Paradox #2: More Connecting, Less Correcting
***This is the second post in my series on The Paradoxes of Gentle Parenting.***
Your child is crying, or screaming, or hitting.
Or all of the above.
It takes all your willpower to not cry, scream, or hit back. You’ve vowed to stay away from outright abusive parenting.
But you can’t just let this kind of behavior slide. If you do, you imagine them turning into irresponsible and helpless adults who, God forbid, still pay rent.
So you reach around for other parenting tools to get your kids to behave.
When they get out of bed for the umpteenth time, you give them a consequence. When they hit their baby sister, you send them to their room. When they don’t do their chores, you take away a privilege.
And if you are a recovering tiger mom like me, you probably do all that with eyes glaring and teeth baring.
For years, I used such punitive measures to try to correct my kids’ behavior. One of our boys had meltdowns so often that we were at our wits’ end. None of our attempts to deal with his outbursts seemed to be working. We’d leave him alone to calm down, charge him money for locking the door, take away the items that he had thrown, talk with him about how he was making bad choices. But the next day, he would fly off the handle again.
We were exhausted by the constant fire-fighting. We were losing our ability to enjoy him. We were getting to the point of helplessness.
The Problem with Correction
Correction seems like a good thing; and it can be. We don’t want to be neglectful or permissive parents who do nothing when we see our kids go off course.
But when we jump straight to fixing behavior without first connecting with our children, we actually shoot ourselves in the foot.
“Extensive research shows that we cannot influence children in a positive way until we create a connection with them. It is a brain (and heart) thing. Sometimes we have to stop dealing with the misbehavior and first heal the relationship.
Connection creates a sense of safety and openness. Punishment, lecturing, nagging, scolding, blaming or shaming create fight, flight, or freeze.”
– Dr. Jane Nelsen, author and founder of Positive Discipline
Correction is actually counter-productive when we apply it without connection. It stimulates our child’s reactive impulses, making it difficult to activate their higher-level, thinking brain. Over time, harsh correction and control can actually affect the child’s brain development, making them more prone to fear, anger, addiction, or anxiety.
As I learned more about gentle parenting and the research behind it, I realized how my punitive parenting methods were actually contributing to my son’s tantrums.
What he needed was not more correction, but more connection.
Too often, I had abandoned him to deal with his overwhelming emotions on his own instead of being a calming presence.
Too often, I had given him a consequence instead of offering compassion.
Too often, I had walked away at the slightest hint of his frustration instead of sticking around to provide help.
I decided to change my M.O.
The next time my son got upset, I went into the bedroom and sat with him. At first, he refused to answer me when I asked him what was wrong. He shrugged me off when I tried to rub his back. He batted my hand away when I offered a hug. I was tempted to leave. It was obvious he didn’t want me there, and I could feel my own temper rising.
But then a small miracle happened.
He began to inch his way over to me. He leaned up against me. He nudged himself under my arm. And then he finally melted into my lap. We spent the next few minutes talking about what he was feeling. I listened to him and connected with him physically and emotionally.
Over the next few days, weeks, and months, I tried to connect with him whenever he had a meltdown.
Sometimes, I just couldn’t do it. I would be too triggered and angry. I knew that I would say or do something I’d regret, so I just had to remove myself and cool off.
But when the opportunity inevitably presented itself, I’d try again.
I’d hold my son.
I’d hold my tongue.
I’d hold his big emotions and give space for them.
I tried to connect more and correct less.
And I found that the more I connected, the less I actually needed to correct.
The Heart of Connection
A sense of belonging and connection is a basic desire and goal for us as humans. When our children lack a strong sense of belonging and don’t receive enough positive attention from us, they behave in attention-seeking ways. To them, even bad attention is better than no attention.
But when our kids feel connected to us, they become safe and secure in our love. They don’t feel compelled to act out in negative ways because we’re already giving them the connection they need.
Often, by simply taking the time to proactively connect with our kids, the undesirable behavior naturally decreases.
For my son, the change was not immediate, but it was noticeable. Slowly, he started to:
- have fewer outbursts.
- have capacity to handle more frustration.
- recover more quickly after a tantrum.
- ask me for what he needed emotionally.
The more effort I put into connecting with him, the less correcting I had to do. My connection with him actually helped him become more receptive and regulated.
Dr. Jane Nelsen reminds us,
“Children do better when they feel better.”
So let’s stop correcting our children so that they do better. Let’s put our energy into connecting with our children so that they feel better.
Instead of pointed fingers, let’s offer open arms.
Instead of harsh criticisms, let’s offer words of understanding.
Instead of isolation, let’s offer connection.
Maybe by doing so, we’ll find that they end up doing better all on their own.