Have a Question? Need Parenting Advice? Ask Michael Hawton

By Michael Hawton, MAPS.

As you know, I teach counting as a way that parents can remind children to stop certain behaviour. The thing is that putting a limit in place can cause them to grimace or to go scrunch-face on you. This momentary discomfort is a necessary way for them to use their ‘mental brakes’ – and to strengthen the dendrites that assist them to do so!

Child psychiatrist, Daniel Siegel, tells parents that in order for children to build their ‘braking’ capacity, parents need to accept that they may have ‘watch’ this discomfort with some dispassion. That is, parents can enable the exercise of certain neurones in a child’s pre-frontal area by placing limits – even if those limits ends up upsetting the child.

Of this kind of encounter Siegel says this:

Parents help children to regulate their emotional clutch in order to balance their emotional brakes and accelerators. In order to do this, a parent needs to be able to tolerate the tension and discomfort that a child may experience when a parent sets a limit. If a parent cannot tolerate the tension and discomfort that a child experiences when a parent sets a limit, it is very difficult for the child to learn to regulate her emotions. – Parenting from the Inside Out.

It may seem strange that a psychiatrist is telling parents that they need to place their child in momentary discomfort but without this practise kids won’t learn how to behave within limits as well as they might.

At the moment in Australia, there are three things that are stopping parents from doing this type of limit-setting-parenting:

  • The general sense in the parenting ‘ether’ that one must keep one’s children happy all the time (and the lack of belief in their attachment)
  • The lack of confidence amongst parents generally.
  • A certain pervasive view established by some parenting academics that parents must be riding a positive wave of discipline lest they be seen as doing a less than adequate job.

In my world – that of parenting education – there are some PC-types who say that you can’t even say ‘no’ to children. They conflate putting boundaries in place with making children feel ‘traumatised’. But, the thing is that causing some distress to a child is not the same as traumatising a child.

This conflation is not only unfair on parents, but it is also bringing-up a whole bunch of children who do not know about boundaries and who are not being helped to self-regulate. One just simply cannot teach self-regulation by using praise and rewards.

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