Part 3: Teaching with Values Rather than Approval
Welcome to the third of a four part series that looks at ways anxiety originates in each of our four brain systems .
Part 3: Anxiety from the Relevance (Relational) System
Regardless of where in the brain stress exists, lowering it in the relevance system is nearly always helpful. Because our brains are relational, powerful things can happen through lowering relationship tension and raising connection. My number-one tool for lowering relationship stress is to have egalitarian relationships with children.
Top-down relationships are inherently stressful. Egalitarian relationships are inherently stress-free. There is a place for stress, and there are benefits to top-down relationships, but if you have a child with anxiety, neither are particularly helpful in healing.
A key tool in having a successful egalitarian relationship with children is to use values rather than approval in response to challenging behavior. Approval is one of the tools of discipline; discipline means to educate, and our earliest use of this word appears to have occurred in the 13th century, referring to punishment  (the other side of the coin from approval). Eight centuries later, we continue to teach children through approval and punishment in one way or another, despite there being much more effective ways to impart skills and instill new behavioral habits. The use of values is one of them.
Yes, parental approval is a powerful motivator for getting children to behave. When the stress of anxiety outweighs the drive to be liked by the adults who care for you, however, approval loses its power. This crossover becomes stressful for both adult and child as the adult tends to continue to try to use tools that have lost their function.
Values are as old as the hills; even other intelligent animal species such as ravens and dolphins uphold them. We are genetically predisposed to aspire to increasingly higher ways of being in relationship with ourselves and each other. Using values instead of approval is to move from responding to the question, "Why?" with, "Because I said so!" to an answer that gives real information about why we do what we do, what we believe about living well, and what makes it worthwhile to strive for our best.
When presenting a limit to a child, use a value instead of a "No." Why may a child not eat a breakfast of potato chips? "We value good health over very yummy flavors. That is why we have oatmeal for your breakfast today. Oatmeal will keep you from being hungry until your next meal, and it will give your brain the energy it needs to learn. It will help your mood stay stable and calm. We can make the oatmeal yummier by adding butter, cinnamon, and a little sweetener. But oatmeal is healthier than potato chips, so that is why you have oatmeal." Whew, you may be thinking. That is a lot to say to a kid every time they can't have something they want! Yes, it is.
It takes time to raise and teach children. One of the obstacles to teaching values instead of saying a quick, "No, you can't--now, eat your oatmeal," is the belief that we don't have time for these long interchanges. Later on, we then wonder whether we have been connected enough. We ask ourselves if we should be spending more time with them, and struggle to think of how? Here is a way.
Another obstacle to teaching values is that we assume others already know what we know even though the others might be 5 and 7 years old. This sentiment starts with, "They should already know that." We forget that the information we take for granted has yet to be absorbed by our children.
Once the value is established, our job is done on that side of things; we no longer have to uphold a stance or defend a point of view. We can now join the child in their experience.*
Joining the child's experience might mean sitting in attentive silence while they have a tantrum or crying jag, actively listening to their complaints about why they don't want to follow the value, or telling them about the struggles you sometimes have with the value. Being fully on the child's side while the value stands on its own enables a child to feel they have an ally and do not have to struggle alone.
One alternative to teaching values with limits is teaching them reactively, criticizing the child for not doing what they are supposed to do, either verbally or mentally (the judgment is communicated either way). This way of teaching can leave a child feeling insecure, misunderstood and anxious.
Another alternative is to rescue the child from their feelings. If the child begins to cry or scream because they can't have potato chips, the adult may give in or say, "Okay, you can just have one." Feelings are not lethal; on the contrary, children use them to build their stress response systems and develop resiliency and character. Do not resist big emotions, support children through them instead. Join us in May for a free Alta class on how this can be done (see sidebar).
This month, I had a situation I would love the chance to rewind and redo. At snack, a child I'll call Herman saw a mini cheese cracker sandwich on the rug and stepped on it to enjoy the crunch. He was happy to clean it up, but did not want to carry the dustpan to the garbage pail because he did not want to get out of line for recess.
I let him know that we would go to recess once the mess was cleaned up, and he adamantly refused. We stayed in with him crying and my trying to reassure him that it would only take a minute, and then we could go and have fun outside! He dug in his heels and cried more loudly every time I spoke.
I wish I would have just sat quietly with him. I did not do that because there was a parent in the kitchen hearing the whole thing. In the back of my mind, I heard myself saying, "Maybe you should try silence. Every time you talk, his wails get louder." But then my attention would go to this parent and self-consciousness won out.
Fortunately, the teacher came along with a vacuum cleaner. Herman stopped crying immediately, sat up abruptly, and looked eagerly at the machine. All went smoothly from there.
Have patience with yourself. Changing paradigms is hard, and doing it with an audience adds a layer of challenge. Just keep making the mistakes you make and asking yourself what you will do next time. I'm not perfect, but I'm getting better.
1. Lillas, Connie; Janiece Turnbull. Infant/child Mental Health, Early Intervention, and Relationship-based Therapies: A Neurorelational Framework for Interdisciplinary Practice. Norton Series on Interpersonal Neurobiology, 2009.
2. Miriam Webstser, The Root and Meanings of Discipline, Retrieved April 14, 2018 from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/discipline
* Please excuse the unconventional grammar; "their" is used to reflect non-binary language.