I attended a Coffee & Chat session for parents at my daughter’s school the other day. During the Q & A part, a parent asked, “My daughter, Sarah (name has been changed) recently tells me lies. An example is yesterday, she broke a glass in front of me and immediately blamed me, ‘Mum, why did you break the glass?’ What should I do?”
The principal advised that the mother could help her daughter fix the behavior indirectly by modeling. This means when the mother breaks something the next time, she will clean up the mess so her daughter learns about the right behavior for such situation.
A teacher suggested that the mother speak with the child.
But how do we as parents approach the conversation in a way that our child listens, learns to be responsible, and is proud of owning her mistakes? As a brain-based conversationalist and a brain-based life & career coach who has two dedicated clients all the time, my two kids (one is two and another is eight years old), here is my approach, based on neuroscience.
First and foremost, let’s get acquainted with a few basic principles of the brain, according to the NeuroLeadership Institute, that helps us shape the conversation effectively:
1. What parts of the brain affect emotional regulation and effective conversations? At a high level, let’s understand the conscious brain, the non-conscious brain, and the limbic system that is in charge of emotional experience. First, the conscious brain or the Prefrontal Cortex (PFC), sits behind the forehead and is responsible for high-level thinking processes such as deciding, understanding, memorizing, inhibition, and recall. As the PFC is very small (4 to 5% of the volume of the rest of the brain) and energy-intensive (it uses up a lot of the brain’s glucose and oxygen resources when active). Second, the non-conscious brain holds our hard-wired information and habits, such as walking, talking and typing. Third, the limbic system is a larger brain network that connects to our emotional experience. For easy reference, I call the PFC as the Logic Brain and the limbic system as the Emotion Brain
2. How are these parts of the brain related and affect emotional regulation and effective conversations? Every moment, our brain decides if the world around us is dangerous or helpful in order to keep us alive. When the brain detects a threat, we will non-consciously take action to stay away from that threat. When the brain detects a reward, we will non-consciously take action to move forward to that reward. When the Emotion Brain is overly aroused by real or perceived dangers, the fight-or-flight response kicks in, and our ability to perform habitual behaviors is enhanced. However, as the amount of energy in the brain is limited, the limbic response reduces the resources for the Logic Brain, and therefore, the Logic Brain cannot process high-level thinking as it should. In other words, the threat response decreases wider perception, cognition, creativity, and collaboration. When we feel away emotions such as fear, anger, frustration, confusion, and pain, we will see fewer (if any) choices, options, opportunities, and will not be able to well receive information.
In this story, let’s understand what made Sarah lie. When the glass broke, Sarah’s brain identified the event and potentially consequential scolding by her mother as a danger. Therefore, Sarah experienced away emotion which is fear in this case. At the same time, her non-conscious survival response kicked in: flight, by lifting herself up from the incident through blaming it on her mother so her mother could not blame or punish her (another child may choose to fight by beating the parent for the fear of being punished by his/her parent).
So how do we approach the conversation? Experiencing fear, a negative emotion, Sarah’s Emotion Brain is aroused, taking the energy away from the Logic Brain. Therefore, the Logic Brain did not have sufficient resources (less glucose and oxygen) in order to do its job, which is to receive information, see options and collaborate. If the mother shouts “You’re so naughty. You broke it and blamed mummy!”, Sarah’s Emotion Brain is more aroused and takes more energy, making the Logic Brain much weaker. And the next time, if a similar event happens, Sarah has more motivation to tell lies and push away responsibility.
In order to have an effective conversation, we need to help Sarah dampen down the Emotion Brain which means we should help Sarah to set the fear aside first, so energy is back to the Logic Brain for Sarah to listen and find the solutions on her own. Below is the conversation the brain-based coaching way and you will notice that Mummy will just do ASKING, not giving the solutions for Sarah, so she could think on her own (of course, there’ll be deviation depending on the child and actual circumstance but this is basic.)
STEP 1: Regulate emotion.
Mum: Oh, the glass is broken and you are afraid mum will scold you, aren’t you? [Say “the glass is broken” instead of “you broke the glass” as this might spark the survival response again.]
Sarah: Yes. [Or very likely, Sarah will not say anything as an implied Yes.]
Mum: I will not scold you, honey. [Mum can give Sarah a hug.]
Sarah: [Maybe, Sarah will not speak still as she is either still afraid or suspicious. It depends on many factors one of which is how a similar situation has been resolved before.]
Mum: I will not scold you. I promise.
Now Sarah’s Logic Brain has back the energy and can work properly.
STEP 2: Understand the consequence of not cleaning up & the benefits of cleaning up AND create a vision/goal.
Mum: If the glass is broken, when dad is home later and steps on it, what will happen? Will dad’s feet get injured and bleed? [Show the consequence on Sarah’s beloved people, not just herself, to fuel empathy for her, which in turn, to give her more motivation for behavior change. This is also how parents of “originals” guide their kids, according to “Originals” by Adam Grant.]
Mum: If so, do you feel sad for him? [Check in the emotion.]
Mum: If the floor is clean, all of us can run and play freely, would you be happy?
STEP 3: Find a solution to reach the goal.
Mum: So what should we do so no one in our family can be injured and we can play happily?
Sarah: Sweep them away.
STEP 4: Just do it.
If it were spilled water, Sarah can do on her own. But this is glass, Mummy can help Sarah and guide her so she learns how to clean up safely.
STEP 5: Celebrate / Praise & Reinforce the lesson.
Mum: The floor is clean now. You broke the glass and you clean it up so now we can walk around freely. I am very happy. Are you?
Mum: If you accidentally break something next time, what will you do?
Sarah: I will clean it up.
Mum: You are such a responsible child. I love you. [Again, according to “Originals” by Adam Grant, parents of original kids tend to praise their character rather than behavior as, per the author, when our character is praised, we internalize it as part of our identities.]
Mum can further reinforce the behavior and value by telling the story to the other family members and praising Sarah in front of them, maybe over dinner or some good family bonding time.
In summary, the situation has been turned into an “opportunity” for parents to educate children about values and here, it’s responsibility. In order to maximize the educational value of the opportunity, and with bigger kids, Mummy could help them think of a way to avoid breaking stuff in the first place and explain to them that if they accidentally break something and even when they clean it up, they need to inform their parents so their parents can buy the new one for replacement in order to have it when needed.
So with an effective approach of a brain-based coaching conversation, any parenting situation is actually a golden opportunity for parents to help hard-wire good values and positive characters in our children.
Watch out for this space for more real-life brain-based conversations with kids.