We are relational beings at our core. This foundation needs to be understood when we are engaging in with people who matter to us. A relationship for the sake of this argument is referring to the nature or spirit of a mutually shared and understood experience between two or more people. It is a fluid safe space for people to exist where they can safely know and be known. I’m not talking about business type contractual relationships that are structured around predetermined roles, rules, and expectations. I am talking about intimate relationships that create the experience we call life, and which are the venue for our growth and life satisfaction.
Parents, in particular, have a distinct need to understand the role of relationship in their parenting approach because they are solely responsible for being the change agent in the relationship. The child does not share responsibility. Parents need to remember that the successful and natural order of relationship with a child is based on bonding first, followed by the rational and directional side of things. When the bonding is not there, the teaching, directive, and cooperation side of parenting will be a mess. If your children are difficult to get in order, it could be that you are dealing with a bonding issue. Failing to attend to this need for bonding, which is unconditional and not dependent on rules and expectations, is the disruptive part of why your system of parenting is not working.
The image above represents Bruce Perry’s Neurosequential Model of brain development. This image displays the way the brain develops in a hierarchical fashion. When a child is born, and for the first few years, their Cortical or thinking brain is not even online. They are entirely relational and responsive to relationships. They only know relationships by our responses to their expressed need. Those lower brain areas are not regulated on their own and require the parents to provide co-regulation, which I have written about elsewhere. In short, co-regulation is the child’s natural collaboration of their physiological lower brain system to the parent’s system. Whatever relationship or intimacy issues you have not dealt with will hinder your parenting. There is no way around this. This foundational window begins to close all the while the logical brain is coming online, and the child starts to develop a proverbial “Mind of their own.”
Don’t Assume Intentionality
As children age, their verbal skills develop, and parents begin to take a more natural top-down approach to communication. Meaning they provide logic and direction and expect the child to respond. If the child does not respond favorably, they assume the child needs consequences and behavioral reinforcements. However, the response the parent is getting when the child is not agreeable is evidence that there may be a lower brain area that is the real problem. In other words, the bonding is not there to produce the logical response. Without the bond or attachment being healthy, the child’s higher brain is not only underdeveloped but turns off, and the lower areas of the brain take over. In this state of reactivity, the child is unable even to receive direction. They exist with fragile trust in your ability to provide safety, based on their brain’s past experience.
When parents misunderstand the child’s reaction as disobedience, they react strongly with consequences, anger, yelling, and other means of control. This becomes damaging because they are mostly missing more critical foundational aspects of healthy development and well-being. Parents who are seeing this type of behavior, particularly in the 5–12-year-old range, should be aware that the child’s lack of response to your direction is a cry for bonding. They do not know this and have no way of communicating this in a logical manner. But the brain’s developmental framework makes it clear. We see that children who do have that relational bond are receptive to parental direction. Although sometimes children of the best parents will be disobedient, it is also true that those parents respond relationally to that behavior; thus, redirection is successful, and the child actually integrates the lesson the parent is teaching through the conduit of relationship.
Stop Talking to the Wall
On the other hand, parents who respond with logical interventions are communicating to a brain area that is mostly not online. It is literally like talking to the wall, something that would actually be ridiculous if you tried, but more ridiculous if you got even more upset because the wall didn’t do what you wanted. Children respond to relationship. They react to how you make them feel about themselves when they are in your presence. Top-down parenting makes children feel controlled. They will rebel either passively or actively to that kind of parenting in a way that causes the parent more frustration if they do not see their part in the cycle.
Parents who are facing these frustrating parts should essentially drop the expectations and focus on the relationship. Things like chores, homework, and other responsibilities are essential, but they can not be emphasized over the more critical need for bonding. You may say, “Well, they will never learn,” or “The world is not going to be that understanding,” both of which mean nothing to the child’s biology. They will surely never learn if their brain is not set up to learn, and they will not be able to navigate the unforgiving world without the resiliency that is provided by early childhood bonding. Being mistreated does not make you better able to handle mistreatment, and being misunderstood does not make you better at being understood. So you can throw those excuses out the door for why you think your structure is more important than the need to bond first. And yes, you can bond while instilling structure; it just takes work to emphasize the relational way of communicating. Many parents make the mistake of losing the relationship to gain control.
It’s Your Issue
Your children are a mirror into your unresolved issues. If you perceive them as out of control, you yourself likely have control issues. They are telling you that is so by their behavior. Your response should be to deal with whatever is causing your control issues, probably related to your childhood. Do not make the mistake of blaming the trigger, which in this case, is your child. Respect them as a window into your need to grow. If you take personal responsibility and address your own issues, you will inadvertently be addressing the relationship with your child, and thus change the way they respond. As I said early, children are responsive to relationship. They are not controlling or trying to manipulate; instead, they are trying to get needs met. Those needs are determined in part by the development of the brain.
Healthy bonding soothes the lower brain areas so that logic and learning can be instilled on top. If the foundation is disrupted evident by a child’s overreactions, disobedience, being stressed out, and other demonstrations of behavior, then they will not be receptive to learning lessons. Not until parents realize that the need is to bond first then direct will the child be able to learn. This need never turns off and its never too late, however, the consequences to the child and the stress you experience will grow and seem more daunting. In any case, the way a human learns and loves is not going to change to accommodate your style as a parent. Learn to listen to your child’s behavior through a relational lens. See a therapist for insight or to help dislodge your childhood trauma, which is blocking you from seeing what they are experiencing, but for God’s sake, stop talking to the wall!
This post was previously published on A Parent Is Born and is republished here with permission from the author.
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