Child development

North Dakota State University Parenting Education Network hosted the fourth webinar in their five-part series Parenting in a Pandemic. The webinars are led by Erin Walsh, co-founder of the Spark & Stitch Institute based out of Minneapolis, Minn. This session focused on understanding brain science to help us establish limits and consequences with our kids without devolving into arguments and fights.

Setting limits is never an easy part of parenting. For many of us it’s a struggle in normal times, let alone during a pandemic. We are engaged in an intense juggling act. We each have our own stress map. Stress is one of those things that, if were not careful, can really amplify conflict in our households. As a reminder from earlier sessions, our brains shut down from the top down under stress. First, the thinking/problem solving part of our brain shuts down then the feeling part, leaving the functioning part of our brains operating at a basic level.

The thinking part of the brain is under construction in our kids. The part that thinks ahead and solves problems is still a work in progress, and kids don’t have the tools to navigate this extra stress. We get tired, and then we get prickly.

It is tempting to think, “Things are already so hard for them right now and anything I can do to make things easier will help.” We want to help them cope, lower the bar, and smooth things out. It’s tempting, but it can backfire. The challenge with this line of thinking is that green-lighting everything creates chaos and that creates anxiety. Predictable boundaries provide safety and security. It is difficult to be consistent because the part of our brain that helps us stay more measured is under strain right now.

Reflect on when you are stressed out. Do you tend to over-parent, under-parent, or swing back and forth? Think about what your parenting partner does. It helps to know what you go to when under stress. It is common for parents to push each other to the extremes. If one under-parents and sees the other over-parent, they may back off even more. The other may see that and then over-compensate. We may not start far apart, but through the pandemic we pull apart.

How do we loosen and be a bit more graceful but not completely let go? One strategy is to know what matters most and save your “relationship capital” with your kids for those things.

When you’re feeling calm, identify what things are really important to you. What are your red-light items (not allowed), yellow (depends upon context or what is happening at the time), or green light (annoying but not worth a fight). Do this especially if you know you are swinging back and forth between over- and under-parenting. For example, it’s ok to be angry, it’s not ok to hit. Eye rolls? They’re not worth the fight and you’re not going to spend relationship capital on them. Then establish limits and consequences: 1) Set limits and rules ahead of time; 2) Choose a consequence that is appropriate when you are calm; 3) Make sure your child understands and knows they have choices; and 4) Enforce the consequence consistently. Limits and consequences are about teaching. The steps look easy in theory. It is key to make sure kids understand the rules and consequences ahead of time and that they have choices. If we say we feel strongly about no devices at the dinner table and we don’t allow hitting, set those limits ahead of time so they know the consequences. When they choose to fight against the rule, they have also chosen the consequence.

Your own brain, when you are calm, gives you some incredible parenting superpowers. Your brain helps you see the purpose between punishments and teaching, keep things in perspective, and problem solve when you run into a challenge (Purpose, Perspective, and Problem Solve). Under stress, when our prefrontal cortex is shutting down, these three P’s can turn into Personal, Pervasive, and Permanent.

-Personal. We take things personally (“My kid is doing this to ME”). Your kids may be good in school and then let loose when they get home. It’s hard not to take this personally. Use problem solving skills to move from taking things personally (“My child is doing this to ME”) back to purpose (“This is hard. We will figure it out together”). Explain the ground rules of the problem-solving discussion ahead of time. Have empathy and try to understand your kids’ understanding of the problem. Define the problem as best you can, with everyone allowed to talk. Invite a solution and brainstorm together, making agreements that you all can live with.

-Pervasive. We see behavior we don’t like and start to universalize it (“Not only did my kid not clean up, but he’s lazy”). It is a very typical thing to do as parents, and we need to find ways to right it because it will escalate if we don’t. Universalizing things increases the emotional load on reacting to their behavior. When we universalize, we may also develop confirmation bias, seeing all the behavior that backs up our theory, ignoring the behaviors that don’t. “He didn’t pick up his jacket. See? Lazy.”

We need to move from these pervasive thoughts (“It’s all bad and hard”) to a sense of perspective (“I can reflect on our challenges and cultivate our strengths”). We don’t want the behaviors to become a pattern. To find the patterns ask yourself, what is one specific behavior that my kid is doing right now that really upsets me? What pervasive thoughts run through my head? What evidence does not support these pervasive thoughts?

Check in with teachers and friends and have them reintroduce you to your kid. Let them tell you what your kids are doing that is kind and good. Do it without the emotional load of your pervasive thoughts.

-Permanent. You fear your kid’s behavior will be permanent (“It will always be this way”) and project worry into the future. These thoughts become demoralizing for us. We need to move from permanent to problem solving and make sure their behavior does not become permanent. Ask yourself, what would it feel like for us if this went differently? What predictably gets in our way that we have control over? Then, establish a new pattern that is specific and achievable. Use When___, then___. When I see this, then I do this.

Throughout all this, kids need connection and structure. They need boundaries where they matter most. Notice when your brain is shutting down and stressed-brain is taking over and try to shift the dynamic. It’s not the easiest part of parenting, but it really, really matters.

The final session, Loosen but Don’t Let Go: Helping Teens Cope With COVID, will be at 7:00 p.m. on May 26. Registration can be found on the NDSU Parent Education Network website at under Programs and Events.