Empowering You to Parent with the Brain in Mind
Parents are the first and most influential teachers in a child's life... 85% of the human brain develops in the first three years of life so we want to help you with tips and tools to make every day count and help you maximize your child’s potential.
Our goal is to help you raise smart, capable, and compassionate children.
We hope these Simple Ideas With Profound Impact will make the difference in your child's life.
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Part four of our summer series on behavior:
- Behavior…one of the most common concerns
- Nutrition’s link to behavior and the brain
- The Mirror: 7 Behavior Principles for your Child’s Development
My last post, The Mirror: 7 Behavior Principles for your Child’s Development, will take you and your child a long way on the road to success when it comes to behavior and social skills. But let’s face it, no matter what you do or how well you do it, there are going to be bumps in the road. After all, you and your children are human and there are bound to be situations where everyone feels tired, frustrated, and upset. So, let me give you my 4 Top Tips for those times when things are getting out of control.
1. Avoid Power Struggles!
Why? Well, don’t tell your child this, but it’s because your child will always, and I do mean always, win! When we enter into a struggle with a child with whom you can not reason, the child will always win the battle. So, avoid this by physically removing her if you are in a situation which can be disturbing to others or by removing yourself from the room if you are at home.
Actions speak louder than words, especially when you are dealing with a child who is developmentally immature. An 18 month old to 3 year old does not have the understanding or the maturity to listen to an explanation of why her tantrum is frustrating you. Trying to explain your frustration while she is upset is useless because it will just prolong the tantrum and frustrate you even more. You are better off doing one of three things – ignoring the tantrum, holding your child quietly (if allowed), or leaving the room. During those times you need to take a step back, count to 10 (or 100!), calm yourself, and practice patience!
Remember, it takes 2 to tango! Sometimes you just need to know when to retreat. If you withdraw yourself from the conflict, there is no longer a conflict. Leave the talk and teaching for later after everything is calm and your child is no longer upset. Only then is your child in a place to listen and learn better ways of dealing with situations.
Sometimes the best way to deal with an upset child is to use diversionary tactics. Change the subject, talk about something or someone else. Last summer, when Juliana and Jack moved to California their lives were very stressful because so much went wrong with the move. One day, I was traveling with them and after a couple of hours in the car 2 year old Adeline began to cry. We tried singing, changing the music on the radio, giving her a different toy, telling her that we were almost there, but nothing was working. All of a sudden, her 4½ year old brother Jack said in a lively voice, “Adeline where is Ceci (her friend from back in Chicago)? Is she in San Francisco?” Immediately Adeline stopped crying and with a big smile she said “No!” and he continued, “Is she on the top of our car?” and she repeated “No!” and that went on until we got home. We had a good 15 to 20 happy minutes at the end of the trip because Jack knew what to say. He diverted her attention by making up a fun guessing game using the name of the little friend she had just left a few weeks prior. We all thanked him for his help with his sister.
2. Use Natural & Logical Consequences, Avoid Punishment & Reward!
Punishing a child for “bad” behavior or rewarding a child for “good” behavior is not the way to go. Remember, children want attention and will do what is necessary to get it. They will not learn what is right or what is wrong by being punished or rewarded. When we punish or reward a child we are teaching them that we have control over them. Instead, we should teach them that their actions, their choices belong to them. At least that is the ultimate goal, right? We want our children to learn that their actions, their choices, have consequences and they are responsible for those consequences.
There are two types of consequences – natural consequences and logical consequences.
A natural consequence is something that is the natural result of an action or choice. Here’s a good example – if you touch a hot iron you get burned. Natural consequences are extremely effective! All you have to do is touch that hot iron one time! You get the message loud and clear and you know that the pain you feel is a direct result of something that you did. So you should use natural consequences whenever you can. Unfortunately, as you can see, many natural consequences are also often dangerous. So, although they are really effective, they are not always useful with children. That’s where logical consequences come in.
A logical consequence is something that logically follows an action or choice. You have to make sure that the logical consequence is a)enforceable, b) appropriate to the offense, and c) imposed with love and empathy.
Let me give you an example of what I mean by a logical consequence. Let’s say your toddler is playing with building blocks and she decides to throw a block. She knows that is not allowed. You first remind her that she must not throw blocks because she could hurt someone or break something. If she doesn’t listen and throws a block again you should pick up all the blocks and put them away where she can not reach them. No screaming, no “I told you so”. You simply, calmly, and with great empathy explain that because she threw the block she lost the privilege of playing with them. That is a logical consequence. This teaches your child a direct relationship between her actions and the result of those actions. You throw blocks, you lose the blocks.
Another example. Many can relate to this, especially now that it is summertime. You are at a party at a friend’s home playing in the pool. You explain the rules to your child – only walking around the pool because it can be slippery, no rough play in the pool because children can get hurt. Your child completely ignores your rules. Here is what probably happens most of the time. You keep telling your child over and over again not to run or not to play rough. Then either someone gets hurt or you lose your patience and grab your child for a serious talk. Then, as soon as your talk is over she is back doing whatever she wants. Sound familiar?
Well, what would the logical consequence be in this situation? Removing the child completely from the pool, right? Of course the only guaranteed way to keep your child from the pool if she is being really defiant is to leave the party. This is a hard thing for parents to do because they are enjoying the company of their friends. But I promise you, unless your child has a developmental difficulty and neurologically does not understand consequences, you will not have to leave many more times before your child learns. You should not own her choices. It is for her to pay the consequences.
If you use natural and logical consequences and use them consistently your child will learn to own their actions, their choices, their behavior.
3. Practice Emotional Detachment!
This one is not always easy. The more you can detach yourself emotionally when imposing logical consequences, the better. Anger, lecturing, “I-told-you-so’s” dilute the power of logical consequences because the child stays focused on us rather than on the lesson the consequence is meant to teach. Think of yourself as a police officer pulling someone over for a traffic violation.
“License, registration, and proof of insurance, please.” No screaming, no tantrums. What you want to teach your child is that she lost a privilege because she chose to break the rules. It’s not because you are mean or frustrated or stressed. If you allow yourself to become emotionally involved and you scream or go on and on lecturing her, you are in fact owning her actions and making yourself the “bad” guy for punishing her. Do you see the difference?!
4. Empathy Wins The Day!
Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from within their frame of reference, which is to say the capacity to place oneself in another’s position. We were all children one day. We all misbehaved, broke rules, made mistakes. We all know what it feels like to be reprimanded, to lose privileges, to be punished. So, we’ve been there and, therefore, it should actually be quite easy for us to place ourselves in their place when our children mess up. And it is so unbelievably powerful and effective. Why? Because empathy is an act of love. Our love for our children takes precedence over everything. Our relationship with them is of the utmost importance. A screw-up in behavior, even a big screw-up doesn’t change that. Our children need to know that little fact about us and how we feel about them. We need to tell them regularly. So, when they do mess up we really need to let them know how much we “feel their pain”. When we show sincere empathy while imposing consequences it tells them that we understand, we’ve got their backs, we love them no matter what. That then allows the consequences to do the teaching.
If you apply our 7 principles and 4 tips and you are still struggling with your child’s behavior please contact us to schedule a 30 minute online consultation which we offer free of charge.
Behavior – noun – the way in which one acts or conducts oneself, especially towards others.
Perhaps no subject causes more grief for parents than how to deal with behavior. In our two previous blog posts on the subject we looked at two aspects of the behavior question – how a child’s level of neurological development and brain organization can affect behavior, as well as the effect that nutrition can have on brain function and, therefore, behavior.
As you can see from the definition above, behavior involves how one acts towards other people. Obviously, there are always two sides to that coin. As the saying goes, “It takes two to tango!” When we are guiding parents in how to raise their children to be cooperative and responsible we always eventually get around to the role that they (the parents) play in the dance of behavior. So, today we’re going to look at the parental side of the equation.
Mirror, Mirror on the Wall!
Since you, as a parent, are an integral part of the dance of behavior it is essential that you take an honest look at how you are behaving. We call that “the Mirror”. Looking in the mirror is important for several reasons.
First, we are all influenced by our parents and that influence includes how we deal with behavior in our children especially when we are under stress! Ever get that feeling that “Oh no, I’m turning into my mother (or father)!” ? Sometimes that influence is constructive and sometimes it is not.
Second, some approaches to behavior are more effective than others. It’s important to evaluate what is working and what is not.
Third, it is important to establish right off the bat that we are only human and that means we are going to make mistakes. We will make mistakes no matter how well intentioned we are and no matter how well thought out our approach to behavior is. We all, at one time or another, feel overwhelmed or stressed by everyday life and lose our patience. Life is full of ups and downs. How well you handle the down times is what really matters. That is when you are teaching the most important messages to your child. So, the first order of business is to cut yourself some slack! Looking in the mirror is not a blame game… no need to feel guilty.
Basic Principles to Guide Behavior
What follows is the result of many, many years of guiding parents of children and young adults with a wide range of functional ability. That experience has taught us a lot about the dynamics of human behavior and some of the best practices for helping children. My hope is that the following principles will give you some inspiration and confidence as you guide the development of your child’s behavior towards the objectives of harmony, cooperation, and civility beginning in your family and eventually extending to the communities in which you live and the wider society. Along the way you will find that these principles will lead to good communication with your child and the establishment of a healthy lifelong relationship.
1. Model the Behavior You Hope to See
Warning! Your child is constantly, and I do mean constantly, watching you and taking cues about behavior from you. All children, for better or worse, mirror their parents behavior. So, when your child is behaving in a way that is concerning to you, you must first ask yourself, “Is she behaving like this because of how I am behaving?”
2. Listen to Your Child
When you listen to your child and seek to understand, you are showing her that you care about her opinions and feelings. You are teaching her that what she says matters. You are telling her that you respect her. This is important because if you want her to listen to you, you must listen to her first.
3. Consistency, Consistency, Consistency
The most common mistake we see parents making when dealing with the behavior of their children is inconsistency. If you want to avoid behavior problems it is extremely important that your approach be consistent. What do I mean by consistency? I mean that, however you approach a given behavior, it is essential that 1) both parents be on the same page and 2) their approach be applied consistently from day to day. Why? Because children need consistency in their lives to feel secure and comfortable. The younger they are the more this is true because young children (i.e. toddlers) have brains that are not yet organized and mature. Consistency helps the young child learn what to expect in any given situation. If the approach is constantly changing then the child does not know what to expect and that leads to problems.
4 . Set Limits and Establish Rules
Children need to know where the boundaries are. They want to know where the boundaries are. Children who are given clear boundaries have better social skills, are happier and can more easily make friends. Having boundaries gives them a sense of respect for things and for people. The younger your child is the more limits she needs because a young child does not know what is right or wrong and they can be in danger when limits are not set. As she grows you should ease up on the limits imposed by you. As her understanding, awareness, and self-discipline develops you can allow her more freedom to set self limits. We all learn from our mistakes and, unless the mistake puts your child or others in physical danger, you should allow her to make mistakes and learn from them.
5. Teach Responsibility and Encourage Independence
Responsibilities should be developmentally appropriate and age-appropriate but you can start at a very young age. As soon as your child can walk you can begin asking her for help with carrying things, putting things away, little things to give her a sense of responsibility. Increase the level of responsibilities according to her growth. Giving children responsibilities encourages them to be independent, which in turn makes them proud of their accomplishments and helps them feel good about themselves. This is true self-esteem! Plus they learn at an early age to become problem solvers. Our society needs people who are independent and who feel comfortable solving problems.
6. Teach Manners
Bullying amongst children is almost constantly in the news these days. When one looks at the overall decrease in civility throughout our society it should come as no surprise. Civility is a word that derives from the Old French and Latin for a good citizen. Far from being a quaint concept, it enables us to live in community and is the glue that holds a society together. It may seem old fashioned and outdated to talk about manners but that is where the seeds of civility are planted. Using words like excuse me, thank you, you are welcome, please, and so on all the time when speaking with your child and others will teach her manners and the polite way to treat others.
7. Recognize Positive Behavior
Children need and want attention and they will do whatever works to get it. We often ignore children when they are “behaving” because that is what we expect but as soon as they begin to misbehave we are quick to reprimand them. This teaches children that the best or fastest way to get our attention is to misbehave. If you want your child to have positive behavior you must recognize it. Give attention to your child when she is being nice, polite, patient. Get in the habit of pointing out and complimenting your child when she is listening or doing anything positive. I guarantee that if you recognize your child when her behavior is positive and give less attention to negative behavior you will see a decrease in negative behavior and an increase in positive behavior.
These seven principles are guideposts to light the way. In the next post I will develop these seven principles further by providing concrete examples of how you can apply them in everyday life. For now I hope this post helps you to set up a positive and healthy relationship with your child so that you can help her get ready to take her place in society.
Behavior is a complex subject. If you are experiencing struggles with your child remember you are not alone. We’d love to have you comment below and feel free to send us a private message or email.
Now go be positive! Cheers!!
Yes, that’s right… the food that your child eats can have a big impact on his or her behavior. Why? Because in the end, everything that happens in the brain boils down to biochemical reactions. The raw materials for those biochemical reactions come from the foods that we eat. So, diet can significantly affect brain function and therefore can impact energy, mood, emotion, mental clarity, behavior… really, almost any aspect of function.
Today, first we’re going to do a crash course in how you can you feed your child so that nutrition contributes to creating civil behavior by enhancing brain function. Then, we’ll take a look at the foods that most often contribute to behavior problems and give a few real-life examples of children with huge behavior issues and how we changed everything for them by changing their nutrition.
How to Feed a Growing Brain
In the first year of life, breast milk is the ideal food for a growing child with some soft solid (or pureed) foods being introduced after about six months of age – and by this, we do not mean rice cereal and other such grains. You can read more recommendations on foods in the first year of life in this excellent guest post from our good friend, Deborah Gordon, M.D.
Once children start eating regular food it is important that you choose foods carefully so that the brain gets what it needs.
All food should be…
No artificial chemicals. No food flavorings, no food colorings, no food preservatives, no artificial thickeners, no artificial anything. The human body is designed to process, metabolize, and eliminate real food. It has no idea what to do with artificial chemicals. Most kids with neurological issues do not react well to artificial chemicals. Avoid them like the plague! This means that you MUST become a label reader. You will be amazed at the junk in the food you eat.
Fresh vegetables and fruit contain the highest vitamin and mineral content. It’s just that simple. Since vegetables and fruit should be the number one source of vitamins and minerals it only makes sense to eat them in a form that provides the most bang for the buck. Another reason that fresh is best is fresh food is more than just calories and nutrients. Fresh food has a life force… it is life sustaining life. You won’t find any life force in canned carrots.
This means foods from which nothing has been taken away. For example, if you are going to eat bread then whole grain bread is more nutritious than white bread, brown rice is more nutritious than white rice, etc.
Essential foods for the brain include:
Beef, pork, lamb, chicken, turkey, fish, etc. Ideally, all protein should come from sources that raise their animals as nature meant for them to be raised. There is a world of difference in the meat that comes from pasture-raised cattle versus cattle raised on grain. Cows are not designed by nature to eat corn, soy, or oats. They are designed to eat grass. And just like us, what they eat makes all the difference. Mainly, the difference is in the fat content. Your cardiologist may very well tell you that you shouldn’t eat red meat. It’s bad for your heart because of the fat. Wrong! The fat from red meat that is pasture raised is really good for you! Really good for your heart and your brain! Why? Because it is very rich in omega-3 fatty acids and the balance of omega-3 fatty acids (high) to omega-6 fatty acids (low) is in its ideal ratio. On the other hand, if you eat meat from grain-fed animals the opposite is true. So, it’s not that red meat is bad for your heart. It’s a question of how that red meat was raised. The same principle applies to all other forms of protein. When it comes to fish, wild is best.
Omega-3 fatty acids are the most important. You can get most of that from protein sources (see lean protein). Good cooking fats are avocado oil, coconut oil, butter from grass-fed cows, and grass-fed ghee (clarified butter). Good oils for salads, etc. are olive oil, walnut oil, almond oil, macadamia oil. Avoid soybean oil, canola oil, corn oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil, peanut oil, and vegetable oil. Avoid, like the plague, vegetable shortening, margarine and all butter substitutes, anything that says “hydrogenated”, and anything else that doesn’t look real.
This is the main source of vitamins and minerals. The easiest way to talk about what vegetables to eat is to say that you should go for as much color as possible. By eating the rainbow of colors available you ensure the widest range of nutrients (vitamins and minerals) in your diet. Beyond that, the only other caveat is that vegetables like potatoes, carrots, and sweet corn are high in sugar so you want to keep them under control
Fruit in moderation is good for your child. Berries (strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries) are particularly good because they are very rich in antioxidants. Don’t drink fruit, eat it. Fruit juice is extremely high in sugar.
Pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts, pistachios, and almonds are all good for you. They are a good source of protein and healthy fats, and all contain antioxidants. Don’t go overboard but a few handfuls a day is perfectly healthy. Nuts are also often available in the form of nut butter which makes it easy for children to eat. By the way, peanuts are not nuts, they are legumes. They really are not very good for you and must be approached with caution if there is a family history of allergies.
Again, you can read more about good nutrition for your growing child in our guest post from Deborah Gordon, M.D.
Nutrition Solutions for Behavior Issues
Over the course of more than four decades of working with children, we have worked with many children who had behavior issues that ranged from simply annoying to downright dangerous. Solving those issues usually involves a multi-pronged approach and improving diet is usually a big part of that. Many children have food sensitivities, many have food allergies, and these can be a major cause of behavior issues.
We have always found it interesting and frustrating that while most people (and many doctors) have no difficulty accepting the idea that sensitivities and/or allergies can cause reactions in the upper respiratory tract (sneezing, coughing, breathing problems, etc.) and the skin (rashes, itching, etc.) they have great difficulty accepting the idea that these same sensitivities and/or allergies can cause reactions in the brain. As if the brain somehow lives in another universe and is immune to the same things that affect the rest of the body!
Our clinical experience demonstrates very clearly that food can and does affect brain function. Here’s the bottom line. If you are seeing behavior issues in your child one of the things you should look at is the foods that your child eats and the possibility that he or she might have sensitivities or allergies to one or more of those foods. The most common culprits in terms of food sensitivities and allergies are dairy, eggs, gluten, soy, corn, sugar, and artificial chemicals (preservatives, coloring, flavoring). However, when children are really sensitive they can react to lots of different foods, even foods that we normally consider to be completely innocuous. Lettuce, for example, can cause some children to react! But, by far, the biggest issues we see are with sugar and gluten.
Foods to eliminate, avoid or reduce:
Refined sugar affects blood sugar level and insulin production causing a yo-yo effect with blood sugar level constantly on a roller coaster. This negatively affects energy level, concentration ability, mood, and emotional stability. Something that most people do not know is that sugar also causes chronic inflammation in the body. Because of this, it is linked to heart disease, diabetes, obesity, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, liver disease, and cancer. Refined sugar has a powerful addictive effect, making it very difficult to stop eating it unless one makes a concerted effort. When we say sugar, we mean all forms of sweetener – cane sugar, beet sugar, agave syrup, high fructose corn syrup, etc. Also, all artificial sweeteners should be avoided. Honey and maple syrup in small quantities are usually tolerated.
Gluten causes gut inflammation in most of the population and many people develop antibodies against gluten proteins in the gut. Gluten’s inflammatory effect in the gut causes intestinal cells to die prematurely and causes oxidation in those cells. This effect creates a leaky gut and a leaky gut can allow bacterial proteins and other toxic compounds to get in the bloodstream, which can also lead to autoimmune attacks on the body. A leaky gut also means that food is not digested properly and nutrients are not absorbed fully, which can lead to nutrient deficiencies.
Real World Examples
Now for a few examples of kids with behavior issues and how changes in diet made a big difference. We have hundreds of examples of this.
Alberto and Sugar
Alberto came to us from Venezuela at 8 years of age. To outward appearances, he was like all of the other boys his age. Except that Alberto had big learning difficulties, poor concentration, and very disruptive behavior. He was failing miserably in school. He was diagnosed with ADHD.
After evaluating him, we taught his parents and grandmother a developmental program to improve his function and, hopefully, his behavior. Part of that program involved making changes in his diet. He ate a ton of sugar. His mother even sprinkled sugar on meat in order to get him to eat it! Before flying back to Venezuela, Alberto stayed in the US for a few weeks with his grandmother in order to attend his uncle’s graduation from law school. That turned out to be a very good thing for Alberto because his grandmother was determined to see him improve and she implemented our dietary suggestions immediately. Just before heading back to Caracas, only two weeks after changing his diet, Alberto’s grandmother called to tell us of the incredible changes in him. He was already a different child – reduced hyperactivity, improved concentration, fewer tantrums. Within one year of us seeing him for the first time, Alberto was able to function just like his peers. Much of that progress was due to the changes we made in his diet.
Jake and Gluten
Jake came to us at about 10 years of age with a diagnosis of autism. On the day that we saw him for the first time, there was a shooting in a local high school in which a number of children were injured. As we were taking Jake’s initial history, his mother asked if we had heard about the shooting. She then said to us, “My biggest fear is that one day a few years from now, I am going to get a phone call from the police telling me that my son was a school shooter”! Can you imagine the fear?
And she had good reason to be afraid. Jake’s behavior was extremely volatile. He was a bright boy but had significant problems with social and emotional development. He could easily have ten knock down, drag out temper tantrums in a day. His younger sister was terrified of him. On that first day, we saw his outbursts a number of times. So, although we rarely do this at the first consultation, with Jake we decided to eliminate all gluten from his diet immediately. We did this based on his typical daily diet (it contained lots of gluten!) and based on our experience with many other children with similar behavior issues.
A week later, Jake’s mother called to give us a report. Immediately after our consultation, she had completely emptied the house of everything that contained gluten and implemented the dietary changes we had recommended. Within days she saw changes in Jake’s behavior. He was more pleasant, less agitated, calmer. Most significantly he was having fewer temper tantrums, they were less violent, and of shorter duration. She was thrilled! Within six months, Jake was already a completely different child. There was still more work to be done but for the first time in his life he was making true progress and she could see the wonderful boy that she knew was inside that body.
Fortunately, these two examples are by no means unusual for us. We see results like this on a regular basis. When we give the human brain what it needs to thrive and avoid those things that cause problems it is amazing how quickly the brain responds.
So, do yourself and your children a favor. Pay careful attention to how you feed them. If, for some reason, your child is experiencing behavior difficulties then make sure you take nutrition into consideration.