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Parenting with a New Brain: Part 1

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Myelin makes it possible to create new parenting circuits.

There are no parenting genes. Anyone can become the kind of parent they aspire to be. It all has to do with how our brain is wired.

In short, if we want better connections with our kids, we can have that by creating new and better connections in our own brain. So where do we begin?

Learn about Myelin

Myelin is live tissue that slowly wraps around neurons (in a way that’s similar to insulation). With each layer of myelin, we create a bit more bandwidth and precision to a neural circuit.

But myelin never “knows” what it’s wrapping. Simply, circuits that fire get insulated.

So we can create new parenting circuits (by changing how we think and what we do), and myelin will wrap fibers around them. Voila!  And that’s true whether we’re American or Chinese or Mexican—or from any country in the world.

That’s why I’ve come to think of myelin as parents’ new best friend. We all have an innate way to rewire how we interact with our kids.

Ignite our Brain

For the longest time, everyone thought it was impossible for humans to run a mile in less than four minutes. But then Roger Bannister broke that barrier.  Just a few weeks later, John Landy did the same. Within three years, no fewer than 17 runners had broken the four-minute mile.

The explanation? These runners’ brains were now ignited to believe that they, too, could do this.

As parents, we can also ignite our brain by believing, “I can do this—I can change my neural pathways.”

Getting Started: The First Four Steps

The first four steps focus on believing in our potential, becoming aware of thoughts that interfere with effective parenting, and challenging prior mindsets.

Step 1. We believe that we can rewire our brain to parent in new and different ways.

While outside sources may have previously criticized our kids and us (even though those critics never actually demonstrated how to bring about change, either), they were wrong. We can wire our brain so that we wow and awe people with our parenting finesse.

Step 2. We identify which of our thoughts and actions have created undesirable networks.

Some examples of unproductive thinking entrenched in our brain may be:

We believe the child has something fundamentally “wrong” with him—that cannot change, no matter what.

We think the child is making a conscious decision to to act in a way that we perceive negatively.

We point to someone else as the cause of the undesired behavior.

We think the child’s behavior should change without us doing anything differently.

We believe the child needs rescuing and is incapable of learning to act independently.

We attach a past and future “narrative” to what others only view as a simple action in the present.

Step 3. We’re aware that our subconscious affects our child’s actions and brain wiring.

Our unconscious mind can process 11 million bits of information per second, while the conscious mind processes a mere 40. That means we send lots of primal cues—subconscious messages—to our kids.  So how does that affect our daily interactions?

Was our subconscious message more powerful than whatever we consciously said or did?

Does our child try to take control because he senses there is no consistent leader in the home?

Do primal cues tell our child that she’s not like other family members so she acts in ways that reinforce that belief?

Does our child break the toy because we already “knew” he would before we even handed it to him?

We also have to consider how our own subconscious may actually want our child to act negatively.  Perhaps, we need a distraction so that we don’t have to deal with whatever is buried in our subconscious. Maybe, we need to be needed.  In such cases, the child is only responding to whatever message we’re sending.

Step 4. We rattle prior mindsets and convictions, head-on, until they’re gone.

If we don’t change our mindset, then (by default) those negative circuits are going to keep lighting up in our brain. And we’ll keep wrapping myelin around pathways that only lead to dark alleys.

So, if we’re having trouble shaking old ways of thinking, we say aloud what we believe to be fact.  Then we ask ourselves this question: How is that way of thinking working for me (i.e. Has it brought about positive changes)?  If our answer ranges anywhere from “not so good” to “horrible”—then, maybe it’s time to chuck that circuit.  After all, what do we have to lose? :-)

 

(Parenting with a New Brain: Part 2 appears in the next post.)

Parenting with a New Brain: Part 2

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With new parenting circuits, we look at our kids’ behavior with curiosity, rather than emotion or judgment.

Creating New Parenting Pathways: The Second Four Steps

After addressing the first four steps (Part 1’s post), the second four steps focus on ignoring prior circuits, building new ones, and celebrating the process.

Step 1.  We implement the second part of “Use it or lose it” when referring to the brain.

Since we actually want to lose negative networks, we no longer allow ourselves to think or do whatever created them in the first place. In other words, we shut down myelin production for those circuits. Today.

Step 2.  We build new circuits that reflect a different way of thinking and then wrap lots of myelin around those neural networks.

We say new thoughts to ourselves, to our child, and to lots of other people—knowing that every time we do so, we’re wrapping more myelin around those circuits and disregarding old ones.

Some examples of such statements are:

  • I’m curious about all the different ways I’ll parent my children with my new circuits.
  • My kids need me to be their consistent leader so they can feel safe at all times.
  • I have more potential than I may have realized to bring about positive changes and help my family.
  • I like that I’m the one who’s the primary source for improving our family interactions and creating harmony in our home.
  • I’m excited to learn new ways to interact with my child that will help us connect better and allow us (both) to shine.
  • I’m no longer believing others’ doom and gloom perceptions of my child (especially since no one has backed up their beliefs by saying they’d give me their life savings if they’re wrong).

Step 3.  We adopt a new, 3-part plan of action for interacting with our child.

We pause.

Without the pause, we’re likely to go right down some prior, well-established circuit that we now want to avoid.

We do something different.

That way, we’re laying down a new circuit

We’re curious about what just transpired.

Rather than having a knee-jerk reaction (e.g. See? Nothing works with this kid!) or judging ourselves (I’m not good at remembering which technique to use), we now merely reflect with curiosity as to why our new response did or did not work.

This nonjudgmental way of thinking then makes our brain feel safe to explore situations and form new insights. Parenting simply becomes an opportunity to learn—both about ourselves and our kids.

Step 4.  We recognize signs of new wiring and celebrate.

Some examples of how we (not our kids) have changed are:

Instead of believing our child bears the responsibility to change, we now begin sentences that focus on what we (as the parents) can do differently.

Instead of thinking there’s a right or wrong way to respond to our kids, we look at situations as feedback and opportunities to learn something new.

Instead of judging our kids, we now look at all behavior (including our own) with curiosity.

Instead of becoming upset or resigned when our child does an undesired behavior, we adopt a demeanor similar to a paramedic (i.e. calm, assertive).

Instead of dwelling on the past or having angst over the future, we no longer attach personal narratives to whatever is happening in the present.

Instead of solving problems for our kids, we allow them to experience some struggle (but not so much that the brain shuts down), knowing that operating on the edges of our ability actually produces more myelin than when we aren’t challenged.

Instead of focusing on what our kids still cannot do, we applaud their willingness to explore, re-think, and give something a whirl.

There is no getting around it: Our own brain wiring is directly linked to our child’s behavior. If we want our child to change (somehow), we need to first look at how we can change.

However, since myelin wrapping can be slow, we also need to remember to be kind and patient with ourselves during this process.

In fact, just thinking about creating new parenting circuits . . . is a terrific start.

Shy Kids are a Myth

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We may not realize that we encourage kids to withdraw.

There isn’t a shy gene—though you’d think there was one by how many kids are called this.

In fact, it’s quite common for parents and relatives and teachers to tell everyone (within earshot of the child) that Tommy or Tiffany or Jake is just shy whenever the child doesn’t want to say hello, play with other kids, or try something new.  And since being shy is generally accepted as a plausible explanation for withdrawal, the label is not challenged.

But what registers in the child’s brain if he’s excused from interacting because “he’s shy”?

First, he learns that he doesn’t have to respond if he feels uncomfortable.  Second, he doesn’t engage in opportunities to practice social skills (e.g. how to greet people). Third, he becomes less and less confident with how to interact with others each time that he withdraws.

And then, how does that brain map serve the child when he becomes older? Not well. In fact, one might argue that such a brain map makes it more probable that such kids become teens or adults who rely on alcohol or drugs to “fit in.”

So why does the shy myth perpetuate?  Well, it’s possible that some (or most) of these kids have an underdeveloped pons. In such case, this primitive part of the brain is still wired to go into “flight” the second it feels threatened—even if such perception is distorted.

But since most parents aren’t aware of this connection, the child’s first withdrawal is merely noted as “he’s just being a little shy.”  After that, such thinking becomes entrenched in the brain every time the child, once again, demonstrates “shyness” so that it has now become a learned response.

Such behavior is often further reinforced when parents allow the child to hide behind them, speak for them, and find other ways that, in truth, only further create the perception that the child is not capable of responding.

So, if we’ve been inadvertently encouraging shyness, how can we turn this around?

1) We tell our child we have been selling him short by thinking and telling others he was shy, that we’ve now learned ways we can help his brain feel more comfortable in situations—without retreating.

2) We quit speaking for our child, and we no longer become a safe haven (where they hide behind or cling to us in social situations).

3) We role-play situations at home so the brain is already familiar with what’s expected in social interactions.  For example, if we know we are going to a family gathering, we practice saying hi to Aunt Evie and Uncle John (with stuffed animals or other willing participants) lots of times before we actually attend the event.

4) We start to incorporate phrases such as “Let’s give it a whirl” for new opportunities.

5) We actively seek opportunities for our child to share what he’s naturally adept at when he’s with others in order to help regain confidence and more likely experience positive interactions.

6) We praise and honor the child when doing any of the above, saying we’re glad he’s creating a brain map that allows him to trust us (e.g. why would we introduce him to someone we don’t want him to meet?) and share who he is with others.

Doesn’t that sound like something we’d want to happen for every child?

Taking Charge

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Kiley Green is my guest blogger this week. She is the director of the Brain Highways Center in Denver, the facilitator of the international Brain Highways online program . . . and she’s also my daughter.

Kids and dogs shine when they have a pack leader.

Hunter was having a hard time listening. He was acting out of control around his peers and clearly showing defiance.

But that changed as soon as I adopted a calm, assertive demeanor, held him accountable, and built into the structure to make it easier for him to comply.

Is Hunter a six- or seven- or eight-year-old boy? Nope. Turns out that Hunter is not even a kid. He’s an eighty-five pound Weimaraner/Doberman rescue dog that I take on runs.

So why is this of interest to parents? Well, if it’s possible to use Brain Highways techniques to get compliance from a dog (who is nonverbal and has a less-developed cortex than humans), then it’s more than possible with kids. :)

What did I do?

1) I built into the structure. I knew Hunter had a hard time with small critters, so why was I running him first thing in the morning . . . when every rabbit and squirrel was out? (This was a “duh” moment for me.) So I changed our running time until later in the morning. I also couldn’t expect Hunter to suddenly understand that he wasn’t supposed to drag me into the bushes every time he saw a squirrel. So I used a different leash that enabled me to keep him close to my side.

2) I made it clear who was in charge the second I picked him up from the kennel. I didn’t let him jump from the back seat into the front, and yes, I even did a running dialogue with him all the way to the trail that I was the boss, not him.

3) I was consistent. As soon as Hunter started to cross my path on the trail, I used some old soccer skills, and pushed him back into place. I told myself that I was not mean, since ultimately it was in Hunter’s best interest to run at my side. The less afraid I was to run him, the more times he would get out, and the more likely another runner would take him home for good.

4) I adopted a new demeanor. Instead of a presence that conveyed I was petrified of being dragged across the trail if we saw a small animal, I was ready to silently sing “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” if one appeared. I knew that if I wasn’t calm and in control at all times, how could I expect Hunter to be that way? In contrast, if my demeanor stayed calm, I was sending the message to Hunter that he could still control himself, even with innate hunting instincts. Guess what? It’s definitely hard to give off nervous vibes while singing about cows, and pigs . . . :)

5) I viewed Hunter’s potential, rather than focused on his limitations. As soon as he even slightly tugged on the leash, I tugged him back and told Hunter, “You are better than that.” Worked like a charm.

No surprise that we had our best run—ever—and have continued to have more good runs since then.

I wish this was a completely happy-ending story. Is Hunter changing? Yes. But I guess not fast enough. Just found out that he’s only allowed to stay one more week at the kennel since he got in a fight with another dog. Not sure if there is even another temporary place for him to go.

Thank goodness parents can adopt a calm, assertive demeanor, hold kids accountable, build into the structure . . .and give their children the grace of time to show their true potential.

If anyone is looking to give that gift to Hunter, please contact the Mile High Weimaraner Rescue at www.mhwr.org  (and you can see more of him in a Channel 9 news video) — sooner than later.

When Kids Say I Hate You

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Do we inadvertently teach our kids
to use hurtful words?

If those three words are part of our child’s arsenal, we want to end that sooner than later. And we can. Here’s how.

1. We don’t take the words personally.

Since it’s been said we lose 50 IQ points when we’re angry, I acknowledge it’s challenging not to take such words to heart—especially when we recall how many diapers we’ve changed, cuts we’ve bandaged, stories we’ve read—and more.  But the minute we go there, we’re on the defensive. The minute we’re on the defensive (for anything), we’re no longer on sure footing.

2.  We defuse any distorted power those words may have in our home.

To do so, we now respond in a way that’s completely different than before. The idea is to react as though the phrase triggers something positive in us. For example, after hearing our child say, “I hate you!” we can smile and respond, “I’m so in the mood for hearing four-letter words that start with /h/ today. Let’s see . . .  what else is there besides hate? There’s hood, hand, hold . . .”

3.  We challenge all family members to eradicate the word “hate” from daily conversations.

We sit down with the entire family and explain that there’s already too much hate in the world.  We also express this concern: Every time we spew hate, we create a brain map that says this is an okay response whenever we don’t like something.

Then we own up if we’ve ever used hate in reference to something, saying we’ve now decided to end doing so.

Next, we establish a kitty. Family members (including the adults) agree to put a set amount of money (e.g. $1.00) or a chore card (e.g. good for doing someone else’s chore in the house) into the kitty every time they say the word hate. (We can also include other negative words, such stupid and shut-up, as part of this challenge). The family member with the least infractions for the week . . . wins the kitty.  If there is nothing in the kitty (i.e. the goal), the whole family celebrates in a way that is appealing to all.

4. We ponder what might improve our overall relationship with our child.

What’s the true emotion behind an “I hate you” statement? Is our child regularly feeling unacknowledged or dismissed? Is our child feeling that he’s often judged or denied something he finds to be justified? In other words, what has previously gone down that our child is now wanting to “hurt” us with such words?  We can’t gloss over this piece of reflection if we really want this to end.

5.  We teach and role-play alternate cortex ways to respond (to move forward).

We share this with our kids: When we use the word hate, it’s actually like wearing a neon sign on our forehead that says, “I want something to change.”  But that’s not even possible if we go straight to the knee-jerk reaction of hating (whatever). So, role-play how to express what we’re actually feeling and needing in a situation. For example, we might say: “I’m feeling really discouraged because I think I cleaned everything as you asked, but you’re still saying I can’t go play with my friends.”

When considering all of the above, we have the opportunity to turn a “hateful” comment into something very positive.

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