The role of parenting is a very important and challenging job that involves the formation of a young person’s identity and self-concept as well as their social skills and ability to form satisfying relationships with others. Children have specific needs related to their caregivers, and these needs change as their nervous system grows through developmental stages. John Bowlby pioneered attachment theory which says all humans have a need to be attuned and connected to their caregivers. When they have this, they learn to self-regulate and are more resilient in times of stress and adversity because they have developed a healthy trust in themselves and a sense of identity. Attuning to children involves connecting and communicating with them. Present, attuned caregiving regulates a child’s nervous system and helps them learn who they are.
In our culture, there is a tendency to focus on behaviors instead of needs and feelings, and sometimes children are expected to behave in rational ways when their nervous systems and language abilities just aren’t there yet. So we can put on a new pair of glasses that sees the needs that a child is trying to meet in the context of their current development, and, in that space, behaviors start to make sense. With this understanding, we can empathize with those needs with verbal and non-verbal communication. These are needs all humans have, at one time or another. We have all been there! When the child feels heard and understood, they feel the connection with you, and they can breathe and open back into the world of relating and learning.
In their book, The Whole Brain Child, Dr. Daniel J. Siegel, Ph.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. explore the areas of the brain and their development and relate it to specific behaviors of developing children. They share that children whose parents talk to their children about their experiences, have better access to memories of those experiences, and children of parents who talk about feelings and are curious of their child’s feelings and needs will develop emotional intelligence and self-awareness.
The brain is always changing. Siegel and Bryson celebrate that parents can “directly shape the unfolding growth of their child’s brain according to what experiences they offer.” They go on to say that as children grow in more relational environments, the different areas of their brain will integrate more and work together more harmoniously giving the child more self-control, self-awareness, and more access to their own mental resources. They say that, while the rate of brain maturation is largely influenced by genetics, how parts of the brain integrate and interact successfully depends on day-to-day interactions with caregivers.
So how can parents be attuned to their children, and relate in a way that supports integration? Here are a few places to start.
1. Mirror and communicate: Summarize to your child what they are doing and experiencing, and communicate in a way that their world is being seen, respected and understood. You may be thinking, “This will take too much time,” or “I already know how to speak to my children!” Most of us inadvertently communicate in ways that can be more disconnecting than connecting. Read on to discover a few more ways to communicate with respect.
2. Take away the labels! We use labels all the time: words like, “lazy,” “cheating,” “impertinent,” “rude,” and “procrastinating.” These words save time in communicating dissatisfaction, but they can really disconnect the relationship, lower trust and leave your child confused, hurt and defensive. Instead, talk about what is actually happening (observation), and how it affects you. There is so much more human truth in that expression than in using a label and helps children connect to others’ realities and to themselves. It builds that core empathy muscle and an understanding of what feelings are and what causes them.
3. Practice empathy. Just the simple act of telling your child with empathy what you see them experiencing with warmth and genuineness is so transformative. Carl Rogers described how empathy impacts recipients: “When someone really hears you without passing judgment on you, without trying to take responsibility for you, without trying to mold you, it feels damn good!” He also said, “It is astonishing how elements that seem insoluble become soluble when someone listens, how confusion that seemed irremediable turn into relatively clear flowing streams when one is heard.” This is so important with children as they have a tendency, according to Siegel and Bryson, to dissociate experiences and feelings. Empathic reflective listening helps your child’s nervous system go from activated to calm, and helps integrate the different brain parts that are being wired and rewired! This helps them really begin to understand themselves and other humans at a deeper relational level and helps them start to connect to the language of feelings and needs.
If you’d like to learn powerful communication skills of connecting, we will be hosting a 3-part online course for parents of children ages 2 to 12 years old, facilitated by Kathleen McKee, M.S. who has been teaching empathic communication for ten years. The course is on three Mondays: November 28, Dec 5 and Dec 12. There, you will meet other parents who may be struggling with the challenges of parenting while learning and practicing new skills. It will be an accepting empathic place to grow awareness of how you might be inadvertently communicating in ways that limit connection.
Kathleen McKee, MS is pursuing her certification in Nonviolent Communication and is a Masters Student pursuing her degree in Social work with an emphasis on Family Therapy. She has 12 years of experience teaching group classes in empathic communication, self-compassion, developmental trauma and self-realization.