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Why your kids don’t care what you know until they know you care

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By Jamie Roach

“That’s so unfair! You don’t even understand!”

Maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of a similar outburst at your house when your parenting decisions didn’t align with your child’s wishes. You’ve tried to convince them of your reasoning, but it’s like they don’t even hear you. Why won’t they just calm down and see your side of things? As it turns out, there’s a perfectly logical explanation.

For starters, it’s important to know that your child’s emotional brain (also known as the lymbic system) develops years before the parts of the brain that handle logical functioning. For example, the amygdala, which is a key component to the emotional brain, begins developing during the last trimester of pregnancy and is fully functional at the time of birth. On the other hand, the development of the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive functioning, occurs primarily during adolescence and isn’t fully developed until one reaches their mid-twenties. This means your child is naturally going to prefer nonverbal, bodily ways of connecting much earlier than using words and logic.

Add to this the fact that information taken in by your child’s senses reaches their fully developed emotional brain well before it reaches their still developing logical brain. Further, when our level of emotional arousal becomes intense – at any age – our ability to think logically, problem solve and stay connected to others goes away. We are left with the more primitive “flight or fight” options in service of survival. In other words, we “feel” before we can “deal.” For example, if you hear a loud “bang” while walking down the street, your typical reaction is to “take cover” as you feel a rush of adrenaline coursing through your body. In this state of being, you are probably not thinking about being nice or philosophizing about the world’s problems. Rather, your body is reacting to keep you safe. Only later, once you realize it was only a car backfiring and the logical parts of your brain are kicking in, do you begin to calm down and resume thinking logically.

So how does this knowledge impact the way we parent? Let’s return to our previous scenario as an example. Your child really wants to attend a party, but after discussing it with them, you have decided it’s not a good idea and you let your child know they can’t go. They become very angry, accuse you of ruining their life and being the worst parent ever. How do you respond? In order to connect with our kids, we need to meet them where they are, which is in their emotional brain. So before we explain to them the logic of our decision, we use our emotional brain to think and feel our way into their present experience.

Perhaps you can hold in your mind the feeling of frustration and anger from a time when your parents wouldn’t let you do something you really wanted. From this place of empathy you might try saying something like, “Wow, I can tell you are really mad. I can see how bad you want to attend this party and you are so frustrated that I am saying no. It feels like I don’t understand you and that I don’t care about you. It feels to you like I’m trying to ruin your life. I think if I were you, I might feel the same way.”

Neuroscience tells us that we need to connect with our child’s emotional brain before we can connect with them on a logical level. Only when they feel felt and understood by you, will they maybe be able to understand the rationale behind your decision. Again, they do not care what you know until they know you care. And this type of knowing is not a rational, cognitive knowing but a felt, experiential, non-verbal, embodied knowing. And even if you are able to connect at this heart to heart level, there is no guarantee they will be able to understand your reasoning, as their logical brain is still developing and lags behind their emotional brain.

This intentional act of empathy in parenting is not easy. It may not persuade your child to understand your rationale or agree with your decision. But what we know for certain is that your child needs to feel seen, supported and understood by you before their bodies will allow them to truly hear your explanations. And isn’t this what your heart is really after, for your child to know and experience how much love you feel for them?

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