🧠 Ready to Level Up Your Parenting Game?
Tuning into our bond with our child and their attachment to us can be one of our most powerful tools in parenting.
Jennifer Kolari is the founder of Connected Parenting, a method based on the neurobiology of love, teaching parents how to use compassion and empathy as powerful medicine to transform challenging behaviors and build children’s emotional resilience and emotional shock absorbers.
Tune in to discover the power of empathy, the importance of setting loving limits, and the art of attuning to your child’s needs—and how all this can come together to foster increased cooperation, making the journey of parenting a bit smoother and more joyful.
Here’s what you are. You’re not actually a parent. You are actually a substitute frontal lobe. Your job is to inhibit, motivate, organize, prioritize all the things we have to do all day long. And if you have multiple children, you’re doing this multiple times. This is the answer to the question, why do I have to say something 50,000 times? Because that’s what your brain is doing for your child until they develop a fully formed frontal lobe of their own.
Dr. Sarah (00:31):
If you’ve been listening to this podcast for a while, you know that I love geeking out on the science of the brain and the body. Being able to work with parents in a time in our history when we are really starting to understand more about neuroscience in a way that actually allows us to redefine the best approaches for parenting children in a manner that fosters emotional intelligence and resilience. And overall mental wellbeing is beyond exciting for me and this incredibly powerful information is something that I want all parents to be able to have access to. That is something that this week’s guest is passionate about as well. Jennifer Kolari is the founder of Connected Parenting. She’s a child and family therapist and she’s author of the book Connected Parenting: How to Raise a Great Kid. Her method is based on the neurobiology of love, teaching parents how to use compassion and empathy as powerful medicine to transform challenging behaviors and build children’s emotional resilience. With her wealth of knowledge and years of experience, Jennifer will guide us through the art of using connection to make the challenging task of parenting feel more manageable and rewarding.
Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two. In this podcast, I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights so you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting voice with confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.
Hello everyone. Welcome Jennifer. I’m so happy to have you on today.
Thank you, I’m happy to be here.
Dr. Sarah (02:18):
I’m super interested in the work that you’re doing and this connected parenting framework. Can you tell us a little bit about how you got started in this and a little bit about what your orientation and the things that you do with parents, what is it? How does it work?
Absolutely. Alright, well I’ll take you back to the very beginning. So this is after I finished my undergraduate degree in psychology. I wanted to get out into the world and do real work and I was young and dying to get out there and meet families and I ended up working at, so in between doing that and my graduate work, a group home for street kids. So these were children who had run away from home. They had run downtown to, I’m from Toronto originally. They had been courted by what are called Romeo pimps. So these are older boys or men that try to convince them they love them and then put them to work. So it was horrific in terms of sex trafficking. So they’d all been sexually abused, physically abused, deeply traumatized. They were pulled from the downtown core into the suburbs to what’s called a receiving home, where they were to stay and be safe enough from the downtown core for a little while to get stabilized and then placed in more permanent settings.
And they’re 11 to 16 years old. So I’m going to work there, it’s going to be great. I get there and I am green as the grass. I have no idea what’s going on. These kids are tough and they’re scary and we were trained. Be tough with these kids. Don’t turn your back on them. They’ll take advantage of you. They’ve been through a lot. You have to show them whose boss, blah, blah, blah. And there was certainly some truth to that to some degree, but they were babies who’d been through horrendous things. So when it was time to when the makeup came off and the jammies came on and the teddy bearers came out at bedtime, forget that that went out the window. So I would sing the lullabies and I would tell them bedtime stories and I would rub their backs and they would melt from these tough prickly kids into this bedtime routine.
Sometimes they’d cry, sometimes I would cry. And then in the morning when it was time for me to get those really tough, difficult kids to do what they needed to do, they were much more likely to do it. So because of this connection, we had healthy compliance. Now, it was interesting, the other staff were like, oh, this is going to backfire. She’s a bleeding heart. They’re going to take advantage. They’re just setting her up, blah, blah, blah. That never happened. And one very specific story, which I will never forget to this day, there was one girl there who’d only been there a short time. She was wild. We had meetings for weeks before she came, Batten down the hatches, aggressive, really scary kid. She loved this bedtime routine, didn’t want to talk about it the next day, but at that time she left it and I developed this really interesting relationship with her.
I was one of the few staff that could get that kid to do anything. She was only there a short time. I can see this. It was yesterday and this is literally over 30 years ago now we’re standing on the porch saying goodbye to her because she was transferring to a more permanent setting because the kids weren’t there very long. Few weeks only, and she was walking down the sidewalk. She stopped in front of the car and she paused. There’s a few of us standing on the porch. She came running back up the sidewalk. She puts her hands on my cheeks. She looks deep into my eyes and she says, I just want to remember this face, the face of someone who actually cared about me. And then she ran back in the car. So that moment was when connected parenting was born. That’s when I realized, okay, what is this?
We all talk about love. We all talk about connection. We don’t always know how to do it. We’re often protecting ourselves from it or we think it’s one thing, but it’s another. I want to know everything there is possibly to know about this. Went back to school, did my master’s degree in clinical social work, and I learned a little bit about it definitely, but not the depth of what I’d experienced in that setting. After that, I went back to, I went to an agency actually that I worked at for years. I ended up working there for like 10 years. It was an agency, children’s mental health center for children that have learning disabilities that experienced social, emotional and behavioral issues because of their learning disabilities. And there my very first client was this kid who was just prickly and mean just like a mean kid.
And I’d walk in and she’d say, your teeth are crook on the bottom and you pronounce that word wrong. I wish I had a different therapist. How did you ever graduate school? That kind of kid. She would come into the waiting room, throw magazines on the floor trip, people that walked by, make disgusting noises, plug up the sinks with toilet paper and run the water. She wreaked havoc every time she came. And I thought it was very empathic. I thought I’d learned all these wonderful things. This is going to be great. I’m going to reach this child. And I would take a couple of minutes to breathe before going to the room with her, and then I’d get a barrage and swear words, you’re an idiot. You’re late. I hate you. And I would do therapist things that I’d learned to do in school. I’d say, I understand that must make you very frustrated.
I know this is hard for you. And I would get, of course it does. You idiot. Of course it makes me mad. Anything that I’d learned to do backfired wildly on this kid did not work. And I remember literally having a stomach aches on Thursday and she was never late. She was always early back to my supervisor who actually, she’s the dean of social work at the University of Toronto Faculty of Social Work now. And I remember going to her and saying, maybe I shouldn’t be a therapist. Maybe I’m not built for this. This kid makes me so mad. I don’t even like Thursdays. I look at the clock and think, how is that only 20 minutes? I felt like 40 minutes, just a hard kit. And she said three things that day that really added to the foundation of connected parenting. She said, A, you’ve got to go back in that room and you have to show that child something different from what the world usually shows her.
You have to be absolutely neutral with that child. And you have to mirror, you have to use attunement, which is very different from active listening. Tell me a little bit about it. I go back in the room and I’m late. Of course, I had to deep breathe again and I get this barrage of swearing. And this time I said, you know what? This is your appointment. It is your hour. You are never late. This is not the first time that I’ve been late. We’ve had this conversation a couple of times before and here I am late again. Now what happens with this child? Tears in her eyes, total face change. Something very, very significant happened in that moment. And from there things began to change. Your teeth are crocodile on the bottom. They’re disgusting. What do we normally do as an adult? You know what?
That’s not very nice. I understand that’s bothering you and it looks out of place. But how do you think you would feel if somebody said something that, how do you think that would go with this kid? Yeah, skinny tail and your hair is, it would never work. We’d get this right. So I would mirror. So you have the kind of brain where notice you notice things when things aren’t lined up and they’re not straight. That really stands out for you. Now what did I get? Oh, your top teeth are really nice. So now I’m getting something very different from this child. And what I started to learn from this child who was literally a hurricane that would tear this agency down, there was a funny, sassy, interesting little person in there underneath all of that prickly exterior. Now, she had actually been the product of a rape. Her mother had decided to keep her. So you can imagine the attachment issues right there, the pain that was there between the two of them, that little one, she was about 11 or 12 when I started working with her. But when she was little, like three, four years old, she used to tumble down the stairs. She would fling herself down the stairs just so her mother would pick her up.
So by the time she came to us at this agency, by the time she came to me, she had a huge thick prickly wall and she was going to hurt people before they could hurt her and people were going to respond to her the way that they’d often responded to her and never found out there was just such a lovely kid in there who’s just scared. So that was the beginning. Then I started to really cultivate over the next few years. First of all, I wanted to dive into self-psychology. That technique of mirroring is actually a self-psychology technique which we can dive into, which is entirely different from empathic listening or active listening. It’s a completely different technique. And I can explain why in terms of neurobiology in a few weeks that kid was not throwing things in the waiting room anymore. She wasn’t tripping.
Anyone she said was saying Good morning to people. I could not believe the change. I went back to my supervisor and said, what is that? What is that? I need to know everything about that. And began training for the next several years in self-psychology. In the back of my mind, I’m cooking, okay, I need to teach parents this. I need to teach parents how to do this. And again, I got people saying, you can’t. Parents aren’t therapists. They’re too connected to their kids. They’re not going to be able to do it. But I kept thinking, who better? Who better than the parent to be able to do this? And they can do it. They absolutely can do it. And it is not easy, but it is incredibly powerful. It’s superpower really. And it has a huge impact on emotional regulation, on children’s sense and sense of self, how they treat other people, how they treat their siblings. And Connected Parenting was born and then two books later and practiced in Toronto and San Diego and my own podcast. And it’s been a joy, an absolute joy.
Dr. Sarah (11:35):
That’s so amazing. And it’s so interesting. I feel in some ways really similar. I feel like I found attachment theory and a lot of this model of really understanding what this need to be attached to and connected to and made to feel safe and secure drives so much of our behaviors and really forces you to look underneath the behaviors to these motivating drives that are kind outside of our control. And self-psychology is really similar. And I think it would be great if you could talk a little bit about self psychology because like I’m a huge fan of it. And I think there’s so much alignment there of there is, and it’s so funny as you’re talking about self psychology, I’m like, as a therapist, I’m like, ah, you’re the parent, right? You are reflecting this unconditional positive regard to this inner person in the session, whether it’s an adult and you’re talking to their inner child or this child and you’re talking to their inner self. You are the parent in a lot of ways.
Dr. Sarah (12:36):
Within the confines of that.
You would not go to a therapist who goes, oh, this again, we’ve talked about this three weeks in a row. How many times did I have? Give you the same strategy? You’d never go back to that person. You want that person who creates safety for you where there’s attunement, where you see your own issues being reflected back. So you are the agent of change. You are the person who’s purposeful and mindful and can make those connections because you feel safe enough to do that. And with self-psychology, I can go into it a little bit deeper, is basically this idea of empathic failure and empathic repair. So you’re mirroring, you get it wrong. You don’t always know what someone’s feeling and thinking. They let you know either with words or a facial expression or something and then you repair. So if I think about that little girl that I was telling you about after she started to calm down and we really were able to start talking about what her world was like and what it was like to feel afraid all the time and have people not be nice back, missing the piece of course that she’s so challenging to be around.
And I remember I literally did this. I moved my hair, she sat up and got very angry. And I had to be that attuned. I had to be, you know what? And that moment when you were telling me something so important, I thought about my hair. I moved my hair out, came the tears. No one ever listens to me. No one ever pays attention to me. It’s that subtle. The difficult part of self-psychology is it’s very dense. I mean, it’s not an easy read. You need a Tylenol in a glass of water, like what are we talking about here? So almost, and cohort was brilliant and in many ways way ahead of his time. But the ideas are actually quite simple but very powerful. So one is attunement, so we can dive into mirroring. Two is the creating that safety in that positive sense of this place of safety where you’re okay when you’re in there being lovingly neutral, like a loving neutral detachment, which is not an easy place, but it’s a really important place. And to be non-defensive and we could do those things. We would change the world. We really would.
Dr. Sarah (14:42):
But it’s easier, I imagine as the therapist, and it’s not always easy, but if I’m the therapist and this isn’t my child and I’m not sitting across from them being like, well, in 45 minutes we’ll take another week long break. You know what I mean? If I’m the parent, the stakes feel higher. It’s harder to be neutral, it’s harder to separate my stuff from your stuff. And so I think so powerful to be teaching parents these strategies because I do think it’s very difficult to be actually neutral.
Dr. Sarah (15:19):
But having it be kind of like your compass knowing I’ll never get there.
Exactly. Well, and that’s where the empathic failure comes. You’re going to blow it, you think I didn’t yell at my kids. Of course. And then you go back and go, oh, this morning when you didn’t want to wear your snowsuit, I was so mad and you knew what you wanted to wear and I wasn’t listening, you can go back and do the most beautiful repairs. I’ll break the calm technique down in a moment because that really answers your question. So it is not easy, but it is doable. And we teach strategies to parents how to self-regulate how ground themselves. Sometimes it’s body things that you do. Sometimes it’s mental things that you do so that you can be as neutral as possible with your child. And when you can’t, because we all can’t. Sometimes you repair. And then as you do that, what starts to happen, it’s like a layer of paint and it just gets thicker and thicker and thicker.
And we have kids that are wild, absolutely wild and out of control. And in about four to six months, that seems to be the kind of magic window of parents really get a lot of support. And they follow through on this. The changes are stunning, absolutely stunning. And we really support and help the parent through this. It’s not easy and it’s very challenging, but this really does work. And we work with all kids. This is literally a superpower. And in a second, I also want people to think as I talk about the strategy, not don’t just think about your kids. Think about husbands, wives, bosses, nasty neighbors. When you learn how to deescalate someone in a genuine way, not because you’re afraid, not because you’re trying to get them to be quiet, but because you actually have that skill conflict completely changes in your life.
And you just walk around with this different feeling. So let me jump into the calm technique and then we’ll talk about how to kind of balance two parts to connective parenting. One is attachment, connection, deep safety and this kind of loving place. And then there’s loving limits, right? Consequences, meaningful, predictable, sensible consequences, natural consequences whenever possible delivered in a neutral way. Because if you’re, Halloween is canceled, we’re done. You’re not trick or treating so mad about something that happened. First of all, your kid’s not going to take you seriously. Second of all, it’s out of balance and disproportionate and just mean. It has nothing to do with the thing that just happened. So you have to be able to get to this really neutral place and say, I love you and I love you enough free to be mad at me.
And I told you, if were going to do X, Y was going to be the consequence. I love you enough to follow through on that. I know it’s important for you. That’s not easy to do. But the more parents do it, the more they see the results, the easier and easier it gets. The good news also is if there’s two parents and only one is doing it, it will still work. You don’t always have buy-in and if you’re a single parent, it works on your own. And it’s really quite a powerful technique. So, oh, let me say one more thing. I have a brain that goes in 50,000 directions. Oh my God, I relate. Please just to talk about the brain for one second. Obviously your audience knows you’ve got your frontal lobe. That’s the organizer of the brain that decides prioritizes, motivates, organizes, takes perspective, shifts, attention, all of those things.
And then there’s the midbrain. And that part of the brain freaks out. It wants to save you. It’s in charge of safety and security. It can override the thinking brain and it doesn’t know what’s wrong. We just know something is, and it throws you into a high cortisol adrenaline, adrenaline based reaction instead of a response. Thank God we have that because we wouldn’t have survived ever without it. We need it. But there’s a very specific time and place for that. And our brain, we get so stressed out that fight or flight happens all the time when it shouldn’t or when it won’t actually help us and when we’re not actually in danger. So the thing I want parents to understand is it takes 25 years to grow a frontal lobe and children are not many adults. I’m sure you tell your audiences all the time, they are not many adults.
So here’s what you are. You’re not actually a parent. You are actually a substitute frontal lobe. You are a prosthetic frontal lobe. So your job is to inhibit, motivate, organize, prioritize, all the things we have to do all day long. And if you have multiple children, you’re doing this multiple times. This is the answer to the question, why do I have to say something 50,000 times? Because it’s a brain function. Because that’s what your brain is doing for your child until they develop a fully formed frontal lobe of their own and then they can have their own child. And that’s kind of how it works. So what connected parenting is about is the integration between love and compassion and empathy and language as medicine and loving limits. So those two things go together, and the attachment part of the brain is actually connected to the behavioral part of the brain, to the part of the brain that actually reacts.
So let me talk about the calm technique. Is that okay? Yeah, please. So calm technique is really this idea of mirroring and it’s my sort of spin on mirroring. It’s what I’ve pulled together and how I’ve come to understand it. So the good news is most of us are very good at this with babies. It’s this baby and you’ve got a baby in the bath and they’re crying and fussing. Nobody goes, you know what? You’re four months old. You’ve had a bath every night and nothing bad’s ever happened, and I have a show to watch and you’re going to be just fine. No one would talk to a baby like that. You look at the baby and you go, oh my goodness, you’re cold and this towel is scratchy and baby doesn’t know what you’re saying, but the baby sees on your face a perfect representation of what they are feeling inside, which then releases oxytocin, opiates, and natural endorphins.
Literally like medicine that floods the brain, calms the baby down and lets the baby know that they’re okay. The baby can’t talk, but the baby sees on your face, ah, mommy gets me or daddy gets me, or grandma gets me those beautiful reward chemicals then release and then the baby can calm down. So what do we do when a four year old won’t get out of the bath? That looks a little different, right? Get out of the bath, please, honey. No, no, in a minute, honey, please get out of the bath. Mommy’s getting upset now. No, no, I’m not getting up. This is not mommy’s happy face. This is not mommy’s happy face. I’m going to start counting 1, 2, 3, 3 and a half. Now the water’s splashing, your other kid’s running down the stairs with their jammies off and all it’s chaos, right? Yeah. So we kind of drop that beautiful natural mirroring.
As soon as children acquire language, now we start using language to mitigate, but they still need that mirroring. And there was a movement years ago, I’m probably much older than you, but I remember this movement of like, don’t talk to your child like a baby. Never talk to ’em like a baby. You’re going to stunt them. You’re going to huge problem. You need to talk to your child like a baby. You can then use sophisticated language and conversations the rest of the day, but you need to look at them and you need to make little faces and you have to do that because as you’re doing that, that’s the medication that is calming the brain down, that is organizing that little brain so that it’s adjusting to the environment that it finds itself in. Most of brain growth happens outside of utero, not in, there’s only a rough map laid down in a utero as you play with the baby and look at the baby and match their faces and have these beautiful moments of attunement that you’re actually creating that incredible sophisticated brain and then the brain will adapt to it.
So the good news is most of us are good at it, but then we stop doing it. So what would it look like if you mirrored to that four year old in the bath who didn’t want to get out? So before you go in the bath, you take a breath, you relax your tongue in the bottom of your mouth because your tongue and your stomach are connected, and you do that, you can actually feel your stomach relax. It’s a signal to your brain. You’re not in danger. You take a breath and you go, this is probably not going to be easy. I don’t like getting out of the bath either. I’m going to take a minute and I’m going to go in there and I’m going to respond to my child instead of react to my child. And I’ll tell you what to do when we blow it because believe me, we all do.
But in a perfect moment, let’s say you can pull this off, you go in, you give yourself time, you go in and you don’t say much. You maybe sit on the floor and you put your hand in the bath and you go, oh, like the bath temperature, this bath. Oh, what are you doing? Oh, you got your boats going. Oh, this is so no wonder you don’t like getting out of the bath. I don’t even want to take my hand out of the bath. So now what we’re doing, we’re joining, right? We’re connecting on my face is this, oh, you’re in the bath. Instead of come on time to get out, which is immediately going to be met with this kind of pushback, especially if your child has a strong counter will and children live in the now. They live in time, in the middle of time.
They’re never out of time. They don’t laugh why they’re going, well, if I waste my time and my bath, I’m not going to get enough time from my stories. They’re having the best time with those bubbles. There is nothing else going on in the world. That’s our job as the frontal lobe. So we come in and then we say, we’re kind of joining, and they say in a minute, got to get your body ready to get it out of this path, and I know you can do it. So that message of confidence is really important. I know you can do it. I’m going to walk away for a second. If your child is old enough, otherwise, stay in the bathroom and say, I’m, I’m going to give you a minute to get out of this bathroom. You can count, you can do what you need to do, but I bet you can do it.
And honestly, most of the time they’re out of the bath and you’re like, what is this voodoo? This is incredible. How does this work like that? But it really does. A lot of the time it works that spectacularly. And when it doesn’t, you say, I totally understand. I get it. I wouldn’t want to get out of the bath either. And you stay there for a few more minutes, three or four statements, and then you move to limit setting. If you don’t get out of the bath, I’m going to have to help you get out of the bath or we’re not going to have enough time for stories or whatever comes next. But the interesting part of connected parenting is you almost, you don’t need the consequences. You need them, but often you don’t need them. Often the connection part is enough, and then they’re out of the bath.
And then when they do get out, don’t go look at you getting out of the bath so fast, wonderful way too much energy. And they’re like, Hmm, that excited mummy, too much note to self. I can tick her off next time. But not getting off that quickly when they get out, this is where the neutral comes in. It’s like way to go. That’s pretty fast. So you’re just giving this subtle kind of acknowledgement that they did it. When you overreact either with happiness or anger, you’re parenting for place of fear. If you’re so happy they got out of the bath, what are you telling them? I’m so scared you won’t again. Yeah. Or I never really thought you could do it. I never really thought you could. Exactly. So you’re really operating from this anchored, wonderful place of love instead of fear. And so when we get angry and yell and we all do, and once in a while it happens and it just can’t be your primary technique.
But the thing about yelling is this. When have you ever been yelled at or balled out or screamed at and you’ve gone, oh, thank you, thank you. That’s exactly what I needed. That’s exactly what anima, I’m going to go fix it. As adults, we can’t even do that. So why do we expect our child to go, you’re right, mom, I am lucky to have a brother. I am lucky. I’m going to go share my best toys with him. It’s not going to happen. They’re going to walk away going, she’s so mean. I hate her. They’re going to go away thinking about your behavior, not their behavior. So we actually get in our own way when we yell and when we yell, because I say when because we will. And I certainly yelled at my kids to the point sometimes where they were read your own book.
It happens, but the truth is you go back and you repair. That was not my best self. What you were trying to tell me is how scared you were to go to bed because you don’t like to lie in bed and not be able to fall asleep. And the bath felt really comfortable and all I did was yell at you to get out. You can always go back and knit these things together in a very simple tip about yelling too is if it feels good coming out of your mouth, mouth, probably not great. It should feel restrained. You should feel your own frontal lobe pushing it down. You should literally feel yourself regulating. If you are free flowing, yelling, you’re going to have to probably repair that, right?
Dr. Sarah (27:39):
That’s a really good reference. I think sometimes parents, they know that and they are immediately afterwards, wracked with guilt. People are not calling me being like, I’m yelling at my child and I don’t understand why it’s not working. They’re like, I’m yelling at my child and I know that that doesn’t work and I can’t stop. And it feels so bad afterwards.
Dr. Sarah (28:03):
That is so relatable that like, this is…
So many parents fall asleep at night and moms too. I’m the worst mother in the world. First of all, the worst mother in the world would never say that. That’s the first thing, right? Second is they fall asleep crying. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to be that person. Sometimes it’s tied into our own childhood issues and struggles that we have. And sometimes it’s just really hard to be a parent way harder than anyone talks about. It’s the hardest job you’ll ever do, and it’s infuriating and it’s wonderful and exciting, but it takes you to the highs of highs. And lowest was. So you wake up in the morning, you’re like, you know what? I’m not going to yell today. I’m not going to yell. I’m going to be a zen mom. I’m going to be so calm. And most parents that come to either of our communities have read all kinds of stuff.
They could probably give a parenting talk. But you wake up in the morning and you’re like, okay, I’m going to be good. And then half an hour into the morning, go get in the car. You’ve lost it, then you feel horrible. You shouldn’t do that. And so what’s happening is your frontal lobe is flipping off, your midbrain is flipping on. And here’s the challenging part, I promise I’ll get into the calm technique. What happens with kids is because they don’t have a frontal lobe, they regulate off of us. So they wait for us to lose it. So they can go, oh, there it is. And then they get a blast of adrenaline. Adrenaline is a stimulant, just like ADHD medication stimulates the frontal lobe and they walk away feeling a little better. And we’re a dishrag on the floor. And that happens over and over and sometimes with multiple kids.
So there are times when you’re just so exhausted. And the nuance here, what’s complicated here is you’re telling your kids not to do that while we’re doing it. So they’re looking at us going, well, you’re 40 something and you can’t keep together. And I’m eight. So what chance do I have of being able to stop in the middle when I’m angry? So we really have to tune into that. But let me take you to the calm technique. I think this’ll be a really important thing. So there’s four things you’re going to do when you are using the calm technique. First thing is you’re going to connect. You’re going to put your phone down or you’re going to take a second and you’re going to look at your child or your mother-in-law or whoever you’re doing this with, and you’re going to seek to understand instead of be understood.
That’s really important. You’re also going to be as neutral as you can possibly a muster in those moments. And I’ll tell you what happens. If you start inching out of that, you’re going to take a non-defensive stance and you’re going to take your agenda, which is get out of the bath, do your homework, don’t talk to your sister that way, you dare talk to me, whatever it is, and you’re going to park it, I promise you. You get it back. You have to bring it back because attachments only half the story. If you only attach and connect, your kids are going to rule the roost. They’re going to have too much power and they’re not going to want it. And they’re going to show you that by acting out in ways to try and get you to be a good frontal lobe. So you take your agenda, you park.
The next is the affect matching. So this is where the look on your face really has to match as similarly as possible. Not exactly because weird, but close enough. It’s got to match the affect on their face. So if you have a little kid, and I don’t know, he comes home and he’s like, Josh used to be my best friend, and now Josh isn’t my best friend anymore. I hate him. I’m never talking to him again. So I’m not mirroring here. And you say, well, why honey? You’ve loved Josh. You’ve been in arguments before and you figured it out. Nope, nope, we’re done. I’m never going to be his friend. He told me to be quiet on the carpet this morning when the teacher was talking. So I’m never going to be his friend. Well, honey, the teacher has to do that. Can you see what I’m doing here? I’m pulling the kid out of his agenda now he’s going to double down. Well, mom doesn’t get it.
Dr. Sarah (31:37):
So now I have to get louder. Now I have to make it more clear.
Absolutely. This is Josh I’m talking about here. So the child starts escalating. We are then trying really hard to go, honey, the teacher had to do that, and I’m sure you’ll be fine. And what about this kid? And what about, and you’re getting an escalation. So now you have to match the affect. It has to be, are you kidding me? Okay, tell me about that. So this is Josh, your best friend. You didn’t expect him to say that. Now I’m not agreeing that Josh is the meanest kid in the world, or he’s never going to be friends again. I’m just saying that hurt you so much. You’re having a really hard time seeing how you’re going to be friends with Josh again, that’s feeling really impossible in your body right now. You did not expect that now. And he was mean, and he hurt my feelings.
So kind of just seared right into you. You expected him to giggle with you and he told you to be quiet. And that really hurt. I’m leaving my agenda out. It’s really important for me to say, honey, you can’t talk on the carpet and you’re going to get Josh in trouble. And the teacher has a big job, but I don’t say it. Then I have to create safety in the conversation that I have to bring that person into a space where I’m understanding where they’re coming from. Now, what’s so interesting is if I do that, there’s no need to escalate, right? It’s literally 2, 3, 4 statements like that. And then often on their own, they’re like, I guess I shouldn’t have been talking on the carpet. And I guess it’s the same as what I said to whatever last week. The frontal lobe will come back on and you’ll see, they’ll either figure that out themselves or they’ll ask you advice or that’s the moment where you say, you know what?
I get all that. I really do. And that was really embarrassing and it really hurt your feelings. And now we have to think about what could we do and what could you do so your body doesn’t have to experience that feeling again. Could we be quieter on the carpet? Could we giggle with Josh more at recess? Now you start problem solving. If that happens over and over again, then you need a little chart or you need to do something else. But most of the time, this really is a superpower. It’s counterintuitive is literally the opposite of what your brain is telling you to do. And this is, we’re back to the therapy part, why it’s so hard for a parent to do it and much easier to do on somebody else’s child than your own. And what happens with our own kids is we literally see their life flash before our eyes.
Well, they don’t listen to the teacher what’s going to happen? And then they’re going to miss something, and then they’re going to get in trouble. And then they’re all going to be, we sort of go off into our own fear-based response, or my child’s not going to respect authority, or whatever happens in our head. And then we’ve got, now we’re afraid. Now fear is in our eyes and off we go. And that situation happens over and over again. So when you can connect in this really confident way, now you have that moment. So let’s look at the rest of the technique. So L is for listening. This is where you can paraphrase, you can summarize, you can clarify, and you can wonder out loud. So let’s take this kid who’s got upset on the carpet with his friend. You can clarify, what did Josh actually say that made you so mad?
What hurt your feelings the most? Right? And see my energy, I’m not, what did he say? What hurt you? No, there’s none of that energy. That’s what I mean by the neutral. I’m urgent. I’m interested, but I’m not freaking out. It’s not happening to me. I’m good. I believe in you. I know you got this, but I’m listening and I’m present, right? It’s tricky to get, but once you get it, it is golden and it will help you in all areas of your life, not just your kids. So that’s clarifying. Clarifying. Mirroring works really well with gifted kids, with super sensitive kids. Sometimes when you do this technique and you’re mirroring the emotion back, it’s like glare. And they’re like, stop, stop. Stop saying what I’m saying. So you pick a detail, you don’t pick an emotion, you pick a fact. So where did that Lego start falling apart?
What piece do you think they’re missing here? Right? Very, very interesting. But they feel connected to, you’re still going to get the oxytocin and the opiates and endorphins releasing. And what happens when oxytocin releases? I’m probably telling your audience stuff they know already, but oxytocin strengthens the immune system. It speeds up neuroplasticity, it blocks cortisol, it blocks cortisol, which is the stress hormone. That’s what makes us all anxious. And the best part of all is you get the bounce back. You brain gets those same amazing benefits when you speak to another human being this way, you are medicating yourself, not just your child. So it’s this amazing feedback loop, and everything in the family just starts to calm down. Everything starts to shift and change. That’s why if the other parent is like, I don’t know, this sounds like hooey to me. I don’t know, this sounds like too blah, blah.
They’ll just watch it happening. And they’ll see within a few weeks the shift in the change happening in the family. So that was clarifying. You can paraphrase. So you’re having a hard time. You feel so hurt and so angry, you just can’t see how you’re going to get past this with your friend. It’s feeling pretty impossible. So I can paraphrase. You can wonder out loud. So maybe it’s not about that. Maybe it’s because he didn’t get invited to a birthday party the day before, and now his friend Josh is telling him to be quiet on the carpet. Now you can wondering, you know what I’m wondering? After you’ve mirrored the first part, I’m wondering if on top of that, you’re thinking about that birthday party and you have the birthday party, and this right now you’re knitting together and you’re collecting these little moments that your child is experiencing, which helps ’em with emotional regulation, which helps them understand what’s happening in their lives and they feel truly heard and truly listened to.
So I did clarifying, wondering, out loud, paraphrasing. I think that’s all of them. And then M of course is when you’ve mirrored. So when you’ve pulled all those elements together, you have had a mirroring moment and you can feel it in your chest. It’s all any of us ever want. When you’re in an argument with anybody, all you want is for the person to turn around and hear you, to really hear you. That’s how you create change. That’s the way you create change. And so as I developed and sort of practiced this calm technique and helped people bring it into every experience of their lives, that’s when I realized this is something pretty powerful. The secret agenda of connected parenting, and I’m sure you have a similar agenda, is we’re in kind of a mess As a country, we’re kind of a mess planet to be honest. Our most precious resource is our children. And if we cannot raise healthy, happy, emotionally regulated, kind human beings, we’re in trouble. We have to raise a generation of children who are going to get us out of this mess. We have to, and we have to help parents feel loved enough and cared about in order to raise their kids that way. It’s a pretty important job.
Dr. Sarah (38:24):
It’s so interesting that you say that. I mean, first of all, I’m listening to everything you’ve been saying with wrapped enthusiasm. I’m like, yes, thank you. Yes, love this. This is everything. But what really hit me as you were saying this piece of like, okay, yes, the stakes are high. We need to raise a generation of children who are healthy enough to be able to really carry us, carry the world.
But then you said something that I think is far even more important in terms of how do we actually do it? And that was we have to help parents feel loved enough to be able to do this with their kids. And that to me is that is everything for me. And yes, I really love children and I really want to help parents raise healthier kids. But I know that parents who are constant, and I feel like this is a huge thing in our world, our parenting support world of how do we help parents? How do we mirror to parents and attune to parents and show them it makes sense that this is hard. You are not alone in this, and you’re not a bad parent. You’re not a dumb parent. You’re not a hot parent, that you’re a human being doing a really hard thing and you’re going to lose it. And there’s so many layers. There’s a parallel process here of like, yes, we want to help parents really get this with their kids, but in order to do that, we have to do it with them.
So that’s our job. So when I work with my clients, and I’m sure when you work with yours, I’m creating that space. I am mirroring for them, but I’m also teaching them to mirror for themselves. I’m teaching them to self parent. I’m teaching them before they go, either before or after they get angry. So let’s say a mom does, she gets mad, she yelled, she’s mad at herself. Take a minute, literally put your hand on your heart and say, it is so hard to be a parent. It’s exhausting. And that feeling of wanting to protect myself and getting angry is a normal human feeling when you’re exhausted and no one thanks you for anything. And no matter what you do, someone wants something else. Let’s just sit in that feeling. Let’s just feel that feeling. Let’s metabolize it. It let’s literally imagine giving yourself a hug.
Send yourself some love. You can actually do that for yourself, and you can do that in front of your kids. So you’re modeling and showing them that, you know what, I just yell. I’m going to take a minute. Because that feeling of being that angry, that’s a really hard feeling. And it happens when I feel like people don’t listen to me and my feelings get hurt. So I’m just going to give myself a little up. And your kids, you’re always teaching. They’re always watching. So there’s a richness to this that I think is so important. And I’m sure you see this in the parenting world too. There’s so many models out there that are either just attachment or they’re just behavior mod. Neither will work on their own. They have to be integrated because it’s nuanced and it’s complicated. Everything in the world is, and you have to have support and feel enough self-love to do that. And there’s sometimes where you need to get outside help to do that, but that’s actually what’s going to change. Your kids are watching you all the time. They’re watching all the time.
Dr. Sarah (41:53):
Yeah. I think the way I often describe it is I feel like in the parenting world, there’s a Venn diagram happening of if you picture a Venn diagram on one end of that circle is child development. And it’s like, okay, they need this, they need this, they need this, they need this all fair. But on the other side, their overlapping circle is like, okay, parental mental health, maternal mental health, we need to be able to take care of the mother, give her autonomy and space and boundaries. And it’s like if we don’t, we need to not look at one over the other.
It’s the overlapping space of how do both of us co-exist in this family and get our needs met? And feel like when you talk about self-psychology, one of the things that I think is so valuable in that model is like you are a whole self separate from me, another whole self, and that we can love one another and value one another and see one another, but we’re separate. There’s this true sense of integrated wholeness in our individual selves. And that I think can really ground a lot of this stuff for parents. Like, ah, I’m me, you. We have competing needs at times. I need you to get out of the bath and you need to stay in this warm cozy water and keep with your boats. Those are incompatible needs, but they’re real. And so if I can understand that my kid has that real need, and it’s in conflict with my need in the moment of let’s move through the nighttime routine so I can get my break at the end of bedtime, we can honor their need even if we’re not meeting it.
And there may be times where it happens and the child is upset and they’re mad and it’s going to be okay because everything can’t be perfect. You can recover, you can have competing needs, still love each other like crazy, and have that integration and that balance. So everything comes from that moment of integration. And I tell my families, it’s like standing in a canoe. Whoa. You can’t overcorrect too much the other way. And what you’ll see, and I’m sure you see this too, is in families, you’ll often see that duality in the parenting. So you’ll have one parent who’s like, no, he’s hungry. It’s not his fault. He had a hard day. And the other one’s like that is ridiculous. This kid’s out of control. You got to do something right? And you end up in this state where you’re compensating or overcompensating for what you believe is a weakness in the other parent’s parenting.
So the softer one gets softer to compensate for the other one yelling, and the other one yells more because the other one’s too soft. And then you never get anywhere. I think it’s called the Vertica Pisces, which is where the two circles meet. It’s that little magic point right in the center. So what I love about this model, I think that I’m sure you do the same, is that you pull the tougher parent, the one who’s more into the limit setting, into making sure they mirror first. The calm technique is always first, 2, 3, 4 statements. That’s the starting point. And then you’ll get more compliance. And if you don’t, then you can move into the other. And you don’t need to yell so much. The softer parent who has a hard time setting limits, who doesn’t like enforcing consequences, who doesn’t like to kind of stick to it, it feels mean or it feels unkind, or they were harshly parented as a child. It’s so helpful for them to start with the mirroring and know that when you set loving limits, that is love. Kids want limits. They need limits. Otherwise, that’s why four year olds don’t have apartments.
They need to, right? So an example I give, we’re probably running out of time, but I love to give an example of being on an airplane, a bumpy, turbulent, terrifying flight. You are scared for your life. You’re white knuckling it. Let’s say the captain decides he’s going to wander down the aisle. Hey everybody, how are we doing? I could do, it’s a bumpy, bumpy, terrible flight. You’re going through a storm. We could do 30,000 feet. I could do 28,000 feet if you want. I could try flying around the storm. What do you guys think? How would you feel in that seat?
Dr. Sarah (46:07):
Right? Like, oh my God, I’m supposed to be a pilot now too.
Exactly. Stay for the sake of argument. Cockpit doors open. The captain’s in there screaming and yelling, is it ridiculous? Why isn’t the control tower answering me? They’re not enough for this job. Why is that red button flashing? Goddammit, you’re going to sit in that seat petrified. But we flip often from those two sides, either as a couple or ourselves. We flip back and forth screaming and yelling, or we go into prevental numbness. You know what? Jump on the couch. I don’t care. Eat the whole box of cereal. I don’t care. I’m so tired. I can’t do this anymore. And we swing back and forth and back and forth, which is really disorienting. And kids will continue to push the limit. They’ll continue to up the ante until they feel safe, until they feel like you are bringing those lines. And so that’s why that integration, both as a parent yourself as a singular person, but also as a couple is really, really important.
Dr. Sarah (47:09):
No, I think that that’s so helpful. And I feel like you and I have a lot of things in common in terms of the way that we see the problem, the really core issue which informs the solution. And I think so often in the world of children and behaviors and parenting it, like we were saying before, I think there’s two camps. There’s like, well, let’s change all the behaviors and let’s create all of these strategies and rewards systems or behavior modification plans. And it’s not like I never used those strategies when I’m working with the family. It’s just they’re part of a much bigger thing because we’re looking at not only behaviors.
Well, behavior is never the problem. It’s the symptom of the problem. And kids, when parents, actually, the parents that I work with and they go through this program, what we start to see is that children don’t have to show their parents what’s wrong anymore by screaming and yell. A four-year-old or a six-year-old doesn’t come home and say, oh, let me tell you about my day. It was awful. It started when, so-and-so took my truck out of the sandbox. They come home and they hit their brother, or they scream and yell, you gave them peanut butter instead of something else. That’s how they kind of experience that meltdown. And so when you can actually see that that’s how they communicate, then that helps. Does it make it any easier? No. Especially if you’ve got multiple kids. The analogy I like to look at is, and this is the integration piece you talked about, we both talked about there being two camps in parenting. It’s everything. It’s in politics, it’s everywhere. It is just duality everywhere. And it’s so much more nuanced and complex than that’s, it’s not as simple as, oh, it’s going to mature, which can work for two weeks maybe, but it’s not the problem. So I think of it at water, going through a pipe behavior mod. You plug up a hole, what happens? It just comes out somewhere else, right? So you’re just plugging up these holes.
Dr. Sarah (49:11):
Yeah, I call it you just end up having behavior whack-a-mole.
We really do have a lot in common. So I think the mirroring in the attachment as turning off the tap, that’s what controls the pressure. Then you have healthy flow. So if you only mirror and connect your kid’s going to probably, unless your child is born, one of those kids that regulates incredibly well. And there are kids like that. Mom sign here, I’ve got here’s, there are kids like that. They’re not many, but they exist. Most kids don’t do that. Most kids will push boundaries and get away with what they can and push back on the world and do whatever. But if you only mirrored and connected, you’ll have behavioral issues for the most part. And if you only do behavioral management, management, you’re going to have attachment issues. So you’ve got to have both of those things in perfect balance and no standing in the canoe kind of balance because you’re always kind of…
Dr. Sarah (50:07):
Right, constant adjustment, but also seeking that sense of, yeah, ultimately I’m balancing these things and it’s going to kind of rock as things do back and forth. But the goal is to not tip over in one direction or the other.
Which is interesting because the empathic repair and empathic failure model where you get it wrong and then you say something and you get it right. So the example I gave when I moved my hair, that was with the girl, that was an empathic failure. And then my empathic repair was, you know what? You were talking about something important and I thought about my hair. So you’re constantly doing these little repairs. So what that gives parents is actually a sense of peace. You can’t get it wrong. You can always go back and repair and sometimes the repair better than getting it wrong in the first place. So it gives you this space to be more forgiving and give yourself some grace because it really is difficult to parent. A couple of really quick things that parents can do that are just really fast and easy. I call it baby play or limbic bonding.
So if you really want to get those oxytocin levels up super high, and it doesn’t matter how old your child is, I don’t care if you have a teenager, you spend a little bit of time every day rubbing noses, tickling them, telling them stories about when they’re a baby, showing them pictures when their baby pull out a little outfit, do that every single day. If you have a child that has a huge counter will, that’s been really difficult and really pushing back and really challenging, what I say to parents is the child that you least feel like doing this with is the child that needs that the most. Right? So just through that beautiful limb, if you do nothing else, if you ignore everything I’m saying today and you just do that, you will see a change in your child’s behavior.
Dr. Sarah (51:55):
Yeah, I often say so I have a daughter who, she’s hot. I joke that she’s like my Everest sometimes, and she has big, big feelings. And a lot of times after a big meltdown or big butting of heads, we’re back to a place of feeling good. I’ll say to her, I’ll say, you are so easy to love. And I feel like that is a very important thing for her to hear from me. And I think parents in general, when we have kids who push us to our breaking points, even if we hold it together enough in those moments that it’s just a private shit show on the inside, but especially when it’s not and it’s public and they felt it and they received it, and we have to repair no matter what. I feel like those kids that are just so have the toughest time, if their feelings just explode out of them.
Their feelings are too big for their little bodies
Dr. Sarah (52:59):
And they need to know.
Dr. Sarah (53:02):
It’s not a, even though that happened, I still love you. It’s an unqualified statement. You are so easy to love.
They often don’t feel lovable. They know they’re loved, but they don’t feel lovable. And they will often after a meltdown like that, say, I’m a terrible person, or I don’t fit in this family, or I hate myself, or there’s something wrong with me. And helping them understand, I love that, that they are absolutely lovable. And that’s why the baby play is so important for those kids just rubbing noses and tickling. And sometimes they’ll be like, what are you doing? But most of the time they love it. And if they do go, what are you doing that for? Just be like, you know what? I forget that you’re not my little baby, even though you’re eight or 10 or whatever it is. And when you’re ready, I’d love to give you a big old hug and then just walk away. Don’t go, I hope you have a child one day that does that to you. Just away. They’ll come back. They’ll come back.
Dr. Sarah (53:59):
And there’s something that when you were talking about putting your hair back and how that was an empathic rupture, the thought I had in my mind was it takes so much permission to fail and how hard that can be for a lot of us. There’s so many layers here. There’s so many layers because if you’re a parent who failing was not an acceptable thing, if messing up saying the wrong thing, doing the wrong thing wasn’t okay when you were a kid, then to admit that to your child would be really, really threatening in a lot of ways. I could see that being really hard, that idea that like, oh my God, I just flipped my hair back. Give me a break. And it takes a very huge amount of self-compassion actually, to be able to say, okay, they felt something really big when I did this thing.
I did this thing not to hurt them, but I don’t need to go there right now. I can put a pin in that knowledge. I know that I’m okay. I don’t have to prove to them that I’m okay right now. I just need, like you said, I just need to focus on the mirroring their experience on prioritizing their experience in this moment over my ego basically. And saying, you experienced that as a dismissive thing that I just did there. Whether or not that was my intention, I can give myself permission to not understand it and still say, I see you’re having feelings about that and I’m sorry.
And it is hard and it is counterintuitive, and everything in your limbic system is going to tell you not to do that, or you’re going to tell your child it’s okay to say things like that. But the truth is, it is highly likely that if you do that, your child will come around and say, I know Mommy. I know you didn’t mean to touch your hair. I know you love me. You’ll get there and you’ll get there in the most spectacular way because your child got you there and because you got your child there, you can have. And so that’s so interesting about Al. You have to keep practicing it and as those things unfold, it becomes this positive feedback loop. And then you’re like, ah, okay. I didn’t feel like doing that, but now I see why I need to do that.
Dr. Sarah (56:32):
If people want to learn more about your program or the work that you do or your books, where can they find you?
So they can go to connectedparenting.com. So we’ve got all of our services on there. I have a pretty big team of people, but 12 therapists that are all trained in the model. We work with families from all over the world. My books are there. You can get them on Amazon too. Connected Parenting: How to Raise a Great Kid, and You’re Ruining My Life is the teenage book. So they’re both available on Amazon. And then I also have online parenting courses. One, that’s just the videos we can watch. It’s all on demand. It belongs to you for life. You don’t lose them after a few months. You’re a parent for life, so you get them for life. Another version where there are live coaching calls with me once a month and meeting with families from all over the world. We also have Our Village, which is a place to practice the technique that we were talking about today. I have my podcast Connected Parenting Podcast where I take you through a lot of it. And we have another podcast called the Mental Health Comedy Podcast, where I co-host with comedian Ed Crasnick. And we interview well-known comedians and entertainers about their mental health. And then I give them strategies on how to, practical ways to practice mental health. So that’s the other thing that I do. And I think, oh, and I have a professional certification program. If there’s people who are therapists out there who want a certification in the program.
Dr. Sarah (57:52):
That’s amazing. Well, we’ll put links to all that in the episode notes so people can find you.
Thank you so much.
Dr. Sarah (58:03):
We’ve talked a lot today about how understanding our brain and body can help parents build their child’s reflective functioning ability and foster a secure attachment relationship. Neuroscience also informs us that when children are playing, their nervous system is in a state of rest, digest, AKA, the opposite of fight or flight. And in this state, the frontal lobes of their brain are firing, giving your child the ability to reason and problem solve and acquire new information. So what does that mean? It means that we know from research and science that one of the best ways to teach our children is not in the heat of the moment, not through a lecture, not when they’re having a tough time with the behavioral issue, but through calm, connected moments during play.
(58:46):And that is exactly why I’ve created a guide that teaches you how to incorporate emotion regulation, building games into your child’s play. In my free guide called Reduce Tantrums Before They Even Begin, I teach you five fun and simple games that help children develop regulation skills like learning to take deep breaths, inhibit impulses, and calm their bodies. To download this free guide, to strengthen your child’s emotion regulation skills when their brain is the most susceptible to learning, just go to drsarahbren.com/games. That’s drsarahbren.com/games. I’ll see you right back here Thursday for a brand new Beyond the Sessions episode. And as always, don’t be a stranger.
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