Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Cultivating Connectedness And Empathy For Your Child

The Echo Center
Last week I had the chance to attend a lecture at Larchmont Charter School West Hollywood, with the director of The Echo Center which is located in Echo Park, CA. I had heard of this center for a long time (formerly called Center for Nonviolent Education and Parenting - or CNVEP), but had not had the chance to look into it deeply. 

To begin with, the director, Ruth Beaglehole, is a fascinating woman. Her efforts to heal the emotional pain of her own childhood led to her to develop a remarkable understanding of children and parenting which she has shared with the world for more than 50 years.

Ruth Beaglehole, director
of The Echo Center
The most important intelligence is Emotional Intelligence.
Ruth began with her sense that the language used by parents, for the most part, is one of dominance. That is, parents always want to know how to discipline children and how to get children to respect adults. When we are having difficulty with our children there is often the desire to have immediate compliance which tends to lead to a sense of "I have power over you" or fear based dominance. We all may be familiar with the "I am going to count to three and if you don't do x, y or z, there is going to be a consequence!" which usually comes from a parental feeling of frustration and exasperation.

Ruth suggests not looking at behavior as either "good" or "bad". Instead, tune in to your sense of empathy and put yourself in your child's shoes. Ask yourself, what was your child's goal and what was she trying to do to achieve it? If you want to get to the real story, your child must "feel felt", which is one of the major building blocks for emotional literacy. Remember, connecting with your child is not just done when a child is behaving the way you want them to.

Sometimes only mommy can understand how you feel
Every experience is wired into the brain.
In the early 1990's it was discovered that the brain has something called mirror neurons. A mirror neuron is a neuron that fires both when an person (or animal) acts and when the person observes the same action performed by another. Thus, the neuron "mirrors" the behavior of the other, as though the observer were itself acting. 

Children must see, feel and hear empathy in order for these empathy neurons to begin to work. When a child lives in an "empathy drought", as Ruth termed it, these mirror neurons never come on line. She continued to talk about how the brain forms new pathways until we die. Thus, even if one did not experience empathy from day one, it is still possible to re-wire the brain and create new pathways of trust and healing. This made me think of the wonderful farm out here in California called The Gentle Barn where severely abused and mistreated animals are rehabilitated and taught to once again trust and love. In turn, these animals are used to help children who also have been abused to begin to heal. Surely there are mirror neurons at work! More to the point, mirror neurons would be a lead factor in why modeling behavior works so well.

What level of compassionate health do you bring to your parenting?
Without mindfulness, we will simply parent the way we were parented. "Our ability to be in relationship to our children is not based solely on whether we had a good childhood" said Ruth, "It is our ability to have a coherent narrative about our life". Thus, if you are the child of alcoholics or had a parent who was abusive in some ways, it does not mean you cannot be a wonderful, empathetic, caring parent. If you felt no empathy as a child, it doesn't mean you can't raise your own children to be empathetic, connected adults.

The ability to reflect on our own life experiences is the most critical factor in breaking the cycle. Without that, we respond to triggers and can have moments of shockingly intense anger towards our children. I wrote about my own triggers in a previous post called Motherhood: Otherwise Known As Therapy. If you find yourself reacting to something with a disproportionate amount of anger, you are almost certainly being triggered by something from your past. So what do we do when we've been caught up in that triggered moment? 
  • Stop and reflect. Ask yourself: how old am I right now? Why am I not able to be calm or feel connected? 
  • Take ownership of your behavior and apologize. "Mommy really lost it. I wasn't able to hear what you needed and I can imagine how hurtful that might have been". 
  • Stop blaming. For example, instead of saying "my child lied to me!", reframe it as "my child used a really poor strategy to get what he wanted. Through empathy I want to connect to what lead him to do that." You are not accepting the lying; rather, you are trying to find out what is beneath it. Again, once your child feels felt, the negative behavior is diminished.
  • Create a reflective, mindful practice that allows you to repair your childhood. When we are flooded, we are in our mid-lower brain and can't access the higher brain which is where thought process happens.
  • Find a parenting support group. The Echo Center offers support groups and I have a number of additional ones listed on my Classes and Clubs page. You simply cannot parent well in isolation.
  • Read the book Parenting From The Inside Out. Dan Siegal, the author, will be speaking at The Skirball Cultural Center in June. I will let you know when I have more details on that.
Show your children that what they
 have to say is important to you. 
How to cultivate connectedness.
There were numerous questions at the end of the evening. For me, the most pertinent ones had to do with connection. There is so much going on in each day and we are all so rushed and busy and overloaded. How do we make the time we do have with our children really count? I found Ruth's answers to be more like pearls of wisdom, as opposed to sound bites. Here's what spoke to me the most:
  • Help your child recognize and tune into their feelings. Remember that behavior modification is ALWAYS a matter of regulation, not discipline.
  • Start your day with 5 minutes of connection. Instead of starting the day arguing with your children about getting dressed or making beds in order to rush out the door to make it to school on time, consider taking 5 minutes out of that day to sit and read a book or chat with your kids. Just 5 minutes of connecting makes an enormous improvement in a child's mood and behavior.
  • Talk about the plan. Helping your child think through the day helps predictability get wired into the brain. This sense of security, coupled with emotional connection, helps an otherwise anxious or frazzled child move through transitions more smoothly. 
  • Bedtime. Fill your child up with attachment at this very special time of day. Try not to rush through it with frustration and anger. Start early enough that there is time to unwind and time to spend together, connecting. Use bedtime as a time to hear about their day, what they were grateful for, what things happened and so forth. When a child is filled with connection, they are less likely to be needy.
  • When you just don't have time. There are definitely times when you are just too busy to give your child all of the attention he or she needs in that moment. If possible, have a special notebook (or even just a Post-it) in which you write down all of their requests when they can't be honored in the moment. As I discussed in my post last week about early literacy, writing things down gives your child a sense of how important something is. They know their needs mean something to you, even though you can't get to them just that minute. 
"Attachment and Connection is your insurance for the future. Much more so than compliance will ever be" said Ruth at the end of the evening and I do believe that to be so essential. From The Echo Center's website: "In 2010, CNVEP underwent a branding change, and the same transformational work that Ruth had practiced for half a century now goes by the name The Echo Center. 'Echo' because of the geographical roots in Echo Park, but also as a metaphor: when we are kind, that kindness echoes long after we are gone. In other words, when we raise children with care, we raise children to care". I love that does make me feel that all of the hard parenting work we do is carried on generation after generation, and there is so much of an opportunity to raise this generation of children to feel deeply loved, respected and honored. It gives me hope.

Thanks for reading!
The Twin Coach

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4 Great Comments Made By Clicking Here!:

Lisa Sunbury said...

This is such an empowering, hopeful post. I so appreciate that you are always so open to learning and growing as a parent, and that you share what you are learning with others (me!) in such a clear, helpful way.

So many of the parents I work with struggle to parent in a different way than the way they were parented growing up. It can be so hard to know how to be a good model and help our children to cultivate empathy and connectedness, especially if we didn't have good models when we growing up. I so appreciate the resources and tips you have offered here, and I will share for sure!

Spruce Kids said...

I agree with the above comment - this is quite empowering and insightful. Many thanks for your thoughtfulness. Do stop by and visit our blog. We'd love your feedback!

Spruce Kids

Christina Simon said...

I think one of my biggest fears when my kids were very young was that they might be bullies or lack empathy. To me, that's the worst trait and difficult to overcome. Luckily, they both have empathy and are kind. I don't know if kids are born like that or taught it. Interesting post!

janetlansbury said...

Wonderful, Gina! This post is packed with great information. Ditto everything Lisa said above!

This is so important to note: "Without mindfulness, we will simply parent the way we were parented."

I would also add that the parents I work with sometimes have the urge to parent in reaction to the parenting they received, especially if it was abusive, overly strict and harsh, or if there was an insecure attachment for whatever reason. This might mean that the parent will fear a child's cries and tiptoe around the task of setting clear, healthy boundaries (or just give in), because the child's reaction to NO makes the parent too uncomfortable.

That's why I love: "Create a reflective, mindful practice that allows you to repair your childhood." Yes! Self-knowledge when we parent makes us more successful. AND it makes parenting an enlightening, self-healing process.

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