Family Life, Parenting

Parenting with Courage: Brain Science

Welcome to the second installment of our four-article series on Parenting with Courage. Last month, we explored values-based parenting, and your homework was to spend time during the month clarifying your family’s values. Each month for the next three months, we will explore a different pillar of Courageous Parenting, along with actionable steps you can take to implement each one in your family life. The goal of courageous parenting? To find a values-based approach to parenting where you can access ease, joy, and self-trust by parenting with awareness and choice, rather than constantly being reactive.

So, let’s get into this month’s pillar of Courageous Parenting. Now, brace yourselves because I’m about to share a parenting secret that can, if you allow it to, completely transform how you parent, and therefore how much peace you experience in your home. Ready? The first pillar is that ALL BEHAVIOR IS THE RESULT OF AN UNMET NEED. Understanding this truth will bring generosity, empathy, and a renewed feeling of connection to your family life.

How do I know? Well, countless studies have shown that when we delve beneath the surface of our children’s behavior and address their unmet needs, pure magic happens. Improved communication, stronger connection, reduced behavioral challenges and long-term feelings of worthiness and self-trust are just a few of the many benefits that result from the willingness to see underneath children’s behaviors to the unmet need. For an excellent resource on this topic, check out Dr. Mona Delahooke’s book, Beyond Behaviors: Using Brain Science and Compassion to Understand and Solve Children’s Behavioral Challenges.

Now, just as I ask parents to do with their children, let’s dig a bit deeper. Our children’s behavior is like a secret language, an intricate code they use to express their needs. When they “act out,” throw tantrums, or withdraw, they’re speaking to us in their unique way (the best way their brains know how, given where they are in their development). Another way to think about this is that when children are born, they come wired to feel all the same feelings we experience, but none of the strategies to feel them in productive, healthy ways. When we expect our children not to “act out,” we’re literally expecting them to do something they have not yet developed the capacity to regularly do. Our job as parents, after all, is to teach them the skills to effectively communicate their feelings and needs to us. But how will they learn? Through us compassionately getting curious about what the need might be underneath, and modeling this process ourselves.

So what exactly are those needs? I like to think about needs as two levels: the basic and the advanced. The basic level needs are things like food, water, sleep, temperature regulation. So, you might ask, are they tired? Hungry? Thirsty? Too hot/cold? If you can check those off, then you go to the advanced-level needs, which include safety, variety, belonging, play and fun, connection, autonomy, growth, and contribution.

Safety: The need to feel secure and free from physical and emotional harm.
Variety: The need for unique experiences, change, and access to new information.
Belonging: The feeling of being seen, understood, and appreciated by others.
Play/Fun: Opportunities for unstructured time to socially engage for its own sake.
Connection: Feeling that we belong to a community and that we give and receive love.
Autonomy: Having ownership over the choices and decisions we make.
Growth: The desire to do better, to gain expertise in areas of life that matter to us.
Contribution: Being of service to others and making the world a better place.

I want to tell you about a client of mine named Shay, who was finding themself constantly battling their five-year old’s meltdowns and aggressive behaviors. They couldn’t help but feel lost and overwhelmed, and sometimes wondered if they were failing as a parent. But Shay’s journey took a remarkable turn when they embraced the concept that behavior is a form of communication. By deciphering their son’s need for autonomy and variety, they completely transformed their relationship. Shay came to realize that they’d been home the entire summer together, and their son had very little say in what they did. He was also feeling bored by the same day-to-day routine. Through understanding and compromise, power struggles gave way to cooperation and problem-solving, and meltdowns transformed into moments of growth and connection. Shay’s son was able to share that he wanted more variety, which included visiting new playgrounds, having picnic lunches, and seeing grandpa more often. Working together to add these things into their week profoundly shifted how they related to each other. Shay’s son not only stopped having such intense meltdowns, but he also became more helpful around the house, knowing that he had a voice, that his ideas mattered, and that he was making important contributions to
the family.

As we wrap up this month’s installment of Parenting with Courage, I invite each of us to commit to decoding our children’s behaviors to see the need underneath. When your child’s behavior baffles you, take a moment to breathe, don your detective hat, and uncover the hidden messages of their tender hearts. Respond with compassion, love, and a genuine desire to meet those needs. As we do this, we help them understand that their feelings and needs matter, and that they’re worth figuring it out. Importantly, from this place of connection we can also guide them to find behaviors that are more productive in getting their needs met, all while modeling clear, compassionate communication.

This simple (not easy!) shift in perspective will nurture a parenting journey filled with confidence, warmth, and connection. And finally, let’s remember that we are not alone on this path. Together, we create a web of love, laughter, and beautiful moments that our children will remember as they grow. If you’re in need of support to help make this pillar more sustainable, I’ve got you covered.

This article was originally published in August 2023.

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