Today’s parents want advice on how to deal with all the annoying, everyday behaviors that drive them crazy. But there’s an invisible elephant in their child’s room that only doctors and nurses see. And it’s clearly time to put it front and center for every parent.
What’s the elephant? Whatever we choose to do every day, 24/7, in response to kids’ common, albeit frustrating, behaviors, such as tantrums, biting, ignoring us and screen addiction, from 0-18 years of age, actually gets into the architecture of a child’s brain, cardiovascular system and immune system. When we consistently react to our kids’ behavior in hurtful, destructive ways, these reactions have a stunning impact on the development of their DNA and metabolic systems, resulting in an increased risk of every public health crisis we are now dealing with: childhood bullying, obesity, depression, diabetes, anxiety, heart disease, cancer, sexual abuse, drug addition, violence and more.
Now that we know the power our parenting behaviors hold, we are best advised to start “upstream”, that is, before our behaviors become the root cause of these problems, to learn how our parenting can prevent them. Parents need to get support to learn how to consistently build caring, supportive and protective relationships with their babies/children when they behave inappropriately or appropriately. (And if you are reading this when your child is 8 years or 15 months old, for example, start today!)
The secret? Being consistently caring, supportive parents can buffer the stress that a child experiences (that often results in her behaving in inappropriate ways) so that it doesn’t become toxic to her brain, cardiovascular system and immune system—and does build executive functioning, self-regulation and other necessary skills to cope, problem-solve, tolerate frustration, delay gratification, and navigate the ups and downs of life. In short, “parenting is healthcare”. The way we treat a tantrum is as important as a temperature.
Just to be clear, we are not talking about making sure that your child never experiences stress—he’s going to be frustrated, disappointed, angry and not always get what he wants, for example. We’re saying that your care, support and protection, consistently given, can mitigate stress so it does not become toxic, a health danger to your child.
Here are (3) ways we can become caring, supportive and protective adults when reacting to kids’ behavior that drives us crazy:
1) Look at everyday parenting through a new lens—upstream, as first-line, universal, common-sense practical prevention of health, learning and behavior problems, by reaching out to your child’s primary healthcare provider for answers and support to lessen your stress.
2) Let go of the long-standing irrational and unhealthy-to-the-max stigma, shame and secrets that prevent you from asking for help when you are overwhelmed, frustrated, and unable to cope with our child’s behavior. We don’t wince when the doctor tells us how to deal with our child’s fever or rash or vomiting, but we don’t want to bring up our child’s overuse of screen time, being a picky eater, and wanting his own way, lest she label us “bad parents”. Ask your child’s healthcare provider about ways to deal with your kiddo’s refusal to do what you ask, as well as his runny nose—both are making him (and you) miserable.
3) We don’t know what we don’t know. Since we can predict the outcomes from harsh parenting strategies or neglect, we have the obligation to our children to prevent these outcomes on the front end, particularly when many parents don’t even know that a certain response to a child would be categorized as “harsh” or “neglectful”.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, The American Academy of Family Physicians, and leading researchers in neuroscience, social science and education know this. They acknowledge that the way we respond to these normal “healthy” behaviors of kids’ testing the waters, sowing their oats, and demanding independence, are equally as “inflammable” to a child’s body and brain, if their caregiver doesn’t know how to “treat” the behavior in a healthy way every day.
We have to ask questions. We have to seek answers. Every day. We unscientifically, but realistically, estimate that there is an adult-child interaction roughly about 100 times a day, for the first 10 years of a child’s life—that’s 365,000 opportunities for a child to experience caring, support and protection or the lack thereof. The future of our children, literally, depends on the interaction of our child’s nature and our nurture in each of these hundreds of thousands of exchanges. Just think about being able to inoculate children against toxic stress in these ways.
We have to fill the gap in parenting healthcare on the front end every day, so we don’t have to fix it on the back end for a lifetime.
Barbara C. Unell and Jerry Wyckoff, Ph.D. are the co-authors of ten parenting books including Discipline with Love and Limits, with over 1 million copies sold worldwide. They are currently working with primary care pediatric clinics across the country to integrate taking care of children’s common behavior problems as standard practice in daily healthcare, through their new clinic and phone triage tool, Behavior Checker.