While being the new parent of an infant is exhausting, it is also quite straightforward in the sense that if you are sure feed, clothe, bathe, cuddle and put to rest your new infant, he or she will be content and eager to interact, smile, play and learn. Toddlerhood, however, is a different ball game. A parent meeting their toddler’s basic needs for food, sleep, cuddling and bathing doesn’t always compute to calm, angelic behavior (the understatement of the century!).
So what starts to complicate behavior as kids grow? The limbic system of the brain actually requires consistent, strong, trustworthy emotional connection in order to grow into an optimally functioning, learning system. In other words, the emotional bond is as important as sleep, food and bathing in a growing person’s development, and can actually be used in moments of off-track behavior to help steer a child back to their calm and reasonable place.
This may seem obvious to many parents and caregivers as they often recognize the positive impact that a strong bond has on a child’s security and behavior — even in toddlerhood. What is often misunderstood, however, is what a child needs when their behavior goes off-track.
In our culture, time outs and punishments have become commonplace responses to a toddler’s off-track behavior. But I recently learned, through Parenting by Connection techniques from Hand in Hand Parenting, that a tantrum is an opportunity to get closer, create safety and invite a full session of emotional release to create a deeper bond, ensuring the brain’s limbic system’s need for closeness is met. A toddler will cycle through a tantrum much more effectively with an adult coming closer instead of that same adult punishing and rejecting.
Many busy modern parents believe they don’t have time to use Parenting by Connection techniques in their chaotic lives. The reality is that it doesn’t take more time to implement this approach — it requires more presence. If parents work on their ability to be present with a wide range of emotions, acting as the child’s close connection and safety as they cycle through and release difficult emotions, they will find their attempts to “discipline” more successful and sustainable. The children’s limbic systems will be fed rather than starved, strengthening their foundations for learning and empathy as they grow.