Healthy Beginnings

Encouragement from the start leads to strong parent-child relationships

Talk to your children and seek to understand their point of view. Photo: Getty Images

Similar to Newton’s first law of physics — an object at rest stays at rest and an object in motion stays in motion unless acted upon by another force — family dynamics remain the same unless something actively changes them.

“Parenting for thousands of years has been guesswork — we’ve done what our parents did because we thought it worked, or we did what they didn’t do because we thought it didn’t work,” said Lindsay Simon, LMFT, clinical director and owner of A Balanced Life in South Lake Tahoe, in an interview with Healthy Beginnings. “To piece together parenting, we talked to neighbors, friends, people outside the family. Now we have research-based facts about what works best and what raises the healthiest kids.”

Interactions and experiences are imprinted on the developing brain from birth to childhood. When children are exposed to trauma, negative experiences become stuck in their core beliefs, imprinted on the brain stem.

Simon offered a brief recap of early brain development:

  • Brain Stem: responsible for unconscious body functions like heartbeat, regulating blood pressure, breathing. Develops in fetus and until about 3 years old.
  • Limbic System: the emotional brain; provides fight or flight, seeing things as all-or-nothing, life-or-death, black and white thinking. Develops from birth to age 8.
  • Neonatal Cortex: the thinking brain; is developed from the very beginning until about age eight. Growing children experience a big boost in growth at age 12 or 13, and it doesn’t completely finish growing until age 24 in women and 28 in men.

“We can’t really change the brain stem stuff — the easiest thing to change as an adult is the outside of the brain, through cognitive behavioral therapy,” Simon said. “What we know now is (if a) child (is) exposed to domestic violence, (it) is way more detrimental at age zero to two than at age 10,” Simon said.

In other words, research has proven that parent-child dynamics work the opposite of what people think — “oh, they’re not going to remember”— and in reality, experiences early on in life affect the building blocks of the brain.

‘Build a climate of empathy’

When talking about mental health and psychology, Chrystina Pope, LMFT, of Carson City, explained that the way we begin to attach to our parents sets the framework for our lives.

“It’s not only just verbal, there’s a lot of non-verbal stuff, a lot of trauma happens just with the body,” Pope told Healthy Beginnings. “We need to be aware that our kids aren’t always cookie-cutter — the most important thing is to build a climate of empathy and be empathetic to our kids, for example, when they are going through a difficult time.”

Parents who befriend their child’s angst and give room for conversation around even small issues can set a model for being by their side to deal with future issues — instead of telling them to stop, ridiculing them or shutting them out.

Ben Kadas, a psychiatric nurse practitioner at Carson Tahoe Health, says parents need to understand that failure is natural, necessary and part of the learning process — not by rewarding failure, but certainly not penalizing it.

“Parents were children once, but they don’t see the lifespan. They see the situation through their own eyes as an adult and expect adult behaviors from their child,” Kadas said. “They need to reset their brain and realize, ‘I’m 35, my child is two, and so I have to see that child as a 2-year-old.’

“Their expectations often don’t match the age of their child.”

Accommodating both parties as we age

With those expectations understood, the next step is for people to know that active parenting includes being playful, being part of the solution — and, being realistic with penalties.

If a child is home 15 minutes late, for example, Kadas says parents are quick to ground him or her for two weeks. Why not say instead, “I want you to be home 15 minutes early tomorrow” – a realistic punishment for the degree of wrongdoing.

Kadas strongly advises against spanking as it models negative behavior — “what would you think if your spouse came home and did this?”

You don’t physically strike or punish your child because it could prevent a future practice, Kadas says — you’re saying that if someone is bad, you hit them.

The parent-child dynamic must also flex to accommodate both parties as everyone ages. Parents will always be the parent, there is no changing that, but with age and experience comes the opportunity to create friendship and understanding with adult children.

“I have to know at this point that if I parent too much, if I really push something, he is going to push back because I’m being too much of a parent to an adult,” he said. “The parent-child relationship changes as we all age and we can start to relate to each other in new ways.”

By building a foundation of trust, respect and support, children grow up knowing that their parents are emotionally available and are equipped to handle challenges — regardless of the situation — which can ultimately result in a mutually respectful and loving parent-child relationship.

From the experts:

Below are a few situational suggestions for parents on handling the tough stuff:

Responding to Tantrums:

Chrystina Pope recommends instead of punishing children who throw a tantrum or isolating them in a room, to calmly sit down in the room and breathe deeply until the tantrum stops.

  • Just because kids are upset doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with them; rather, they need help taking the next step.
  • If we don’t know how to take that next step being adults, we need to find our own self-awareness, a guide or teacher so our kids can benefit.

Avoiding Threatening Language:

Ben Kadas called out a common reaction to a child acting out — threats. One of his first parenting experiences was with an unruly 4-year-old, who he threatened time-out for a bad behavior. “Why did you say that?” the 4-year-old replied, innocently.

  • If you set your child up to feel threatened, you undermine your own parenting; it’s really hard to respect someone who threatens you.
  • Realize things for what they are and don’t be threatening with your communication; although the child’s brain is still developing, he or she knows when something doesn’t feel right.

Finding Disciplinary Balance:

Lindsay Simon urges parents to find the right balance between being too permissive or too authoritarian, offering the flexibility for children to learn and grow on their own, while providing developmentally appropriate structure.

  • Children allowed a free-for-all don’t feel safe in the world; they need positive limits and boundaries.
  • Being a helicopter parent is just as bad as being a mean and aggressive put-down parent.

Find Out Who Your Kids Will Be:

It’s nice to plan for your children, but you must understand that they are not you — they have their own personality.

  • Parents should offer children opportunities and experiences but ultimately support their decisions.
  • Don’t anticipate what they’re going to be like, just be with them while they’re kids and see who they become.

Lastly, Lead With Empathy:

When a child is upset, parents should actively listen to the problem without offering solutions and validate their feelings.

  • Don’t act on emotion, and don’t penalize or punish through surprise parenting, in which you implement a restriction without first explaining, “if you do this, this will happen.”

The key takeaway from the above suggestions is parents should remember that they are teachers rather than disciplinarians, helping children navigate life and setting them up to become successful adults.