From Tantrum to Tranquility: Connection Is the Key
Michael heard voices rising in his sons’ room but was watching the basketball game on TV and decided to wait for a commercial before investigating. Big mistake.
His eight-year-old, Graham, and Graham’s friend James had spent the last thirty minutes carefully organizing and categorizing Graham’s hundreds of Lego pieces. Graham had used his allowance to buy a fishing tackle box, and he had designated a different compartment for every Lego head, torso, helmet, sword, light saber, wand, axe, and anything else the creative geniuses from Denmark could dream up. The boys were in organizational heaven.
The problem was that Michael’s five-year-old, Matthias, had been feeling increasingly left out by Graham and James. The three boys had begun the project together, but the older boys eventually felt that Matthias didn’t quite understand their complex categorical system. As a result, they weren’t allowing him to participate in the activity.
Cue the rising voices.
Michael never made it to the commercial. The shouting let him know that he needed to intervene immediately, but he wasn’t quick enough. When he was still three steps away from the boys’ room— three short steps!—he heard the unmistakable sound of hundreds of plastic Lego pieces exploding across a hardwood floor.
Three steps later he witnessed the mayhem and carnage. It was a complete massacre. Decapitated heads littered the entire room, lying next to armless bodies and weapons both medieval and futuristic. A rainbow of chaos stretched from the doorway to the closet on the other side of the room.
Next to the upended tackle box stood Michael’s huffing, red-faced five-year-old, looking at him with eyes that were somehow both defi- ant and terrified. Michael turned to his older son, who yelled, “He ruins everything!” and ran from the room in tears, followed by a sheepish-looking and uncomfortable James.
Talk about a discipline moment. Both of his boys were now bawl- ing, a friend was caught in the crossfire, and Michael himself felt furi- ous. Not only had Matthias destroyed all the work the older boys had done, but now there was a huge mess to clean up in the room. (If you’ve ever felt the pain of stepping on a Lego piece, you know why it wasn’t an option to leave the bits spread out on the floor.) And he was missing the game.
Michael decided he’d go check on the older boys in a minute and address Matthias first. His initial inclination was to stand over his young son, wag his finger in his son’s face, and scold him for dumping the tackle box. In his anger he wanted to offer immediate consequences. He wanted to shout, “Why did you do this?” He wanted to say something about never again getting to participate in Graham’s playdates, then add, “Do you see why they didn’t want you to play with their Legos?”
Luckily, though, the thinking part of Michael (his upstairs brain) took over, and he addressed the situation from a Whole-Brain perspective. What triggered the more mature and empathic approach was his recognition of how much his little boy needed him right then. Of course Michael would have to address Matthias’s behaviour. And yes, he’d obviously need to be a bit more proactive next time in at- tending to the situation before it spun out of control. He’d want to help Matthias think about how Graham felt, and understand that our actions often impact other people in significant ways. All of this teaching, all of this redirection, was absolutely necessary.
But not right now.
Right now, he needed to connect.
Matthias was completely dysregulated emotionally, and he needed his dad to soothe the hurt feelings, sadness, and anger that came from being criticized for being too little to understand and from being excluded. This was not the time to redirect, to teach, or to talk about family rules and respect for others’ property. It was time to connect.
So Michael knelt down and opened his arms, and Matthias fell into them. Michael held him as he sobbed, rubbed his back, and said nothing other than an occasional “I know, buddy. I know.”
A minute later Matthias looked up at him, his eyes shiny with tears, and said, “I spilt the Legos.”
In response, Michael laughed a little and said, “I’d say you did more than that, little man!”
Matthias cracked a small smile, and at that point Michael knew he could now proceed to the redirecting part of the discipline and help Matthias understand some important lessons about empathy and ap- propriate expressions of big feelings. He was now capable of hearing his father. Michael’s connection and comfort had allowed his son to move out of a reactive state and into a receptive one, where he could hear his dad and really learn.
Notice that connecting first is not only more relational and loving. Yes, it allows parents to attune to their children, as Michael did here, and be emotionally responsive when they’re upset and dysregulated. That enables the child to “feel felt,” which is the inner sense of being seen and understood that transforms chaos into calm, isolation into connection. Connecting first is a fundamentally loving way to discipline. But notice how much more effective a No-Drama disciplinary approach can be as well. It’s not that a lecture would have been wrong as Michael’s initial response to the situation. Our point here isn’t about the rightness or wrongness of parenting approaches (although we’d definitely argue that a Whole-Brain approach is fundamentally more loving and compassionate). The point is that Michael’s connect-first tactic achieved the two goals of discipline—gaining co-operation and brain building—extremely effectively. It allowed learning to occur, teaching to be effective, and connection to be established and maintained. His approach let Michael get his son’s attention, and to do so quickly and without drama, so they could talk about Mathias’s behaviour in such a way that he could listen. Plus, it could help build Matthias’s brain, because he could now hear Michael’s points and understand the important lessons his father was teaching him. In addition, Michael modelled for his son attuned connection and showed him that there are calmer, more loving ways to interact when you’re upset with someone. And all of this happened because Michael connected first, before redirecting.