Mona Delahooke is a licensed clinical psychologist with more than thirty years of experience caring for children and their families. She is also a senior faculty member of the Profectum Foundation and a member of the American Psychological Association.
Below, Mona shares 5 key insights from her new book, Brain-Body Parenting: How to Stop Managing Behavior and Start Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids. Listen to the audio version—read by Mona herself—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. The behavior we see is the tip of the iceberg.
As parents, we often think about children’s challenging behaviors as problems. What if, instead, we saw them as valuable clues that reveal deeper information about how children experience their world, both internally and externally? Think of an iceberg—the part that’s visible just hints at the huge mass hiding below the surface. In the same way, the behavior we see is merely an indicator of the “whys” of a child’s behaviors, with the causes and triggers hidden below.
Maybe your toddler throws the remote across the room when it’s time to turn off the TV. Or your fourth grader bursts into tears when you ask her to finish her homework. It’s understandable that parents have trouble coping with these behaviors, but we don’t need to fear these moments. When we encounter a problematic behavior, the first question we ask shouldn’t be “How do I stop it?” but rather, “What is this telling me about my child’s felt experience?”
Human nervous systems are constantly maintaining balance and stability, a process called “allostasis.” Lisa Feldman Barrett, a neuroscientist, uses the term “body budgeting.” She says that just as a financial budget keeps track of money, bodies track “resources like water, salt, and glucose as we gain and lose them.” We are not always aware of it, but everything we experience becomes a deposit to or withdrawal from our body budget. A hug, a good night’s sleep, playing with friends, and a healthy meal—they’re all deposits. Then there are withdrawals: forgetting to eat, not getting enough sleep, or being ignored. So when your child throws a remote or falls apart at a simple request, those are likely signs of a depleted body budget.
Instead of thinking “my child is misbehaving,” we can understand that the body and brain form the platform that launches our emotions and behaviors. Remember, a person is never just a body or a brain. We are always both.
“When your child throws a remote or falls apart at a simple request, those are likely signs of a depleted body budget.”
2. Many of our children’s behaviors are not intentional, but rather instinctual, protective responses to stress.
Once a child can walk and talk, we tend to think that everything they do must be intentional and motivated. When a child is agitated or defiant, we assume it’s because they’re not getting their way—but that is not necessarily true. A child doesn’t consciously choose these seemingly negative reactions; the child’s nervous system makes the choice. A child who struggles usually isn’t choosing to be difficult. They’re experiencing a stress response.
Take Isaac, a five-year-old whose parents brought him to my office. He was suffering from stomachaches and fears. He had difficulty adjusting to the demands of his new kindergarten classroom, where the teacher expected students to sit still and listen. Instead, Isaac would get up to wander around, pulling toys off the shelves or disrupting his classmates.
To manage that kind of behavior, Isaac’s teacher had a chart on the classroom wall. Kids would earn green, yellow, or red stickers next to their names, depending on their behavior. At the end of each week, the student with the most green dots won a pack of Play-Doh. Isaac desperately wanted that Play-Doh, but no matter how hard he tried, he just kept accumulating red dots. Not only did he not win, but he didn’t even want to go to school. He’d scream and cry when it was time to leave home each morning.
Was he doing all of this intentionally? I didn’t think so. I didn’t see bad behaviors—I saw stress behaviors. His nervous system was valiantly trying to help him feel safe and maintain his body budget. The sticker chart didn’t work for Isaac because every time he got another red dot, he felt more stressed. His body was reflecting his struggle.
“When a child is agitated or defiant, we assume it’s because they’re not getting their way—but that is not necessarily true.”
3. Self-regulation comes from co-regulation.
The way to help children like Isaac isn’t by offering rewards or punishments. Parents often assume that their child can regulate themselves when the child is only still developing that ability; expecting too much too soon is called an “expectation gap.” The way we help children develop the ability to regulate themselves is by helping their nervous systems feel safe through co-regulation—that is, through attuned interactions, through our relationships with them.
Let’s go back to Isaac. Some of his classmates had more advanced self-regulation skills, and he just didn’t have them yet. He didn’t need rewards or consequences—he needed emotional support from caring adults. That would help his nervous system feel safe, so his anxiety would decrease and his behaviors would reflect this new sense of inner calm.
From observing him, I realized that Isaac was particularly sensitive to the tone of voice and facial expressions of adults. Like most children, he responded favorably to the cues of safety that adults project when the adults themselves feel calm and in control. It helps to focus not on what we do to children, but rather how we are with them. When we make deposits into their body budgets through attuned, emotional co-regulation, we help them learn to regulate themselves.
4. Parents’ well-being matters.
It’s hardly news that parents need to take care of themselves, but not everyone is aware of its importance to our relationships with our children. It matters because we are the critical partner in co-regulation. Our own brain/body connections—what I call our “platforms”—are reflected in our tone of voice, emotional expressions, gestures, pacing, and words.
“Your well-being matters because parents themselves are the greatest tool in the parenting toolbox.”
Like our children, we survive and thrive through human connection—the single most important factor in building resilience. It’s essential for our children’s development that we, in turn, feel cared for as parents—that we feel seen, affirmed, and loved by our children and other adults. Dr. Suniya Luthar, a prominent stress and parenting researcher, asks, “Who mothers mommy?” To many mothers, the answer is nobody. Too many moms and dads parent in isolation from their extended families and neighborhood communities. This is taxing on the body budget.
Parents should strive to do what they need to do, not what they think they ought to do, or what other parents are doing. The interactions that build resilience for our children also nourish ourselves. Your well-being matters because parents themselves are the greatest tool in the parenting toolbox.
5. Increase the coziness factor.
I conducted an informal survey in which I asked people to share their fondest memories from childhood. Not one person mentioned expensive, staged events. What people shared were times when they felt safe, content, and joyful. This usually meant ordinary, intimate moments imbued with sensory features: “summer visits to my grandparents’ home where we snuggled by a crackling fire,” or, “when my mom took a break from work to visit me at daycare, and we shared a warm cinnamon bun.”
You don’t have to create novel and elaborate experiences for your child to have moments of connection with you. Everyday experiences, such as meals and bath times, provide natural opportunities for comfort and coziness. To help our children flourish, we can plan less, relax more, and recognize that we don’t need to work so hard at parenting. When we focus on taking good care of our children’s bodies and minds (and our own) we can relish moments of joy and coziness as they happen spontaneously.
See what feels comfortable and cozy in your own family: snuggling under warm blankets, enjoying a bowl of soup, sitting by a crackling fire, or lying on a sidewalk or rooftop watching the clouds. You’ll feel safety and connection, and so will your kids. The opportunities are there and require only minutes, or even seconds.
Human connection is the soothing balm and the solid rocket fuel for building future resilience. When we shift our lens from managing behavior to compassionately supporting nervous systems, a whole new world opens up.
To listen to the audio version read by author Mona Delahooke, download the Next Big Idea App today: