I was working as a behavior interventionist at an inner-city charter school a couple years ago, and I distinctly remember the moment I realized that what my most behaviorally challenged kids needed was simply more connection, not more rules and discipline. I was called into a classroom to encounter a five-year-old boy walking around clearly very angry, chest puffed out, a scowl on this face, his hand in the air giving his entire Kindergarten class the middle finger... five.years.old. I guess my mommy instincts kicked in, or something, because I looked at that child and, I thought to myself, "the last thing that kid needs is another stern disciplinary response from another angry authoritative figure. What that kid needs is a hug." Since then, my whole approach to working with "behaviorally challenged" children changed to a connection first approach.
The authors of No Drama Discipline use the same approach of connection, then redirection because it brings the brain back into the situation. "What connection does, essentially, is to integrate the brain," says authors Siegel and Bryson. When children, or even teenagers for that matter, are in meltdown mode, the part of their brain that would allow him or her to think rationally or flexibly is taken over by the amygdala, the part of the brain that's there to protect. Therefore, unless we adults want to try reasoning with a little person who is currently in an animal instinct fight-or-flight mode, we must connect first. Only when all parts of the brain are working together as a coordinated whole will the child be able to become calm, balanced and receptive again.
In their last book, The Whole Brain Child, Siegel and Bryson explain how we can identify whether or not a child actually is in this fight-or-flight mode, or just trying to take advantage of your connection first approach to discipline. There are two types of tantrums, an upstairs brain tantrum, and downstairs brain tantrum. An upstairs tantrum is when a child is choosing to terrorize you. You can tell this type of tantrum because, no matter how ridiculously out-of-control your child seems, if he or she is negotiating or arguing with you, trying to manipulate or convince you, he or she is using their upstairs brain. And, in this case, the authors recommend: never, ever negotiate with a terrorist.
A downstairs brain tantrum is when that amygdala has taken over, and the child has essentially lost control of their own brain. You can spot these because they come out of nowhere, and kids act like complete monsters, flipping over furniture, flailing their bodies, screaming and crying uncontrollably... we've all seen it. This is when connection comes in because until the amygdala is tamed, no one is in control but it.
Lately, I've been trying these strategies with my toddler, and let me be the first to admit, it's a lot easier to use this connection-first approach with children who aren't my own, who aren't embarrassing me in public with their behavior. Just yesterday June was home sick, and she probably had about 11 meltdowns total. (I would blame it on her being sick, but let's be honest, it happens wayyyyyy too often to do that.) Each time, despite my frustration, I forced myself to take a deep breath and try to be as loving as possible. I approached her saying, "Come here and let mommy to hold you", or "Do you need a hug right now?" It worked about five times, but the other 6 times she just kept flailing her body, which let me know she was not having it. So, I let her hash it out herself. Then, when she was done, sometimes 10 minutes later, she would call for me, and we could connect again.
Confession: I realized yesterday, as we work through these terrible-two's, that I can only control so much. I can approach each tantrum calmingly ready to make a connection if that's what she needs at the time, but that's where it stops. The ball is in her court after that. We can't control our kids. We can only control how we respond. So, if you bump into me at the grocery store reading a magazine while my toddlers tantrums on the floor, know that its only after several failed attempts at connection.