One of our goals as parents is to help our children develop empathy, self control, and good decision making skills. As the parent of a toddler, it may seem like an impossible task. Just remember, every mistake is a learning opportunity if we connect with our children and help them practice decision making, thoughtfulness, and self control. For a child, every opportunity to use this "upstairs" part of the brain means this part of the brain grows stronger and these skills become part of who your child will become.
As Dr. Dan Siegel explains in his book, The Whole Brain Child, a child that feels angry or fearful cannot use his "upstairs" brain where logical reasoning, empathy, control, awareness and openness emerge. Instead, he is stuck in a fight or flight stage where impulse, aggression, and reactivity are the mode of operation.
Have you ever thrown your arm to protect the person in the passenger seat as you slammed on the breaks? You did it without thinking, and it isn't a completely reasonable reaction. A part of the brain, the amygdala, allows us to react suddenly and quickly as soon as we feel unsafe, angry or fearful. It can save us when we are in real danger, but it completely blocks of any part of our upstairs brain that observes a situation openly from multiple perspectives or employs logic and rational thought.
If we threaten, humiliate, or strike our child, we have taken the opportunity for him to use the part of his brain that develops sound decision making skills and positive relationships.
Instead try to:
1. Empower your child to change her behavior"You can join us when you are ready to use your gentle hands."
"I'll hold this toy for you until you are ready to use it safely."
"In this family we work together. You can wait here until you are ready to..."
2. Give choices
"Would you like to eat three bites of broccoli or two bites?"
"Would you like to pick up the puzzle or the ball first?"
"Would you like to do it yourself, or would you like me to help you."
3. Model Empathy, Convey Understanding
"It can feel really hard to say goodbye. Do you want to give me two kisses or three?"
"Ok, I'll give you a hug and three kisses at the door, you can have a fun day at school, then I will see you at the gate after playground time."
"That looks really tricky. Hmmmm. What could you do?"
"I feel sad when Johnny is hit and I feel sad when you are hitting. We use gentle hands."
"That is a huge bummer, I wish we could go to the park. You look so mad. Can you stomp your anger out?"
"I bet you are mad enough to run around the yard eight times!"
4. Give Information, Say what you DO want
"Gentle hugs mean friends don't fall over. You can ask, 'Can I hug you?'"
"I'll be ready to listen when you use your talking voice." (for whining or demanding, not emotional meltdowns)
"We throw balls outside." "You can hit the drum."
"You'll be ready to go outside when you have on your shoes."
"You can say, 'Can I have a turn when you are done, please.'"
For more ways to help your child develop his upstairs brain and useful strategies for positive parenting try reading: