The Role Emotions Play in Behavior and Correction

Note: My brother, Josh (one of the Mormon guys at twomormonguys.com {the other is my cousin, Dallan}), helped me with this post. He and I have had many conversations on this subject, and I’m so grateful for his participation on this!

My husband and I were watching a sitcom the other day, and in this episode the female character was feeling like her husband wasn’t trying in their marriage anymore and like he was taking their relationship for granted. Instead of talking to him about it she let her feelings become bottled up inside until finally she snapped, accusing him of being lazy and not caring, and causing a big fight. It was clear to me, since I was just an observer, that she could have said something like, “Remember when you used to surprise me with flowers randomly? I loved that, and I miss it. It would really mean a lot to me if you still did things like that.” and the outcome likely would have been much different.

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By yelling at him, she was hoping to be heard and to set her husband straight. But when humans are attacked, our natural reaction is to either fight back (jump on the defensive), run from the fight (avoid the problem and stuff our feelings), or simply freeze and shut down. In moments like these, the reasoning part of our brain is not “on” and so the lesson we’re supposed to be learning isn’t getting through. When we’re being attacked, yelled at or criticized, our autonomic nervous system thinks we are in danger and triggers the fight or fight response. This happens automatically and completely out of our conscious control. We feel worse than we did before, and we can’t do better by feeling worse. You see, we do the things we do because of what we think and feel in that moment, particularly about ourselves. Thoughts lead to feelings, which lead to actions. When we feel better, we do better.

Think about how emotionally generous you are when you feel great! When we’re full of love and the Spirit, kindness and patience and generosity just flow from us naturally.

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Children are no different. When they feel badly, they’re more likely to behave badly. And when they feel wonderful, they act wonderful. But we often hold them to a higher standard than we do ourselves in this regard. It’s easy to justify our actions when we’re frustrated or upset (maybe we don’t let the “jerk” driver over when we tries to change lanes in front of us, because he was rude first so “he deserves it.”), but we tend to expect our kids to always be on their best behavior.

We tend to think that our children have to earn our affection and attention, that they must act a certain way first in order to get the attention they so desperately need. But if they could act appropriately without our help, then they wouldn’t be crying out for our attention in undesirable ways to begin with. Children need connection with us to keep their “love tanks” full and to keep themselves regulated. They need help processing the yucky emotions that are driving the bad behavior. They’re much more likely to act the way we want them to when they feel connected to us and when they’re in a positive emotional state.

We also tend to think, “but I’m the adult and they’re the child and it’s my job to discipline and teach them a lesson when they misbehave.” And it’s true, we do have a responsibility to teach! But the thing about teaching and learning is that it can only happen when everyone is calm and in a positive emotional state. As I said before, the rational part (the learning center) of our brain shuts down when we’re in a state of fight or flight. Yelling, criticizing, belittling, shaming, spanking, isolation/withdrawal (time out), etc. all put children in a state of fight or flight and turn off their reasoning centers, making it literally impossible for them to even understand what we are saying. All of these strategies make children feel worse, and again, they can’t do better by feeling worse. They can’t reason or learn while in “fight or flight,” but nor will they even be motivated to do good when they feel shamed. All shame does is make us feel defeated and worthless and hopeless. It is essential that we improve the emotional state first before we can truly improve behavior.

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Now, recognizing that we only act badly when we feel badly does not in any way excuse bad behavior. We are each responsible for our actions regardless of how we feel. This is why we allow all feelings but limit behavior. This is also why we use empathy and emotion coaching. Everyone is swamped by big emotions at times, so it’s crucial to learn how to shift from “fight or flight” back to a state of rest where we can reason, without repressing emotions, so that we don’t continually make bad choices in the heat of the moment that we will later regret. The more we help our children make that shift, the better able they will be to make it on their own eventually. It is only after making that shift that effective teaching, learning, and communicating can take place. Change the emotional state, change the behavior. How do we help our children change their emotional state? Find a way to touch their heart. If they are yelling, respond with a whisper (see Proverbs 15:1). Truly listen to them. Empathize. Show affection. Play with them. Do something that makes them feel connected to you and engaged with. Tell stories. Use the Word of God, or music. Invite the spirit. (See this post for effective Spirit-led discipline.)

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This doesn’t mean that we are enabling bad behavior at all, or being permissive parents. We can recognize sin, and teach children to behave righteously, without doing things that make the child feel devalued, discouraged, or disabled. True discipline (which means ‘to teach’) will always involve calm and clear minds, positive emotional states, and the Spirit, who helps us to “know the truth of all things” (Moroni 10:5).

And now, as the preaching of the word had a great tendency to lead the people to do that which was just—yea, it had had more powerful effect upon the minds of the people than the sword, or anything else, which had happened unto them—therefore Alma thought it was expedient that they should try the virtue of the word of God. (Alma 31:5)

Why did the word of God have such a powerful effect on the Nephites? Because preaching the word allowed the Spirit to touch their hearts, which changed their emotional state to one of love and a desire to do the Lord’s will.

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I firmly believe that children naturally want to please us and do the right thing. Their hearts are pure. Mosiah 3:19 says that we must “[become] as a child, submissive, meek, humble, patient, full of love, willing to submit…” This is children’s true nature. But because young children are immature beings and their brains aren’t fully developed, they get easily overwhelmed by big emotions, and when they feel badly they don’t always act appropriately. Not only this, but when we use control and fear to manipulate them, they then feel the need to fight for their rights and their needs to be met. When we view them as bad (or difficult or selfish or untrustworthy, etc.) we usually see a self-fulfilling prophecy. Helping them with their feelings (and their behavior), connecting with them, and making sure they feel significant and worthwhile and wanted, helps restore them to their natural state–which is a state of goodness. I feel strongly that our society’s view of children needs to change. We must believe that children have divine nature and they want to be good. Labeling them as naughty when they misbehave is not helpful. When our children behave badly, they are not bad–they are hurting. Or maybe they’re simply exploring cause and effect and testing boundaries and limits, because that’s how they learn. Either way, bad behavior does not mean they are bad. Their worth has not changed. They don’t need to redeem themselves in order to deserve our love and kindness and attention. Our Savior has already redeemed every living soul from sin. Our Savior has shown us how to hate the sin but love the sinner unconditionally.

One of my favorite stories from the New Testament is the story of the woman taken in adultery (see John 8:3-11). Jesus would have been justified by the law to have this woman stoned to death for her crime. But not only did He spare her life, He transformed the entire situation and probably left this daughter of God feeling humbled and hopeful and worthy of forgiveness. I imagine she was overcome with love and gratitude. The perfect love she must have felt from the Savior would certainly have been a much greater motivator to “go and sin no more” than was the shame and scorn of the scribes and Pharisees. The Savior surely understood the worth of each person, as well as the significance of us knowing our worth. He understood the importance of changing hearts, not just behavior.

This way of parenting (touching and guiding hearts) works beautifully, but it isn’t easy. Honestly, the hardest part about parenting this way isn’t our children’s emotions, or even their behavior–it’s taking control of our own emotions (and subsequently, our behavior). We must practice shifting our own emotional state before we will be able to help our children shift theirs. This also requires time and dedicated effort. It might be faster and easier to use fear-based tactics or to just send our kids to timeout, but if we truly want our children to learn how to control their behavior and choose to do the right thing of their own volition, it will require effort on our part to control ourselves and trust the process. And what more important work could we be doing?

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Love vs. Fear

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the choices I make. I’ve heard it said that every choice we make either comes from a place of love or from a place of fear. I believe this is true. In any given moment, what we choose to think, say, or do is either driven by love (or some other “fruit” of the Spirit), or it is driven by fear (or another of Satan’s tools). We know that faith and fear can not exist in the same mind at the same time. And we know that “perfect love casteth out fear” (1 John 4:18). We also know that “God hath not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind” (2 Timothy 1:7). Feeling fear (or any other “negative” emotion) is not bad, and it does not in any way make us bad. But clearly, the choices we make out of fear are not inspired by the Lord, and thus, will not bless our lives.

What do I mean by “choices we make out of fear?”

Fight or Flight

For one, any time we act while we’re angry, or overcome by “fight or flight” hormones, that choice or action is driven by fear. You might think, “I’m not afraid, I’m angry!” But anger is a masking emotion that covers up more vulnerable emotions, like fear.

An example of this might be when my child is acting up and is not listening to me when I tell her to stop. My mind jumps to conclusions and I get triggered by some ridiculous (and not totally conscious) thought, like “oh no, I’m a horrible mother because I can’t make my child do what I want!” That lack of control causes a fear response. I shift into fight or flight. My brain tells my body that there is an emergency and I must act immediately (fight or flee). If I act in the moment, I might do something like yell at my child or physically handle her roughly, which I will regret afterward. But if I can access my rational brain I will realize that there really isn’t an emergency, and then I can slow down, re-frame my thoughts (e.g. remind myself that we can’t solve anything until everyone is calm, that she can’t do better by feeling worse, and that the answer always starts with connection), and make a choice out of love instead – such as getting down on my child’s level, making eye contact, connecting physically with a gentle hand on her arm, and calmly making my request (or setting my limit) again. I think we all know which choice is more loving and Christlike. But how do we shift out of fight or flight in moments like this?

Try taking a few deep breaths. Close your eyes. Count to ten. Tell yourself “It’s not an emergency,” or “I have all the time in the world.” Turn or walk away if necessary. These are the things that work the most effectively for me. There are a myriad of ways to calm oneself, so find what works best for you and practice it. I have even put up sticky notes around my house to help remind me in the moment.

One important note: I have found that it’s so, so much easier to calm down if I choose to calm myself right away – before I get too upset. If I choose to act on my anger, even a little bit, it is 10 X harder to then choose to calm down. Acting on our anger, or even talking about how angry we are, makes us more angry. We are then more likely to feel justified in our angry actions (until later when we’re calm and the guilt comes crashing down on us). Opening the door to our anger even slightly can sabotage our ability to make a choice out of love. So instead, notice the anger and breathe through it. Use your calming strategies. And then choose love.

Is this easy? Nope! Will we sometimes still act on our anger (or fear), even if we practice this a lot? Of course. Because we’re human. But the more often we can calm ourselves instead of acting on our anger, the more our brains will create and reinforce new neural pathways that will help us to calm ourselves more easily in the future. (We can actually create a calmer brain!) And when we do mess up, all is not lost. In any given moment, we can choose love – even if we failed to do so in the previous moment. Additionally, messing up gives us the opportunity to model for our children how to repair relationships. We can apologize for our behavior (which does not excuse our children’s behavior, but rather, models how to take responsibility for our actions). We can try a do-over. And we can move forward.

“What if…”

I have noticed that I am also more prone to make fear-based choices when I start asking, “What if…?” rather than trusting God and the natural processes of things (I’m referring to the type of “what if…” questions that cause us to doubt). This way of thinking can lead us to ignore our God-given instincts and intuition and to make decisions that are based on the wisdom of men. For example, “What if all the experts are right and my baby never learns to sleep on her own? I’d better leave her to cry it out. She might not learn any other way.” (see this post for my experience with sleep training.) Instead, we can trust that God created us with instincts that drive us to respond to and comfort crying babies, and even to hold, rock, and nurse them to sleep. If we trust that this is His design (a design that has worked beautifully for thousands of years throughout the history of the world, I might add) then we don’t need to worry about creating “bad habits.” We can trust that He created each one of His children to learn and develop at just the right pace for each of them, and that even the babies who are not forced to do things before they’re ready all eventually learn to do those things on their own. Along with being developmentally ready, their trust, security, and attachment to the adults in their lives is what enables their independence. We can trust the process.

Side note: some might argue that their decision to sleep train was not made out of fear at all, but rather it was a logical, thought-out decision they made to achieve a desired result – an easier baby who sleeps through the night independently, and better-rested parents. That might sound pretty nice, but it goes against nature and God’s design (and in my experience, when I work with nature instead of fighting against it, things work better). Babies were meant to be near their mothers, even during sleep, as is so clearly evident by the physiological phenomena that occur when babies are in close contact with their mothers (synchronized sleep patterns, regulated breathing, body temperature, heart rate, etc.) (Source), as well as what occurs when they are separated (elevated stress hormones, weakened immune system, sleep disturbances, etc.) (Source). Additionally, it might surprise you to learn that moms who breastfeed and co-sleep get more sleep and report feeling better rested than moms who breastfeed but don’t co-sleep or moms who bottle feed (Source). This has definitely been true for me. Co-sleeping may not be the right answer for all families, but it is a huge blessing for many families – even many families who didn’t think it would work for them. If you’re worried about safety, check this out. And for those who need a third option (other than cry-it-out or co-sleeping) there are more gradual and gentle ways to encourage independent sleep in older babies and young children (also see here).

Now back to doubt and fear. On the other end of the spectrum, asking “What if…?”can also lead to anxiety that we might damage our children if we are less than perfect. “What if I am permanently damaging my children because I can’t seem to stop yelling at them?” “What if my child is struggling with _____ because of a choice I made?” “What if I fail to teach my children all of the most important things?” None of us want to screw up our kids! But fear doesn’t help. It is not productive. It won’t serve to make us or our lives or our children better. Faith, trust, hope, love – these divine attributes do help. Because of the atonement no one is ever damaged beyond repair. The Lord loves us unconditionally, and He trusts us enough to raise His children, even though we are not perfect. We must focus on the good that we do, for “[we] are doing better than [we] think [we] are” (Jeffery R. Holland). When thoughts of doubt creep in, we always have the opportunity to re-frame our thoughts, to re-write our story, to forgive ourselves and others, and to move forward in faith and love – love for ourselves as well as others. Which brings me to:

Self-Destructive Thoughts

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Self-destructive thoughts certainly don’t come from a place of love, but rather from fear. Brigham Young said, “If you have a bad thought about yourself, tell it to go to hell, because that is exactly where it came from.”

Self-destructive thoughts are never helpful or productive, because we can’t do better by feeling worse. We need encouragement from ourselves, not criticism.

We must choose love, not only for others, but for ourselves. We must take compassionate care of ourselves before we will be able to take compassionate care of our children and others.

Using Either Fear or Love to Influence Others

In addition to us being influenced by either fear or love, we use either fear or love to influence our children. After all, unless we are able to physically move them and force them to do what we want for the rest of their lives, influence is all we really have. (And even if we are able to force their actions, we will never have control over their thoughts, beliefs, or feelings – we only have influence.) As hard as this might sometimes be for us to accept, this is how it was meant to be. This is the way we chose for it to be when we chose to follow our Savior in the pre-existence.

D&C 121:41-42 says, “No power or influence can or ought to be maintained by virtue of the priesthood, only by persuasion, by long-suffering, by gentleness and meekness, and by love unfeigned; By kindness, and pure knowledge, which shall greatly enlarge the soul without hypocrisy, and without guile—”

It is popular to use fear (yelling, threats, withdrawal, manipulation, punishment, control, etc.) in parenting to coerce children into obedience, but it seems that the Lord would have us influence them a different way. Punishment, by definition, is not gentle or kind. We might think, “well I’m punishing my child because I love him.” But it is not enough just to love our children – they must feel our love in order for it to really be effective. When we use punishment, our love is lost on our children. But when we set limits with empathy (acknowledge their feelings and perspective), our children feel that we understand them and are in their corner – even if they’re not happy about the limits we set.

One of my favorite quotes is by Gordon Neufeld. He says, “You cannot parent a child whose heart you do not have.” Our connection with our children (or their attachment to us) is absolutely vital in teaching and guiding them. So how do we win our children’s hearts?

That’s a topic for another day. In the meantime, try this experiment: every time you make a choice, ask yourself if it was love or fear that drove you. Then look at the fruits of that choice. And whenever possible, choose love.