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.

dissonance

 

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.

beauty

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.

kindwordslovingactions

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.)

children's hearts

 

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.

studyofgospelimprovesbehavior

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 are 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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