I’ll skip all the scientific details for now and jump right to the bottom line:
Our children do not learn anything when they are stressed out. (And neither do we adults!)
Functional MRI’s have allowed us to see the brain in action. We now have evidence that during stress, the part of the brain that is in charge of learning and integrating new information goes on hold while the blood supply is diverted to the part of the brain that is in charge of the fight/flight/freeze response.
When we yell at our kids (and we all do it sometimes), we are introducing a stressor that disrupts their ability to learn. So lessons imparted while screaming, punishing, or guilt-tripping don’t actually penetrate to the part of the child’s brain that can make good use of the information. This is why we are so often frustrated by catching our kids repeating the very behavior we so adamantly taught them was inappropriate.
If we want our kids to retain and have access to alternative behaviors that we find more acceptable, we need to talk it over with them after both we and they have calmed down.
My bestest briefest parenting advice in one word: WAIT
Wait to teach until you feel calmer. Wait until you are back in control of your breathing to let your child know what was not okay about his or her behavior.
Wait until you are thinking clearly about what you DO want instead of just prohibiting what you don’t. Wait until you are cool enough to ask your child to participate in generating alternatives with you.
Of course you know I’m not suggesting you let your child get hit by a car while you do some yoga breathing. Life-threatening situations require immediate physical intervention. But sometimes our minds react to mild daily infractions as if they were life-threatening. It’s at those times when a little bit of delay can do a lot of good.
So go ahead and put a stop to the behavior in a responsible way. Then take a time out for yourself until you are ready to have a reasonable discussion about what happened, why it was not okay, and what might work better next time. For toddlers, you may need to give physical guidance with your body—saying pet the doggy like this while you are holding your child’s hand in yours and guiding it gently.
Remember Mary Poppins singing just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down? It’s the same thing with parental guidance. Suggestions delivered with love and respect are much easier for our kids to retain.
Easier said than done? Yeah. We are all wonderfully human. Luckily, kids are very forgiving, and easily accept apologies. It’s never too late to say, “Oops, I’m sorry for yelling about that. I’m feeling a lot better now … can we rewind and try to figure out a new plan together?”