How physical affection helps with discipline

A group of 15 parents were gathering for their weekly parenting class, when one mother shared a moment from the previous week. “My daughter had a fit the other day when I told her it was time to get in the car.”

Every head in the room nodded in recognition and understanding. Another dad said, “My son threw LEGOs at the TV because I told him to turn it off.”

These types of exchanges are shared by the most well-meaning parents; and despite even the most positive parenting efforts, kids can get mad. Their immature brains do not have the capability to remain calm while working through challenging feelings. They “flip their lids” easily; the higher brain functions of the prefrontal cortex, such as logic and reasoning, are not fully able to communicate with the emotions felt in the middle brain. Not even close.

It helps to understand what is going on in those young minds and bodies so that parents can know the best way to diffuse a tough situation.  Author of the Positive Discipline series, Dr. Jane Nelsen educates parents on non-punitive discipline. She advocates that punishments do not work, and they weaken the parent-child connection. Of the numerous positive disciplinary tools parents can use as an alternative to punishment, many are centered on the use of touch. Physical affection is as equally important to older children as it is to infants, and it has an effect on brain chemistry that is conducive to positive behavior. As Dr. Nelsen says, “children do better when they feel better.”

Be proactive

You don’t need to wait for children to come to you for touches, hugs, whole-body-scoops, and kisses. Being regularly physically affectionate with your kids—no matter what age—helps maintain the emotional connection they share with you. Margot Sunderland, author of The Science of Parenting, says, “as long as a child wants cuddles, parents should give them.” Parents should also find ways to keep physical affection alive as kids get older. This keeps the chain reaction of brain chemicals (opiods, oxytocin, seratonin) active and the parent-child bond strong. When that bond remains strong, challenging behavioral situations decrease and discipline becomes less intense overall.  Some ways of being physically affectionate with kids on a regular basis include:

Cuddles: With your younger children the opportunity to get physically close presents itself frequently and naturally. Little ones need lots of picking up, holding, and hugging. As children grow and become more independent and social, opportunities for cuddling naturally diminish, and it becomes important for you to take extra effort to find ways to physically connect. Reading to your child on the couch or in bed is a wonderful way to get close, as it invites leaning into, lying on, snuggling, touching, and arm-wrapping. Even watching a TV show or movie together is a great occasion to sit close and connect.

Physical play: As with other types of touching, physical play also releases positive-behavior-promoting chemicals, such as opiods and serotonin, in the brain. When played on a regular basis, person-to-person contact games naturally inhibit children’s impulsiveness; kids are able to sit still longer and have an increase in focused attention. Games such as horsey rides, piggy back rides, wrestling, tag, or even Red Rover involve person-to-person contact, and they all promote the release of positive brain chemicals and bring families closer together in a fun, physical way.

Touching base: You may intuitively touch base with your kids verbally; regularly asking them about their day, their friends, and their interests. But you should also take time to touch base with your kids physically as well. This begins quite naturally when children are very young; they will instinctively take time to explore the world away from mom and dad, and then continually come back to the safety of a parent’s arms to touch base and physically reconnect. It is important to note that older children need this as well—time on their own to play and be independent, then a physical reconnection with mom or dad. It could be sitting close, leaning in the crook of an arm, or lying on a lap. It could mean having her hair stroked, or getting a foot rub or shoulder massage, or just snuggling while reading together.

Tickling: Tickling is not recommended as an effective means to positive physical play. Tickling, though it may be a customary way for parents to get kids to laugh, can be deceivingly hurtful. Patty Wipfler, parent educator and director of Hand in Hand Parenting, says, “The main thing that makes tickling problematic is that children may not be able to say when they want it to stop.” She explains that laughter is an automatic response to tickling, whether a child likes it or not, and tickling may be detrimental in the long run to the child’s acceptance of positive physical affection. Wipfler suggests that parents phase out tickling and transition their play into more tussling-type contact that allows children to be inventive and in charge.

Using touch as a reactive strategy

As helpful as positive discipline is as a proactive measure, it is quite often needed as a reactive approach to discipline as well. Touching calms and reinforces the emotional bond between parents and children. When children touch a calm parent in a loving way, the chemical balance within their brains begins to be reinstated; their “flipped lids” begin to close again. Human brains are equipped with mirror neurons, which are hard-wired to imitate the emotional state of the environment. It’s why laughter can be contagious, or why people feel sad or cry when they see others crying. Here are a few approaches to discipline that are based on physical affection:

Hugs: Giving a child a hug when they’re having an all-out screaming fit may not be the first thing that comes to a parent’s mind. Probably, more likely is the temptation to scream right along with them! But a warm, secure hug given during a moment of emotional chaos works miles in the right direction; physical contact from an adult’s mature body helps calm the immature one. Restoring the chemical balance in a child’s brain is the first step toward having a rational conversation or solving any problem together.

Connected conversations:
A huge part of positive discipline is about listening for understanding. Effective listening involves showing empathy, validating a child’s feelings, and demonstrating active listening skills. Every day, parents have opportunities to communicate with their children and connect with them with words; to express an understanding of what they’re going through and what they’re feeling. Going one step beyond the verbal connection is adding the element of touch. Parents can make their words even more effective when they simply get down on their child’s level and hold hands. Similarly, a gentle hand placed on a child’s shoulder gives spoken words more impact. It nonverbally tells a child, “I’m here for you,” and brings a subtle addition of physical connection to everyday conversations.

Quieting the senses: Some children may become overly-stimulated by being touched too much or too irritatingly. Carol Stock Kranowitz, author of The Out of Sync Child, describes this “tactile defensiveness” as a trigger for frequent or intense melt-downs. For these children, it helps to have a quiet place to go to play or work without the risk of uninvited touching from overly-physical siblings or exuberant pets. For extra-sensitive children, some time alone does a world of good, until an understanding parent is able to reconnect with them with an appropriate touch or hug.

Deep pressure: Consequently, there are certain types of activities that involve applying a sensation of deep pressure to the body and are very physically stimulating. For some kids, this is a welcome sensation and helps to relax an overly excited mind. For many people (children as well as adults), a deep tissue massage is pleasant as an ultimate stress reliever. Other, unconventional ways of delivering extra pressure and sensation to soothe children’s frayed nerves may include ball pits, enveloping bean bag chairs, or weighted blankets or vests. Some kids even like to be rolled and unrolled in and out of rugs because of the even pressure that swaddles their bodies. When children receive the sensory input they crave, their minds and bodies are better able to communicate effectively.

So if a child hurls LEGOs at the TV or throws a fit when it’s time to get in the car, it’s nothing personal. It’s all about brain chemistry and emotional connection. And when that physical affection is combined with positive discipline strategies, parenting takes on a new level of effectiveness. Parents and kids are able to communicate nonverbally as well as verbally, enhancing their interaction and strengthening their relationship through even the toughest of times

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