empathy

There is NO Misbehavior

A New Way of Seeing our Children’s Emotionally-Triggered Actions

Mis + Behavior

Here’s something with which all parents everywhere have to deal. Just for signing up as a parent, we’ll have to face this little concept. We’ll be asked to pick sides, to align ourselves with certain strategies, and to commit ourselves fully to waging all-out war. We’ll be told we have no choice.  That anything else would be, well – permissiveness.

But we’ve made a huge imaginary Mis + Take…

The word “misbehavior” means: “an improper, inappropriate, or bad manner of acting”, and of course this means in terms of social norms, family rules, etc.. In use, though, it’s commonly applied to any action that we grown-ups don’t like, and never fails to imply some nefarious intent on the part of the “misbehaver”. The truth is, however, that children (especially young ones) who are experiencing powerful emotions aren’t choosing actions -- they’re compelled by their feelings to act in ways that they can’t regulate. They aren’t misbehaving. They’re doing exactly as their biology intends. And whether we like it or not, it couldn’t be more appropriate for where they are developmentally and what they are experiencing physio-emotionally.
 

The Safety System or Ain’t Misbehavin’

When children experience intense emotion, they lose contact with the executive part of the brain. That means, just like someone with Alzheimer’s can’t access the brain machinery for memories, so too, an upset child can’t access the brain machinery for thinking clearly, or acting carefully. When emotion strikes, that emotion has to be dealt with first in order for the executive brain, which controls thinking and motor impulses (among a host of other higher functions), to come back online. This happens in one or more of three ways:

1.     Like every healthy mammal, the child calls out for help and receives the empathetic support that she needs in order to let out the emotion, and/or get other needs met, and then returns to a calm state and higher-brain function.

2.     The child’s nervous system obliges her body to some action to discharge the intensity of the uncomfortable feeling. Her brain is on it’s way to reverting to a survival state, and punching her sister is a tiny release, a minor, incremental improvement over the jealousy and powerlessness, etc., she was feeling just before.

3.     The child stuffs the feeling and tries to move on, though encumbered more and more by accumulating, painful feelings; until 1. and/or 2. above happens.
 

What we’ve been trained to call “misbehavior” is actually a neural survival mechanism…

When our kids cry for help, it’s easier to see, but we’d do well to become skilled at recognizing the call for assistance in their disagreeable actions as well. Their brains are driving them to do something to which we’ll attend, so that they can get the emotional support they need in order to return to higher functionality. And what’s more -- they can’t stop it without our help because their impulse control is in the executive brain where they’ve lost access. It’s honestly unrealistic for us to expect that they’d be able to act in any other way! They’re doing exactly as is normal and best for the human brain. Period. And if we want to help them “act right” and “make good choices” then we have to help them get “back in their right minds”.

When children are behaving in ways that don’t fit in with the herd, it’s actually a very fortunate signal that there’s something wrong with how they feel. And if there’s something wrong with how they feel, it’s usually a sign that they have a need that is going unmet. So the next time your kid “acts up” you can thank him for being so clear with you!

 

                                                                     Emotional Anatomy Chart from Feeleez

                                                                     Emotional Anatomy Chart from Feeleez

Working in Reverse

Fortunately, this system is a two-way street. We can have a massive effect on how our kids act simply by how we attend to their feelings and their needs.

When a child is engaged in an activity that we would normally call misbehavior, we have an enormous opportunity before us…


 Instead of just punishing or guilt-tripping our way into smoldering, temporary compliance, we can turn this rift in the family joy into a boon for the relationship and invite our children to a whole range of other more agreeable types of actions, just by being with them in empathy. Here’s a few ideas to start:

1.     Respond to the signal for help – recognizing that our children are being forced to “act up” and can’t “put on the breaks”; and recognizing their suffering and need for assistance.

2.     Get curious – instead of trying to hammer in a lesson on etiquette (for which the higher brain is necessary to hear and remember), we can look under the surface of the behavior for the uncomfortable feeling(s) driving it; and find out if there is an(other) unmet need associated with it. Ask, “What’s going on for you, love? Are you upset?” and wait and listen. Remember that when we parents feel disrespected (or saddened, or enraged) by the behavior, that’s a good indication of what feeling it is discharging for the child, too.

3.     Assist children with the feelings involved and struggling to get out – they need our help to let out those big emotions and calm down and “think straight” again. The shortest distance between our children’s disagreeable actions and ones we’d rather see is through the co-managed off-loading of their painful feelings. Be with them in empathy in whatever manner(s) they like best for solely the feelings piece. And wait.

4.     Then if there is an(other) unmet need fueling the uncomfortable emotion, we can help meet that as well. Look for a need to meet in every action that annoys, and find a more agreeable way to meet it. We can almost always find ways to meet our children’s needs in a manner that works for us as well, but if for some reason we can’t, then it’s a clear indicator that our work right then lies in assisting with the feelings associated with that disappointment instead – remaining firm while focusing on being kind.

This process restores family peace, reaffirms the parent-child bond, and makes way for more ideal actions and better, higher-brain choices to follow. Every time.

 

Now, don’t get hung up on whether or not to “give in” to your child’s ill-conceived or worse controlled plans to have his or her needs met…

 

Assisting with feelings and meeting needs is separate from condoning actions. We can do all of the above, and then when they can hear us, still talk about what we’d prefer they do in the future. And because of how we’ve handled them, we’ve made it easier and more attractive for them to handle us with empathy, too. And when it comes right down to it, that’s all we hope to teach them about how to “behave” anyway! Once we translate “misbehavior” as “having feelings and trying to get needs met” then we can see, we don’t have to wage war on what they do, we just have to meet them where they are.
 

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Be well.

Poke, Poke

Here's one from the archives. A delightful example of the "Punishment" topic that comes up so often in our courses and workshops. This post is from 2010 when Echo and Xi were three and seven.

 

There is never a dull moment around here. Even the mundane tasks are accompanied by outrageous outbursts, and dramatic exchanges, all adding up to straight-up absurdity. I guess houses with children are like this. Last night while making mac and cheese Xi ran into the kitchen.

"NALLIE!!! I don't want her to stab me with a unicorn..."

(Both Bella and Xi call me Nallie - their own title for their step-mom)

"Oh." I shout, " ECHO SHE DOESN'T WANT YOU TO STAB HER WITH A UNICORN!"

Echo slumps out of the bedroom. "But I want to ask her something!"

So I say, "Xi she wants to ask you something."

And Xi says, "I don't want to talk to her" and then she slumps into the bedroom.

It's all sounding crazy to me and I don't understand a lick of it so I go back to stirring noodles when I hear Echo rummaging around the toys and saying to herself, "I'm going to get a pointy unicorn and swing it at her! I'm gonna stab her right in the leg with the horn! I'm  gonna..."

So I say, "Ya know, I just don't think that will work for you love. Xi is just going to get upset and then you will get upset and then you won't get to ask her what you want to ask her". Echo trundles in to the bedroom anyway, despite the obvious logic of my reasoning and the obvious lack of logic in her tactic. So I dutifully follow, figuring that keeping the children safe is really the bare minimum requirement of parenting.

I enter to see Echo ramming a plastic unicorn horn into Xi's leg  saying, "I'm gonna poke her! Poke! Poke!". I make a move to intervene when Xi stops me.

"No Nallie, don't stop her, it doesn't hurt.". And letting Echo know she is failing, she says, "Echo this unicorn is too soft. It doesn't hurt me.". And then things get really confusing when she says, "How 'bout you try and bite me??". They then start gleefully pursuing each other around the house.

See what I mean? Absurdity.

This is why I make the argument that making rules, such as No Hitting or No Biting, doesn't make sense. There are only actions and reactions. Needs and feelings. On this day, for Echo and Xi at least, biting was a perfectly delightful game. Apparently far preferable to unicorn horn poking. You never would be able to predict that.

I think most parents do too much work. They enter into arguments, try to determine a truthful chronology of events, then single out which is the victim, which is the aggressor, huff and puff about poor choices, figure out a punishment and hang around enforcing the punishment. Sheesh. If you use empathy for all parties, give and gather information about needs and feelings instead of the classic crime and punishment scenario you are freed from this chore, freed from the pressure to have the answers. Holding both children, listening to their concerns without judgement, leaves room for them to find their own solutions.

I certainly would never have come up with the "let's bite each other instead!" solution. They came to this on their own. And even though it makes no sense to me it makes sense to them. That's what matters. Their relationship was at play in this scenario. Let's face it, in an ordinary household Echo would have been put in timeout for her actions. I would then have been monitoring the time-out instead of stirring noodles. She would have been crying about her isolation instead of thinking about Xi's feelings and figuring out a way to work it out. And Xi would have been denied a playmate, and a chance to interact in a way that felt better to her.

A few minutes later Echo approached Xi with two different unicorns, and these apparently were pointy enough to make Xi yelp when Echo stabbed them at her ankles. At this point I asked Echo if she wanted attention from Xi. She said yes, so I helped her formulate a request. She then approached Xi, sans unicorns, and said;

"Xi, I want your attention. Will you give me some?"

Xi smiled, bent down, and scooped Echo up. "Sure!"

If Echo were wailing away in time-out this happy ending would not have been possible. If I had demanded that the children make sense in the first place I wouldn't have been able to guess at Echo's need for attention, and Xi wouldn't get the satisfaction of meeting that need. If absurdity and strong emotions weren't both welcome in our home we wouldn't get the opportunity to work our way through conflict, albeit in a kooky manner.

Pokey unicorns. You just never know where it's going. But the best part is that you don't have to.

 

Author: Natalie Christensen

Empathy Schmimpathy… Why Bother?!

There’s a change occurring in the world of parenting today. A gradual shift is taking shape and gliding toward new ways of envisioning and inhabiting the parent-child relationship. The old adages we grew up with — of children being seen and not heard, of sparing the rod risking spoiling the child, and of doing as I say not as I do — are loosing their mental grip on Western society and new thoughts and ideas are filling in that space. No one had Attachment Theory when our grandparents were being raised — though some of them of course were still experiencing deep parent-child bonding — there wasn’t a way of referencing it or of disseminating it as an approach to parenting, it wasn’t studied, it more than likely wasn’t even present in the intellectual mind of any parent using its like (much the way that something like “sexism in the workplace” wouldn’t be present in their thinking). Beginning with our great-/grandparents, most people in “developed countries”, until quite recently and statistically speaking still, parent/ed using at least some version (however mythologized it may have been) of B.F. Skinner’s Behaviorism and/or it’s antecedent and decedent modes of cultural thinking. When his work actually came out and was spread through the scientific community it shone as the loan example of science’s approach to parenting and so it rang as the tune of truth — unchallenged.

Today, we’re seeing what in many ways has reached the critical mass to be called a sweeping movement away from behavioral modification techniques, and toward methods of relating with our children that honour the biochemical and emotional bonds and the neural design of connection and social development that most humans naturally carry and express and share. Put another way, we’re realizing as a species that what works best in raising our young is to respect our nature as nurturers. We are exploring the antipodes of our parenting minds only to find our-instinctual-selves waiting for us upon those foreign shores. We’re now doing the research and now able to peek inside some of  the neurological processes involved in child development, and it is becoming clearer and clearer that we are hard-wired to connect and work socially together, but the manner in which we are connected with directly relates to how well we develop our innate predilections. The other thing that has now been researched quite a bit more since the days of Skinner’s rise to popularity is just how deleterious behavior modification techniques can be to development, to the parent-child relationship, and to the emotional life of the child (throughout development and into adulthood), as well as how ineffectual behavior modification itself is as a tool in parenting — both in reproducing preferred behaviors and in reducing the ones that aren’t preferred. Having the current perspective that behavior modification doesn’t work and has negative repercussions on development and emotional stability on the one hand, and strong neuroscience displaying both the apparatuses for social(-izing) connection and the developmental effects of healthy attachment on these neural structures on the other hand, presents humanity with the grand opportunity to give ourselves over/back to our natures and our natural nurturing drives and instincts. And we seem to be doing just that.

One of the fastest growing subtitles of parenting advice is Attachment Parenting and its various offshoots — Positive Parenting, Natural Parenting, Connection Parenting, Gentle Parenting, Authentic Parenting, Aware Parenting and Empathy Parenting, among others. Natalie and I call the constellation of points we specialize in — Parenting on the SameTeam — and while it is Attachment-based, we include aspects that go beyond the establishment and maintenance of attachment itself and focus on using the bond to build relationship and using that relationship to enhance our children’s development and inspire co-operation in both the long and short terms. And we, along with a whole host of other parenting thinkers, theorists, and mentors, happen to believe that Empathy is the sharpest tool in the proverbial shed of parenting.

So what’s all the hubbub, Bub? What’s the big freaking brain deal?! Why is it so  important that we bother using Empathy (with a capital blinking E) when wrangling our  particular (packs of) ankle-biters? And how the heck is all this snuggling supposed to help teach kids how to be good?!

Well here’s my current list of reasons why Empathy is the most important parenting technique we can learn: 

  • First and foremost — Empathy is the root of all social guidelines. Every decent law ever written, every code of moral conduct, every rule we try to instill in our children, all center on and originate from empathizing with others. That’s the end and it therefore ought to be the means of every direction or re-direction or interaction involving behavior(s). Teaching empathy is the shortest distance between  our noble savage infants and the consistently caring, compassionate, “more civilized” adults that we hope to help them become.

 

  • Second and secondmost — Empathizing is what our brains were meant to do. We are neurologically built to automatically internalize the experience of others we see around us. One of the processes/structures for doing that is the mirror neuron system — which, if you’ve been around this blog at all yet, you’ve endured me going on about before and with some frequency. When we see or even hear a smile, our brain runs a quick simulation of the neural-motor-process of making the same expression, and then gets an internal feel of the expression and it’s correlative emotion(s), in order for us to interpret the emotion(s) of the person smiling. When they are developed in a normal healthy manner, we use mirror neurons all day long to neurologically imitate and decipher the intent of what we experience others doing around us. In order to be able to interpret those sometimes very subtle movements and isolate those interpretations from our own feelings and even in order to understand what we ourselves are feeling and be able to regulate our emotions — we need empathy input during early development.

 

  • Offering Empathy (en)trains our children’s brains to develop and express it themselves. Aside from the mirroring aspects of emotion, and of empathy, and of both individual and shared identity intimated above, and the manners in which modeling empathy helps teach our children’s brains to respond in kind; there is another brain structure involved here that is worth noting. It’s the cingulate cortex and I’ve mentioned it before as well. One of the interesting things about this area of the brain, largely devoted to the regulation of our emotions, is that it is one of the earliest developing (and oldest evolutionarily) structures in the so-called neo-cortex where our executive functions originate and later brain-structure enhancements reside. This old part of that new area, kicks in and begins running while the more specialized mirror neurons are adding programs (and more programs and even more programs…). So even before the infant brain is able to mirror all of what we are modeling in terms of the uses and expressions of empathy, the cingulate is aligning and harmonizing mother-infant emotional states. When a child cries out, the cingulate in his brain erupts into action, and in gearing up the mother’s brain for instantaneous responses (of various kinds across her entire nervous system), her cingulate is lighting up in much the same ways as the child’s. Interestingly, her immediate and calm response and the internal machinations of her own system’s calming itself down, help the mother to calm the child just by cingulate entrainment with him. Over time, the mother’s and other care-giver’s responses and cingulate harmonizing enable the child’s brain with  (unconscious) self-soothing capabilities — and real ones, not the mythical self-soothing abilities that are supposed to appear out of nowhere to help infants put themselves to bed — as well as engendering a stronger cingulate response and fuller expression of empathy when they go to respond to others in need. Put more simply, when a mother responds empathetically to her child, she empowers the child’s brain with greater capacity for empathy. This all happens without a single lesson on why it’s important or on how to act with empathy.

 

  • Responding to our children’s emotional processes with Empathy assists them in full neural development and access. You’ve surely heard, and I’ve of course mentioned before that we have three basic levels to our brains. The reptilian brain is the oldest most basic set of structures, governs all the bodily functions necessary to stay alive, and is shared among all living vertebrates. The mammalian brain governs our emotions and social behavior, is newer than, built on top of, but is superseded in developmental and functional priority by the reptilian portion. The rational brain is the latest set of neural structures and governs our abilities to problem-solve, think creatively, make decisions, and choose to express kindness among others, and its development and our access to  it on any given day are contingent on the lower brains’ stability. If humans are emotionally upset, especially children, we lose access to our higher functions, and increasingly so as we get more upset. The reptilian and mammalian brains can just jump in and take control until their needs are met. If we happen to get truly upset, the reptilian brain will send us into fight-or-flight mode, temporarily usurping even our ability to process our emotions or access “mammalian processing” at all. So in order to help kids survive infancy, we have to take care of the reptilian brain. In order to give them access to social functioning, we have to care for the both the reptilian brain’s and the mammalian brain’s needs. And in order to develop and have access to the executive functioning in the rational brain, we have to tend to not only it’s needs but also the needs of it’s predecessors (in development, priority, and access). Sharing Empathy is the single best means for helping children process all emotions and get access to, and over time better develop, their executive capabilities. When we empathize with our little ones, and help them move through emotions they are processing, we help naturalize this process for them, we help make room for rational brain development, and we deepen the connections that make them feel safe and secure enough to continue developing and eventually spending more time in an executive-able state. When they “regress” during emotional episodes, we can use empathy to help them get through the feelings, and return to their (more) rational minds.

 

  • Empathy feels good to us and safe to our children. When humans empathize, we feel the connective consciousness that comes with it. We feel closer to ourselves (if we’re self-empathizing) and to others (when offering empathy outward). When our children feel us hold them with our empathy, and can lean on us when they are “incapacitated” by emotional processing, they feel safe — in the world and even from the overwhelmingness of themselves and their own emotions. That safety is good for their brains, good for their emotional regulation, and good for our shared relationship with them.

 

  • Empathy gives parents super powers. With empathy, and when we employ it, we can melt huge hairy arguments and evaporate giant gnarly issues. When we help kids manage the big feelings that come up when issues arise for them, we often find that the issues themselves disappear as the feelings shrink and shift. Empathy “covers us” when we’re going into the fray, restores order, and mends  relations. When we use it on ourselves it can recharge our batteries, help us avoid potential disasters, and calm our own emotions enough to find patience and fortitude that we never knew we had. And, furthermore, empathizing (whether with self or others) can help reprogram our own brains to better deal with all present and future emotional stress, to choose more compassionate (re)actions, and to heal from past emotional suffering we experienced but didn’t get to release. Holy Single-Compartment Utility Belt, Batman!

     
  • Empathy turns upsetting moments, issues, and episodes into opportunities to connect, to deepen and fortify the parent-child bond, to heal, and to prove (over and over) to our children’s brains that they are secure and welcome to develop here. By using empathy — when problems happen, they end in hugs, neural harmonizing, emotional healing and bonding, and psychological co-stabilizing. We help our children know that we can be trusted when they feel vulnerable, and we show them that relating is the way we work this life. This combination is ideal for helping to inspire co-operation in present and future endeavors, because our children wind up deepening the intellectual identification they have with us, feeling closer to us, and wanting to be caught up in the relatingof the relationship all the more.

 

I know there’s more I could come up with for you if I took a little more time, but at this point, I’m thinking maybe it’d be wisest not to take up any more of yours

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Be well my natural born empathizers. “Take the time it takes [to empathize] and it will take less time.” And don’t forget to breathe.

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P.S. Want some ideas on how to do the empathizing? Here’s some, and here, and heresome more! And there’s an excellent video on what empathy looks like here.

Author: Nathan M. McTague, CPCC