Connection and Disconnection: Two Keys for Optimal Parenting

Children are born with different temperaments (from genes and in-utero environment). There are a range of parenting styles, and life-demands impact on how we can parent our children. Where these three things meet we eventually end up with aspects of our child’s personality: shy or sociable; arrogant, scared or self-assured; sophisticated or mature; depressed, violent or resilient; and so on. How nurture impacts on nature is the key.

There are many, many variables to our parenting and they all impact to a certain extent on our kids. (Most of us are aware of this and try our best to do the best job we can.) Some things have fleeting impact and others could affect our children and their decisions for the rest of their lives and their children’s lives.

As well there are many, many different parenting gurus. At the extremes they fall into two groups: those who are strict disciplinarians and those who are high-nuturers. Often these groups of experts seem to contradict each other – but to a certain extent, both are right.

The problem arises from people (yes, including many experts) not understanding two things. The first thing that many people misunderstand is that children communicate through their actions far more than their words. The implications are:

1. How we deal with tantrums/defiance/violence. If parents cannot identify the underlying cause of these they are bound to deal with them in an unhelpful way. Most meltdowns are NOT about power – but some are.  

2. Children will follow our actions first and our words second. The language parts of human brain take years and years to develop. You could think of it like this: an adult’s language pathways are motorways and a child’s are like small, windy, dirt-track back-roads. For a child to be able to pay us attention they have to actively choose to turn off the parts of their brain they are using, choose to turn on the language bits and then understand the full meaning of our message (which often contradicts our body-language – which they will naturally follow first). Even beyond the age of 10 these language bits are still developing.

3. We need to understand that our children are emotional beings first and rational beings in a very distant far away second. If you think of a child’s brain as being like a week – the emotional bits take up six and three-quarter days and the rational bits take up the last quarter of that last day –  if that. The younger the child the more likely emotional behaviours will  hijack rational behaviours in a stress situation.

This all means that extreme-nurturing is vital. This means as much as possible  and a bit more than what we ever thought was possible we: never let the baby cry alone (I’ve done the colicky baby crying skin-to-skin on my chest for four hours a night for months on end – no it isn’t easy); bed-share; baby-wear; be physically present until they’re 18 months old or older – or ensuring that the carer they are with is as loving as possible; loads of touch – as much as they can stand; being their advocate in situations where they might feel overwhelmed; Boring Cuddles when they’re stressed; and so on.

The second thing that many parents and parenting experts misunderstand  is that unconditional love does not mean accepting every behaviour. Our children can do wrong and it is our job to do something about those moments. These are the times when we must mind fully choose to disconnect from our children. (More about how to in a helpful way later.)

The problem with understanding disconnection arises because many of us think of discipline in terms of ferocious behaviours like spanking or roaring at children – perhaps that’s what we experienced ourselves and we would never want to go down that route with our own children. Time-Outs can seem as bad, when our child is obviously distressed at the enforced separation and wants to reconnect before the timer says they can. But setting boundaries and being the calm authority in our children’s life is an essential part of raising resilient children.

If we are constantly attuned and nurturing we are setting our children up to fail in life.

I discussed this with my friend Odette Hoffman (the psycho-therapist) and she put it like this: (paraphrasing) children are going to leave home, when they do – no relationship is going to be 100% attuned or even close, times when parents are Mindfully Disconnected (my term, quite good don’t you think?) cause stress in the child, if they don’t have these moments of disconnection and stress when they are at home in a safe and warm environment they are unable to cope with later disconnection in their relationships. They can’t grow-up to be resilient. They are going to fall apart at some level and at some stage.

The difference between unhelpful disconnection and Mindful Disconnection is in one of those subtleties of emotions. Humiliation vs  guilt. When the parental disapproval is sustained and/or there is no point of reconnection after the disconnection – the child experiences humiliation. None of us want this for our children. When parental disconnection is mindful and there is a sense of reconnection (on the child’s part) afterwards they experience guilt – which means they want to make amends. Like all big emotions (fear, sorrow, excitement etc), guilt is not to be avoided but children do need help learning to manage it.

So, with Mindful Disconnection the child learns to manage disconnections in a healthy relationship as well they develop their rational brain.

When we are generally/mostly emotionally attuned to our children and we Mindfully Disconnect it’s as if we have applied the brakes, and as long as we reconnect afterwards (eye-contact and light touch are the best ways) our children learn that while we always love them, we do not always like what they do.

A child with parents who are not mindful with their disconnections, especially those who try to discipline situations based in emotion (wanting to be with us at night; crying when they are hurt; not understanding Distress Tantrums) it is as if the parents are always applying the brake. They think all tantrums are Power Tantrums. These parents usually have had no help regulating their own emotions and experience emotional flooding when their children show their emotions. They just want the child’s emotions to go away – because they (the parent) cannot handle them.

A child for whom disconnections are rare (if there are any at all) where the parents never use the word ‘No’ and/or where the parent does not act like the calm authority (it is bedtime; you will not throw food; chocolate is not a breakfast food; wear your woollen clothing; I am not buying you a toy every time we enter a shop) then it is as if the child is experiencing the accelerator being constantly on. These parents won’t say ‘No’ or they give in to their children because they don’t like whining and crying. They might not ever make a direct request. They think that all tantrums are Distress Tantrums. They might think it’s unreasonable to set boundaries, and/or feel embarrassed about setting firm boundaries possibly because they have yet to process their own emotional flooding. (Which was built into their brain when their own parents used approaches which induced humiliation – in some cases, they experience unrelated overwhelming flash-backs when their children need to have a boundary set.)

Neither of these extreme approaches is healthy for the development or the ongoing function of the developing brain.

So what’s going on with Mindful Disconnection?

Children are not born considerate. They are not born socialised. They are born with the capacity to learn these things. Yes, a certain amount develops through attunement, nurturing and mimicry. But not all. If our child has the repeated experience of Mindful Disconnections they learn that it’s not OK to bully or control people to get what they want in life. If however they charm, negotiate, demand and/or rage and we don’t disconnect, the experience of controlling others becomes part of their personality. They are likely to become power-seeking bullies. If we chose to negotiate or reason with a child when we should be Mindfully Disconnecting, or making an age-appropriate, quiet and firm request, then we are rewarding them with attention. They are learning manipulation techniques.

It is frightening to a child to not have an adult firmly (calmly/lovingly) in control. A child who rarely experiences the word ‘No’ ends up feeling more powerful than their parents, and subsequently becomes disrespectful and sometimes violent (either physically or socially).

In my work, not being a University based academic, I always look for the real outcomes of parenting information. I look at playgrounds and in supermarkets. I listen to how parents interact with their children. I look for long-term consequences of what is happening now. Here’s some real-life links to support what I’ve said: here  and here. This one here is aimed at teachers but the first section is relevant for parents.

Optimal Parenting is the parenting which our children’s biology responds to with the best of health, the best of relationships, the greatest resilience, the greatest calm, the best stress management and the most contentment. It is extraordinarily hard to provide in a modern world, but luckily their brains have a slop-range (for want of a better phrase!) which means we don’t have to provide an Optimal Environment. Good enough is good enough. As long as we really understand our children, have good information available and have practical ideas about how to put it all into practise.

With high-nurturing and  a few calm but matter-of-fact well-enforced boundaries and you’re more than half way to raising your children in the optimal environment.

Practical Applications and Age Appropriate Mindful Disconnection start with this post here: Mindful Disconnection: Practical Ideas Pt One. This just got too long.


The Developing Mind, Daniel Seigel

The Science of Parenting, Margot Sunderland

Nurture Shock, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman

(This is officially how I help put food on the table. If you’ve found this article useful, please feel free to use the Koha button just above my blogroll. Even the smallest amount is appreciated. 🙂 )


About Karyn @ kloppenmum

kloppenmum is me, Karyn Van Der Zwet, mother of three and ex-teacher. I'm part of a revolution in parenting, with the aim to raise mature (not sophisticated) and self-assured children. I also know some stuff about adults. I have also had articles printed in The Journal for The British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (Children and Young People) and the US parenting magazine, Pathways to Family Wellness, as well I regularly write for World Moms Blog (named as one of the Forbes 100 most useful blogs for women 2012 &2013). You can follow me on facebook (kloppenmum) pinterest (Karyn at Kloppenmum) and twitter (@kloppenmum). I'm also vaguely on LinkedIn (Karyn Van Der Zwet). Thanks to Joe (Mr Hare) for taking the photo. Cheers, son: xxxx.
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20 Responses to Connection and Disconnection: Two Keys for Optimal Parenting

  1. hakea says:

    Hi Karyn

    I have a poor sore head (headache) at the moment so although I’m reading I’m not absorbing.

    Aside from this, I thought I would let you know about Dan Hughes (you may already be aware of him). He writes a lot about shame versus guilt, particularly within the context of foster care, but it can be applied to ordinary everyday parenting as well.

    Basically, guilt is good (behaviour not ok) but shame is not good (self not ok). Well worth a read.

    • I had read that too about shame and guilt but not Dan Hughes, but then re-read Siegel today before posting, and he didn’t make that distinction. He said humiliation vs shame…
      I might change it to humiliation vs guilt.
      Thanks as always, look after your head.

  2. Laura Weldon says:

    Thank you! Another brilliant summation and another of your posts I’ll be putting on the FRL Facebook page.

  3. adhdwith3 says:

    Wow. Very insightful. We had an uncle that we always thought was too loving and too easy–He didn’t expect much of his kids. Still he was always teaching them.

    Still we’ve been surprised by how well the kids have turned out–and what’s most amazing of all is that they are all very close to him.

    • That’s great that things turned out so well for your Uncle and his kids. The parent-child relationship is *such* an interesting one and I love to hear stories like this one of yours.

  4. It is such a fine line between humiliation and shame – for the parent to walk. In certain situations it can be difficult not to say something hurtful – however even if a parent does step out of bounds it’s still possible to make amends after the fact. Though that is assuming that connection happens much more frequently than disconnection.

    • I think it is easier for a child to accept their parents apologies or reconnections when they have a great bond to start with, and the parents mindfully and continuously build on it. The importance of early attunement and responsiveness really can’t be underestimated – in my opinion.

  5. Wonderful insight (once again!). Really applies to what we are going through with Goblin #1. I’m happy to read this post and feel more grounded in how we are handling the “i’m so jealous of my baby sister, so I am going to act out” phase. Thank you for your hard work!

    • You’re welcome, pleased that you’ve found a way to work with Goblin #1…it is *such* a process sometimes. Have a great mothers’ day and thanks for commenting. 🙂

  6. Marcy says:

    So good to be reminded that sometimes disconnection IS what is needed. The mindfulness bit helps, as does being aware of when I’m reacting instead of responding, and thinking about what the purpose of my response should be (vs. what purpose I feel an urge about).

    • Hi Marcy,
      I’d agree with all that. I *is* hard sometimes when we’re stressed or overwhelmed not to just react. And it’s tiring (impossible?) to be always mindful with our kids. Thanks for commenting. 🙂

  7. Fiona says:

    Firstly I’m glad my post helped ease some of your frustration.

    Secondly, I’ll have to read and re-read some of what you’ve written, so I can fully grasp the content. Where were you years ago when I was making my way through the minefield of motherhood? It’s still a minefield but at least I’m a little more alert about the hidden explosives and how to avoid them or at least deal with the fall out. LOL

    Have a super Mothers Day!

    Cheers, Fi

  8. Elena says:

    I am reminded of how I tried to be constantly available to my first born, never let her get frustrated, and what a mistake that was. The “benevolent neglect” that Vimala McClure mentions in her “Tao of Motherhood” just hadn’t sunk in, and I think my grown daughter is pretty emotionally fragile because of it. I wonder if there are ways to help an adult child remedy some of our mistakes, or if we just have to let go and let them work it out on their own now?

    • Hi Elena, I had a think about this over night and came up with two ideas – you may have tried them, but just in case. Firstly to talk to her about what you did and why and that you were working for her best interests but it might not have helped her in the long-run. This gives her the information to process for herself – rather than just feeling ‘fragile’ and not knowing why. At least then she *can* make sense of it. The second is to start the benevolent neglect now. When you don’t rescue someone who is used to being rescued, they do tend to think of you as a persecutor for awhile, and that won’t be very pleasant in the short-term. So you are emotionally present and help her to plan her way into life (if she’ll let you) – but you don’t come up with the ideas and you don’t help her to implement her plan – that’s up to her. Good luck. 🙂

  9. I do like your term Mindful Disconnection. It makes a lot of sense to me.

  10. kaet says:

    If I’m understanding correctly (through the lack of sleep), I think some of this relates to an issue I dealt with while working in a secondary school a few years ago. I was part of the SEN (special education needs) team half of my time (and running the library the other half, although there was a good bit of overlap in the roles) and we had a tough time trying to stop the disabled pupils being babied by their schoolmates (and even some staff), since the feeder primary school had allowed a culture to develop of those pupils constantly being helped. (I think they’d originally encouraged peer-support, but not drawn enough boundaries.) ‘Luckily’ some of my library helpers were among those who would try to ease the lives of their classmates, so we were able to chat about how to provide necessary assistance without disempowering their friends.

    • It is natural for many of us to want to help others, and I have a similar issue our older boys constantly wanting to rescue/help the 21 month old as you did with your SEN supporters. It is important that we are conscious of where help is really needed, but also when to step back and allow the other person to take some responsibility for their own safety/things/work/life. Thanks for all your comments today Kaet. Great to hear from you.

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