Trying to Love Well

Dear Dena,

What are some great ways to show love to my kids when I am disciplining their worst behaviors?


Trying to Love Well


Dear Trying to Love Well,

This is a great question and one we all deal with pretty regularly as we attempt to parent kids with hard behaviors.   The best advice I’ve heard comes from Karen Purvis - The Connected Child whose mantra is

“Connect before you correct.”

 It seems counterintuitive, in a moment of discipline, but it is essential.

Let me explain…

Our children who have experienced trauma and loss largely operate out of their limbic system, the part of the brain that houses strong feelings and big emotions.  Much of our discipline address the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that processes consequences, cause and effect, and impulse control. When we as parents attempt to correct or instruct, we are talking to the prefrontal cortex.  Sadly, this part is offline when a child is emotionally escalated. Fight, flight and freeze are the normal biological responses to that escalation. Think of it as the brain telling a kiddo that they are being chased by a bear! “Run! Freeze! Fight!” is the correct response in that actual situation.  

However, our kids experience failure, shame, and correction as being chased by a bear.  In which case our responses that talk to the prefrontal cortex are worse than useless, they can actually add to the very escalation and survival behaviors that we are trying to address.

What we have learned is that if we start at the brainstem, the part of the brain that regulates heartbeat, breathing and all the autonomic responses, then move to the limbic system, and only then move onto the prefrontal cortex, we are able to provide effective correction.

This looks like first,  calming and soothing a child’s biology.  Breathing, movement, calming sensory input, protein and hydration, to name a few.  Secondly, addressing the big feelings. Remember that validating and acknowledging them does not mean approval. It just gives your children a safe experience of their own hard emotions.  And thirdly, when we have calmed the body and helped hold big feelings in a safe way, move onto a very specific, brief, and clear correction.

Then drop it.  Move on. Forgive.  We are misguided if we expect our corrections to result in the kind of changes that will last for the long term. We are right to offer a our children a “do-over” and the chance to make amends.  But these corrections in the context of connection address something bigger than behavior- they address safety, attachment, and the opportunity for the brain to continue to slow work of healing and rewiring over the course of years.  Don’t give up! Remember the bigger picture! Make connection your goal and you will be surprised to see that changes occur in the context of relationships more so than in the context of discipline.                

-Dena Johnson MA, LMHC

Licensed Mental Health Counselor, Attachment-Trauma Focused Therapist, TBRI Practitioner