Are You a Connected or Controlling Parent?
Meeting children's basic needs works better than coercing them.
Posted July 19, 2021 | Reviewed by Hara Estroff Marano
- Connection parenting promotes healthy happy children.
- Busy parents can promote parent-child connection with several tools.
- Coercive parenting undermines connection and child growth.
The most important job a parent has is to maintain a strong healthy bond with the child, Pam Leo contends in her book, Connection Parenting, Parenting Through Connection Instead of Coercion. And she is right, secure attachment is a predictor of multiple positive outcomes for children during childhood and adulthood (Cassidy & Shaver, 2008).
In the past, when families and communities lived with constant opportunities to build strong bonds, strong healthy attachment usually occurred without much effort. But today, Leo points out, families in the U.S. are lacking the resources families had in the past—specifically, the extended family of support. Parents and children spend much more time apart, at work or school, or in transport, rather than in joint constructive activities that promote bonding.
Pam Leo has many recommendations for families in today’s circumstances. She promotes rethinking habits of mind and culture by asking questions.
For example, she draws attention to the nature of coercive parenting by asking:
“Can you imagine threatening your partner or good friend by counting “One…two…three…” if he or she did not do what you wanted?” (p. 22).
Coercive Parenting Uses Threats for Control
Coercive parenting is based on threats, causing fear, and aims for a quick fix, to getting obedience, instead of growth. It is oriented to punishment instead of discipline. Coercion weakens connection between child and parent. Threats communicate to the child that what they think, feel, or want is unimportant, undermining the parent-child bond and the child’s self-esteem.
Leo notes that research demonstrates that punishment does not "discipline" the child (teach the child how to behave), nor do punishing time-outs. It’s better to have a "time in" with the child and ask questions like, "Can you tell me what is hurting you that made you [behave this way]?" Sometimes adults are the ones who need a time-out to settle themselves.
When the parent-child bond is strong, there is no need for coercion. Longitudinal research by Grazyna Kochanska [e.g., 2002] shows this to be the case. And there is accruing evidence that early life stress can be toxic to developing brain systems [Lanius, Pain & Vermetten, 2020].
Nevertheless, lots of parenting advice still advocates coercive parenting. So to avoid coercive parenting, Leo recommends questioning any advice with this question:
"Will following this advice strengthen or weaken connection with my child?"
Connection Parenting Understands the Importance of Meeting Basic Needs
Connection parenting involves parenting through connection instead of coercion, through love rather than fear. Connection parenting is about listening to children and finding the best ways to meet their needs. Learning to meet a child’s needs means learning to decode their behavior, much like dog owners decode a dog at the door indicating a need for elimination.
Children’s basic needs include being treated with respect. Leo suggests:
“If you question whether your words to a child are disrespectful, ask yourself, 'Would I say those works, in that tone of voice, to my good friend?' If not, it was disrespectful.” (p. 43)
Children’s misbehavior is a signal of an unmet need for connection. And when parent and child have a conflict, it is often because each has unmet needs. She suggests inviting children to share in activities that need to be done for the family (e.g., laundry, cooking). Children want to be included in activities because they enjoy the process of helping (even if at first, they are not very good at it). But, as others have pointed out, children get better at the activity, learn to pay attention to family needs, and help out without being nagged later (Doucleff, 2021).
Leo includes various exercises for parents to do as they read the book. Parents learn what their automatic parenting behaviors are (what they experienced as children) and that they have a choice of which ones to maintain.
She provides just a couple of definitions
- Connection is feeling loved and listened to.
- Disconnection is feeling hurt and unheard.
She also suggests two basic tools.
Tool 1: When the optimal level of connection is too low, parents can move in and provide consistent, loving connection “through eye contact, loving touch, respect, listening, and spending time working and playing together” (p. 37).
Tool 2: When the parent has reacted to a child in a manner that causes disconnection—which is visible through the child’s crying, yelling, or withdrawing—the parent can use the second tool. Reconnect through three R’s:
- Rewind by acknowledging the parent’s hurtful behavior.
- Repair with an apology.
- Replay by responding with love and listening.
Everyone can be hurt emotionally, especially when their need to connect or to follow their impulses to grow or express themselves are thwarted. Each of us needs to resolve these hurts by releasing our emotions about them. Young children initially show their hurt immediately through crying or anger. Leo says that crying, even tantrums, are not manipulation or misbehaviors, but forms of self-healing. Releasing the pain “clears the way for emotional connection” (p. 65).
Over time, children, like adults, learn to hold in feelings. If there are no regular opportunities to express these unresolved hurts, they can burst out in moments of extreme distress or in moments of feeling safe.
Leo notes all the ways that adults both inflict emotional hurts on children and also inhibit children from expressing their hurts with shaming, threatening, distraction, ignoring and other reactions. Instead of being a witness to the child’s pain, as is needed for children to move on, parents control the child’s feelings and teach the child to control them. Adults in America often carry their hurts unresolved and use drugs or distractions to stay away from expression. But their children can "push the button" of the unresolved hurt, causing the adult to lose control.
Parents, too, like children who have been taught to stuff their feelings, need to be listened to without judgment. At first, there may be a backlog of hurts that will arise to be expressed. (p. 73).
She advocates nonviolent communication where the parent models routinely self-expression but also mirrors the child’s expressions.
‘When I see [x], I feel [y] because I need [z] so would you/I would like [a].’
“When I see toys all over the living room, I feel frustrated because I need help keeping the room in order. Would you help pick up the toys now?”
Mirroring the child:
‘When you hear [x], you feel [y] because you need [z] so would you like [a].’
“When you hear me ask you to pick up your toys, you feel annoyed because you were doing something else. Would you like me to ask you when you would be ready to pick up the toys?”
Pam Leo provides all sorts of slogans that one could put on the walls in one’s home or day care center—e.g., “Connect before you correct.”
It’s a readable book that will be refreshing to any person who works or lives with children. It can be taken in through bits and pieces. The audio book is read by the author, providing a “grandmother’s voice” to penetrate the mind.
Cassidy, J., & Shaver, P. (Eds.) (2008). Handbook of attachment: Theory, research, and clinical applications, 2nd ed. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Lanius, R. A., Vermetten, E., & Pain, C. (2010). The impact of early life trauma on health and disease: The hidden epidemic. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.
Leo, P. (2007). Connection parenting, Parenting through connection instead of coercion, 2nd ed.. Deadwood: OR: Wyatt-MacKenzie Publishing.