In attuned caregiving with a child, we escort the child through their ups and downs of emotions so they can learn to self-regulate. In doing this, they can learn about who they are and what they are experiencing. Adopting a habit of reflecting to a child what they are experiencing, including what they are needing and feeling, is a way to create secure attachment with the child.
Let’s say your 5 year old child is asking for ice cream and, because it is bed time, you do not want them to have ice cream. In the past, they may have melted into tears and yelled in frustration because they could not get the ice cream they really wanted.
An example of how it could look to support them in this very real emotional experience (though we may judge it to be inconsequential because it is “just” an ice cream) could be the following:
1. O – Make an observation of the situation with expression of what is happening – “You really want the ice cream right now” said with genuine warmth and care.
2. F – State the feelings they seem to be having – “You are so frustrated and sad that you cannot have it.” Offer understanding – “It’s hard when you can’t get what you want, isn’t it?”
3. N – Listen to their expression of needs and wants. Reflect back to them their expressed needs and wants with empathy – “You feel like you really want the ice cream. I get that.”
4. R – offer an alternative to their request that creates connection between you. This might include affection, a story, or having a healthy snack together– “What kind of ice cream would you like to have together tomorrow?”
After a child feels heard and understood, and their nervous system has come to a better state of regulation, they are able to hear suggestions or redirection. Teddy Roosevelt’s quote, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care” relates to this. Until they feel cared about, their brains neurologically have a difficult time absorbing new information, logic, suggestions or demands.
Even if their needs don’t make sense or seem dramatic, children have a voracious need to be seen and understood. This feeling of being seen and understood is key for their brain integration. According to Daniel Siegel, “findings in the field of neuroplasticity support the perspective that parents can directly shape the unfolding growth of their child’s brain according to what experience they offer.” A child’s brain is constantly “wiring and re-wiring” in order to integrate the multiple parts. When we help our children feel understood and express their needs and wants (even illogical or dramatic ones), we help their nervous system regulate, and help the brain wire in an integrated way.
If you’d like to learn more communication skills of connecting in context of a child’s brain development, we will be hosting a 3-part online course for parents of children ages 2 to 12 years old, “Connecting with Children: A Communication Class for Parents” 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 and practice new skills together.