Connected Parenting stirs up all my hometown pride: Jennifer Kolari is a child and family therapist in Toronto who has taken her social work experience and translated it into a simple and powerful connection technique. Hurray for Canadian talent!
Kolari has found that the techniques of self-psychology that helped her in her social work days are powerful for everyone. It’s the idea that installing an elevator in a subway station, for example, will benefit not only people in wheelchairs but those with large packages or strollers or anyone just feeling too tired to take the stairs.
Same thing here: de-escalation and connection techniques can help the most traumatized child… and your hangry toddler.
Intrigued? Read on.
A person, big or small, is not going to stop haranguing you until he or she feels heard. When your toddler doesn’t want to put on his snowsuit, your first reaction is “Whaddaya mean? It’s cold outside. You’ll freeze your three-year-old butt off! You want to die of hypothermia?” Then we start wrestling and yelling while our toddler is screaming. Ugly.
Instead, Kolari recommends “putting on the sweater” of their emotions. “You don’t like your snowsuit. It’s bunchy and hot in the house. It’s so much work to take on and off. It’s so much easier in summer.” You’re communicating “message received.”
This level of listening is difficult. It requires a non-defensive stance and putting our agenda aside for a while. But even if it makes us feel uncomfortable, mirroring makes space for another person’s feelings.
In most cases, once the child feels heard, he or she is ready to hear you and comply with the request. Oxytocin, the love-hormone, is actually released in the brain when someone mirrors with us. We feel safe and valued. The emotional limbic system calms down, and the thinking front lobe gears up. “Oh yeah, it is cold outside. Maybe I’d feel warmer with my snowsuit on.”
That’s the strategy for in-the-moment conflict.
But what do you do if you don’t even like your child anymore? What if every day you feel a knot of anxiety in the pit of your stomach about your child’s behaviour?
Many of the families who come to see Kolari have a frayed bond. There have been years of misunderstanding and hurt and they’re desperate. I can relate. This book was recommended to us by a counselor we went to see because of our own sense of disconnection with our teenager.
How do you begin to repair this frayed bond? It starts in the brain, with oxytocin again. Kolari suggests looking at baby photos of your child, reading bedtime stories even if they’re “too old” and most important, spending 10-15 minutes a day cuddling, tickling, and baby-talking them, just as we did when they were very small and adorable. This produces an oxytocin surge which helps us feel fond of each other again.
And guess what? We usually like to please the people we feel loving toward. Compliance goes up when connection goes up.
I am trying this. Sometimes I get pushed away in which case I back off. Other times I get a smile or a giggle. It’s been fun to look at old photos and videos of this hairy, smelly teenager when he was a cuddly bundle. It certainly helps me reconnect with my feelings of affection, though it will likely take a few more weeks or months before I can melt the ice off my teenager.
Media portrayals of parents have drastically changed in three generations.
We’re loving on our kids and listening deeply to them. Does this mean they will follow us around like baa-lambs? We’ll never have to enforce limits or say no again?
Nope. They still need limits because—brain science again—their pre-frontal cortex is still developing. They need to know they are hemmed in by a loving and powerful parent. Kolari says, “When we give children too much power, they become anxious, and that’s when they start acting out.” She talks about the cultural shift in the media where bumbling parents have replaced the competent parents of the 50s and 60s. Compare Homer Simpson to Andy Griffith and you get the idea.
Our children, born wild and free, aren’t going to like the limits. Tantrums and pouting and accusations will fly. Kolari gives a great one-liner for times like these: “I love you enough for you to be mad at me.”
No one can beat Parenting with Love & Logic by Foster Cline and Jim Fay for how to set limits, but Connected Parenting really shows you how to do the love part.
It’s a nice fat 275-page book with suggested readings and an index. I felt it could have been about 200 pages with more aggressive editing. Some sections were repetitive. Wordy sentences sometimes obscured the message. More than once I had to re-read a paragraph or section to identify the main point.
However, Kolari is a great story-teller and speaker. She even tells reassuring stories of her own struggles as a parent. Typical Canadian humility. I would recommend getting her book for use as a reference and listening to her engaging podcast for the essentials.
In order to slow down my frenetic book-eating, I'm writing reviews of the books I read to better digest them. Bon appétit!