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The Magical Power of Reflection

The Magical Power of Reflection is Part 4 of a four-part series on how stress in Western society aggravates children's four brain systems and exacerbates difficult behaviors.

After the Regulatory System, Sensory System, and Relevance (or relationship) System, the Executive System is the last part of our brain architecture to develop.

Children seem to be a lot less calm than they were in times past. We think we are seeing more anxiety, more tantrums at older ages, and more defiance in children overall. Increased pace of life, screen time, and academic demands on children's time may have to do with that.

Being in a hurry, long stretches of staring at screens, and requiring more homework hours of children and work hours of adults means dedicating less time and patience for important things. In the past three posts, we've discussed some of those important things and how the lack of them can affect children's behavior: the need of the body to have slow food and good sleep, the sensory system to get enough down time, and the spirit to get regular doses of joy. This fourth post discusses the need for the mind to reflect, particularly amidst conflict.

Punishments vs. Reflection

​The problem with scolding or punishing children for conflicting with each other and adults is that they push the child deeper into stress. The child started out in stress when they used that behavior to try and solve a problem. Our reactive responses add to that stress by putting the child into one of three nervous system states: Red Zone, Blue Zone, or Combo Zone (see info-graphic below). This keeps the child in their emotional brain, shutting down the executive brain where there is the possibility of reflection.

Nervous System (NS) Responses to Punishment vs. Reflection

The Four Nervous System Awake States: Punishment puts children into stress states, while reflection regulates children into the Green Zone.

Punishments (including scolding, adult-devised consequences, and an angry demeanor) have been a part of human behavior for so long that I am certain they are encoded in our DNA. This may be why punishment gives us the hormonal reward of relief when we execute them after being angry. A sense of control encourages the nervous system to go into the Red Zone, particularly when that sense of control is threatened. If we get discouraged from sensing that we have lost control, we move to the Blue Zone where we feel drained of energy and helpless. If we feel we must inhibit our Red because we don't trust what we will do there, we will go into Combo and become anxious.

Here is where reflection gives us an advantage over punishment. Rather than give the adult a sense of control and a child the sense of being controlled, reflection gives everyone a sense of connection. Rather than burdening the adult with the task of solving someone else's problem, reflection puts that job into the child's hands, where it is not a burden, but a welcome challenge. While punishment puts us in the Red Zone, where we are given a sense of urgency and no time to think, reflection forces us to slow down our thinking. That regulates our nervous system, which slows down our heart rate, relaxes our muscles, reduces the amount of toxic stress chemicals in our system, and thus makes us more pleasant to be around.

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Punishment shames, putting the nervous system in a state of stress and defensiveness and thereby shutting down the brain's capacity to consider the broader effects of behavior; reflection does just the opposite. It opens the mind, and over time, gives children confidence in their ability to solve problems in sophisticated ways that enable them to behave honorably.

Egalitarian Tool #6 is Reflect instead of Correct.

Reflection vs. Correction

Resisting the temptation to correct behavior is a habit worth forming. Correcting behavior means pointing out what the child has done wrong. Sometimes, the child may not actually know that a behavior is unacceptable, and this can be good information. Usually, however, given the chance to reflect, the child can figure this out for themselves. And it is far more powerful a realization when we get the chance to have it dawn on us than when it is given or, as is often the case with adults towards children, forced onto us.

Reflecting means getting down to the child's level and making nonjudgmental observations about the situation, followed by long pauses that allow the child to think:

  • Getting down to or below the child's eye level cues their brain for safety. Speaking to a child from a higher level adds to the child feeling overpowered in a relationship that is already imbalanced due to differences in rank, age and size.

  • Observations help orient the child to the situation. Talking nonjudgmentally about what is happening helps ground the child back into the present instead of the past hurt that was triggered when they got mad. Implicit memories (also called emotional memories) cause humans to react strongly to situations that remind us of them; making observations of the here and now help pull the child back to the present.

  • Pauses enable the child's brain to process and understand the information about the present situation, drain that information from its short-term memory store, and then use that empty space to allow fresh insights to enter in. Adults tend to be in the habit of filling pauses. Leaving the child to fill the silence is extremely difficult at first. It feels like the child will never start talking, and that the two of you will be sitting there forever. Once the child realizes that they have the safety of not being demeaned with a lecture, and enough control of the situation by being heard, they often do magical things with the space the adult has provided.

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It may take a few times of the child filling in the silence with shyness or quirky behavior. Kids aren't used to having the floor in these situations; most are used to being overpowered by adults. Often, though, children get it right away. "I actually have time to process this! For the first time in my life, I can think during a sticky conversation with an adult!" Younger children tend to take advantage of this luxury immediately. Older children may need a few experiences of this spaciousness to convince them that safety and control are both theirs.

While relational safety is becoming established, these three steps of getting down, making observations, and pausing to allow thinking may be the end of the process. Knowing that you understand their point of view and are not judging can be all the resolution the situation needs for the time being.

Reflection Regulates the Nervous System

We don't want to subdue our children into compliance where they are at risk of entering into or remaining in toxic stress. We want to help them reflect on how they can get their needs met while showing empathy for themselves and others. To do that, we need them in the Green Zone where we can spark the executive system of their brain.

When training with Rosemary White, OTR/L, our resident rockstar occupational therapist leader of neurodevelopmental approaches to therapy, I remember her teaching this: when two children fight over a toy, describe the toy in great detail. Say, "Oh this truck is gorgeous. It's yellow, and it has these shiny black wheels...yes, what a gorgeous truck!" This moves children out of the emotional Relevance System where they are yelling and crying to their Executive System where they become thoughtful and interested in solutions.

What I notice is that when I start making observations, especially ones that make them feel understood children calm down quickly. When possible, I ​start by observing the problem their behavior was meant to solve before observing any problems their behavior created.

Here are some examples I came across over the week:


This Hand in Hand blog post says it all: "I didn’t tell her how she should feel, nor did I project any of my own feelings onto her. I didn’t tell her stealing was wrong. I held an open, non-judgmental space for her to look inside of herself and see what she found." Read more to find out how.


While I am substitute teaching, three 5th graders are arguing about who can draw the White House on a poster depicting the three branches of government:

Daniel: I called it first!

Maya: No, you said "White House." It's "Executive Branch." So you did not call it first. I did.

Daniel: You know what I meant!

Me: So Daniel said "White House," referring to the Executive Branch, but not actually saying it, and Maya, you are saying that it didn't count. He needed to use the exact words.

Daniel: I called it! You knew what I meant!

Me: Daniel is saying that he should get it because it's obvious that he meant Executive Branch. Maya, you're saying it's important to say the exact word. (Silence.) Just curious, why do you both want to draw the Executive Branch?

Daniel: Because I want to draw a little picture of Trump.

Maya: Because I find the Executive Branch the most interesting and the most challenging.

Me: Is everyone in the group okay with having a picture of Trump on the poster?

Rest of the Group: NO!

Daniel: Well, I still want to draw the White House.

Me: How can you resolve this?

Daniel: I called it!

Maya: No, you didn't!

Me: Daniel, you're saying you called it. Maya, you're saying it doesn't count. What do you guys want to do?

Daniel: (After a good deal of silence) I can just draw half of the White House and she can draw the other half.

Maya: That's fine.

Another group member: But then who's going to draw the Legislative Branch?

Daniel: We can both draw half of that, too.

Maya: Okay, I'm fine with that.


During a home visit, four siblings fight over whose turn it is to hide my car key. Devon takes the key from Blake, and Blake starts slapping at Devon. I get between them.

Me: Whoa! Devon, you took the key because you wanted to hide it, and Blake, you hit Devon because you did not want him to take the key from you!

Both boys settle down.

Me: So. Who gets to hide it next?

All four children: Me!!

Me: (Pointing to each child in turn) Blake wants to hide it first, Marcie wants to hide it first, Fred wants to hide it first, and Devon wants to hide it first.

Marcie: (Getting emotional) I want to hide it.

Me: Oh Marcie, you really want to hide it now.

Devon: Wait, Blake got to hide it lots of times, and Fred got to hide it once, so it's between me and Marcie. Pick a number.

Me: Would you all like us to solve this by picking numbers?

Marcie doesn't answer.

Fred: Yeah, pick a number!

Devon: That's fair! Pick a number!

Me: You two are not giving Marcie a chance to think. (I would have preferred to say, "Fred and Devon want me to pick a number, and I'm waiting for Marcie to think about whether that's okay with her.")

Blake: I know, do Bubble Gum, Bubble Gum!

Fred: No! Eeny Meeny!

Devon: Just pick a number!

Me: I'm waiting for Marcie to think.

Marcie: I don't want to play.

Me: Are you sure? We can wait for you to think.

Marcie: I don't want to play.

Me: Okay. Devon, you can hide it.

Blake: No, I want to.

Me: Oh, you want to hide it again. Okay, how do you want to solve this?

Devon: I haven't had a turn!

Blake: Okay, you can hide it.

Later, Marcie regrets her decision not to play. I wonder: if I had not moved out of observation mode that one time, would there eventually have been enough silence to keep her from being overwhelmed by her brothers? This was their first time problem-solving like this together, and it will be interesting to see how their reflection skills develop in the future.

Would you like more examples? Send a scenario you have struggled with to I'll post it anonymously in the next newsletter with suggestions on how to turn your interaction into a reflective exercise.

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