Parents, let it be known that your work and dedication to your children cannot possibly be measured. For many parents, even if you had a thirty-hour day, you would not have the opportunity to delve into resources, practices, and consultions around all of the questions and challenges that you face in parenting. Thankfully, humans are communal. We specialize and we support one another. My job, then, is to dedicate my time toward effective effort and keen insight. Then to transmit it in a way that will be helpful for your everyday life.
Recently, as part of this service, I’ve been compelled to delve into the Children’s Success Foundation’s Nurtured Heart Approach toward working with emotionally intense children. What follows is my own summary of what I suspect could be helpful for some parents and some children. Parts of this will be helpful for everyone, for sure. This is quite different content from my book, but there are ways that it does fit. It has strong positive psychology underpinnings. It is a mindfulness practice of noticing what is true in the moment and not falling into reaction patterns. It holds a similar container to the wilderness: basic rules of nature that cannot be bent or compromised and that end up teaching us our power.
Before we begin, it is worth noting that your child is completely and utterly unique. There never has been and there never will be another constellation of life like your child. So, when we look at approaches and when we use labels like “emotionally intense”, please ground yourself in looking at these as tools to be uniquely applied to your living relationships.
Summed up, the Nurtured Heart Approach is a way to change patterns of negativity and escalation. It promotes positive attention and a container for cultivating innate greatness. It starts with authentic, neutral witnessing. It moves toward positive support and reinforcement. It then lays foundations for cultivating positive values and behaviors. It then lays the framework for effective and long-term compassionate consequences for negative behaviors. The authors have been doing this for decades and all of their work is based on first-hand experience.
My suggestion is that, if you are struggling with a home situation that needs change, and your daughter or son is emotionally intense, then it is worth giving this a try. If you really want to work with this, I suggest buying the book and/or working with me (or another counselor familiar with the work) directly. This blog is meant to be a secondary resource. However, even if you don’t do this, it should be worth reading through and finding some different ways to think about your relationship with your child.
A Summary of The Nurtured Heart Perspective
Our attention and our energy is what our children seek.
Culturally, we tend to put more intensity into a “no” than we do a “yes.” Basically, we intensify our speech and our actions when something goes wrong and we want our child to stop. We tend to not get as energetically charged when things are going fine. For emotionally intense children, particularly, we can look at our relationships through the lens of degrees of attention and energy. From that perspective, we are giving our child more attention and energy for behaviors that are not serving them than we are for positive behaviors.
“Many intense, intelligent children have fixated a greater part of their wits and intelligence on figuring out just how to elicit the strongest reactions from adults in their world.” -Nurtured Heart
When children test adults for reactions, they are testing to see if the adult can create a container that will adequately hold them. If they act out, it is a way of asking for more structure.
One parallel Nurtured Heart draws is with video games. They are, as we know, incredibly captivating. They all have clear, consistent rules with no compromise and with immediate feedback. The play and growth happens within this structure. You can’t bargain or whine or anger your way out of the rules. They just are. And children accept them. Then play and become skillful and empowered in the context.
The Nurtured Heart Approach calls for new actions in two categories of parenting:
1) What we do in the way of being positive
2) What we do in the way of setting limits
With emotionally intense children and stuck negative patterns, there is usually a situation where the child is addicted to negative attention. It is like junk food. It fills them up momentarily, but it has no long-term nourishment. So, it becomes a regular addictive pattern. Repeated negative attention also gets translated by the child as repeated failures, which creates low self-esteem. They begin to think “I am not a good kid.” Ordinary compliments then get redirected by this complex. They don’t sink in because the identity pattern is too strong.
Intense children have an insufficient frame of reference for being kind to oneself and setting limits on impulses. They need a relationship dynamic and structure that will get past their defenses. These kids have a lot of energy and intensity and are developmentally learning to apply the brakes in their lives. They are challenged with self-control. They also need a foundation of trust, nutritious connection, and gratifying responses.
One common parenting pitfall in setting limits and consequences is to intensity the rules or harshness of the consequences when the child increasingly acts negatively. If we look at this from the perspective of energetic payoff, we are giving the child more intensity, more payoff, for the negative behaviors. For the emotionally intense child, who is addicted to negative reactions, lectures, warnings, and reprimands are rewards of our attention.
Children often equate what we put our energy into with what we love. Some children sense that the only time they get a heart-to-heart and intensity is when they misbehave. Often, the only time they hear about the value of the rules is when they are broken.
This approach is a way to positively associate the rules and structures, to not feed the addiction to negative behaviors, and to support the innate greatness of your child.
To begin changing patterns, the authors recommend taking three stands as a parent:
1) Refuse to give your child greater responses or more animation for negative behaviors. Not rewarding problems with your energy.
2) Resolve to purposefully create and nurture success. Be relentless in the new pattern.
3) Have clear rules. Have clear, consistent, true, and effective consequences when they are broken.
In the book, the authors supply an elegant story about the training of an orca. The trainers wanted to get the orca to jump over a hoop in the air. So, they started by placing the hoop under the water near the bottom of the tank. Every time the orca swam over it, she was given a treat. They slowly raised the hoop until, eventually, it was out to the water.
To get past the defenses of low self-esteem or entrenched addiction to negativity, the approach is to start with the hoop underwater, so to speak. What that means in parenting is to start by simple, neutral recognition.
Step One is active verbal recognition:
Simply state what the child is doing. No judgment. Just report consistently throughout the day. The truth as it is in the moment. Be very specific. 10-20 seconds at the most and then drop it. No follow up. No requests afterward. Just noticing.
Provide 10-20 active recognitions a day.
Examples they give are:
“I can tell you are hungry. You ate your potatoes in a hurry.”
“I notice that you are trying to get the battery cover off your radio. You look very focused.”
They do note that your kid may test you here, as it will be a new behavior. They give a little advice around this in the book. Simply trust the process. It is something new and they and you will acclimate quickly.
Step Two is experiential recognition:
For Experiential Recognition, you simply recognize again, but you focus on the powers of a current or very recent event. You create a positive framework of that event so that your child can digest the nutritious elements of it.
Try to find several instances per hour that you spend with your child.
An example they give:
“Julio, I appreciate the positive control you are using. That is very helpful to your teammates and a healthy way to be powerful.”
Step Three is Proactive Recognition:
In the beginning of this chapter, they consider the difference between positive rules and negative rules. The Nurtured Heart Approach considers that, for some kids, positive rules (e.g. be respectful, be polite, be kind) are too vague. There is no clear sense of where the bounds are. Positive rules, in this situation, can often bring escalating patterns of challenging the rules.
The Nurtured Heart Approach advocates for clear negative rules to help guide these kids (e.g. no hitting, no swearing.)
Often, the only time kids hear about the rules is when they are broken. Instead, teach rules when they are not being broken.
Proactively recognizing when your kid is following the rules places rules in a positive context with positive attention.
For proactive recognition, give 10 or more rule-based successes daily.
An example they give:
“Jason, I see that you haven’t been teasing your sister, keep up the good work.” Or … “thank you for following the rule.”
If a child goes and breaks the rules immediately after you say this, they are continuing their pattern of seeking increased attention in the form of negative energy. Continue with your practice and it will break this pattern.
At this point, if consequences have to be issued, use familiar ones but given in a neutral and straight forward manner. No lectures, no reprimands, no threats. Remaining neutral is challenging and it will probably be tested, but it is exceedingly effective in the long run.
Step Four is Creative Recognition:
Creative recognition is a microscopic focus on the positive, the successes.
Here they talk about making requests. They advocate for being very clear when you are making a request to your child. Instead of starting a request with “could you please…” or “would you…”, phrase it with “I need you to…” or make it very direct.
For creative recognition, you may have to be tricky and simple at first. You simply make a direct request, and then recognize the positive success when your child does it.
Find 10 creative requests matched with success per day
An example they give:
“Hold the other end of this blanket, and let’s give it a few shakes.”
“I appreciate that you followed my directions and helped me by shaking the sand out of the blanket.”
“I noticed that you picked up nearly all of your dirty clothes and put them in the hamper. I really appreciate that you listened and how you are doing what I asked. Now I need you to pick up the last two shirts.”
Step Five (Optional) is the Credit System:
The Book does talk about how to establish a credit system (extrinsic rewards for positive behavior) but they say it is not necessary for this approach, so I am not summing this part up. It’s up to each family if they use this credit system.
Step Six is Consequences:
At this stage, you will share with the youth that you have a new system for consequences. Frame this as a development of their success, recognizing the positive changes the youth has made. Now you will come up with very clear, simple, and utterly consistent consequences for not following the rules.
When the positives are in place, it creates the supportive foundation for consequences to actually help the youth. Consequences help to ensure the child that her life is predictable, protected, and that the boundaries can withstand being tested. They form a safe, enhancing environment.
Limit-setting does not have to be severe to be effective. They give an analogy of being pulled over by a police officer for speeding and being given only a $2 ticket. At first, you might think that it’s not much and you speed again. But then you get pulled over and given another $2 ticket. You get a ticket consistently every time with no negotiation. It is delivered without malice or lecture, simply, solidly, and with a loving presence. You speed again and keep getting tickets. And soon the nuisance of the consistent break in your momentum teaches you to slow down. It’s actually better to drive the speed limit. You start to enjoy it and soon you don’t really think about speeding. It’s just not a viable option.
Consequences will be consistent and unflappable, and the equivalent of a $2 ticket every time.
Your child is not out to get you when they act up increasingly. They are out to get your energy. They also are struggling with knowing how to apply their own brakes and watch their own speed.
Spanking, yelling, and even heart-to-heart sermons give energy for negative behavior. It feeds the addiction cycle. Even heart-to-heart sermons are often internalized as criticism and failure for a child with low self-esteem.
The bedrock consequence they suggest is a “time-out” or “reset,” but given in a very particular way that is probably different from one that may already be in place.
You have already established a foundation where the “time-ins” are becoming deeply more preferable. They are times within the bounds you’ve set for your child’s healthy growth where you give truly positive attention. A “time-out” will be received as a lack of energy at this point.
Consequences must be consistent. No compassion-based or exhaustion-based free pass for a behavior. This is a real parenting practice toward truly shifting patterns and creating a new container. Deep compassion is in the consistency.
Consequences are neutrally given. Any reaction while giving a consequence is a reward for the negative behavior. This can be incredibly hard to practice, but you can do it. One suggestion is to pretend. To think of yourself as a performer and act as though you are neutral even if you are reacting internally. This will be so much better for both of you as it becomes more of a true baseline.
No warnings. Warnings often build up to yelling or explosions (negative energy junkfood). They imply that breaking the rules does not always yield a consequence. Your child will then be driven to find out the pattern of when he can get around the rules. Warnings also tend to be inconsistent, which will confuse your child. If you were playing basketball and the referee arbitrarily ignored the rule about the boundaries at times, you would be very confused and probably spend a lot of energy protesting or trying to figure out that part of the game.
No reminders. Reminders are essentially warnings and they convey distrust and projected failure to your child.
We can’t stop children from breaking the rules. We can’t control them. It is worth saying this to them. They make the choices. What we can control is our response to their actions. It is no use worrying about how they will act, because it is out of our control.
“Time-outs” or “Resets” are powerful only in how “clean” they are:
1) They are de-energized (with no negative reaction)
2) They are issued in a way a sports rule might be issued. Immediately and with rapid turnaround upon completion.
3) They are truly over afterward and you are completely back to positive foundations.
After a reset, you can immediately kindle the positive foundations by recognizing the success of the reset if your child does it well. Appreciate how they are engaging back into life without doing the behavior.
They recommend that resets are delivered instantly and in the place it happens as opposed to trying to make the child go to a chair (though they do give options for using a chair if it is important to you.) The resets are also always delivered as no big deal. A simple reset.
The time length is not measured but it is intuited by the caregiver. The reset begins when the child starts to calm. During the reset, there is no talking, hugging, or engaging whatsoever and no fiddling (within reason); There is no explaining or arguing a rule (much later you can invite to help them figure out what to do next time, but they need to ask well away from the incident.) When the reset is done, give verbal acknowledgement; don’t ask for apologies or any display of remorse or conscience. Go right into positive recognitions-based “time-ins.” The child should be expected to clean up any messes created just before or during the reset. Completion of a reset is a success.
Safety is always first. Aggressive or destructive actions need to be intervened as you say “reset” with as little emotion as possible.
This new pattern may be severely tested in the first instances, so they recommend standing completely firm and persevering. This will change if you continue.
Power does not come from long time-outs; it comes from the magnitude of time-ins.
For major transgressions:
They recommend still using the reset. In addition to that, if the transgression is great, the child should know ahead of time that a further consequence will be community service.
In the book, the authors have recommendations for educators and thoughts on where the work leads.
Where the work leads…
As we bend our minds more toward the positive and create firm boundaries that we don’t feed much energy to, we begin to focus our attention and our thoughts on the child’s greatness. We help the child to be attracted to the experience of her or his greatness.
The authors report that parents consistently report that this approach, when followed through, not only transforms the negative patterns for the child, but transforms the way the parents look at problems and overall relationships. They live more in the moment and they are unflappably attracted to cultivating the positive and life-affirming moments of living.
Again, this is a summary of the Children’s Success Foundation’s Nurtured Heart approach, and not my own work. Raising our youth is a complex and dynamic process that no one approach can encompass. May some or all of these perspectives and practices help you and your child in growing greatness, beauty, courage, and grace in our world.