Wired to Connect: Discipline Shouldn’t Hurt

Guest post by Rebecca Eanes

Are we being too soft on our kids? Too easy on them? During my 6 years of moderating a parenting page on Facebook, I’ve seen many comments aligned with the view that being soft is bad parenting. There is a prevailing idea that we must be hard on kids if we want to teach them a lesson. But is harshness really the best teacher?

Science tells us no. In fact, when we are hard on kids, they actually don’t learn as well as they could. We understand much more about the human brain, connection, attachment, and the value of relationship than we ever did in history. We know that the relationship we have with our children affects their development, literally wiring their brains, particularly in those early years. For many, the first attempts at discipline are ignoring a crying child for the purpose of sleep training or not “spoiling” her. We fear this is manipulation when it is really just a basic human need – the need for closeness. I’ve heard of little babies getting hands smacked or even spankings before the age of one, even though study after study tells us how harmful physical punishment is to children.

Across many studies of mammals, from the smallest rodents all the way to us humans, the data suggests that we are profoundly shaped by our social environment and that we suffer greatly when our social bonds are threatened or severed.  When this happens in childhood it can lead to long-term health and educational problems.  We may not like the fact that we are wired such that our well-being depends on our connections with others, but the facts are the facts. – Matthew Lieberman, neuroscientist and author of Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect [1]

In the above quote, Matthew Lieberman shines a light on the reason that time-out is now also being seen as harmful discipline. To us, it may be discipline, but to the child, it’s isolation. It’s a threat to their social bond. Drs. Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson further discuss this in a controversial Time article, which you can read here.  Here’s what they say: “The problem is, children have a profound need for connection. Decades of research in attachment demonstrate that particularly in times of distress, we need to be near and be soothed by the people who care for us. But when children lose emotional control, parents often put them in their room or by themselves in the “naughty chair,” meaning that in this moment of emotional distress they have to suffer alone.”

So, if spanking is harmful and time-outs are now bad, how are we supposed to discipline our children?!

To understand why child discipline practices need to change, it’s helpful to understand a little bit about how the brain works.

Because I am not a doctor or neuroscientist, I’m going to directly quote one here. This is from Amy Banks, M.D., director of Advanced Training at the Jean Baker Miller Training Institute at the Wellesley Centers for Women; instructor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School; and author of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Relationships and Brain Chemistry.

Neuroscience is confirming that our nervous systems want us to connect with other human beings. A good example of this is mirror neurons, which are located throughout the brain and help us read other people’s feelings and actions. They may be the neurological underpinnings of empathy – when two people are in conversation they are stimulating each other’s mirror neuron system. Not only will this lead to movement in similar muscles of the face (so the expressions are similar) but it also allows each to feel what the other is feeling. This is an automatic, moment to moment resonance that connects us. There have been studies that look at emotions in human beings such as disgust, shame, happiness, where the exact same areas of the brain light up in the listener who is reading the feelings of the person talking. We are, literally, hardwired to connect. [2]

This is really interesting in the context of the parent-child relationship when we look at mirror neurons. Think about what happens with those mirror neurons when you scowl, slap, smack, or yell at your child. As their brain searches to read your feelings and actions, it begins to light up in those same areas – irritation, anger, aggression, and frustration.  However, what lights up in their brains when you approach them with softness, gentleness, and empathy?

Furthermore, the distress of social pain is biologically identical to the distress of physical pain. What causes social pain in the context of the parent-child relationship? Rejection. Isolation. Dr. Banks explains:

I believe that one of the seminal studies that supports a relational neurobiology is something called SPOT (Social Pain Overlap Theory.) A group of researchers at UCLA, looked at the overlap between social pain and physical pain. They designed a benign computerized experiment that gradually excluded people from a multi-player game. What they found was the area that lit up in the brain for that kind of social rejection—the anterior cingulate—was the exact same area that lights up for the distress of physical pain. So the distress of social pain is biologically identical to the distress of physical pain. Most people in our culture understand that physical pain is a major stressor, but we often reject the idea of social pain. [2]

When asked if this can impact a person’s physical health as well, Dr. Banks says:

Yes, being pushed out of social relationships and into isolation has health ramifications. In fact, there was a book done by health advocate Dr. Dean Ornish, called Love and Survival. There has been study after study done on the positive impact of loving relationships. What he had said at the time in that book was that if we had a drug that did for our health what love does, it would far outsell anything that has ever been made. The efficacy is that potent. But we downplay the importance of love and connection in a culture based on the success of “the rugged individual.” People in our culture need to understand that healthy connection can reduce pain on all levels. [2]

Unfortunately, we are a culture that downplays love and connection and holds tough discipline in high esteem. Parents are becoming famous with their creative uses of shame and humiliation. We are accustomed to training our children by use of pain; either physical pain or social pain. This is really quite a paradox as children don’t learn well through pain. The fear created by being hit or feeling the threat of disconnection from a primary attachment figure triggers the fight or flight response. When this response is triggered, the rational mind is inhibited, thereby inhibiting learning.

Why are we having such difficulty in letting go of tough discipline? There’s a scientific answer for that as well. The idea that pain or discomfort should accompany lessons is still deeply rooted in our culture, and though the tides are slowly turning as the evidence against it continues to pile in, the use of physical or social pain is still the main method of disciplining children. Dr. Michael Shermer says this:

We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, personal, emotional, and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture, and society at large; after forming our beliefs we then defend, justify, and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments, and rational explanations… Once beliefs are formed the brain begins to look for and find confirmatory evidence in support of those beliefs, which adds an emotional boost of further confidence in the beliefs and thereby accelerates the process of reinforcing them, and round and round the process goes in a positive feedback loop of belief confirmation.

Dr. Shermer outlines the numerous cognitive tools our brains engage to reinforce our beliefs as truths and to insure that we are always right.[3]

Basically, we have formed our belief in tough discipline because our families, friends, and culture still support it, and once we have formed that belief, we keep looking to justify it, so we disregard the scientific evidence that proves us wrong.

Blah blah neuroscience. What do I DO instead then?

It’s helpful to change the way we view discipline, which isn’t something we do to a child but rather something we want to instill in him. When we are in good relationship is when we have the most influence on our kids. For kids to listen to the lessons we teach, they have to first be calm and receptive. Many discipline techniques, like spanking and time-outs, further make kids feel threatened which hijacks their amygdala and inhibits learning. For optimal teaching (discipline) to occur, kids must feel safe with us. We need to shift from intimidation and fear to a strong connection and trusting relationship.

Here are some tips for putting away the tough discipline and teaching through connection.

Before Misbehavior:

Build your relationship. This is the foundation and you can’t build anything until you have this. How? Start where you are. If your child is an infant, build trust by responding to cries quickly and with empathy. Bond by lots of talking, touch, and eye contact. If you have a young child, play is the key to connection. Spend quality time every day entering your child’s world, connecting through play and stories and snuggles. With older children, get to know them, really know them – what they like and dislike, how they feel about things, what makes them excited, what they are passionate about. Talk with them, not to them. In all stages, model the behavior you want from your child. Showing them how to be is more powerful than telling them how to be.

Teach proactively, before an issue arises. Teach about handling emotions and life situations through play, when everyone is calm and happy. Use toys to act out scenarios. Role play. Practice at home things like eating in a restaurant or sitting through a service or class. Put on a puppet show to raise awareness about bullying or some other issue your child will face. Look through magazines and point out faces and talk about the emotions of those people. Talk about what you watch on television or what they heard at grandma’s house. Teach them calm-down techniques like deep breathing before they get angry. Children are more receptive to lessons when calm, and engaging through play enhances learning.

During Misbehavior:

Remove your child from the situation. If he hit his friend, take him to a private area and get him to calm down. Figure out what prompted him to hit. The action is a clue. Find out what it’s pointing to and look for the solution. He may need more emotion coaching, tools to calm himself, a nap, or some food.

Is your tween giving you attitude? Walk away. Refuse to be talked to disrespectfully. We are tempted to fire back with a bigger, badder attitude because our own amygdala gets hijacked.  Simply “I won’t be talked to like this. I’ll be happy to talk with you when you can be respectful.”

Did your child bring home terrible grades and you know he didn’t try? It’s a problem that needs a solution. Talk with him. Sure, taking his electronics away doesn’t teach him study skills or motivate him to make better grades. Find out why he isn’t movitated. Is he facing a problem at school? Is he being bullied? Is he struggling in a relationship at home? Does he need a tutor? Is he suffering from low self-esteem? Find the root of the problem and work on correcting it. It takes more work than removing electronics, but you won’t always be there to take his stuff away. He needs to learn how to manage himself.

Is your daughter whining? Whining is a more mature form of crying, and while it can be very grating on the nerves, it’s a signal of a deeper issue. Ignoring the child might make whining stop temporarily, but you need to know why she’s whining in the first place. Does she feel powerless? Maybe she needs more choices. Is she overtired? Adjust bedtime.

After Misbehavior:

The hitting scene is over, your child’s brain is now regulated (calm), now you teach. “Hitting others is not okay. I will show you some things you can do when you’re feeling angry.”

Tween’s attitude is better? She’s now ready to talk respectfully? “The way you spoke to me earlier made me feel attacked. It’s important that we treat each other with respect, and that means not taking your bad mood out on me.”

The child with the bad grades? Follow up with him and his teacher. The way you do that really depends on what you found out was the reason behind the bad grades in the first place. Find him a tutor or address the bullying situation.

Whining over? Teach her about communication skills and strong voices.

Quick Summary:

1. Connect! Build your relationship. Build trust. Be on the same team. Work with, not against.

2. Misbehavior is communication. What is it saying? Look for the problem causing the misbehavior. Dr. Neufeld says, “The guiding principle of the incident is to do no harm.” Also, it is helpful to approach it with the idea of building up rather than tearing down. Try “I see you’re very angry. I’m going to take you to our calm place so you don’t hurt your brother. I know you wouldn’t want to hurt him. You’re a really good sister.” Or “Wow, you must be upset to speak to me like that. It’s not like you to be disrespectful. Let’s talk when you’re feeling ready.” Or simply “The walls are covered in marker. Here, use this to wipe it off.”

3. After you get through the incident, move back into connection and teaching. Show them how to repair relationships and forgive others by modelling it.

Discipline doesn’t need to hurt to be effective. In fact, it’s more effective when the child has a deep attachment to you. The end goal is to provide him with the skills, tools, and motivation to reach his fullest potential.


[1]  http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-we-are-wired-to-connect/

[2] http://www.wcwonline.org/2010/humans-are-hardwired-for-connection-neurobiology-101-for-parents-educators-practitioners-and-the-general-public

[3] http://www.michaelshermer.com/the-believing-brain/

Rebecca Eanes is the creator of www.positive-parents.org and author of The Newbie’s Guide to Positive Parenting. In her new book, Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide, Rebecca shares her hard-won insights on giving up the conventional parenting paradigm to reconnect heart to heart with her children. Because parenting is about so much more than discipline, Rebecca hits on important topics we don’t usually see, making this more than a parenting book. It’s a book about building lasting family bonds and reclaiming joy. Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide releases on June 7th – order it today!

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