This is the part four in our  July series about cultivating connection between parents and their children. You can read part one on creating intentional quality time here.   You can read part two on parental modeling here. You can read part three on connecting through child led play here. 

Parenting involves a constant interplay of emotional regulation and dysregulation, reactivity, and self-awareness. While it brings joy, excitement, hope, and pride, there are also moments of overwhelm, helplessness, and shame. These emotions are part of a sensitive and complex attachment system where the human nervous system seeks emotional attunement, especially between parents and children. We are wired for connection, essential for survival and growth. In times of danger, the brain’s threat center (limbic brain and amygdala) activates, prompting humans to seek proximity for comfort and safety, or engage in fight/flight/freeze responses to escape danger.

Nature has equipped human infants with an enlarged limbic system to keep them close to caregivers or guide them towards safety. When children experience emotional discomfort—feeling unseen or unsafe—their limbic brain may manifest through tantrums, aggression, lying, perfectionism, or shutdown. Adults often perceive these behaviors as ‘problematic,’ triggering their own dysregulation and fight/flight/freeze responses. From a neurological standpoint, this dynamic ensures parental responsiveness through limbic resonance.

Unfortunately, many parents are taught to overly focus on extinguishing behaviors rather than addressing underlying discomfort and unmet needs. Moreover, they may enter parenthood unaware of their own unresolved emotions, traumas, painful beliefs, and unmet needs, which can be triggered by their child’s reactive behavior. Without learning effective co-regulation skills, parents may respond with overwhelm, fear, anger, or helplessness, leading to externalized anger, shutdown, or shaming behaviors. This further activates the child’s limbic brain, reinforcing feelings of being unseen and unsafe. This cycle of parental and child reactivity perpetuates disconnection, punishment, and correction, exacerbating negative emotions.

It’s crucial to recognize that when the limbic brain is active, neither children nor adults can effectively process information. Trying to lecture or teach a dysregulated child is akin to expecting a soldier on a battlefield to solve a math problem—it’s impossible to learn when feeling unsafe or unseen. The most effective way to teach children is by modeling emotional regulation and behaviors that foster connection. A loving gaze, gentle touch, and calm voice pace can soothe the limbic brain. Understanding that a child is not intentionally difficult but is struggling is key. Once the child’s nervous system calms and the limbic brain settles, they can process information more effectively and develop empathy for themselves and others.

It’s paramount for parents to model empathy through attunement and connection. While providing structure and rules is important, without connection, these may convey a message of ‘I say, you obey,’ which can feel like conditional love to a child. So, how do we initially connect with our children? The process involves three essential steps, beginning with self-work within the parent:

  1. Develop self-awareness: Understand the unprocessed emotions and beliefs driving your own dysregulation and fight/flight/freeze responses—acknowledge your ‘shadows from the past,’ experiences of feeling unsafe or unseen that reside in your subconscious.
  2. Regulate yourself: When your child is struggling, especially regulate your own limbic brain first. Just as flight attendants advise securing your own mask before assisting others, seek support from loved ones to calm down. Techniques like the ‘Voo technique’ can help regulate your body.
  3. Focus on underlying needs: Instead of fixating on behavior, ask: What is my child trying to communicate? What feels unsafe for them? What emotional needs are they trying to fulfill? Avoid attributing negative intentions to their behavior—look beyond the surface.

The second part of this process occurs between parent and child when the parent is regulated and empathetic:

  1. Use your body to communicate safety: Signal safety and comfort through body language—nodding, maintaining eye contact, getting down to their eye level, gentle touch, and verbal reassurances like “I’m here for you, I see you.”
  2. Validate emotions: Even in the face of intense or challenging behavior, permit yourself to set aside the behavior momentarily and validate the underlying emotion.
  3. Listen actively: Resist the urge to lecture; slow down and seek to understand the meaning and feelings behind your child’s words. Reflect back what you hear to ensure understanding.
  4. Repeat these steps: Embrace the need for ongoing attunement throughout your interaction with your child. Achieving emotional alignment paves the way for discipline to become a shared learning experience.

Ultimately, teaching children about life entails more than correcting behavior—it requires parental accountability and repairing any ruptures in the parent-child bond. Connection can emerge from moments of disconnection, offering valuable lessons within the imperfect yet secure relationship between parent and child.


Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2014). No-drama discipline: the whole-brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your child’s developing mind. First edition. New York, Bantam.

 

By: Marcelina Grynechko, LMFT

Marcelina Grynechko is a therapist intern at Mathews Counseling. She currently taking new clients but space is limited. Request your appointment today! Learn more about Marci here

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