents developing a secure connection with their children early in life. Their paper, Parent-Child Connectedness: Implications for Research, Interventions, and Positive Impacts on Adolescent Health, 2004 provides an excellent guide for understanding the true impact a strong parent child connection can have on children.

ETR uses the term Parent Child Connectedness, or PCC, to expand the idea of attachment. They define PCC as, “seeing the interaction between parents and children not just as individuals but as part of an on-going, dynamic relationship” (ETR, 2004; p. 5). The parent-child connection endures beyond the early infant years, and is sustained in different ways throughout the life of the child.

ETR’s review of over 600 research studies concludes that Parent Child Connectedness is the “super-protective factor” against negative outcomes in adolescence. Having a close, connected relationship with a caring adult, an adult who listens to the child’s feelings, is the single strongest indicator that an adolescent will reach adulthood without experiencing teen pregnancy or violence, without becoming addicted to drugs or tobacco, and without dropping out of high school. Fostering this kind of relationship with our own children takes us beyond emotional intelligence, into a space where the emotion we each experience is accepted, experienced and processed.

While Emotional Intelligence is a wonderful place to start, the key for me has been remembering that experiencing intense emotion takes neurobiological precedence over thinking about that emotion. In other words, it’s hard to think and feel at the same time.

Dan Siegel’s work, The Developing Mind, explains the details of this process, but as a non-neurobiologist I imagine the available energy or attention moving through the three main parts of the brain. The brainstem makes sure you’re breathing, your heart is beating and the salts in your blood are balanced – it keeps your body alive first. Then the limbic system, the seat of emotional response, gets the energy next. If feelings have been triggered, they can highjack us until we are able to process them. This expression of emotion is a normal, universal human response to emotional stress. It’s as natural as the impulse to swear when you hit your thumb with the hammer. The higher cognitive functions are the last to receive the mind’s attention. Just the same way that you can’t balance your checkbook if you can’t breathe, you also can’t balance your checkbook when you are overwhelmed by strong emotions.

Children can’t talk to you about their emotions and feel their emotions fully at the same time. And they can’t fully process their emotions in isolation. The human mind is built to work in connection with other human minds. What I needed at four is the same thing kids of all ages need, a caring adult with whom they can share the full range of their experience without fear of rejection, shaming or condemnation.

Here’s Patty Wipfler’s explanation of the process from her booklet on Crying:

We are so accustomed to seeing the world only from our own vantage point. If we don’t feel sad, no one else should, either. But children’s feelings are like their own personal weather system, which is affected by forces often unseen by you.

To tell your child he should feel happy when he is sad is roughly as effective as telling a rainstorm to go away. Phrases like “I’m sorry you feel so sad” or “I’ll stay right here with you while it’s hard” give your child permission to address and work through bad feelings. Phrases like “It’s only a torn paper. Quit acting like such a baby!” only shame a child. They work against your goal of helping your child rebuild his sense of well-being.

As you listen, you are not necessarily condoning your child’s feelings, nor are you spoiling him. You are helping him recover. Children cry only when they are too upset to think. Feelings of upset can overpower a child and drive him to do things that don’t make sense. As you listen, you drain the power these feelings have over your child. His own good judgment will return once you’ve listened thoroughly.

What have you learned about the best ways to be present with your children’s strong emotions? Please share what works for you to build parent-child connectedness in the Comments.

Join Juli for an online class on the Science of Parenting in January.


The Challenge of Early Attachment

All the way home from the hospital I was sure my baby daughter’s head would wobble straight off her pudgy neck and I would find it bouncing around the back of the car. I was in shock that they had let me leave the hospital with this tiny, helpless creature. Already thirty-five when my daughter was born, I had been looking forward to parenthood for many years.  I had worked with children. I had watched carefully as my friends and relatives sailed into family life. And I had read all the ‘right’ books about child development and what to expect.  In other words, I was as clueless and unprepared for the reality of life with an infant as your average parent.

Courtesy of Christopher Eriksen

My daughter just needed me to love her, right? And pay attention to her, and feed her, (How hard could breastfeeding be?) and take care of her, and get us both back and forth to the pediatrician’s office, and get dinner made, and find time to do the laundry, and wash us both now and then, and remember to make the mortgage payment and make sure her car seat straps were properly adjusted and tend to her developmental milestones and start saving for college and…

Sleep deprived, begrudgingly recovering from the 100+ stitches of an unwanted C-section and terrified that I was doing a ‘bad job’ because my new ‘boss’ cried even when I thought I was parenting by the book, I gradually became fearful I was coming unhinged.  I probably looked slightly milk-stained but otherwise fine on the outside.  I went to playgroup and Gymboree and baby music lessons. I showered and brushed my hair and dressed my daughter in matching Baby Gap outfits.  I compared growth chart percentages and teething tales with other moms in the park.  Yet, at odd moments, I found myself irrationally furious over bits of my own childhood I hadn’t considered in decades.  Why was I plagued by thoughts of my less-than-ideal childhood when I should have been enjoying my daughter’s happy one?

On a fundamental level, deep in the folds of our brain, we learn to parent as we are being parented. The parts of your memory  that were intimately engaged in those early peek-a-boo experiences with your parents are actually stimulated in your adult brain as you peek at your own bright-eyed infant. Dr. Lewis et al explains this process beautifully in A General Theory of Love.  As you build those essential and hopefully warm and loving connections with your baby, you also get a chance to revisit how that experience felt for you a generation ago. If it felt basically good and your parents were well resourced, relaxed and happy to have you joining the clan, your attachment process with your own child is an easier one. If you were a preemie born to a frightened couple in a war-torn part of the world, you might feel a lot more stress as you are trying to enjoy your new family member.

No childhood is perfect. Nor does any child require one that is. But in order for the attachments to develop smoothly in a new family, there is one key element that predicts relative success—the parent’s understanding of their own relationship history, especially the relationships of their childhood. Using a process called the Adult Attachment Interview, researchers have demonstrated that parents who were born into less than ideal circumstances don’t necessarily have trouble building good relationships with their own children, as long as they have come to terms with their own formative relationships. When a parent is able to relate what researchers call a “coherent narrative” of their early life experience, it’s possible to predict that their own children will form normal, healthy attachments in relationship to them. No matter how imperfect their past may have been.

So, there it was. As Patty Wipfler says in her much-loved Listening to Children, “We discover that loving and nourishing a child is complex work that challenges the hardiest grownups.” My early relationship with my daughter was challenging not because anything was wrong with either of us, but simply because I had yet to make peace with my own early experiences.

Dr. Dan Siegel talks about his experience at this same impasse with his young son in his moving and thoughtful book Parenting from the Inside Out. It was hard enough for me as a new parent just to get out the door in the morning wearing matching socks and minimal rice cereal stains. The last thing I had time for was navel-gazing contemplation of the emotional impact of my grandmother ruining the pin-the-tale-on-the-donkey game at my 4th birthday party. Luckily for me, there were people around me who knew how to really listen. Not the usual conversational sandwich-building “Oh that happened to my cousin Eleanor too!” back and forth kind of listening. But the “I am really here with you.  I won’t interrupt or advise. Go ahead and let me know how your experience feels,” kind of listening. And the more they listened, the more I healed.

The focused attention of another caring human being is what allows each of us to bring out the things in our emotional experience we haven’t really made sense of yet and repackage them into something more digestible, something easier to live with. It’s not a nice, neat, logical, thinking process. It’s a messy laughing, crying, trembling maze of emotions waiting to tumble out into shared emotional space. But the more I was able to soak in this sort of gentle attention, the easier it was for me to relax and be available to my daughter and her in-the-moment emotional experience. That feeling of hanging on by my fingernails receded.  Slowly I was able to take a deep breath and laugh and play and connect.

For more insight into how this narrative sharing process actually works to rewire the brain, listen to the inspiring conversation between Dr. Daniel Siegel and Dr. Daniel Goleman called Better Parents, Better Spouses, Better People. Or for brief, practical instruction on the practice, read Listening Partnerships for Parents from Hand in Hand.

Juli will be teaching an online class on the Science of Parenting in January.

This post originally appeared in the Huffington Post.

The Science of Playing with Our Kids

Most parents probably already know that the American Academy of Pediatricians calls the current decline of playtime for our children “a national crisis.” Their report emphasizes, “Play is so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child…we must advocate for the changes specific to the need of each child’s social and environmental context that would enhance the opportunities for play, ” (American Academy of Pediatrics, “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds,” 2007).

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Yet even with our pediatricians calling for changes, only 36% of American schoolchildren meet doctors’ recommendations for physical activity (Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report Recess Rules, 2007).

“Physical activity and free play are essential to maintaining a healthy weight and supporting cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development and well-being. Play enhances self-regulation, empathy, and group management skills” (Stanford School of Medicine, “Building Generation Play,” 2007; Hirsh-Pasek, et al., A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool, Oxford University Press, 2009).

Aletha J. Solter, Ph.D., author of Helping Young Children Flourish, which includes research on the value of play for children, says play “is the primary means of learning during early childhood”(1989; p. 91).  According to Solter’s research, there are at least three different types of play to consider when examining young children’s behavior and interactions with adults and others; fantasy play, socio-dramatic play, role reversals. Fantasy play is the “Let’s pretend” we often associate with childhood. Can you still remember what it felt like when you were ‘being’ a fireman, veterinarian, or fairy princess as a child?  When this type of play involves two or more children, researchers call it socio-dramatic play. And role reversal occurs during those surprisingly beneficial periods when our children direct the make-believe where, for instance, they are the Doctor, and we become the patient, following along and supporting the imaginary hospital they invite us to share. By playing role reversals, children unload the stress of always being the less powerful one and the frustration of having to learn so much for the first time.

As children master the adult world, play helps them practice behaviors and situations that lead to enhanced confidence and the resilience needed to face future challenges. Undirected play allows children to learn how to work in groups, to share, to negotiate, to resolve conflicts and to learn self-advocacy skills (American Academy of Pediatrics, “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds,” 2007). More in-depth research can be found in The Journal of the National Association for the Education of Young Children. The March 2005 edition carries an article, “Making the Case for Play Policy – Research-Based Reasons to Support Play-Based Environments” by Dolores A. Stegelin. The article cites numerous additional sources of research that backup the importance of play in children’s lives.

Yet play is still so much more than the above research quantifies. Warm, relaxed, attentive, playful give and take with a caring adult is good for all children in a deep and satisfying way. It’s impossible to overestimate the benefits that children get from this type of play. In the UK recently, a carefully designed study demonstrated that adults playing with children, where the children led and created the play, measurably changed—in a good way—the children’s long-term neurobiological development. The research was done with infants who were not thriving before this small amount of supported play was introduced to their lives. An hour a week of dedicated adult-child play was proven to improve the development of the emotional self-regulation skills that these children needed for successful relationships throughout their lives.

“A randomized controlled study of 129 children, ages 9 to 24 months, exhibiting stunted development found that weekly play sessions had significant long-term benefits (to age 17) for psychosocial functioning, including reduced anxiety and depression and fewer attention problems” (Susan P. Walker et al., “Effects of Psychosocial Stimulation and Dietary Supplementation in Early Childhood on Psychosocial Functioning in Late Adolescence,” British Medical Journal, July 2006).

The well-respected child psychologist and author, Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D., has found that play is not only an effective way to help children learn and develop social skills, but an effective way for parents to nurture a bond with their children and for parents to discipline children effectively.  “Playful parenting is a way to enter the child’s world on the child’s terms, in order to foster closeness, confidence and connection” (2001; p. 2).

And “It has been found that parents can be very effective play therapists for their children at home.  If your child has experienced a traumatic event, you can encourage dramatic play about the event by providing toys or props along with your own participation and loving attention” (Solter 1989 p. 97 – 98).

“The third purpose for play for children, and perhaps the one that is most uniquely human, is to recover from emotional distress.  By pretending, or re-telling the story the scene can be re-created.  This time the child is in charge.  Through playing it out, emotional healing takes place” (Cohen, 2001; p. 6).

One of the most useful things I have learned about this vital play time, is how to work it into our schedule. I follow the simple “Special Time” directions they teach at Hand in Hand Parenting. I use a timer. And I play for amounts of time as small as five-to-fifteen minutes. Sure, more is great, but you’d be amazed what a difference you can make with just five minutes, the way Parenting by Connection instructor, Tosha Schore talks about in this blog post.

What have you learned from the science of play that’s changed the way you interact with your kids?

Favorite Books of The Parent Scientist

The book that interested me in the science behind parenting was Ronald Kotulak’s Inside the Brain: Revolutionary Discoveries of How the Mind Works. I was newly married and contemplating the start of a family and his chapter, “The Effects of Violence and Stress on Kid’s Brains,” was a chilling heads-up on just how vitally my parenting was going to effect the development of my future off-spring. In 2000, as I sat rocking my infant daughter, I used Lise Elliot’s What’s Going on in There? : How the Brain and Mind Develop in the First Five Years of Life as my guidebook to the unfolding neurobiological miracle tucked snugly in my arms.

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Then came toddlerhood, and all the neurobiology in the world could not have prepared me for the emotional volcano that erupted around me on a daily basis. Other, more experienced mothers on the playground would look at me with wide eyes and tell me gently, “She’s very intense.” It wasn’t until I stumbled across the Listening to Children booklets by Patty Wipfler of Hand in Hand Parenting that I began to understand how to respond well to the ever-developing mind that was driving my active and emotional toddler. And the science book that helped those parenting practices click into place was the beautifully written A General Theory of Love by a group of local psychiatrists, Drs. Lewis, Amini, and Lannon. Their book poetically details the ins and outs of the attachment relationships in families and explores the deeper neurobiology of parenting and other attachment-based relationships.

Another great resource that brings neurobiology and day-to-day parenting together is a book written by Dr. Daniel Siegel and Mary Hartzell, Parenting from the Inside Out. This is the work that brought me back around to the premonitions Kotulak’s Inside the Brain had started—parenting really matters. But more than that, it showed me that who we are as parents is formed largely by how we are parented. And if we want to do something different with our children, especially something corrective, it’s going to take work to swim upstream against the patterns that were laid down in our own childhoods. Dr. Siegel and Mary Hartzell give clear examples of how things in our own past experience make parenting our children challenging in those same trouble spots. This book is not a light read, and I’ve been through it several times now, once with a book group, which made the trip much more enjoyable and useful for my own parenting.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by the “opportunities for growth” presented by Siegel and Hartzell, there’s hope. One of Dr. Siegel’s colleagues has written a friendly and accessible book on the positive side of human connections. In The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain, Dr. Louis Cozolino uses stories from his private psychotherapy practice to bring the neuroscience to life as he comprehensively demonstrates the reparative abilities of the human mind.

My bookshelf currently holds Brain Rules for Baby, by the wonderfully engaging and readable John Medina and The Whole-Brain Child by Dr. Siegel, and new co-author, Tina Payne Bryson. Am I missing any of your favorites? Were your eyes opened during your parenting journey by someone I’ve overlooked? I hope you’ll leave a comment sharing which books brought the science of parenting alive for you and your family.

Parent Science 101 (Part 3) – Listening and Limits

The touch of someone we love calms, soothes and decreases stress.  When someone is in physical or emotional pain, we move toward them with physical expressions of warmth and comfort.  Clearly, touch is an important channel of communication and a vital mechanism of human bonding.

Louis Cozolino in The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain

Human beings need closeness.

We are social animals built to live and work together. Closeness is a basic need of children. Crying is how children call us back to closeness, relieve stress and heal upsets. Tears literally wash stress hormones out of the body. When you combine these two fundamental bits of the human condition by being close to your crying child, you help him know that he’s OK. He learns, after many hard cries in the shelter of your arms, that he will feel better afterward.

Any time your child’s sense of connection has been broken, he feels upset and the resulting feelings create a further barrier to connection.  A “Take it to your room until you get over it” style of parenting shames a child just for being human. Being close to your child through an upset helps him to know that you care, quickly reestablishes a warm, close connection, and gives your child a deep sense of well-being and the confidence to thrive.

When your child is upset, crying, or having a tantrum, respect his right to have feelings, allow him to cry and listen to everything, both what he says and what he shows you while he experiences the upset. Tell your child, “I’m sorry it’s hard; I’ll stay with you while you’re upset.”

Light touch and comfortable warmth lead to increases in oxytocin and endorphins that enhance social bonds through an association with a feeling of well-being.  Touch also leads to mild sedation, decreases in blood pressure, and aids in autonomic regulation and cardiovascular health. (Knox & Uvnas-Moberg, 1998; Weller & Feldman, 2003)

Dr. Stanley I. Greenspan is the Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at George Washington University Medical School.  A practicing child psychiatrist and supervising child psychoanalyst, Dr. Greenspan designed a developmental model that guides the care of infants and children around the world.  The author and editor of over 30 books, Dr. Greenspan’s influential works include The Growth of the Mind, Building Healthy Minds, The Child with Special Needs, and The Challenging Child.

In one of his books, The Secure Child: Helping Our Children Feel Safe and Confident in an Insecure World, he recommends listening through children’s tantrums and increasing empathy toward your child, especially while setting limits.  In Parenting by Connection, this process is called “Staylistening”. Dr. Greenspan explains it this way:

The natural tendency is to pull away from empathy and closeness when you’re involved in angry exchanges, power struggles, or limit setting.  How can you empathize with misbehavior?  You can empathize with how hard it is to learn new lessons, for instance, to see a new toy and not grab it.  It is only when limit setting is coupled with empathy that your child will eventually wish to please you (2000; p. 72).

Crying means your child is smart.

Crying while in physical or visual contact with a loved one has not only proven psychologically beneficial for children, but has positive biological implications as well.  Dr. Aletha J. Solter, Ph.D, author of The Aware Baby, offers research that crying has cognitive benefits for babies.  Her research has shown that crying (in the arms of an attentive parent) relieves stress and allows the brain to function more effectively, leading to improved social skills, self-esteem, intelligence and even improved physical health.

Another long-term benefit of allowing babies to heal from early trauma through crying is that this helps them be more attentive and alert for learning. Allowing your baby to cry freely in your arms, when his other needs have been met, will help him form a habit of crying when he needs to instead of suppressing his emotions.  This will help him stay healthier. Pent up stress is a contributing factor to many illnesses, high blood pressure, diabetes, all of which are known to be at least partially caused by stress (1989; p. 55). Louis Cozolino adds that, “healthy, intimate relationships consistently correlate with better cardiovascular health, immunological functioning and resistance to stress.” (Robles & Kiecolt-Glaser, 2003)

Dr. Dan Siegel and Mary Hartzell emphasize this process in their book, Parenting from the Inside Out.  In the same way that parents need to release their feelings of stress in order to function as good parents, children also need to offload their emotions.  “Letting your child have his emotion and letting him know that you understand it’s hard not to get what he wants is the kindest and most helpful thing you can do for your child at that moment.”

Multiple sources confirm that crying should not only be tolerated but encouraged as a healthy way of expressing feelings and releasing stress.  Having someone who cares about the child listen while he cries increases the positive benefits of crying. It promotes the parent-child connection children need to bounce back from adversity, confident and ready to learn again.

Time-in, not time-out.

This is why Hand in Hand promotes “time in” rather than “time out” which puts the focus on connecting with your child when he is upset or displaying disruptive behavior rather than isolating him from you.  “That puts a lot of importance on parenting because that has a big impact on the way the brain becomes wired,” says Christopher Coe, a University of Wisconsin psychologist who has shown that infant monkeys deprived of parenting have deficiencies in key brain structures and suffer from numerous immunological disorders.

There is a social cost if you don’t have good parenting.  It may be that you stamp an individual for their lifetime, not only in terms of their behavior and emotions, but literally their predisposition for disease. The stresses caused by bad experiences can actually affect genes, switching them on or off at the wrong times, forcing them to build abnormal networks of brain-cell connections. (Kotulak, 1997)

A series of negative experiences, such as harshness or isolation of a child in need of closeness and comfort, affects the brain primarily through stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline that are designed to prepare the body for fight, flight or freeze.  However, in the context of a connected group setting when children are with supportive, caring adults who attend to their feelings, such transitions are more or less smooth: the upset occurs, the child revs up for fight or flight, the child reconnects with the safety of the parent or caregiver, and the body returns to normal hormone levels when the feelings have been expressed and the child’s sense of danger is over.

Setting healthy limits and listening to upsets is neuroscience in practice.

Setting limits and then taking time to be present with whatever feelings or upset that limit may release from inside our children teaches us how to help kids transition through the highly emotional alarm cycle. It helps us stop unworkable behavior, recognize our child’s ‘alarm’ signals, reconnect using our love and caring, allow the stress hormones to swiftly run their course through tears or trembling, and then encourage our child to come back into a natural balance and warm connection with us.

This article was first published on the Hand in Hand Parenting website.

Parent Science 101 (Part 2) – Emotion

“Don’t be so emotional!” “Don’t let your feelings run away with you!” “Big boys don’t cry.” “Calm down and let’s be rational about this.” Life is full of warnings to keep our emotional lives in check. Yet emotion, and the human connections it makes possible, is essential to happy, productive lives.

What Are Emotions For?

Emotions are at the root of everything we do—they guide us, motivate us and give the everyday moments of our lives meaning and color and energy. It is emotional awareness that allows people to receive the contents of each other’s minds. Every time you talk with a friend or see a powerful movie or read a book that sends shivers down your spine with its conclusion, you connect with the emotional experience of another person. For a moment you are part of another perspective and another way of looking at the world. Emotions allow communion with another.

Emotional expressions are universal. There have been many studies of isolated, preliterate tribes who had no exposure to Westerners who make the same facial expressions of emotions as Americans, and can recognize accurately American’s expressions and what they mean. Blind children still smile when they are happy—even though they have never seen anyone around them do so.

In fact, all mammals are excellent at reading the signals of emotion that others send out. Ever had a dog or cat who would come to sit with you when you were feeling tearful? Or how about the instant feeling of recognition that you get when your child comes home from school in a rotten mood? Humans have very finely tuned receptors in the limbic brain for reading many different types of nonverbal signals. And they are especially tuned in to other members of their family.

For slides from an interesting presentation by Raja Parasuraman from his Cognitive Neuroscience class on Emotion, click here.

Working with our Emotional Nature

The best thing about a grumpy emotional state your toddler wakes up in is that it doesn’t last forever. Most human emotions are quick to arise and just as quickly fade away again. Emotions are like our internal weather. Might be looking pretty cloudy this afternoon but by morning we expect sunshine to return again.

And, like them or not, emotions are about as easy to control as the weather too. We can’t control the feelings we have—what we want, who we love, or whether we’re happy or not at a certain time. Children do not have conscious control over what they feel at a given time, and may only have limited control over how they express what they might be feeling. Emotional life can be influenced, but it cannot be commanded. As parents, it’s our job to help our children understand that emotional life is rich, is powerful, and while we need not let it make our decisions for us, neither should we fear it. Remember, “All feelings are acceptable, even if all behaviors are not.”

When we take the time to warmly listen to the expression of feelings that pour out of  a child who is overwhelmed at that moment, we are letting them know that they are fundamentally welcomed by us, the good and the ugly, the smiles and the tears. Who they are and what they experience as a human being are OK with us, even while some of the expressions of those emotional states are bound to be clumsy and uncomfortable at times. They, and their most tender and closely held emotional experiences, are loved and cared for. Maybe we can’t agree with them that it’s a good idea to return the new baby to the midwife who helped deliver it, but we can certainly understand how they might have a lot of feelings about the changes the new baby has brought. We won’t let them smash the complicated toy with too many moving parts to bits, but we can appreciate how deeply frustrated and incompetent they are feeling while they try to master it. We can understand and listen to how frightening it is to lay there in the dark all alone, and at the same time we can feel confident that they can sleep in their own beds all night long.

This article was first published on the Hand in Hand Parenting website.

Parent Science 101 (Part One) – Connection

Connection is essential to raise healthy, capable, successful children. But don’t take my word for it. There is lots of fascinating science on the subject that makes surprisingly good reading.

New babyFor example, Dr. Daniel Siegel of the UCLA School of Medicine, said in a 2001 article, “the infant is born into the world genetically programmed to connect with caregivers who will become ‘attachment figures’ in the child’s life”. According to Siegel’s research, children who experience a strong attachment early in life do better as they grow up. “Longitudinal studies have found that securely attached children appear to have a number of positive outcomes in their development. These include enhanced emotional flexibility, social functioning and cognitive abilities.”

Lawrence J. Cohen, PH.D. and author of Playful Parenting uses the simple metaphor of a cup. A child who feels empty inside because of having a frustrating day, goes to their attachment figure to fill up.

Dorothy Corkille Briggs, in Your Child’s Self-Esteem, explains that “every child needs periodic genuine encounters with his parents. A genuine encounter is simply focused attention. It is attention with a special intensity born of direct, personal involvement. Vital contact means being intimately open to the particular, unique qualities of your child” (1975, p. 64).

And it’s not just an emotional need. Connecting with adults who love them is an essential factor in the physical development of children’s brains. The growth of the brain is dependent on experiencing a relationship with a caring adult. “Relationships that are ‘connecting’ and allow for collaboration appear to offer children a wealth of interpersonal closeness that supports the development of many domains, including social, emotional, and cognitive functioning” (Siegel, 2001; p. 78).

Developing a close connection with a child doesn’t just encourage the child to develop skills but actually programs the brain to use what it learns well. Siegel, in further research, tells us, “In fact, experience shapes brain structure. How we treat our children changes who they are and how they develop. Their brains need parental involvement. Nature needs nurture.” (Siegel, 2004; p. 34).

No pressure, folks, but that game of peek-a-boo you just played built new neural connections in your baby’s brain. The deep breath you took before yelling at the teenager who’s pushing all your buttons just allowed them a moment to practice regulating their own emotional states. What you do to promote connection, even the very small things, matters.

The Education Training Research Associates, (ETR) with funding from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, conducted a literature review on the effects of parents developing a secure connection with their children early in life. Their resulting paper provides an excellent guide for understanding the true impact a strong parent child connection can have on children.

ETR’s review of over 600 research studies concludes that Parent Child Connectedness is the “super-protective factor” against adverse outcomes in adolescence. PCC is the single strongest indicator that an adolescent will reach adulthood without experiencing teen pregnancy or violence, without becoming addicted to drugs or tobacco, and without dropping out of high school.

I know that a strong and secure connection between you and the children you love is essential for all of you to flourish. And being a parent myself, I know it isn’t always easy. That’s why I’m here to help.

This article was first published on the Hand in Hand Parenting website.