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The Elephant in Your Child’s Room – 3 Secret Behavior Must-Knows

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Today’s parents want access to opinions about how to deal with all the annoying, everyday behaviors that drive us crazy. But there’s an invisible elephant in your child’s room that only doctors and nurses see. And it’s clearly time to put it front and center for every parent.

What’s the elephant? Whatever we choose to do every day, 24/7 in response to kids’ every day, common, albeit frustrating, behaviors, such as crying, tantrums, biting, and screen addiction, from 0-18 years of age, actually gets into the architecture of a child’s brain, cardiovascular system and immune system. When we consistently react with anger in hurtful, destructive ways, these reactions have a stunning impact on the development of their DNA and metabolic systems, resulting in an increased risk of every public health crisis we are now dealing with: childhood bullying, obesity, depression, diabetes, anxiety, heart disease, cancer, sexual abuse, drug addition, violence and more.

Now that we know the power our parenting behaviors hold, we are best advised to start “upstream”, that is before our behaviors become the root cause of these problems, to learn how our parenting can prevent them. Parents need to get support to learn how to consistently build caring, supportive and protective relationships with our babies/children when they behave inappropriately or appropriately. (And if you are reading this when your child is 8 years or 15 months old, for example, start today!)

The secret? Being a consistently caring, supportive parent can buffer the stress that a child experiences so that it doesn’t become toxic to her brain, cardiovascular system and immune system—and does build executive functioning, self-regulation and other necessary skills to cope, problem-solve, tolerate frustration, delay gratification, and navigate the ups and downs of life. In short, “parenting is healthcare”. The way we treat a tantrum is as important as a temperature. Just to be clear, we are not talking about making sure that your child never experiences stress—we’re saying that your care, support and protection, consistently given, can mitigate stress so it does not become toxic, a health danger to your child.

Here are (3) ways we can become caring, supportive and protective adults when reacting to kids’ behavior that drives us crazy:

  • Look at everyday parenting through a new lens—upstream, as first-line, universal, common-sense practical prevention of health, learning and behavior problems, by reaching out to our child’s primary healthcare provider for answers and support to lessen our stress, too.
  • Let go of the long-standing irrational and unhealthy-to-the-max stigma, shame and secrets that prevent us from asking for help when we are overwhelmed, frustrated, and unable to cope with our child’s behavior. We don’t wince when the doctor tells us how to deal with our child’s fever or rash or vomiting, but we don’t want to bring up our child’s overuse of screen time, being a picky eater, and wanting his own way, lest she label us “bad parents”. Ask your child’s healthcare provider about your kiddo’s behavior, as well as his runny nose!
  • We don’t know what we don’t know. Since we can predict that outcome from harsh parenting strategies or neglect, we have the obligation to our children to prevent these outcomes on the front end, particularly when many parents don’t even know that a certain response to a child would be categorized as “harsh” or “neglectful”.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, The American Academy of Family Physicians, and leading researchers in neuroscience, social science and education know this. They acknowledge that the way we respond to these normal “healthy” behaviors of kids’ testing the waters, sowing their oats, and demanding independence, are equally as “inflammable” to a child’s body and brain, if their caregiver doesn’t know how to “treat” the behavior in a healthy way every day.

We have to ask questions. We have to seek answers. Every day. If there is a parenting interaction just 100 times a day, for the first 10 years of a child’s life, that’s 365,000 opportunities for a child to experience caring, support and protection…or the lack thereof. The future of our children, literally, depends on it. Just think about being able to inoculate children against toxic stress.

We have to fill the gap in parenting healthcare on the front end every day, so we don’t have to fix it on the back end for a lifetime.

Barbara C. Unell and Jerry Wyckoff, Ph.D. are co-authors of ten parenting books including Discipline with Love and Limits, with over 1 million copies sold worldwide. They are currently working with primary care pediatric clinics across the country to integrate taking care of children’s common behavior problems as standard practice in daily healthcare, through their new clinic and phone triage tool, Behavior Checker.


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