Connect and Redirect: Surfing Emotional Waves
One night Tina’s seven-year-old son reappeared in the living room shortly after going to bed, explaining that he couldn’t sleep. He was clearly upset and explained, “I’m mad that you never leave me a note in the middle of the night!” Surprised at this unusual outburst, Tina replied, “I didn’t know you wanted me to.” His response was to unleash a whole litany of rapid-fire complaints: “You never do anything nice for me, and I’m mad because my birthday isn’t for ten more months, and I hate homework!”
Logical? No. Familiar? Yes. All parents experience times when their children say things and get upset about issues that don’t seem to make sense. An encounter like this can be frustrating, especially when you expect your child to be old enough to act rationally and hold a logical conversation. All of a sudden, though, he becomes upset about something ridiculous, and it seems that absolutely no amount of reasoning on your part will help.
Based on our knowledge of the two sides of the brain, we know that Tina’s son was experiencing big waves of right-brain emotions without much left-brain logical balance. At a moment like this, one of the least effective things Tina could do would be to jump right in and defend herself (“Of course I do nice things for you!”) or to argue with her son about his faulty logic (“There’s nothing I can do about making your birthday come sooner. As for the homework, that’s just something that you’ve got to do”). This type of left-brain, logical response would hit an unreceptive right-brain brick wall and create a gulf between them. After all, his logical left brain was nowhere to be found at that moment. So, had Tina responded with her left, her son would have felt like she didn’t understand him or care about his feelings. He was in a right-brain, nonrational, emotional flood, and a left-brain response would have been a lose-lose approach.
Even though it was practically automatic (and very tempting) to ask him “What are you talking about?” or to tell him to go back to bed immediately, Tina stopped herself. Instead she used the connect-and-redirect technique. She pulled him close, rubbed his back, and with a nurturing tone of voice, said, “Sometimes it’s just really hard, isn’t it? I would never forget about you. You are always in my mind, and I always want you to know how special you are to me.” She held him while he explained that he sometimes feels that his younger brother gets more of her attention, and that homework takes too much of his free time. As he spoke, she could feel him relax and soften. He felt heard and cared for. Then she briefly addressed the specific issues he had brought up, since he was now more receptive to problem solving and planning, and they agreed to talk more in the morning.
In a moment like this, parents wonder whether their child is really in need or just trying to stall bedtime. Whole-brain parenting doesn’t mean letting yourself be manipulated or reinforcing bad behavior. On the contrary, by understanding how your child’s brain works, you can create cooperation much more quickly and often with far less drama. In this case, because Tina understood what was happening in her son’s brain, she saw that the most effective response was to connect with his right brain. She listened to him and comforted him, using her own right brain, and in less than five minutes he was back in bed. If, on the other hand, she had played the heavy and come down hard on him for getting out of bed, using left-brain logic and the letter of the law, they would have both become increasingly upset—and it would have been a lot more than five minutes before he calmed down enough to sleep.
More important, Tina’s was a more caring and nurturing response. Even though her son’s issues seemed silly and perhaps illogical to her, he genuinely felt that things weren’t fair and that he had legitimate complaints. By connecting with him, right brain to right brain, she was able to communicate that she was tuned in to how he was feeling. Even if he was stalling, this right-brain response was the most effective approach, since it let her not only meet his need for connection, but also redirect him to bed more quickly. Instead of fighting against the huge waves of his emotional flood, Tina surfed them by responding to his right brain.
This story points out an important insight: when a child is upset, logic often won’t work until we have responded to the right brain’s emotional needs. We call this emotional connection “attunement,” which is how we connect deeply with another person and allow them to “feel felt.” When parent and child are tuned in to each other, they experience a sense of joining together.
Tina’s approach with her son is one that we call the “connect and redirect” method, and it begins with helping our kids “feel felt” before we try to solve problems or address the situation logically. Here’s how it works:
Step 1: Connect with the Right
In our society, we’re trained to work things out using our words and our logic. But when your four-year-old is absolutely furious because he can’t walk on the ceiling like Spider-Man (as Tina’s son once was), that’s probably not the best time to give him an introductory lesson in the laws of physics. Or when your eleven-year-old is feeling hurt because it seems that his sister is receiving preferential treatment (as Dan’s son felt on occasion), the appropriate response isn’t to get out a scorecard showing that you reprimand each of your children in equal measure.
Instead, we can use these opportunities to realize that at these moments, logic isn’t our primary vehicle for bringing some sort of sanity to the conversation. (Seems counterintuitive, doesn’t it?) It’s also crucial to keep in mind that no matter how nonsensical and frustrating our child’s feelings may seem to us, they are real and important to our child. It’s vital that we treat them as such in our response.
During Tina’s conversation with her son, she appealed to his right brain by acknowledging his feelings. She also used nonverbal signals like physical touch, empathetic facial expressions, a nurturing tone of voice, and nonjudgmental listening. In other words, she used her right brain to connect and communicate with his right brain. This right-to-right attunement helped bring his brain into balance, or into a more integrated state. Then she could begin to appeal to her son’s left brain and address the specific issues he had raised. In other words, then it was time for step 2, which helps to integrate the left and the right.
Step 2: Redirect with the Left
After responding with the right, Tina could then redirect with the left. She could redirect him by logically explaining how hard she works to be fair, by promising to leave a note while he slept, and by strategizing with him about his next birthday and about how to make homework more fun. (They did some of this that night, but most of it came the following day.)
Once she had connected with him right brain to right brain, it was much easier to connect left to left and deal with the issues in a rational manner. By first connecting with his right brain, she could then redirect with the left brain through logical explanation and planning, which required that his left hemisphere join the conversation. This approach allowed him to use both sides of his brain in an integrated, coordinated way.
We’re not saying that “connect and redirect” will always do the trick. After all, there are times when a child is simply past the point of no return and the emotional waves just need to crash until the storm passes. Or the child may simply need to eat or get some sleep. Like Tina, you might decide to wait until your child is in a more integrated state of mind to talk logically with him about his feelings and behaviors.
We’re also not recommending permissiveness or letting your boundaries slide simply because a child isn’t thinking logically. Rules about respect and behavior aren’t thrown out the window simply because a child’s left hemisphere is disengaged. For example, whatever behavior is inappropriate in your family—being disrespectful, hurting someone, throwing things—should remain off-limits even in moments of high emotion. You may need to stop destructive behavior and remove your child from the situation before you begin to connect and redirect. But with the whole-brain approach, we understand that it’s generally a good idea to discuss misbehavior and its consequences after the child has calmed down, since moments of emotional flooding are not the best times for lessons to be learned. A child can be much more receptive once the left brain is working again, and discipline can therefore be much more effective. It’s as if you are a lifeguard who swims out, puts your arms around your child, and helps him to shore before telling him not to swim out so far next time.
The key here is that when your child is drowning in a right-brain emotional flood, you’ll do yourself (and your child) a big favor if you connect before you redirect. This approach can be a life preserver that helps keep your child’s head above water, and keeps you from being pulled under along with him.