Discipline Your Child Through Connection

Time in instead of time out
man holding his baby up and snuggling him
@ Can Stock Photo/halfpoint

Parents are often held up as either “good” or “bad” based on whether the behaviour of their child is “good” or “bad.” The focus on children’s behaviour is thus central in the minds of most big people—parents, teachers, caregivers, and other adults responsible for the raising of children.

With this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that the pursuit of good behaviour is typically the ultimate bottom line. What might be surprising, however, is that many of the tactics used to secure good behaviour can actually be harmful to a child’s development. Here is why.

Nurturing relationship comes first

The contemporary science of child development has proven irrefutably that a child’s most essential need is a nurturing relationship with his or her key caregivers—the big people. Psychologist Harry Harlow’s famous experiments in the 1950’s showed that primates will choose affection and nurturance over food, even if it means they starve to death. A whole field of study has continued to reveal with extraordinary consistency that the relationship between children and their big people is a primary determinant of health and well-being, both in childhood and beyond.

In fact, so key is this relationship, that from the earliest moments of life when a newborn baby first opens her eyes, she begins looking for the eyes of her big person. When she finds them, she will be held by them, and the big person will look lovingly back at the baby. In this very moment our brains are awash with oxytocin: a neurotransmitter known as the “bonding hormone” for the powerful role it plays in relationship formation.

The problem of punishment

As the baby grows he begins to smile at us. What do we do? We smile back. And so it goes. They smile. We smile. They cry. We comfort. They are hungry. We feed them. They are overwhelmed. We nurture them.

Then they turn two, and develop beautiful, determined minds of their own, throw themselves down on the floor in the most epic of tantrums and…we walk away from them. It is here that the big person’s pursuit of good behaviour intersects with the science of child development.

Usually it begins with a child engaged in some kind of a challenging behaviour, and as “good” parents, it becomes our goal to make that behaviour stop, rather than thinking through the developmental process of the child. Problematically, when the goal is to stop the behaviour, the big person is lead down the path of having to punish the child to hurry up this process. David Loyst, M.Sc. (SLP) in his workshop on growing a child’s socioemotional brain, suggests that we think of growing the child like nurturing a growing plant. He said further, “I’ve never seen a plant grow faster by pulling on the top of it.”

The faultiness of disconnection

Efforts to extinguish behaviour using punishment typically involve traditional forms of discipline (time outs, consequences, removal of privileges, or the use of a reward system like a star chart). The problem with these approaches is that each one of them uses the child’s most essential need—that of human connection—against her in order to secure good behaviour.

Consider the time out as an example. When a child is put in time out, he is removed physically from his big person and often also emotionally, since time outs typically include the big person ignoring the child. Usually the child’s first reaction is to become upset at this. But soon enough the tears subside and the behaviour stops, leading the adult to conclude that the time out has been effective.

From the outside, the time out indeed appears effective because the behaviour has stopped. But here is the ultimate question: at what cost? And the answer is very concerning.

Remember that a child’s most essential need is connection to the big person and so the child will be very frightened when faced with disconnection. This is why the initial response to time out will be one of tears and upset. Eventually, the child will surrender the challenging behaviour in order to restore the connection. So yes, the behaviour has stopped. But making that happen has been a huge sacrificial play.

The trick of putting the child in time out has made the child’s need for connection contingent on good behaviour. This has deleterious outcomes both emotionally in terms of the development of self, and neurologically in terms of the development of capacity for self-regulation—an ability that buffers against stress and mental health issues over time.

Regarding self-concept, the child takes from the relational disconnect in discipline some awful life lessons. Good behaviour wins you affection, relational security, and acclamation. As it goes, good behaviour thus ultimately defines your sense of self. It doesn’t take much to cast forward to this same child’s adolescence and see the shocking connection between acquiescing to the will of another (i.e. succumbing to peer pressure) in order to secure a sense of belonging. Or to imagine how measuring one’s self-worth according to ability leads to pursuit of success that doesn’t have the child focused on honouring passions and interest, but rather on securing the approval of others.

Neurological effects of disconnection

Neurologically, research has shown that children being subjected to relational disconnections as a form of discipline experience the same stress-based neuroactivation as children being subjected to physical punishment. The brain is not a static organism; it is constantly flexing and reshaping through neuroplasticity, according to the experiences of the child. Thus, the stress activation of the brain when repeated consistently actually leads to neurological wiring that makes the child very susceptible to stress.

Not only is the time out going to create all of this fallout emotionally and neurologically, but it is likely to become ineffective over time! Ask any adult who has tried to use time outs as a discipline tactic and they will tell you that it appeared to work for the first while but then lost steam. This is because the relational disconnection becomes intolerable for the child. The child intuitively knows that this is contrary to what is safe for her growing brain and self. Rather than continue to leave herself vulnerable to the stress and upset of the disconnection, she subconsciously wises up and numbs out. She turns off her feelings of alarm in the face of the disconnection to preserve herself. So now she doesn’t stop the behaviour as quickly or as often when threatened with a time out. And she may even throw it back in the face of her big person: “Oh yeah, well then put me in time out! See if I care!”

I recall a 4-year-old client who was spending up to two hours a day in time out, and contrary to leading to improved behaviour, he was having even more challenges that started to spill out of the home and into his preschool environment, playdates, and while spending time with his grandparents. He was too numb to be able to feel or care anymore. Underneath this crusty façade was a child desperate for his essential need of connection to be unconditionally met rather than frantically earned.

It isn’t just time outs that have this seedy underbelly of such significant negative impact on child development. Any discipline tactic that has relational disconnection (emotional and/or physical) at its core, will set into play the same problematic cascading fallout.

Consider how it is that you choose just the right zinger of a consequence that will have your child immediately falling into line. You know it because of the intimacy of your relational connection with your child. And then you play that against them in the name of good behaviour. The same goes for a removal of privilege. You choose that just-right-privilege for them to lose based on what you know will be most upsetting to them. As for reward systems, they might as well be called Not-Reward-Systems because the opposite of getting a star on the chart is not getting a star. That is, behave well and you secure my approval. Behave badly and no star for you!

Healthy growth and development with connection

The bottom line is this: I have never met a child who has actually enjoyed misbehaving. I have only ever met children—some of whom have the most extreme kinds of behaviours—who are simply trying to have a significant need met the only way they know how. All behaviour is a form of communication. When big people can step in to fill the need of a child who is struggling, then not only is damage to the child’s developing brain and sense of self avoided, but in fact, wonderful growth can occur!

How do we do this? Recall that a child’s most essential need is that of connection. At a neurological level, when a child is engaged in challenging behaviour, he has regressed into his primal, emotional brain. In this state, no logical thought or problem solving is possible. The child needs to be calmed and regulated through compassionate responding by one of his special big people. Once settled, the child’s problem-solving brain will come back online and the behaviour will dissipate. What’s even better is that as this happens over and over again, the child’s brain becomes increasingly better at self-regulating. Eventually, they will mature into an independent being capable of making good choices, solving difficult problems, and managing their impulses.

To help big people in responding to their children’s challenging behaviours, I have developed a primer for big people dealing with little people in the form of a three-part mantra: See it. Feel it. Be it.

See it 

See it refers to the very swift action of simply observing what is happening with your child. This is where traditional responses to behaviour begin and end. The focus is solely on what can be seen with the eye—the behaviour—and wanting it to stop. Instead, we want to take it further.

Feel it 

Feel it invites you to go deeper. What is happening for them underneath that behaviour? Maybe they are feeling shame, judgement, or anger. For certain, if they are engaged in challenging behaviour then there is some kind of a big feeling underneath it. Rather than thinking of your child as being naughty, think of them as struggling. And meet them there. It is in that moment of landing exactly where your child’s heart is that you will find your own heart awakening to what your child really needs from you.

Through his work on conscious attachment parenting, David Loyst, MSLP and creator of Reference and Regulate, brilliantly adapted Feel it into two parts. He noted that sometimes we can't feel what is going on inside of the child because we are overcome by what is going on inside of us. Are you feeling triggered and upset by your child’s behaviour? Do you have waves of judgement or shame or anger rolling through you? This must be tended to first. Human beings are the only species known to regulate their brains from the outside. So, if you are feeling all jumbled inside, you will struggle to settle your child. If this happens frequently for you then it may be worth exploring what it is about your belief systems that has you reacting internally in these ways to behaviours you are witnessing in your child. Said Loyst, “It is only when we Feel it inside ourselves and care for that, that we can then feel what is going on for the child and Be it."

Be it 

Be it is when you take your awakened self and respond to your child as the compassionate human being that you are. Big people at this point almost always want to know exactly what that will look like, asking, “But what do I do?!” Wayne Dyer is famously quoted as saying, “We are human beings, not human doings.” It isn’t what we should do that is the focus. Rather it is, "What should I be?” When you can really see and feel your child for who they are, you won’t need a magic list of tricks and strategies. Instead, you will flow capably into that moment, being for your child exactly what it is they need you to be.

A consistent world of connectivity with your child 

With all of this in mind, it becomes clear that any discipline strategy that involves disconnection as a theme is not going to be workable. Instead, how an adult responds in the moments of challenging behaviour must be fuelled by connection. And beyond that, it is on the adults to more generally set the child’s world up to be full of all that resonates with healthy development.

When responding in the moment to challenging behaviour, this is the time to focus on your relationship with your child, rather than on the behaviour. You can drop a quick flag like, “That needs to stop,” but then swiftly move into taking care of the child’s emotions. The idea is that you respond to your child’s dysregulation with relational connection to get them settled. Once settled, you can revisit the behaviour and remind them of your expectations for next time. This also doesn’t mean that you just drop all of your rules and expectations. Children need that containment to feel safe. Rather, it means that you hold your rules and expectations firmly in place with kindness and compassion.

Beyond the moments of challenging behaviour, think about how your child’s world is set up. Have you created a daily existence that has them marinating in relational connection? Do your children look to you as their wise and capable big person? Do your children feel like you are safe to lean into? Do your children know they can count on you to keep boundaries compassionately in place, even if they don’t always agree with them? Children grow best when the drip-drop-drip-drop minutia of their daily experience is flavoured in all of these wonderful ways.

So, the next time that your dear little one acts out, remember this: the science of child development makes it pretty darn clear that discipline has very little to do with the child’s behaviour, and everything to do with the big person’s behaviour. Children will behave as they do because their brains are, as yet, immature. When surrounded with optimal conditions, the child will grow in exactly the way that nature intended. The only concern of the big person is to ensure that those conditions have been consistently created, including, and especially, in all those moments of challenging behaviours.