Love-Based Parenting: Stop Using Consequences

Below is another excellent article by Heather F. Forbes, LCSW, a parenting expert that I really think has great advice. Her “Beyond Consequences” books and concepts advocate looking beyond behaviors to the emotions that are driving the behaviors in children. Always parent knowing that kids needs to spend more time in “love” (safety) emotions rather than “fear” emotions. Punishment and consequences are about invoking a fear response in children.

Q: I need a quick way to explain to my parents (who will be visiting during the holidays) what is meant by “Parenting Beyond Consequences.” They don’t seem to understand the way I’m parenting and are quite critical of me. They aren’t interested in the neuroscience or the brain research. They’re simply coming from the old school of the basics, so any help you have would be appreciated!

A: Beyond Consequences can be a difficult concept to understand and to “wrap your brain around” when you’ve been living in a more traditional mindset for years, even generations. Love is about meeting people where they are and respecting their perspectives. Understanding that your parents are looking through the lens of the “old school” is the first place to start. From such a point of reference, this model is sometimes interpreted as if you’re coddling or babying your child. The following explanation is written in more general terms in order to help a grandparent, relative, or anyone, begin to make a shift. Remember to be patient with them; you’re shifting an entire paradigm and framework of interpretation.

Children need unconditional love and unconditional acceptance from their parents; we all know this and believe this. However, do we ever stop to consider how so many of the traditional parenting techniques accepted in our culture work contrary to this primal goal? Traditional parenting techniques that involve consequences, controlling directives, and punishment are fear-based and fear-driven. They have the ability to undermine the parent-child relationship and because they are tied into behavior, children easily interpret these actions to mean, “If I’m not good, I am not lovable.” Thus, children often build a subconscious foundation that says that love and approval is based off of performance.

Parenting from a love-based paradigm means going beyond our children’s behavior and beyond consequences to first see that negative behavior is a form of communication and that negative behavior is a response to stress. If we see the kicking and screaming child as one who is having difficulty regulating due to an overflow of feelings and stress, we can learn to stay present with the child in order to help him modulate these overwhelming feelings and overabundance of stress and thus, help him to build his regulatory system. This is a child who has been “emotionally hijacked.” Emotions are not logical or rational; this negative acting-out is the body’s natural fear reaction gone awry.

Allowing a child emotional space to safely dissipate this energy will then allow him to calm down. As we provide reassurance, unconditional love, and emotional presence for our children, the need to act-out will disappear. Many times our children act-out simply because they do not feel that they are being listened to nor do they feel as if they have been heard. Staying present and reassuring a child that you really are listening to him, can sometimes be enough to help him begin to regulate. The life lesson that the bad behavior is inappropriate does indeed need to be taught and reinforced. However, this life lesson can only happen once the child is fully regulated (when the child is calm) and his cognitive thinking is intact. This is also the time to present alternatives to the negative acting-out behavior. This is how we teach our children instead of punishing them. The definition of discipline is to teach.

The more we can stay focused on the relationship with our children and strengthening this relationship instead of controlling it through consequences, logic, and control, the more we will be helping our children learn to work through their stress appropriately. Below are four pointers to going beyond consequences:

1. Just Be Happy!-But I’m not! Did anyone ever tell you, “Just think happy thoughts and it will be okay.”? Did it really work? Probably not. Emotions do not simply disappear. If feelings are not acknowledged and released, they are stored and become part of our physical make-up. Research has convincingly shown that being able to express feelings like anger and grief can improve survival rates in cancer patients. With our children, feelings that become stored and “stuffed” become activators for negative behaviors.

2. ALL Feelings are Good Feelings – As parents, it is important for us to understand the necessity of emotional expression, both in teaching it to our children and in modeling it to them. Blocked feelings can inhibit growth, learning, and the building of a trusting relationship between the parent and child. The first step to take is to recognize that ALL emotions are healthy. In our culture, feelings such as joy, peace, and courage are seen as good feelings, yet feelings such as sad, mad, and scared are seen as negative feelings. We must rethink our interpretion so this: Negative feelings don’t create acting-out behaviors; it is the lack of expression of the negative feelings that creates the acting out.

3. Get to the Core of the Behavior – When children are acting out and being defiant, we need to begin to understand that their behaviors are simply a communication of an dysregulated state that is driving these behaviors. If we simply address the behavior, we miss the opportunity to help children express and understand themselves from a deeper regulatory and emotional level. We need to help our children build their emotional intelligence. Start by modeling basic feeling words to your child. Keep it simple and teach the five basic feeling words: sad, mad, happy, scared, and grateful. Even the youngest of children can learn to say, “I’m mad!” When the toddler is throwing his toys or the teenager is having his version of a tantrum, encourage him at that moment to get to the core of the behavior through emotional expression. Remember:it really isn’t about the behavior. They really do know better than to do these things.

4. Responding vs. Reacting – So the next time your child becomes defiant, talks back, or is simply “ugly” to you, work to be in a place not to react to the behavior, but respond to your child. Respond to your child in an open way-open to meeting him in his heart and helping him understand the overload of feelings that are driving the behaviors. He doesn’t need a consequence or another parental directive at that moment; he just needs you to be present with him (this does not mean you agree with the behavior, it means you are not correlating his behavior with your acceptance of him as a person). As your child learns to respond back to you positively through the parent-child relationship, he won’t have the need to communicate through negative behaviors anymore. You’ll both have more energy for each other, building a relationship that will last a lifetime and more energy to learn how to do it differently the next time.

For more parenting tips, check out some of my videos on Youtube:

1.)  Sibling Rivalry

2.)  The Missing Piece

3.)  The Parent’s Stress

4.)  Chores

5.)  Overwhelm

I hope the upcoming holidays are peaceful and loving. And remember, it’s not a behavioral problem; it’s a regulatory problem! Press on,

Heather T. Forbes, LCSW

Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2Dare to Love, and Help for Billy.

How to Reframe and Handle a Kid’s Negative Attitude

hategraffiti.jpgI am once again sharing an article by Hather Forbes, who is one of my favorite parenting experts. Her “love-based” parenting directly addresses the fear (“fight-or-flight”) responses that so many traumatized kids experience. This perfectly explains how to reframe and handle a kid’s negative attitude — a common problem. 

Q: My 8-year-old son “hates” everything: the particular car driving down the street, the shirt I’m wearing, the kid next door, the color of the living room, the cashier at the grocery store, etc., etc. I am having trouble understanding this and how to deal with it. Any insights?

A: I’m certain that this is a maddening place to be with your son and that it feels as if nothing will make him happy. There’s nothing more frustrating than to try to send positive energy to someone, only to be met with resistance and negativity.

In order to reverse your child’s perception of the world as negative, it will first take a new understanding of why he “hates” everything. When children’s needs are met early in their development, their blueprint for the world becomes positive and optimistic. When a baby is crying and sending out stress signals, he is in need of nurturing and comforting care. When this is given to him, his system is shifted back to a state of regulation and the world is a good place-he develops a sense of optimism.

If he is not cared for and if he is left on his own to navigate through his internal stress, the world becomes a scary place.  Negative repetitious conditioning breeds an outlook of pessimism. No matter how much he cries, no matter what he does, he can’t seem to convince his caretakers to help him. Helplessness and overwhelm prevail. For such a child, nothing is working, so his universal blueprint of “nothing is right” is being created.

A child who “hates” everything is a child in a perpetual state of fear and dysregulation. His neurophysiological system has been programmed to see the world as half empty instead of half full. He truly doesn’t know that everything is going to be all right. He really doesn’t know that good always overcomes evil. Essentially, he is programmed to live an operatic tragedy instead of a light-hearted drama.

Think about this…isn’t it great to simply go to Netflix and pick out what kind of movie you want? Maybe it is a romantic comedy; maybe it is an action movie; maybe even during this Halloween season it is a horror flick.

But in our own realities, we don’t have the luxury of returning one life and checking out another so quickly. What we do have are three key elements to make significant changes to our life stories: 1) understanding, 2) relationship, and 3) plasticity.

The first of these, understanding, was addressed in the beginning of this article. The second, relationships, is something that is always available to initiate. Healing happens in the context of relationships, and most fervently through the context of the parent-child relationship. And third, plasticity, is what an 8-year-old has plenty of. The brain continues to make major changes until we are 25 years old.

Your child needs to know that the world is safe and good. In order to do this, it will take creating a deeper relationship with him. It will take helping him to express himself at a deeper level. The next time he makes a negative statement, such as, “I hate the shirt you are wearing,” sit with him and listen to him. Ask him more about what he hates.

Validate his negativity instead of trying to convince him of something more positive. “You really do hate this shirt. Wow. Help me understand how much you hate it. Tell me more.” As he expresses himself, help him shift into the feelings behind these words. (It’s really not about the shirt.) “How does that make you feel?”

Essentially, his “I hate the world” statements are indicators of his own internal reality: “The world hates me and I don’t even deserve to be in this world.” When a child (or adult) feels this depth of darkness from within himself, it makes sense as to why all his comments are negative towards his external environment.

Think about a time when you were just in a bad mood. Nothing seemed to be right; nothing seemed to be the way you wanted it to be. Your perception of the world matched your negative framework. So, it is the same with your child, simply at a deeper level within the core of his being.

When you can help him to move into this core area within himself by listening, validating, maximizing, tolerating, accepting, and staying present with him, you’ll be there in relationship to guide him towards feeling safe and loved. Thus, you’ll be able to guide him to see that the world is good and hope does exist. It will take positive repetitious conditioning to do this for him (see Beyond Consequences, Logic, and Control, Chapter 3).

The reason this works is because our neurological systems are “plastic.” We have the ability to change and be molded, especially children. Your son is growing and developing everyday. He still has years ahead of him to create new neuropathways. Every interaction with you is an opportunity to literally change his brain and lay down new neuropatterns of positive thought and positive outlook.

Work to stay in a place of understanding, keep yourself regulated, and know that through loving influence, you have the ability to create exactly the environment he needs for healing, hope, and optimism.

Press on,

HeatherHeather T. Forbes, LCSW
Parent and Author of Beyond Consequences, Logic & Control: Volume 1 & Volume 2,
Dare to Love, and Help for Billy.

College Debt Worries Start Much Too Young

Student-loan-debt1When I came of age in the mid-1970s, worry about college debt was nonexistent, because, of course, college costs were much, much lower. I was told when I was a kid that I would have to pay every penny of college costs by myself, but I didn’t really think much about how that would happen. I worked throughout high school and saved a fair amount. I continued to work part time during college and worked full time during breaks. I lived on ramen and tuna (it was also much cheaper then!) and figured it out. I did have to drop out for a year because I was broke, but otherwise made it through in five years with only a few hundred dollars in a loan at the end that I paid off in a short amount of time. (It was at 11.9% interest and from my parents, so I couldn’t shirk on that debt!) Through it all I don’t remember worrying more than a normal amount about tuition bills, and usually just right before the start of each semester.

Certainly, things are much different now in terms of college costs. But as a psychotherapist, I am also seeing a big difference in how this awareness of college expenses is affecting today’s children — and at very young ages.

I am now regularly seeing middle school-aged pre-teens with very high levels of stated anxiety about how they are going to pay for college. Yes, middle school.

They have chronic insomnia from worrying about studying enough and getting a good grade in algebra in 8th grade so they can get into the advanced algebra class in 9th grade so they can get into the AP trig classes in 11th and 12th grades so they can put all these good grades and advanced classes on their college applications and get into a good college and get a good scholarship. Whew! All because they worry about how expensive college will be. They are four or five years from even stepping foot onto a college campus as a student and they are actively, consciously worrying about this pyramid of plans.

This makes them put huge pressure on themselves to not even get one B on one minor quiz. I was an over-achiever in high school, but I certainly didn’t sweat a B and not for those reasons.

I see many high-achieving teens coming in with insomnia, worry, panic attacks on test days, headaches, stomachaches, over-focus on grades and fear of failure issues. Times sure have changed! When I was in high school it was “super un-cool” to get good grades or care about your college career.

Today peer pressure exists related to competition for grades, college application spots and scholarships starting even in junior high. Where we applied for college in the fall of our senior year, students now start junior year with the application process underway and college tours often completed. Students now know exactly what GPA and ACT score it will take to get into which university, and they know what all their classmates scores are and where they are applying. I had no such awareness when I was 16 and I’m not sure anyone even talked about these details.

Now, I certainly can’t fix the high cost of college tuition, but clearly this level of anxiety is not healthy for kids. The self-criticism they are experiencing internally with each B grade is setting them up for emotional difficulties that might be labeled as “anxiety” or “depression.” (False labels, but that’s another topic!)

Parents need to address this issue directly, it appears, to reassure their children that either money will be saved for them for college or that it will be addressed at the appropriate time. Teaching kids some mindfulness meditation and self-calming skills would also be in order. Parents need to make it very clear that they love and accept their children regardless of grades, college acceptance or career choice. Parents can certainly not over-focus on grades themselves by constantly checking the on-line grade reporting apps.

We need to get kids’ minds off worry and back into learning for learning’s sake. And back into being kids, not over-pressured junior adults.

How One Sentence Can Teach a Child Shame and Low Self-Worth

The power of shame is so great that just one sentence, used repeatedly in parenting, might teach a child to feel ashamed and lead to a lifetime of low self-worth.

Let’s examine a  common scenario: A child misbehaves by throwing a toy, then starts having a tantrum, and maybe starts to really lose control of his emotions. The parents try to manage the situation, stop the behavior, and teach a lesson. These are all laudable goals, but they may backfire.

One common question parents ask kids in these moments is:  “Why did you do it?” I believe this “why” question is the cause of a lot of emotional problems for children.

First, we need to understand that kids’ brains are not fully developed. They are born with a full complement of “emotional” brain, but very little “thinking” brain. The “thinking” brain develops over the next 20 years or so. This means that when they are young, they have poor cognitive ability to reason, be logical, understand the consequences of their actions, or fully consider the impact of their behaviors on others.

We also need to recognize that when any human is in the midst of an emotional “meltdown” and become dysregulated, he has less ability to think clearly. The “emotional” brain takes over and the “thinking” brain does not function well. For a child this is especially true, given their brain development. To ask a child to use higher-level thinking, especially when he is in an emotional state (tantrum), is not age appropriate. Even adults don’t think logically when they are enraged.

So, if a parent asks “Why did you do it” in the midst of a child’s tantrum, here is what can go awry:

  1. This question demands that a child switch from their emotional brain to their thinking brain in the midst of emotional distress. This is difficult for a young child to do. And — let’s state the obvious — there is rarely a reason children throw toys or hit their siblings. So the “why” question immediately sets a child up for feelings of failure and shame. He thinks: “I have no reason for what I did. I should be able to say why I did it, but I can’t. So I must be stupid. I am disappointing my parents. And why can’t I calm down like my parents want me to? I’m out of control. I must be crazy and my brain is defective.” I have had children express these exact thoughts to me during therapy sessions, so I know they think this way.
  2. Kids don’t get soothing and calming for their “big, scary” emotions. When children are emotionally upset they first and mainly need comfort. Parents must be the calm, safe place where children can go to get understanding and comfort. If, in those moments, parents focus instead on correcting behaviors and punishing, the child never gets to feel the safety of emotional regulation. Kids need emotional attunement from parents FIRST, to ENABLE them to calm down and think logically. This teaches them to attune to their own emotions and calm themselves down. This is a lesson for a lifetime of emotional health that is far more powerful than any behavioral lesson parents may teach. Children who can regulate their emotions properly will also then behave properly. But the parents must attune first and be there to handle the big emotions.
  3. Parents often divert to logical discussions because they are uncomfortable with emotions of any kind. They feel shame because their child is misbehaving and they want their own shameful feelings to go away. So they avoid discussing emotions, instead focusing on behaviors. What does this teach a child? That emotions are embarrassing, distressing, and should be avoided at all costs. What message does this send a child who is emotional? That he is defective and “crazy,” leading to thoughts of self-blame and self-shame.

Regular exposure to the “why” questions and behaviorally focused parenting sets up a self-reinforcing cycle. Children who have been parented this way start to have very negative feelings of self-worth. When they do a small thing wrong and parents punish, it triggers a strong shame reaction.

For some, they self-shame and “lash in” at themselves in criticism. We rarely notice these “good kids.” Others “lash out” with oppositional and defiant behavior — but the reason is that they feel ashamed, damaged and different. When parents ask “why” it confirms this. Especially if the “why” is asked in an impatient, angry, frustrated tone, not a loving, patient, caring tone.

Trauma is about feeling helpless in a fearful situation. If we can feel competent and act, then trauma is less likely to be harmful in the long term. However, a child who becomes upset, then is asked “Why did you do it” , then is not comforted AND then feels shame on top of the already distressing situation is likely to be doubly traumatized. Repeat this on a daily basis for years and you have a recipe for a person who has thoughts of low self-worth and has not been coached on how to control his emotions — a toxic combination.

Parents must get out of their logical parent/adult brain and try to focus on a child’s emotions and less on the behaviors. Behaviors of a child should only be used as a clue to what is going on emotionally.  When a child is sad, angry, or upset do not focus on behaviors, give logical consequences or ask “why”. Focus on the emotions with reflective listening.

Certainly it is appropriate AFTER a child is calm to ask about why they did something and help them process their thoughts and behaviors. But too much focus on logical thinking and behaviors DURING emotionally distressing events leads a child to feel ashamed.

Guilt-ridden Parents Don’t Make Pack Leaders

It’s amazing what we can learn by observing animals — things that also reveal truths about human relationships.

For example, many pet owners who adopt an abused, homeless or disabled dog quite naturally feel sorry for it. They “love” the dog, but this can actually be more pity and spoiling than love, which is not healthy for the pet. The animal doesn’t need pity — it needs a Pack Leader. Dogs need confident, firm, decisive owners, not owners who talk in “loving” voices or are permissive.

Animals live in the moment. They move on from past abuse or neglect if the owner does. When the owner exhibits weak, emotional behavior, rather than Pack Leader behavior, the pet won’t know WHY this is happening, only that the owner is weak. Dogs sense a person’s energy. They don’t understand that the owner is well intentioned, only that the owner isn’t behaving as a secure, confident Pack Leader.

I see often this same dynamic with humans families, especially those involving adopted children or divorces. Parents feel guilty about the child’s situation and then pity the child, reacting by being permissive and not enforcing chores or rules, and by spoiling with gifts or excessive attention.

The TV show “Intervention” offers fascinating observations on this permissive, pitying behavior in parents. In one episode of “Intervention”, the family had a child, Terri, who was abducted from the house, raped and murdered when she was about 9 years old.

While this was a shocking incident, the mother, Diane, grieved excessively, not leaving her bedroom for 6 months. She probably felt guilt about her perceived role in the kidnapping, perhaps believing that she had failed as a mother by “letting” this incident occur.

This behavior was also self-involved, weak and Submissive, because she did not do what was best for her remaining family. She had two other children who needed a mother. She did not step up, manage her emotions in a healthy way, and help the family move past the tragedy. Instead she wallowed in it far too long.

Then she got pregnant. As you might predict, her guilt affected this new child, Brittany. Diane spoiled Brittany in an effort to make up for the lost child and to assuage her guilt. She essentially ignored the older two children. She also put tremendous direct pressure on Brittany to live up to Terri’s unfulfilled life.  The mother never saw Brittany as an individual, merely as a placeholder for Terri. Brittany perceived her mother’s weakness and took over, becoming Dominant and bossy, to the point where she demanded money for drugs from her parents and grandparents, took their car keys and threatened to prostitute herself if she didn’t get money for her drug habit.

This mother was living in the past, guilt-ridden and grieving for her lost child — for over 20 years!

But the children in the present needed her to be present for them. They needed her strength, not her weakness, yet that is the energy she expressed to them — submissiveness, insecurity, fear, and worry. Children who depend on their parents don’t need those emotions and behaviors. They need confidence, assertiveness and calmness. They need a Pack Leader.

Honor past traumas, but live in the moment, as a Pack Leader would. Don’t pity the person (or dog) who experienced the trauma.

If you treat people as if they are too fragile to handle a situation, they may believe you. They will also certainly believe that YOU are fragile. That is not a message parents should send to children.