Conscious parenting is connection-based parenting, where we prioritize relationship and mental health over parental dominance. Still, "conscious parenting" sounds rather funny, doesn't it? It's as if the alternative is unconscious parenting, and that's what I do when I'm asleep. That aside, there's a lot of confusion about what conscious parenting is and why it's such an important shift for parents and children alike.
One thing to know for sure, though: conscious parenting isn't a fad. It isn't going anywhere. In fact, I daresay it's changing the world.
Some people assume that conscious parenting is permissive parenting. Some even call it "lazy" parenting. Much to the contrary, conscious parents are well aware of the importance of healthy boundaries that are appropriate for the child's age. And parenting this way can be incredibly hard work.
A conscious parent often spends a lot of time in self-reflection, working to understand their own behavior and patterns from their family of origin. They also get curious about children's behavior to learn what's developmentally appropriate, how to be peaceful despite triggers, and how to raise emotionally intelligent kids.
This parenting style requires parents to look at the bigger picture of their relationships rather than addressing children's behavior only at a surface level. The parent works to understand the child's needs and underlying motivations.
Conscious parenting is not the "easy way out." In fact, practicing conscious parenting requires a much deeper level of support and self-reflection than do many other parenting styles.
As a conscious parent, we know that kids are going to emulate whatever they experience firsthand. If they experience respect, they'll have respect to pay forward. Children learn respect from an early age because we've been mindful about how we act towards them.
If kids live in a naturally loving home, they'll share that love with others. They'll act out what they know from their own awareness of what they've encountered in life, much more than what we teach through words alone.
Example of what it can look like:
Instead of, "Don't use that tone with me," we make sure we haven't instigated using a negative tone with our child. We're willing to look in the proverbial mirror.
This does not mean we welcome all behavior; we still get to have healthy limits and loving boundaries. However, we accept all feelings as messengers. Additionally, we model what to do with those big feelings.
A child is having a meltdown. Rather than sending the child to their room, we might say, "All of your feelings are safe here" and invite them onto our lap for a hug.
Moreover, knowing emotions are messengers, rather than running from or avoiding them, we can ask, "What's this feeling here to tell us? What are we needing?" We get to the root cause of the big feelings (or big behavior) rather than just addressing it at the surface level.
Naturally, in any relationship with other humans, there will be times of conflict. Conscious parenting does not mean everything will be perfect all the time (if only!). When a conscious parent feels upset, though, we don't take it out on our children. We work to avoid passing along our stress and unresolved trauma.
Instead, we model healthy conflict management skills and self-control. We avoid blaming and shaming. When we mess up, we fess up. We repair our wrongdoings and apologize.
Instead of yelling at a child for spilling their drink on our papers, we pause, take a breath, and remember that accidents happen. To our child, we might say (modeling emotional authenticity), "I feel frustrated about the papers, but I know it was an accident. Let's grab a rag and wipe up the spill together."
Then, we go about the task peacefully, using whatever calming tools the parent needs to avoid taking out our frustration on our child. We model emotional regulation and self-control.
Self-awareness and self-regulation skills take practice and certainly don't happen overnight. However, we're willing to muster the internal control to stay calm and peaceful.
Rather than trying to mold our kids to meet others' expectations of them, children are encouraged to be themselves and pursue their own passions.
We might have a child who wants to wear yellow and green plaid pants with a rainbow shirt. Rather than telling them they look ridiculous, we realize that many children love expressing themselves creatively, including in their clothing choices.
We might choose to worry less about what people will think, and forgo the "cute" outfit we picked out because our child is happy.
Rather than giving children our unsolicited advice and expecting them to follow through in their life, we collaborate with them whenever possible.
Instead of, "I signed you up for piano lessons because it's important that you learn to play an instrument," we might say, "There are all sorts of benefits to playing an instrument, and I think you'd like it. Do any particular instruments appeal to you?"
The parenting choices we make intentionally usually requires a significant paradigm shift from believing that adults should control their children, to viewing effective parenting as a journey of growing up together.
Conscious parents rarely, as new parents, believe they naturally know what their kids need "because the parents are the adults and the children 'should' listen to them." Instead, they take cues from their children as individuals and tailor their support accordingly.
Although conscious parenting doesn't put children in the inappropriate position of leading or supporting their parents, we do model healthy vulnerability. We realize, when met with adversity, that it's alright to say to our child, "I'm not sure what to do here. Let's think about this together and come up with a good plan." We can be confident and vulnerable.
Raising children really seems to come naturally to some parents, doesn't it? Although there may be some truth to that perspective, I've never met a conscious parent who didn't have some significant inner work to do.
There are exceptions, of course, but many conscious parents are actively choosing a parenting approach that differs from that which they experienced growing up. Breaking generational patterns is not for the faint of heart.
Our own parents might criticize our parenting style and say we're being "too soft" with our children. Rather than caving under pressure and doing what other parents have done, we can be brave enough to say, "Thanks for the advice. I'm choosing a different path that feels right to me." This bravery requires that we show up for ourselves, questioning what we've known before and peacefully challenging it. Here are more ways to handle advice that doesn't feel right.
If we want to be a better parent, we need to do better--in some cases, better than our family of origin. That doesn't mean we love our parents any less. It simply means that we have some new tools that perhaps they didn't know about at the time. Raising kids requires an evolution of knowledge.
Indeed, it can be incredibly hard work to break generational cycles and unhealthy patterns. Over time and with practice, though, it's absolutely possible. You're likely to find that conscious parenting actually results in reduced stress as a parent because there's more harmony in the first place. Through your peaceful example, you can absolutely help your child become the kind of person--kind, loving, respectful--that you want them to be. Punishment isn't necessary.
You'll help your child's sense of right and wrong grow because they're watching you as a role model. When we're mindful of our own emotions and behaviors, our children benefit.
Related mini-course: The World Is Tough, So Shouldn't We Toughen Up Our Kids?
Most parents genuinely want to do well for their children, and if they're punishing them, they believe it's the best path to raising children who thrive in the world.
This is a tricky and misguided message, though. Many of these same parents were punished when they were children, and they believe they "turned out fine."
However, my compassionate inquiry is, "Is there something better than 'fine' to which we can aspire?" I address this topic more thoroughly in this article about spanking and punishments. In short, though, when we bring awareness to our children's mistakes by punishing them, the focus moves away from the teaching and into fear. We don't want to parent our child from fear.
There's plenty of research about parenting styles, and historically, the authoritative parenting style came out on top as being most beneficial.
Authoritative parenting encourages parents to offer high degrees of warmth while they also have high expectations for their children. Although that doesn't sound "wrong" at face value -- in fact, there's plenty that's right about it -- some parents focus too much on positive reinforcement tactics for the sole purpose of furthering their children's achievements. Some take the "expectations" part too far and the child gets lost in the process.
If we want our child to thrive, we need to couple that warmth with focusing on what's really important to them, rather than just what's important to us. A child's growth depends not only on warmth and direction from the parent, but also on the child's ability to feel a sense of self-agency (which means, "I'm in charge of myself.")
Conscious parenting considers and respects the whole child.
Traditionally, only the most commonly recognized parenting terms--authoritarian, authoritative, permissive, and neglectful (explained here)--showed up in most books.
By contrast, however, we now have more terms than we know what to do with -- helicopter, snowplow, lawnmower, bulldozer, elephant, tiger, dolphin, positive, gentle, peaceful, respectful, and the list goes on.
Do the differences in nomenclature matter? When we're talking about conscious parenting, not really. There's no "quiz" you need to pass; there's no certain way you need to live your life on a daily basis.
My personal brand of conscious parenting is called peaceful discipline, and I've written a book about it. As far as I'm concerned, if you can your kids can both go to bed most nights feeling good about your relationship, that's the end goal. We don't need to overcomplicate it.
I've heard from parents I've coached around the world that their children's lives are positively transformed by conscious parenting. Not only do they agree that conscious parenting works, but the children feel more connected, more joyful, and more peaceful toward their parents, too. Here's what my own child has to say about it.
At the beginning of this article, I noted that conscious parenting just may be changing the world. When you have a movement of responsible adults who want to be better parents through connection rather than control, we create a more peaceful world. Peaceful parents raise peaceful kids. It's a virtuous cycle.
Although most children like going to school, it is a real fear for other kids. A fear of schools can escalate to avoidance or refusal, resulting in physical symptoms and missed opportunities for learning. Parents and educators may experience immense stress trying to fill the gaps.
This post will explore the five most common causes of school phobias. Most importantly, it will outline essential steps to help your child overcome school refusal and thrive academically, socially, and emotionally.
A fear of schools, known as didaskaleinophobia, is intense and persistent fear, worry, or distress over going to school. School phobia occurs most often in childhood. Didaskaleinophobia may develop in response to a traumatic event (e.g., bullying) or the anticipation of the event (e.g., returning to school after summer vacation).
Roughly 5% of kids say they feel afraid to attend school at some point in their academic journey.
School phobia may escalate to school refusal (commonly called school avoidance). Children may have difficulty completing a full day of school or even entering the building. In these instances, parents and educators should work in collaboration to:
Identify the source of fear.
Implement interventions and supports to help the child overcome their fear and access their education.
School phobia can have a widespread impact on the lives of children and their families. Signs and symptoms in children may include:
Constant thoughts and worry over going to school
Difficulty separating from their parent (more common in younger children)
Physical symptoms, particularly in the morning (e.g., a child may feel nauseous or sick, complain of headaches, or experience an upset stomach)
Stress over getting on the school bus
A decline in school attendance or becoming identified as truant
Efforts to skip school or specific classes (more common among middle school and high school students)
Difficulty completing schoolwork or showing a decline in grades
Begging to stay home without a specific reason
Anger or mood swings
Tantrums over not wanting to go to school
Depressive symptoms, including physical harm to self or suicidal ideation in severe cases
Related post: How to Handle After-School Meltdowns
Children may struggle to identify or articulate why they are afraid to go to school. However, families and schools should work to pinpoint the underlying reason to help kids overcome school avoidance.
There are five primary causes:
In many instances, feeling afraid of school can be a normal, healthy part of development. We can expect many children to feel nervous for a short period when:
Starting school for the first time (e.g., preschool, Kindergarten)
Starting a new school year
Moving and transferring to a new school building
After an extended break (e.g., vacation, long-term illness, distance learning, etc.)
Note: Young children who are already acquainted with their school setting can experience a brief period of separation anxiety seemingly out of the blue. Often, this is normal as kids become more aware of their environment and emotions as they grow and develop.
A change in a child's behavior always warrants a conversation about his or her fears and an effort to rule out other causes.
Also, note that Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD) can emerge as early as third or fourth grade.
Victims of bullying often face school phobia and may avoid seeing their perpetrator(s).
Bullying can be physical, verbal, or emotional and can happen in person or online. If someone bullied your child, they may fear retaliation and might not want to report the problem to teachers or parents.
Another cause of school phobia is social problems. Kids might feel like they do not fit in with their classmates. They may also face significant worry about peers making fun of them (even if it has not necessarily happened).
Neurodivergent and LGBTQIA+ children and adolescents are at an increased risk for bullying and social challenges at school.
Related post: How to Raise Kids who Thrive
Children may shut down in response to academic pressure placed on them by others or themselves. Avoiding school becomes a way to cope.
For example, kids may become overly worried about school work and grades, experience severe test anxiety, or worry about being seen as unintelligent by peers or teachers.
School avoidance can occur among low and high-achieving students. Children with perfectionist tendencies may fall into all or nothing thinking and avoid school when stress levels get too high.
Fear of school violence is a widespread concern, particularly among older children. This fear may spike after a personal trauma or national tragedy. A survey provided to teenagers shortly after the 2018 mass shooting in Parkland, Florida revealed:
57% of teenagers worried about a shooting happening at their school
24% of teenagers were "very worried" about the possibility of a school shooting in their building
Kids with mental health conditions are more likely to fear school. An anxious child may even experience a panic attack over the thought of attending school. Underlying causes for school avoidance can include:
Low self-esteem or self-confidence
Social and test anxieties
Separation Anxiety Disorder (SAD)
Other anxiety disorders
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), approximately 9% of children have received an anxiety diagnosis and 4% a depression diagnosis.
Unfortunately, mental health conditions are often further compounded by other school avoidance factors such as social and academic stressors.
Related: Watch interviews here with some of the world's leading experts on education and child development.
If your family struggles with school avoidance, you are not alone. Also, know that you are likely a phenomenal parent (after all, you're researching how to best support your child)!
Take a moment to breathe. Remind yourself you are doing your very best to work through a highly complex and challenging life problem.
Even if you don't know the cause of your child's school refusal, there are simple, actionable steps you can take to help them through their fears.
Research shows that minimizing feelings or reassuring your child that things will be okay can worsen fears. Trying to convince your child to love school typically falls flat.
Instead, your child will be more likely to open up and try out solutions after they feel heard. Let your child talk more than you. Then, listen and answer questions.
Parent Response Examples:
“You have a huge test coming up this week in math class. It makes sense to feel afraid.”
“I understand you feel sick and want to stay home today. It’s uncomfortable going places when you don’t feel your best.”
“Your classmates were unkind to you last week and you feel scared to see them today. You have a right to feel safe in your classroom.”
Note: Validating does not necessarily mean giving in to school refusal. Trust your child and your intuition about how best to support them.
Talking through each part of the school day with your child can help:
Increase your child's confidence by knowing what to expect in a new school environment.
Identify potential triggers of fear within your child's existing school day.
Ask open-ended questions and take ample time to listen. Avoid why questions, which can put kids on the defense. Note any changes in your child’s speech or body language as they talk about their life at school.
Parent Response Examples:
"Who is the first person you usually see when you enter your classroom?"
"Tell me about what subject/class is easiest for you. Which one is most challenging?"
"When does your stomach hurt the most during the day? When do you feel your best?"
"Where were you yesterday when you realized you wanted to come home?"
Rather than telling your child exactly what they need to do to combat their school phobia, brainstorm, teach and practice coping strategies* together.
*Research shows children who report using coping skills such as "controlling negative thoughts" and "remaining calm when angry" are more resilient during the early stages of school refusal.
Rather than giving quick advice, get curious about what’s on your child’s mind and explore potential solutions together. Offer choices that encourage your child to gain control over their school day.
Parent Response Examples:
“You feel stressed about preparing for your group presentation. What is one small step you can take today to feel proud of?”
“I understand you're feeling nervous and don’t want to go to science class today. Which calming strategy would you like to try first: deep breathing or coloring?
“I understand you keep thinking about the unkind names your classmate called you. What adults in the building will you talk to if you need help?”
Always be upfront and honest with your child's teacher and school stakeholders. Unless you're making the formal switch to home education, avoid strictly isolating your child from school.
Repeatedly calling your child out sick or staying home without seeking proper mental health treatment does not address the root of the problem. The more separated a child becomes from school, the more avoidant they may become.
Furthermore, if a student is flagged for truancy per compulsory school attendance laws, the stress on a family can grow.
Your child’s school would likely rather have you call and say, “I don't know what to do! My child is hysterical and refuses to get in the car,” than to be left in the dark. His or her teacher and school staff are there to help your child and family.
You can learn more about how to advocate for your child and maintain a peaceful parent and teacher partnership here.
If your child’s school phobia interferes with their ability to attend school on time each day or engage in learning, it’s time to partner with school staff.
Teams should include an adult family member/parent/guardian and all relevant school stakeholders, including:
Your child's teacher
School psychologist and/or school social worker (if available)
Always request the presence of a school mental health professional. As a parent, you may need help advocating against punitive disciplinary measures for mental health concerns, which can cause further emotional turmoil.
Teams should convene to discuss potential interventions to help your child through their fears and encourage regular school attendance. If age appropriate, your child may also benefit from attending the meeting (depending on the concerns).
School refusal can have serious consequences. It is essential to seek professional help if you suspect your child may have an underlying mental health condition.
If your child expresses suicidal ideation or threatens self-harm over going to school, maintain close supervision and seek professional help immediately by calling 911 or visiting your local emergency room, or contacting the appropriate emergency resources in your area.
If your child works with a professional outside of school, such as a child psychologist, licensed clinical social worker, or board-certified behavior analyst, they should collaborate with the school staff to develop a school refusal treatment plan.
Parents must sign a release of information form to allow outside professionals to communicate directly with the school.
Supporting your child through the stress of not wanting to go to school can evoke intense feelings for parents. Frustration, heartbreak, and fears are common at any age.
Children quickly pick up and respond negatively to our stress levels as parents. Self-awareness of emotions, coupled with self-care, is critical.
I invite you to learn key ways to become a safe, calm space for your child through times of family stress here.
While processing your own emotions, strive to keep an open mind. Avoid comparing your child to other children. While their school phobia might seem irrational, empathize without judgment.
Remember, the most powerful parenting tool at your disposal is always unconditional love.
Guest Writer: Tana Amodeo
Tana Amodeo is a mother of two, former professional school counselor, Certified Positive Discipline Parent Educator, and founder of suchalittlewhile.com. She has partnered with thousands of parents internationally to foster healthy social/emotional child development through foundational positive parenting tools.
The American Academy of Pediatrics. (2017, September 5). School avoidance: Tips for concerned parents. HealthyChildren.org. Retrieved May 1, 2022, from https://www.healthychildren.org/English/health-issues/conditions/emotional-problems/Pages/School-Avoidance.aspx
Bitsika, V., Heyne, D. A., & Sharpley, C. F. (2021, November 9). The inverse association between psychological resilience and emerging school refusal among bullied autistic youth. Research in Developmental Disabilities. Retrieved April 26, 2022, from https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/34768056/
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2022, March 4). Data and statistics on children's Mental Health. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved April 29, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/childrensmentalhealth/data.html
Graf, N. (2020, May 30). A majority of U.S. teens fear a shooting could happen at their school, and most parents share their concern. Pew Research Center. Retrieved April 28, 2022, from https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/04/18/a-majority-of-u-s-teens-fear-a-shooting-could-happen-at-their-school-and-most-parents-share-their-concern/
How can a behaviorist help my school Avoidant child get back to school? School Avoidance Alliance. (2021, August 9). Retrieved April 26, 2022, from https://schoolavoidance.org/how-can-a-behaviorist-help-my-school-avoidant-child-get-back-to-school/
Knollmann, M., Knoll, S., Reissner, V., Metzelaars, J., & Hebebrand, J. (2010). School avoidance from the point of view of child and adolescent psychiatry: symptomatology, development, course, and treatment. Deutsches Arzteblatt international, 107(4), 43–49. https://doi.org/10.3238/arztebl.2010.0043
Separation Anxiety Disorder in Children. Cedars Sinai. (n.d.). Retrieved April 30, 2022, from https://www.cedars-sinai.org/health-library/diseases-and-conditions---pediatrics/s/separation-anxiety-disorder-in-children.html
Separation Anxiety Disorder in Children. Stanford Children's Health - Lucile Packard Children's Hospital Stanford. (n.d.). Retrieved April 26, 2022, from https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=separation-anxiety-disorder-90-P02582
Sorin, R. (2003). Validating young children's feelings and experiences of fear. Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood, 4(1), 80–89. https://doi.org/10.2304/ciec.2003.4.1.8
The University of Exeter. (2019, February 27). Child anxiety could be factor in school absences. ScienceDaily. Retrieved April 26, 2022 from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/02/190227191056.htm
I'm here with a message that I never wanted to cover: how to talk to kids about war.
This is a scary time for many of us. I'm unsure whether it's more frightening for kids -- who know little about war -- or for adults, who, frankly, may also understand little about this devastating topic, but who know enough to understand its terrifying ramifications.
We know one thing for sure, though: children are going to hear about it. It will come up at school, on the playground, and in adult conversations they overhear.
Part of the tragedy, of course, is that as a society, we were already deeply enmeshed in a mental health crisis. Even before the recent events in the world, 7.1% of children aged 3-17 years (approximately 4.4 million) had diagnosed anxiety; 3.2% of children aged 3-17 years (approximately 1.9 million) had diagnosed depression. They certainly didn't need the fear of war on top of this.
If we want to help safeguard children's mental health, we need to take action immediately.
We can mitigate children's fears by doing these six things to support our children:
I'll expand on each of these ideas below.
Who would be safer than you -- your child's special and trusted adult -- to tell your kids about the war? Just like with the "sex talk," you don't want your children learning about it from the Internet, or on the playground from older children, or from a neighbor. You want to make sure they're getting accurate and age-appropriate information, to the best of your ability.
Furthermore, many children, even if they haven't yet been told about the war, already know something's up.
Children learn early on what it looks like when we're stressed or worried. They pick it up from us. Chances are, if you've been carrying anxiety this week, you've been projecting it to some degree (which is only human). We're not robots, no matter how good we are at masking our fears.
Personal note: I used my stress as the segue to bring up the topic to my own child, who's eight years old. I sat her on my lap and told her, using a book as a makeshift globe, that a war had started on the other side of the planet. I said that because I was feeling sad and anxious about it, I wanted her to know so she wouldn't wonder why I was upset. I also told her that I wanted her to hear it from me first because I know I'm her safe place emotionally, and that she'd likely hear others talking about it.
Modeling emotional authenticity is important, albeit without terrifying our children. Even for kids, it's disconcerting to know something's bothering a loved one without knowing what it is. Kids understand when we're being disingenuous. When we help them make sense of what they're sensing, it grows their emotional intelligence.
Naturally, you'll want to tailor your message to your child's age and level of sensitivity.
What we know from brain science is that humans like to have complete information; we want to make sense of our stories. It's part of forming a coherent narrative. We struggle with ambiguity, and in the face of ambiguity, it's human nature to guess what might happen.
War is not a time for guessing. Children and adults alike are often drawn to worst case scenarios, so unless we're careful, we can get further caught up in a vicious cycle. Unchecked fear only begets more fear.
You know your child best, so trust your judgment on how much to tell them. It's generally advisable to start small -- bite-sized chunks of information. They'll ask if they want to know more. If they start asking questions to which you don't know the answers, be honest.
Lest the aforementioned ambiguity raise stress levels, tell them what you do know for sure: "I love you. I will do everything in my power to keep you, me, your stuffed animals, our pets, and everyone else safe. Whatever comes up, we'll deal with it."
Note that I did not say, "Whatever comes up, we'll be okay," because we cannot guarantee things will turn out fine. "We'll deal with it" is more accurate, and frankly, more empowering.
Let's be real -- children watch lots of screens these days, and we don't always know what they're seeing. Even if they're playing something benign on our phone while we're otherwise engaged, who's to say a fear-invoking notification won't pop up for them? It's easy to get news they didn't ask for.
Furthermore, even if you're allowing some media (as most of us do), we want to avoid violent or upsetting images. Personally, I'm choosing to keep the television off for the foreseeable future, save for my child's cartoon channel. I decide when to look up the latest news while she's not watching. Media is designed to be attention-grabbing. Most children will do much better if they're not caught off-guard by stressful images.
Remember that people around the world are all just people like us: moms and dads holding newborn babies; children playing at playgrounds; siblings squabbling. Somewhere, right now, a child on the other side of the world is sitting on their mama's lap and reading a story. We do not want to portray them as bad people, or raise concerns that "the enemy" includes entire populations.
Very few of us would want to be defined by the actions of our country's leaders, no matter how much we may (or may not) respect them. We are all our own people, and in some cases, the people of a country vehemently disagree with their leadership.
As a result, it behooves us to avoid saying things like, "the Russians..." or anyone at all. Surely, not all citizens of any country reflect the beliefs of their leadership.
It's unfair to stereotype. It breeds nothing but unfounded hate and fear. Xenophobia is real and all too prevalent.
Explain prejudice to your children, and talk to them about how some people will target people who "look" like the enemy for bullying or other unkind behavior, even right here in their very own communities. Tell them that it's wrong to do this.
Model kindness and acceptance. Teach tolerance. These families are very much like ours, save for speaking other languages.
When I spoke with my own daughter about the war, she seemed to do alright with the discussion. If anything, she seemed relatively indifferent -- at first. Later that day, she had a massive emotional release, undoubtedly related to the stress she was now carrying.
We can't force children to feel their feelings. Many children tend to internalize new information and process it for awhile before their true reactions show. Children may seem fine initially, but have intense reactions later. Delayed responses are known to happen with trauma. Perhaps your child hasn't experienced trauma from war directly, but the very concept of war is, at the very least, jarring.
Watch your child for physical symptoms of stress, such as ongoing trouble sleeping, persistent upsetting thoughts, or seemingly inexplicable physical aches. Especially for young children, tummy aches are a common symptom of anxiety.
It's also common for children under duress to have increased bouts of suboptimal behavior. We all process stress differently. Expect that news of a war, or violence of any kind, is going to affect your child's executive functioning skills. They may "regress" a bit, perhaps be more reactive, or show other signs of internal strife.
Even if your child's struggles don't seem to be connected to discussions about the war, know they likely are connected. Give kids grace; a minor upset that turns explosive may have been the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back. Their stress is real, and it's extremely important to lean in and offer connection to our children rather than punish them for subconsciously expressing their anxiety (even if it comes out in challenging ways).
Be proactive about helping them process. Older kids will benefit from writing stories about their feelings; younger children may be more comfortable drawing pictures. At the same time, you don't want to bring war to the forefront of every conversation. As the adage goes, let them be little. Play is the most natural form of childhood stress relief.
If you're concerned about your children, you'll never go wrong by engaging the support of a qualified mental health professional. Normalize getting extra support from other adults who are trained to help.
Finally, lean into a predictable routine of proactively finding and creating emotional safety in your life. Safety has very little to do with what we say, and much more to do with how we are around each other.
If your child typically releases stress through group activities with friends, go do those. Does your child want to climb trees and play in nature? Great. Do they want to sit on your lap and read stories all day? Perfect. If your family prays, pray together. If you do loving-kindness meditations, do them now.
Personalize safety for your children by being cognizant of what works for them. This is a time for greater connection in whatever form it takes. Above all, they need you.
Lean into each other. We have each other. Even in the midst of turmoil, we can create a sense of safety from within.
Whatever happens, we'll deal with it.
How in the world are we humans supposed to love like Jesus? The notion is daunting, especially those of us who are parents. I mean, he's JESUS! Isn't that bar a little high for the rest of us? Parenting is hard sometimes!
To be clear, I am not asking you to BE Jesus (that position is already filled, thank God). Instead, I challenge you to love like Jesus by inviting the Lord into your parenting. With God's help, we can parent without damaging our children -- and bring our kids closer to the Lord in the process.
As Christian parents, one of our priorities is to help our children actively feel Christ's eternal love. We can do that by:
I'll explore each of these below.
Let's be real: being fully present is hard. We live in a highly distractible society filled with an exhaustive list of things to do each day. It's easy to get so immersed in our over-scheduled lives that we lose sight of the importance of being in Christ-like community with one another -- including with our children. I'm certainly not shaming you for this; I'm right there with you.
It's easy to slip into focusing more on the minutia of parenting instead of pondering how we can bring perfect love to our relationship. Wouldn't it be nice if we could just order up some Christ-inspired simplicity from Amazon and call it a day? Curbside delivery for a moment's rest, maybe?
God really does put the onus on us to do the daily work of parenting, and indeed, it is definitely work. Perhaps counterintuitively, part of that work requires that we slow down.
Take time to do "nothing" with your kids every day, even if just for a few minutes. That might look like reading together or snuggling on the couch. It might mean taking those few extra minutes at bedtime to learn about your child's friends or what's stirring in their hearts.
In doing so, we make room for not only the neutral- to positive emotions of running through our busy days, but also for whatever else they feel called to share when we let them be still, physically and emotionally. We must slow down enough to let them feel what they need to process, without their childhood going by in a blur.
(We must do this for ourselves, too, even when it feels like we can't -- God was serious about the importance of the Sabbath).
The point is that we're intentional about slowing down and truly hearing what's behind our kids' words; truly seeing them -- just like Christ does for us. Our kids children feel how God loves them in our quiet moments together.
Example of how to love like Jesus: "Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you." Jeremiah 29:12. Jesus isn't scrolling his phone while we pray to him. He leans in and listens intently. We can do this, too.
Will our kids feel the presence of the Father in the still and quiet moments of family time, or will they miss God's peace because we're all too busy with all the fun, all the challenges, and all the pitiful pleasures of a life without rest?
Example of how to love like Jesus: "Amidst the busy-ness of the crowds and an urgent pull to be elsewhere, Jesus slowed down and healed the woman who merely reached out and touched his cloak." (Luke 8:43-48) Jesus showed her she mattered by slowing down despite the distractions. We can be less distracted, too.
True presence is different than spending 24x7 together; it's about making sure we don't miss what's going on in our kids' internal world. In doing so, we nurture not only a secure attachment with our children, but we also create neurochemical reactions that reinforce our desire to be together.
Loving presence is a virtuous cycle. God designed it to be so.
When our kids look back someday how we parented them, will they have felt us bringing God's perfect love into our relationships, albeit in our innately flawed version of the heavenly ideal? Or will they have felt something less? Will they remember home as a physically and emotionally safe place for them?
Example of how to love like Jesus: "He is my refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust." (Psalm 91:2) We can make our homes and our family life feel like a true refuge from the world; a safe place where our children learn that Jesus loves them perfectly and unconditionally. They don't have to do anything to "earn" our love.
We can further fortify the walls of our "fortress" by actively praying for our children. Moreover, we can pray with our children; not as an empty habit like feeding the cat or taking out the trash, but by praying when the Spirit moves our hearts. Yes, we can say grace at the dinner table, but it's more than that. Show your kids that God is with us in the big and small things.
Further, talk about faith by reading the Bible together; live faith by going to church; truly living the scripture and loving our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31). That means we model loving all our neighbors -- not just the ones we like, or who voted like we did, or whose skin looks like ours, or whose life choices we support. (And yes, some of this can be really hard.) God isn't picking and choosing who's in the cool crowd. He welcomes everyone who will have him. We don't get to model exclusivity.
If we want to love like Jesus, we need to remember that we're on the same team as our children. When conflict arises, it's not us versus them -- it's us AND them versus the problem we're trying to solve.
God's sincere desire is for families to stay unified for and through him. Because Christ loved us first, we love our children first. That means we wholly love and accept our child "just as they are" before we focus on their behavior -- even knowing they're going to mess up.
To love like Jesus Christ, remember that "Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth." 1 Corinthians 13:4–8a (ESV) We're not here to exert power over our children or lead by fear; we're here to guide them peacefully.
Spoiler alert: we as parents mess up, too. Loving each other without resentment or irritability isn't a new commandment. God calls us to be peaceful in every love-based relationship, including those with our kids.
It may actually serve us well to wake each morning affirming, "My child is going to make mistakes today. They don't have the higher level brain functions that allow them to act like an adult yet, much less like Jesus. My child is going to be flawed -- and I'm going to choose to love them anyway. God loved me and invites me to rest in his love without having to work for it. I'm going to do the same for my child."
God's love proactively accepts our flaws; our weaknesses. To be clear, I'm not saying we should expect the worst of our children, nor am I saying all behavior is acceptable. My point is that we focus on the eternal and forgiving nature of God, rather than on his condemnation for our mistakes. We can proactively choose to be peaceful even when it's really darn hard. Peace is always an option in parenting.
If we're struggling to love like Jesus in the ways the Bible asserts, we can focus on self-care, meet with a parenting coach, seek counseling, or find other ways to heal the parent/child dyad. Start with prayer and ask to feel the type of love that Jesus means for you to have with your kids. If requires vulnerability, but God will see us through it.
When we think about how to bless our children with the love of Jesus Christ, we must ask not only who Jesus would love, but also how he would love. Let's explore this.
Sometimes we see our children making choices we believe are wrong. Perhaps its our child's choice of friends; perhaps it's the person they're interested in romantically. Maybe they're acting in a way that would hurt someone else, or not being a good friend to others.
Some parents' response to their children's decisions like these is to withhold love or support from their children until they "shape up." Our feelings of wanting to reject our children's choices make sense, because some of their choices are hard to accept!
At the same time, if we want to love like Jesus, we must remember that Jesus was kind to sinners. He ate with them. He spent time with them; he listened to their stories and loved them before he ultimately died for them. He didn't just give his life for the "small" sins, though, like, "I'll forgive people who get speeding tickets" or "I'll forgive people who occasionally use swear words." Much more than that, Jesus gave his life -- and his full eternal forgiveness -- to the worst of the worst. The Sinners with a capital "S."
Does that mean he accepted all their behaviors and didn't set boundaries with them? Of course not! We know from the Bible that he told them to sin no more. To "turn the other cheek" doesn't mean to turn a blind eye to problems. Our job as parents, however, isn't to send our children into an earthly version of Hell, full of pain and rejection for their transgressions. We can love them and prioritize the relationship in everything we do.
Remember, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good." (Romans 12:21 ESV)
In that Bible story, we all know the son messed up big time. The defining mark of this story, however, isn't the part where the father hands his son the keys to the BMW and says "Sayonara. Get out of here. Don't even think about coming back until you clean up your act." Instead, the focus is on the father's proactive forgiveness of his son -- knowing full well all the mistakes his son was actively making -- and welcoming his son back with joy.
To take this story one step further, when the son did come back, the dad didn't say, "Now, go to your room and stay there until I punish you." This dad, representing the joy of the Lord when sinners turn back to him, danced and shouted happily and threw the kid a party! The point is the reconnection. The healing. The relationship.
There is no feeling of greater love than to be welcomed back with open arms -- and with a feeling of true safety. Jesus loved us this way, and we can love Jesus back by sharing his grace with our children.
Yes, we can have boundaries; and yes, we can uphold family values. When we remember how Jesus loved us first, though, even while we were acting like the prodigal son, we're reminded of his truth, his presence, and his grace. This story is not only a metaphorical story of God's love, but it's also very practical and literal parenting advice.
A common misperception is that, as disciples of Christ, we must punish our children when they transgress. I have yet to find a Bible story where Jesus sought out a sinner so he could punish or shame them. Instead, Jesus demonstrated compassion, even for the worst sinners.
Instead of making them feel worse for what they were doing, he met them with love and gentle, peaceful correction. He saw the struggling person within. His teaching modeled the truth of his peaceful nature. Consequences don't need to be punitive.
Perhaps most importantly, to be God's disciples and model Jesus' teaching, we must live by the Fruit of the Spirit. When we let the Holy Spirit guide our parenting, our children can feel God's grace upon them.
Example of how to love like Jesus: "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law." (Galatians 5:22-23) This Bible verse does NOT go on to say, "...except when your kids are misbehaving, in which case, you should flip out on them and punish them. Go back to 'eye for an eye, baby!'"
Meet evil with kindness; model forgiveness of sins. When we go to God with our sins and sincerely ask for forgiveness, we know we have it. That was the point of Jesus' death on the cross; he died while we were still sinners. We didn't have to do anything to earn it.
We can meet our kids with grace and compassion rather than punishment and wrath.
As John Mark Comer asked in The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry, perhaps we shouldn't ask, "What would Jesus do," but rather, "What would Jesus do if he were me?" When we invite him into our parenting -- the very toughest of the tough moments -- we can feel him calling us to offer grace to our children.
Indeed, love is a practice, and we're all going to struggle not only in our faith, but also in execution of grace-based parenting sometimes. Perfect and faultless love is God's alone. At the same time, when we go the extra mile to intentionally love like Jesus in our parenting, it gives us -- and our children -- practical ways to feel Christ's Word come alive in our homes. May God bless you and your family.
In Thrivers, The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine (available here), Michele Borba, ED, internationally renowned educational psychologist and bestselling author of Unselfie (here), explains the seven character traits that will safeguard children against adversity in this uncertain world. Dr. Borba encourages parents with common sense advice -- specifically, seven essential life skills -- that help children not only face struggles with greater ease, but come out stronger because of them.
With the current childhood mental health crisis, Thrivers belongs on every parenting bookshelf in the world. It's a deeply researched instruction manual for raising emotionally healthier kids.
With this in mind, here are the three of the many reasons parents need to read Thrivers today:
In the United States alone, approximately 4.4 million children aged 3-17 have diagnosed anxiety (source); and 1.9 million have diagnosed depression (source). The reasons why some kids struggle so considerably are manyfold, but Dr. Borba offers practical advice to parents about how we can help turn these numbers around for the better.
Specifically, in Thrivers, her timely and important book, she encourages parents to teach kids and young adults these seven character traits to offset the effects of adversity: self-confidence, empathy, self-control, integrity, curiosity, perseverance, and optimism.
Dr, Borba combed scientific studies about what contributes to kids' negative thinking, then developed age-by-age steps to building resilience and nurturing a growth mindset. What you'll notice is that the mindset kids have is teachable; children don't need to be born with resiliency and grit to be thrivers.
Children become thrivers tomorrow because mentally strong parents prepare kids for the future today.
Recently, Sarah R. Moore of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting met with Michele Borba ED to discuss these reliable predictors of success, and how parents can point kids in the right direction. We all know raising children isn't easy, but we can absolutely help our children thrive.
Dr. Michele Borba, ED discusses Thrivers, The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine. This is an excerpt; watch the full interview here.
Hello friends, I am here today with Michelle Borba, ED, to discuss Thrivers, The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine. I'm so excited to share her goodness. I want to know how we can teach kids to be thrivers in this very uncertain world. We are better for her books and for the knowledge that she shares with us.
A moment ago, before we started recording, you told me that Thrivers has been a passion project. Can you tell me a little bit about what drove you to write it?
My whole life, I've been trying to figure out why some kids struggle and others shine. As a special education teacher, I observed that all the kids coming into my class were identified as having severe learning difficulties, for some reason.
However, some of them were struggling less and seemed to be bouncing back. Maybe they weren't going to be bouncing back academically, but they still had confidence. I've kept track of them and many of them are doing quite well in the world right now.
So, it was that moment that I decided to start studying resilience. There's some amazing work that I think is untapped, and that we're not using as parents.
"The first thing I discovered is that resilient children are made resilient. They're not born thrivers. So that means we, as parents, have a lot to do with it. It's not DNA. It's not temperament. It's not birth order. It's that they seem to have protective factors from a skill set that they can learn." - Michele Borba ED, author of Thrivers
The thing that's wonderful is that we can teach those skills, and it's not for tomorrow. We're going to do it the rest of our parenting career. And as a result of our efforts, we're going to help our kids. The same skills help them in the classroom will also help them in life. Here's what they encompass:
That's what Thrivers is -- pulling the science and coming up with practical strategies so we can raise up a strong generation of kids who thrive.
That is beautiful. That is truly world-changing work when you raise a whole generation of people who are more resilient and more able to handle adversity.
I think it's really important to put a reset button on this.
We know that this generation is well loved. They're well educated. They're more diverse and they're wonderful. However, I began to see some stats that were mind-boggling. I learned that they were also the loneliest, most stressed, most mentally exhausted, and they felt empty. And then came the COVID-19 pandemic.
The CDC is showing us that those challenging issues only amplify in a crisis such as the pandemic, even affecting kids at younger ages.
"If a child doesn't have those protective buffers, they'll suffer. But if there's any silver lining to this, it means now is the time to teach the skills." - Michele Borba ED, author of Thrivers
Let's backtrack for just a second. It would be really helpful for people to understand in that thrivers are.
What does it mean? What does it look like? Do you see them walking up the street and go, "Hey, those are thrivers?"
I can see thrivers from a mile away. Not everyone can see them from a mile away because it's more of what happens on the inside as opposed to the outside, but it's basically a kid who's got an "I can do this -- I've got this" kind of an attitude.
"When any kind of little stumbling block comes along the way, thrivers don't quit, give up, or try to have somebody else do it for them. Thrivers find a way through. They brush themselves off and start all over again when necessary. That's what thrivers are." - Michele Borba ED discusses the mindset kids have when they're thrivers
What I discovered is that successful children and young adults usually have strengths in their minds, hearts, and will. We'll discuss how we can point kids towards these things and teach kids these seven character traits that are reliable predictors of success.
That makes so much sense because who we are matters, not what we're doing. That said, so much of society looks at what we're doing.
What is our kid's GPA? How many activities are they involved in? Are they "on track" from the ripe old age of 4 to get into the perfect university 14 or 15 years later? What should we do to help people look beyond the accomplishment -- grades, test scores, whatever it is, and see the whole child?
I agree with everything you said, except I'd say it starts at age 2. It's starting even then -- so early. The most interesting part of the research when I was writing Thrivers, is I interviewed 100 kids, one on one, for an hour each.
I asked them, "Prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, I understand you were the most stressed out generation known to man. Do you agree?"
"Oh, yeah, we are," they said.
"Well, what's causing it?"
Kid after kid said almost the same thing that you just said, but in kid language. One kid said it the best.
He said, "I think it's because we're being raised as products and not humans, and we're more than test scores." - A child Dr. Borba interviewed while writing Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine
And it hurts so bad to hear him say that because, of course, we want our kids to succeed, but we may be overlooking the inside stuff.
When I asked the kids, "What are your hobbies?" They all looked at me, like "What do you mean? We have this activity and this activity and this activity..." -- but hobbies help a child decompress.
A very simple perspective is, don't overlook the ordinary things that help your kid become extraordinary. When we look at the research, many of the resilient kids use prayer or spirituality. It helps them decompress.
Now that may not be for you -- fine -- other kids go read. Other kids say, I listen to a certain kind of music. Other kids walk around the block or shoot baskets. The point is that they figure out how to decompress and they go to that.
"When push comes to shove, what we're doing is waiting until the kid is an anxiety attack and then trying to teach him how to calm down. By then, it's too late. Helping kids feel connected to something greater than themselves is one of the highest correlations to reducing stress." - Dr. Michele Borba, author of Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine
When kids become self-absorbed, what happens is their empathy goes down. Their stress goes up.
After awhile, what happens, because you have to dial your empathy down when you're stressed -- because you're in survival mode -- burnout is the outcome.
There's hope for mental health turning around. Maybe the place to start is with parents who say, "Okay, now we've listened. So what are we going to do about this?"
The first step to change is realizing this is not an overnight process. It's not going to be difficult. You don't need a PhD and it's not another program or an app.
It's just intentionally saying, "I'm going to make sure that my child also learns to thrive." Now, let's figure out "What am I going to do tomorrow?"
Yeah, and what a paradigm shift for so many of us, big and small.
I think, perhaps, we often approach this the wrong way. In Unselfie, you wrote about the role of empathy and connecting with one another, and seeing other people's perspectives.
We sometimes think that to help our kids grow their empathy, we just need to tell them how others feel. It's more than that, though.
Empathy is probably the most highly correlated to mental health. And when we're looking at what's going on right now, and why are kids tanking?
It's because they're lonely. They don't have social connection. They're looking at screens and not each other. So what do we do?
Don't throw up the white flag and go, "I can't do anything."
The first thing is, they need to practice empathy. It's kind of like a muscle and it needs to be stretched and worked out.
You can do that at home, with your family meetings. You can do it with listening.
Maybe the fastest thing with a young child is tell them, always look at the color of someone's eyes when you're talking because it first of all, it makes the child hold their head up. If your child holds their head up, they're going to be seen as more confident.
The second thing is they'll start noticing is the person's face.
Realizing the other person exists, and the gateway to empathy, is emotional literacy.
So what are they going to be doing? They're going to be looking at the facial expressions.
And now here's your next tip that for the next three, four, five years, start talking about feelings more naturally with your kids. You can't empathize and feel with another person unless you realize, she looks sad, or he looks upset, or he sounds grumpy.
If you're asking, how do I do that during a pandemic?
You tell your kid, let's call Grandma, but it's always through Skype or FaceTime, and you prime the child before they begin.
Listen to Grandma's voice, and you'll know when she's tired, and it's time to hang up, or watch her face, and you'll know when she's happy, or when she's sad.
You'll know what to say.
You can prime the child, but note this other little point.
All the research says we do a far better job of teaching empathy with our daughters at age 2, than we do with our sons at age 2. We need to do this with boys, too.
So just talk naturally.
If you have a middle school kid, watch the movie Inside Out or a show on TV. Every once in a while, turn the sound off and do feeling charades. Ask, "How do you think he's feeling right now?"
Just talk about it because that's the first gateway to empathy. Then you can help your kids start stepping into the shoes of somebody else.
You mentioned that thrivers don't have to thrive only because of their DNA. Much of their ability to be thrivers stems from what we can teach them through their childhood and family relationships. At the same time, we know kids are born with different dispositions and temperaments.
For example, my daughter is very sensitive. I remember her being two years old, and we were in a store one day where there was a large photo on the opposite side of the store from where we were. From across the busy store, she looked at the photo and asked, "Mama, what are those people feeling right now?"
We were surrounded by all sorts of things that could've been overloading her sensory systems at this busy store, but she wanted to know what those people in the photograph were feeling. On the flip side, I know plenty of kids who might see me bawling my eyes out, for example, and they'd be like, "Everything's fine. She's happy. I don't see it."
How does the innate difference in the "wiring" of these kids play out in empathy and becoming thrivers?
I love that question, because sometimes we've got one kid who watches Bambi and is a basket case for the rest of their life. We've got another kid who watches it and is fine.
There are actually three kinds of empathy. I call it the ABCs of empathy. You're going to be able to figure out which of your kids are strong in which area, and there's where you parent.
You might have a child who sees somebody in distress and soon, they're sobbing with them. What you want to do with that child is give them permission to step back. Let them know they can't take it all in. They can't solve everyone's problem. You need to give them permission so they don't care so much.
I love Mother Teresa -- she had the best of the best lines. She said, if I kept looking at all the masses, I would be a basket case. I can't do it. All the people who are starving; all the people that were hurting. So I just look for one, and that helps. You say, "What is the one thing you can do for that one person?" We can't solve everybody.
The second kind of child may not be the crying kind. They may not be the one who looks like they're upset, but they're actually quieter. They're more the thinking kind. Don't assume they don't have empathy.
They're trying to process it and they're trying to think about how that other person feels. Where's he coming from? Oh, bless this kid, because that's what we need. They have what's called perspective taking skills. That is, by the way, the top employability factor right now, as Harvard says. We want kids to step into others' shoes.
Now to that kid, you have to say, "You don't have to agree with what someone else says. Just try to understand where they're coming from."
The final kid is the kid who wants to step in and do something. That's the behavior side. And that's what's called empathy, and action, and compassion.
When I interview those kids, it's each one is so different on what their passion is. As a parent, we need to ask, what's driving your child's concerns? Let the child lead you in that direction.
I have three boys. When they were little, I took them to see the movie, The Bear. I didn't realize it was so sad. My little one was a basket case. By the end, he came home and said, why are they shooting the bears? He said to me, "I've got to dictate this letter to you so you can send it to the President. Stop killing the bears."
I thought, "Well, this is gonna go over like a lead balloon," but he dictated a letter, I put it in an envelope, lo and behold, that kid got letter after letter after letter from the government. He knew he had to take action. Gosh, am I glad he dictated the letter and I put it in the mail. It helps our kids know that when you have stress, you can be a change maker. You can make a difference. It's one of the best ways to reduce a child's stress.
Michele Borba, Ed.D. is an internationally renowned educator, award-winning author, and parenting, child and bullying expert recognized for her solution-based strategies to strengthen children’s empathy, character, and reduce bullying. She is an NBC contributor who has appeared over 150 times on the TODAY show and featured on countless shows including: Dr. Phil, Dateline, The View and CNN. Her 24 books have been translated in 20 languages including End Peer Cruelty, Build Empathy, Building Moral Intelligence, UnSelfie: Why Empathetic Kids Succeed in Our All-About-Me World. her latest (March 2021) is Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine. She offers realistic, research-based advice culled from a career of working with over one million parents and educators worldwide. Follow her on Twitter @micheleborba and Instagram @drmicheleborba
In a recent interview with Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting, leading child psychologist Mona Delahooke, PhD, discussed her new book, Brain-Body Parenting: How to Stop Managing Behavior and Start Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids, available here (afflinks).
Many parents know Dr. Delahooke from her best-selling book Beyond Behaviors (available here, along with the Beyond Behaviors Flip Chart, here). Her brilliant work in child psychology helps parents shift their perspectives about challenging behaviors and gain a deeper understanding of how to support children through connection.
Supporting children from the inside out, she clearly explains the biology beneath behavior. Moreover, rather than suggesting a one-size-fits-all approach to common challenges, Dr. Delahooke describes the essential role of parenting to individual differences.
In Brain-Body Parenting, Dr. Delahooke offers insight that helps parents tend to their children's entire nervous system, thereby supporting connection and encouraging children's increased resilience. With her experience as a clinical psychologist, she offers readers a helpful understanding of neuroscience and polyvagal theory. Fortunately for those of us who aren't scientists, she writes in everyday terms that are easy to understand and that promote more harmonious family dynamics.
She's a proponent of co-regulation, which involves supporting our children's emotional needs alongside them, encouraging calmer behavior by being calm and peaceful, ourselves. This ultimately helps grow their self-regulation skills -- with better behavior as a fortuitous byproduct.
Having drawn from her clinical experience as well as the most recent research in child development, this new book by Dr. Delahooke is a must-have for parents and caregivers.
Below is an excerpt from an interview with Mona Delahooke, Phd, expert in clinical psychology and child development. If you'd like to watch the full video about how to have a more connected relationship and a deeper understanding of brain science, it's available for free here.
As I was reading your book and thinking about the families I support, your subtitle jumped out at me: "How to Stop Managing Behavior and Start Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids." Many parents are going to say, "Hold the phone, Mona. What do you mean, stop managing behaviors? Behavior is what I see!" Can you talk a little bit about what that means? I'd also love hear about the concept of top-down and bottom-up behavior.
That's such a great question because, yes, what else do we have other than behaviors to go by? Many of us, including myself, were either taught or grew up in a culture of thinking that managing behaviors is end product. That is what we do, right? We deal with children's behavior so that we increase the behaviors we want to see; the "good" behaviors -- and we do something to lessen the "bad" behaviors.
That's how we think about behaviors, but when I became a infant and toddler specialist, I was able to learn this whole notion that behaviors are really just a signal of what's going on on a much deeper level.
Behaviors are like the tip of the iceberg. What's going on underneath the waterline, which is invisible, is all those things that we aren't really taught about that create the behaviors, right? They create the sensations, the feelings, the, the thoughts, and eventually the emotions that humans feel. - Dr. Mona Delahooke
Then there's this whole notion that there's a difference between top-down and bottom- or body-up behaviors. That was news to me when I learned it in my training. I'll never forget one of my instructors saying, "So is this a top-down or bottom-up behavior?" I was thinking, "Well, I don't know. What's the difference?"
Now I know the difference. Our bottom- or body-up behaviors are prevalent in all humans. They happen when our nervous system shifts into a pathway that is created in our biology to help protect our bodies and help us to feel safer. A body behavior is something that is not conscious. It's subconscious.
We're not aware of it happening, but we're aware of the consequences of it: a more rapid heart rate, sweaty palms, sweaty nose, a red face; or our child hitting, kicking, screaming, punching, spitting.
Those are indicators of a bottom- or body-up response. It really is a biological phenomenon.
When we think about managing behaviors, I'm trying to help us really see that what we're managing is a nervous system. - Dr. Mona Delahooke
And when our children's nervous systems are on what I call a vulnerable platform, that's when you see those behaviors that we all kind of dread as parents. Now, we can see them in a new light as indicators of a vulnerable or shaky platform. When we do, then a whole new array of what to do falls from that.
Yeah, that really is a paradigm shift. So many of us are used to "Well, if I see this behavior, I do that to make it stop," without exploring what's really going on.
You mentioned pathways. Can you talk a little bit about your pathways concept?
Right. The pathways concept is really just another way of thinking about something we all have, which is the autonomic nervous system.
One of the theories of the autonomic nervous system that I think is so useful in helping us translate it from the science to a parenting is the polyvagal theory, also known as the neuroscience of love and engagement. Basically our autonomic nervous system has these different pathways.
To oversimplify things, [I talk about pathways] in terms of colors because it's easier than the scientific names.
The green pathway would be when we're calm; when our bodies are sensing safety. We're feeling good inside and outside our bodies. The world coming into us is manageable. In children, we see them playing, they're able to learn, and they tend to be more cooperative.
These children are talking to us. Their body language is one of calmness: their voices, their posture, the way they're holding their bodies. You see calmer behavior and an engaged, happy child. That's a wonderful place to be.
But as human beings, we can't [always] live [in the green pathway] because we're not robots and our our world presents challenges.
No matter if you're a three-year-old where, you know, the challenge might be that you got the wrong kind of food for lunch, or as an adult, it might be that you get really bad news.
In these situations, we have these protective other pathways. The first one that we generally go to involves movement and it's called the red pathway. That's where we might have increased heart rate, sweaty palms -- like I said, your nervous system is detecting threat.
You might see challenging behaviors like kicking, hitting, screaming, or running away. Those kinds of behaviors that we may tend to think about as misbehavior or challenged behaviors can be a sign of this autonomic distress, in which their nervous system is trying to feel better through movement. One to think about this behavior is, "Oh no, I have to shift this behavior. My child's nervous system is feeling vulnerable right now. This is a vulnerable platform, not a misbehaving child. - Dr. Mona Delahooke
And then there's also a third pathway. We know now that there are blended pathways, as well. But just for our purposes, the blue pathway may be where a child is just kind of blue and shut down, not wanting to move much. They're not wanting to to play or to seek contact. They might have very sad look on their face and a very quiet voice.
We move through these pathways adaptively throughout the day.
So you may have moments of feeling blue and hopeless, but we want to watch out for blue or red pathways predominating over days and weeks...We want to see a child spending about seventy percent of their waking hours in the green.
The full interview is available here.
Mona Delahooke, PhD, is a licensed clinical psychologist with more than 30 years of experience caring for children and their families. She is a senior faculty member ofthe Profectum Foundation, an organization dedicated to supporting families of neurodiverse children, adolescents and adults. She is a trainer for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health.
Dr. Delahooke holds the highest level of endorsement in the field of infant and toddler mental health in California, as a Reflective Practice Mentor (RPM). She is a frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant to parents, organizations, schools, and public agencies. Dr. Delahooke has dedicated her career to promoting compassionate, relationship-based neurodevelopmental interventions for children with developmental, behavioral, emotional, and learning differences.
She is the author of the award winning book Beyond Behaviors: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children’s Behavioral Challenges (PESI, 2019), and Social and Emotional Development in Early Intervention: A Skills Guide for Working with Children (PESI, 2017). Her popular blog, at www.monadelahooke.com covers a range of topics useful for caregivers and childhood providers. Follow her on Facebook: @DrMonaDelahooke, Instagram: @monadelahooke and Twitter @monadelahooke.
Sarah R. Moore is the founder of Dandelion Seeds Positive Parenting, an author (first parenting book coming 2022), an armchair neuroscientist, and most importantly, a Mama. She's a lifelong learner with training in child development, improv comedy, trauma recovery, and interpersonal neurobiology. She helps bring JOY, EASE, and CONNECTION back to families. Take her science-based and video mini-courses here, and follow her on Facebook, Instagram,
I'm not equipped for this.
My daughter and I were at the playground last Monday. We'd been on the swings together, then running around chasing dreams, or fairies, or whatever it was she said we were pursuing.
We climbed a hill that had a giant concrete sundial at the top and were feeling the warm sunshine on our faces. She put her arm around me; I put mine around her, in return.
I felt her drift backwards, which I presumed was simply her pulling away from me, as kids do.
Then, I heard something smack down on the concrete -- and turned around to see my child on the ground.
Unconscious. Eyes closed; mouth open. A cut on the back of her ear from where her head had made contact.
One minute she was there, smiling up at me...the next, she...wasn't.
I have zero medical training aside from a CPR class I took a few years ago. I remembered exactly NONE of it in this moment. Instead, I did what a body does when it's panicked -- I started screaming.
I don't know where my voice came from. I'm normally very soft-spoken. I usually freeze when met with a shock.
This time, I did not freeze; my body mobilized and vocalized every smothered shriek I've ever held back.
I tried to roll my child towards me so I could see her face better, then remembered we're not supposed to move unconscious people. Or are we? I didn't know.
Now, I froze. I started staring at something off in the distance. Everything got hazy and my brain "checked out." I felt dizzy. Where was I? What was happening?
By the grace of God, a few other parents were nearby, including one who was a nurse and another, a doctor.
Time passed. I have no idea how much.
What felt like hours (but was surely just minutes) later, the nurse announced that my child was "coming back" and starting to talk. I was still somewhere outside my body; and, it hurts me to say, not at all present with my ailing child, aside from standing next to her on the sundial.
The shock was too much for me. I became aware that my entire body was shaking as if there were an earthquake below my feet.
I shut down, incapable of helping my own child.
Am I a failure? I must be, if I wasn't the first reassuring face my child saw as she woke up.
Instead, my child awakened looking into a stranger’s eyes, not mine. She awakened in a stranger's arms, not mine. My eyes had been the first she ever looked into, moments after she was born. My arms had been the first arms to ever hold her.
I was not there this time for this crucial reawakening. I was nearby, but not there. My mind's eye was frozen with the image of her lying unconscious on the concrete, even though she was now ready to try standing up.
Still in a daze, I managed -- with help -- to get us down the hill and into my car. I immediately took my child to her pediatrician, who confirmed that nothing appeared to be wrong with her. It was a "fluke," she said.
Oh, okay. Nothing's wrong. Where do I find peace with this?
The rest of the day, I kept my child on my lap, reading to her, stroking her hair and nuzzling my face into it like I did when she was a baby.
I lost another baby once. I do not want to lose THIS "baby," who's an otherwise healthy 8-year-old. Our babies are always our babies. I am not prepared to lose...another. Not THIS child.
I poured love into her sweet soul in every way I knew how that day. As soon as I could, I showed up. I put down my phone, my agenda, and everything I was "supposed to" accomplish.
I was just WITH her. Terrified and comforted at the same time, feeling my baby slip through my fingers -- and then holding her back there again.
It all knocked the wind out of me.
The next morning, after a night of extremely broken sleep (for me), my daughter -- still pale -- looked up at me and said out of the blue, "Mama, I'm not afraid of dying."
"What?" I inquired, feeling tears rush to my eyes. No one had spoken to her about dying.
"Heaven is going to be perfect. Can you imagine?" She paused, then continued, "You know what, though? Even if Heaven is just like here -- exactly like here -- that's fine with me, too, because here is pretty amazing."
And she leaned into me, hugged me tightly, and did not let go.
I am not equipped for this.
AND, if she views my showing up; the safety I offer her when I'm capable; my holding her and loving her as being a version of Heaven that she'd accept for eternity -- then there's no failure here.
I will hold her every day of my life. May I keep showing up, and I will never let her slip through my fingers again.
We've all seen the happy child who leans into life, smiling all the way, seemingly without a care in the world. How does this happen? Are they born this way, or can we teach kids ways to optimize their emotional well being?
Indeed, some children are born happier. Temperament, driven partially by genetic makeup, can make for an easygoing child. However, genetics account for only 20 - 60% of the child's temperament (source). This is good news, because it means good parents can influence their children's happiness for the better.
There are countless articles about how to raise a happy child, but I've boiled it down to just those practices that are proven to drive long-term happiness.
Scientists have shown that
"...brain levels of serotonin -- the 'happy hormone' -- are regulated by the amount of [healthy] bacteria in the gut during early life. The research shows that normal adult brain function depends on the presence of gut microbes during development..." (source)
"...A balanced diet, including fish, vegetables, cereals, fruits, and water can help our gut bacteria to be healthy. Healthy gut bacteria will have a positive effect on the brain and our moods. 'Happy gut bacteria' will help us to have 'happy brains'..." (source)
If you have a picky eater, this video may help.
Related book recommendations: Life Will Get Better: Simple Solutions for Parents of Children with Attention, Anxiety, Mood and Behavior Challenges and It's Not About the Broccoli (afflinks)
It's nearly impossible to have a happy child who's also an exhausted child.
"...sleep might just be the key to our happiness and peak performance. Nothing could be more true for children. Kids need a lot of sleep to be happy. Unfortunately, studies show that kids are getting significantly less sleep per night than they did in previous generations. This is of no small consequence." (source)
There's plenty of scientifically backed research about the effects of lack of sleep: children learn less, they feel worse, and they -- no surprise here -- behave worse when they're tired.
Most children need:
Recommended mini-courses: How to help babies sleep when you don't want to cry-it-out and The Peaceful Parenting Approach When a Child Won't Stay in Their Bed Recommended book: No-Cry Sleep Solution
One life changing approach is to shift from doing what makes us happy to what makes our kids happy. Even with the best intentions, we often (wrongly) assume it's the same thing! Do you know your child's love language?
Of course, we matter, too, and it's not all about the kids. The key is to help our kids feel "seen" in their own unique ways.
Child loves painting? Paint with them. Reading? Read with them. Do their thing alongside them, even for 10 minutes.
In other words, slowing down to see what our child loves is wonderfully connecting in parenting. Feeling "seen" is one of the "4 Ss" of secure attachment.
Sources and recommended reading: The Power of Showing Up and 5 Love Languages of Children: The Secret to Loving Children Effectively
One thing I love about daily lessons in gratitude is that neither parents nor children need to invest much time in them for them to be highly effective. Happiness studies repeatedly show that children and adults who practice gratitude are happier:
"...Studies have found that giving thanks and counting blessings can help people sleep better, lower stress and improve interpersonal relationships...a study found that keeping a gratitude journal decreased materialism and bolstered generosity among adolescents..." (source)
Besides having a gratitude journal for older children, there are other activities you can start with children at an early age to help raise happier kids.
One simple activity is every night at dinner, each family member shares three things for which they're thankful. It's quick and easy, and it helps keep gratitude top of mind.
Play naturally lowers children's stress levels and promotes joy. Plus, spending time playing is essential for their development.
"...it contributes to the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional well-being of children and youth...Play is so important to optimal child development that it has been recognized by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights as a right of every child.." (source)
Lest parents think nothing "productive" comes from playtime, countless articles from the fields of neuroscience and child development prove otherwise:
"...75 percent of the brain develops after a baby is born, in the years between birth and the early 20s. Childhood play stimulates the brain to make connections between nerve cells. This is what helps a child develop both gross motor skills (walking, running, jumping, coordination) and fine motor skills (writing, manipulating small tools, detailed hand work). Play during the teen years and into adulthood helps the brain develop even more connectivity, especially in the frontal lobe which is the center for planning and making good decisions..." (source)
Children literally need a tremendous amount of play for key features of their brains to grow properly. These are the very key features that support the "productivity" and good decision-making skills we want them to embody as they grow older. Further, it's great for their emerging social skills, which contributes to better relationships down the road.
Free, unstructured play is never a waste of time. It's one of the easy-to-understand lessons that requires exactly zero prep or planning on the adult's part; children are naturally born to play.
Children will need play as they grow into adulthood, as well. Cutting-edge research proves that adults need their own versions of play to reduce stress levels, improve brain function, boost activity levels, and improve relationships (source).
How else can we raise a happy child? Kids develop life changing "happiness habits" through daily lessons in connecting with others.
Groundbreaking research shows that happy children have good friends who are a positive influence on their health and well being.
..."Social relationships have been widely recognized as protective factors for psychological well-being and physical health..." (source: Human Improvement Project)
Even more critical than friendships, however, is a loving and nurturing family life. Having a close family life is linked to better relationships for the child throughout their entire lifespan.
View behavior problems as opportunities to connect. Be a peaceful parent (here's help with that).
Recommended resource to guide parents on how to stay at the forefront of their kids' relationships: Hold Onto Your Kids by Dr. Gordon Neufield and Gabor Maté, M.D.
Happy kids know what a joyful life looks like because they've witnessed it firsthand. A happy child often has happy parents.
So, if we want to raise happy kids, that means we need to be happy, too. To be clear, this isn't to say we should "fake it" if we're unhappy.
What it may mean, however, is that if we're unhappy, we may need to do something about it. What would bring you more joy? Could you
Many parents feel they're unable, or sometimes unwilling, to take steps to be happier. If not for you, then, would you consider doing these things for your kids?
Your children's happiness may depend on watching you model taking care of yourself. It's precisely how they learn that they're worthy of taking care of themselves when they get older.
Did you know that pets promote long-term happiness and greater self-esteem?
"...evidence for an association between pet ownership and a wide range of emotional health benefits from childhood pet ownership; particularly for self-esteem and loneliness..." (source)
Dogs, especially, are linked to making kids happier (source).
Additionally, having a pet can even decrease a child's likelihood of future substance abuse.
"...Pets can positively influence mental health and...well-being...They may even help prevent the development of addiction in the first place..." (source)
An overly busy schedule and happiness cannot co-exist.
Parenting experts such as Kim John Payne (interviewed here) have spoken time and time again about how precious time is. Filling this precious time with too many activities simply diminishes the joy of everyday living.
Whenever possible, eat dinner together at the family dinner table, with screens off. Talk and connect more. Play more. Simply BE more, without rushing to the Next Important Thing. Childhood IS the "next important thing."
If you want to make a child happy, give the child practice making others happy. Scientifically backed research proves this:
"...Acts of kindness have the potential to make the world a happier place. An act of kindness can improve feelings of confidence, being in control, happiness and optimism. It may also encourage others to repeat the good deed that they’ve experienced themselves – contributing to a more positive community..." (source)
Happiness is absolutely contagious and this strategy can be implemented immediately, even amidst a busy schedule. Even small acts count as science-based ways to increase joy.
Raising happy kids is relatively easy when we do these things. However, there are some things we can do that put our child's optimal well-being at risk. They include
Daily lessons in connection and living peacefully together create the growth mindset and positive attitudes -- and lasting happiness -- that we want our kids to embody.
Above and beyond the suggestions above, there are other science-based ways to raise a happy child.
"...funds and performs research with universities to determine which issues most impact well-being. Research has shown that just two issues, besides genetics, seem to account for most of our well-being. [They] also educate the public through completely free apps that available in 15 languages. (source).
If there's one habit that -- above all -- summarizes how to raise a happy child, it's simply the practice of being with them. Undistracted, fully present "beingness," peacefully and in each other's presence, is the greatest contributing factor in raising a well adjusted child.