Q&A With Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D.

Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D., speaks internationally about how to help the kids we love be happier, healthier and more fully themselves. Based in Los Angeles, Payne Bryson is co-author of The Whole-Brain Child. She spoke with Katherine Reynolds Lewis about her just-published book, No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child's Developing Mind.

Q: What's the central message in your new book?

A: We know that repeated experiences change the brain. One of our most frequent interactions with our kids has to do with discipline and trying to gain cooperation and to teach them right from wrong.

Oftentimes we get reactive or we yell or put them in time out. We operate as if the whole goal of discipline is to get to a consequence. But actually the goal of discipline is to teach. When you think about that, it can change everything.

The brain only has two modes. One is reactive and one is receptive. A lot of misbehavior occurs when the kids are in the reactive state. They're not in a state where they can make thoughtful choices.

If we want to be really effective at being teachers, effective disciplinarians, then the very first step is to help our children get back in this receptive state of mind. Once they're there, then they can learn. It's almost never in the discipline moment itself; it's almost always a little later.

Q: How do we do that?

A: Strategy number one is to connect and redirect. The main part of connect is validating feelings, soothing them, comforting them and helping them move into this calm, effective state. Even kids as young as 4 or 5, when they're back in that receptive state of mind, you [may] have to do very little in the way of discipline.

Often they'll say, "I'm sorry." In that moment, if your goal is to teach, they already know it. They've learned the lesson. When parents overshoot the mark in terms of consequences or being punitive, all the child's attention goes from that natural, internal guilt and instead shifts to the parent for how mean the parent is to do this to them. Then the kid feels like a victim.

All of our children's misbehavior is communicating to us. Maybe this is where they need skill building―in executive function, planning ahead or delaying gratification. Then my response is not, "Look at what my kid is doing-he's lazy." It's, "What do I need to do to build skills?"

[Children] know right from wrong; they might just not be able to do the right thing in the moment. Their capacity fluctuates.

Q: Do you find we parents have an internal narrative that interferes with effective parenting?

A: Sometimes I'm not regulated; my nervous system arousal is high. I'm responding to my own internal chaos instead of to the child. If your kid pushes and pushes and pushes, you just lose it. Your prefrontal cortex starts to shut off and you go into a flight process.

The other thing I see is fear-based parenting, where we feel, "If I don't nip this in the bud or teach them this lesson in a punitive way, eventually they're ax murderers living in a van down by the river." Instead of responding to this one moment, we become fearful that if we don't come down hard and heavy they will spiral.

Q: How do you know when children are receptive to learning?

A: You can watch for physical signs, like if your child's eyes are wide and her muscles are tense, and then you see that muscle tone relax. She looks like she's calm and can actually engage in rational thought. That's the right time.

One of the quickest ways to get kids back into this receptive state is to get below their eye level. It tells the reactive reptilian brain that there's no threat, so the flight centers of the brain can turn off. Say something like, "I can see you're having such a hard time right now." Then say, "I'm right here with you."

Most of our discipline approaches-such as yelling or saying, "You go to your room"-increase nervous system arousal. When our children are at their absolute worst, I know it's not fun to be with them, but that's probably when they need us most. When we isolate them, we're communicating that, when you're at your worst, you're on your own and I will only engage with you when you're nice and well-behaved.

Q: What if the connection and empathy don't work?

A: The truth is sometimes when kids are tired and hungry, you just have to ride it out. You can try all these tools and tricks and they'll still be dysregulated.

Two other things can help. One is silliness-playfulness is a way that they can release that nervous system arousal. You can say, "Let's make up a concoction and see if we can get Dad to drink it."

The second thing that can really help get them back into a receptive state is movement. I might get a balloon and start playing "keep it up" with them. The moving around can totally shift emotions. Another thing related to that is music. Turn on music. Turn it up loud.

Q: How do you keep them from becoming dependent on the parent regulating their emotions?

A: The research is clear that, when we are emotionally responsive to [our children] and paying attention to their internal landscape, which helps move them back into the receptive state, not only does that help us survive the moment, it also helps our children thrive.

When we provide this predictable, sensitive care, the connections between the lower, more reactive part of the brain and the more sophisticated, calming part of the brain become stronger.

I absolutely believe that kids need really firm boundaries along with the empathy. We say, "No" to the behavior, but we say "Yes" to whatever's happening to them internally.

Q: How do you address unacceptable behavior, such as disrespect?

A: A lot of our belief that you have to address it in the moment is based on old animal models of behavior, the stimulus-and-response experiments done on animals in the 1950s. Even with 2- and 3-year-olds, that's not true.

Sometimes I wait until later that night, or the next day. I'll say, "We need to talk about what happened earlier. What was happening for you that led to that? How do you think you'll handle those feelings next time?"

We want to respond in ways that reinforce the relationship and connection.

Q: What else would you like parents to know?

A: As parents, we're not just experiencing our kids' character or spirit or minds, we're changing the architecture of their brains in the experiences we provide them. Of course, we don't do it perfectly, but this repeated responsive care provides the optimal social, emotional and mental health. As we become intentional, we have the possibility of a full-on cultural revolution that can impact generations.

Tina Payne Bryson will give a talk for parents about managing strong emotions on Thursday, Nov. 13, 7:30-9 p.m., at Bullis School in Potomac; and a talk about "No-Drama Discipline" on Friday, Nov. 14, 9:30-11 a.m., at the Woman's Club of Chevy Chase. For registration and information, visit PEPparent.org or call 301-929-8824.