Posts (Giving)

The Bumbo Battle: How a Tantrum Enhanced my Day of Peace and Rest

posted Sep 1, 2013, 7:36 PM by Smith Moments   [ updated Jul 28, 2016, 5:06 AM ]

It was Sunday morning--the day of peace and rest I very much look forward to every week. No deep-cleaning, no school work, no shopping, no scheduled activities (besides worship services), and no technological entertainment to weigh us down or distract us from the pure clarity that awaits to fill us up and prepare us for a new week of busyness. If my mind is still enough to take it in, Sunday is the most refreshing and rewarding day of my week.

I find that my extra hard prep on Saturdays is well-worth the likelihood of feeling that life-giving peace on Sundays.

But some aspects of peace are out of my control.

As I fumbled with cereal bowls and spoons a few Sunday mornings ago, 4-year-old Cienna and nearly 2-year-old MaryAnn dashed to the table and erupted into an explosive establishment of who deserved to be heir of the Bumbo throne that sat on one of our wooden chairs. High-pitched shrills filled the kitchen for more than a few seconds...I felt my prospects of peace rapidly slipping from my fingertips. I sensed my own alarm systems (ie blood pressure) alerting me that chaos was definitely destroying my Day of Rest.

Brent was long gone at early morning meetings before the troops awoke because he is one of the local leaders of our congregation. So...any craziness associated with getting myself and 6 kids "peacefully" out the door for 11 am church rests on my shoulders. After years of experience (and lots of high blood pressure incidences), I expect at least half of us to have a major tear-jerking "issue" before departure.

Might as well get started right after we wake up, I guess.

My stomach used to churn during tantrum moments with my children. I've tried all sorts of tricks, logic, and consequences recommended by oodles of parenting books out there. I cringe thinking about those years. Now I (almost) rejoice when a tantrum erupts...because I'm learning to use those crazy moments to wire my brain into becoming the person I believe God intends for me to be (with His help of course).

Though far from perfect, my body jumps into action with a peacemaking process:

Knowing that my young girls' natural defense systems had been highly activated in order to selfishly (but innocently) dominate each other in The Bumbo Battle, my biggest goal quickly became an attempt to absorb their immature energy that was clearly bouncing back and forth between them so I could use my adult-sized prefrontal cortex (PFC--the brain area responsible for compassion, empathy, and emotional regulation) to change their negative energy that my body had accurately detected into positive energy again. (yikes...that was a mouthful!)

Although a few other parts of my brain offered me immediate tension-relieving solutions like slamming the cereal bowls down or out-yelling my kiddos or calmly announcing that they had just earned an extra chore or sending them back to bed until they could control their own behavior or crawling back into bed myself, I resisted the temptation to manage their negative behavior by grabbing a stick or throwing out a carrot...just so I could feel a little short-term control over the situation. While their screeches were truly ear-shattering and peace-destroying, I knew a 'time-out' for their wild and rude behavior was out of the would only put the burden of changing from war to peace on their young shoulders before they have the brain capacity to do something other than strengthen their personal self-defensive walls with it.

I should explain a little further...

Let's pretend my child's immaturity (or full-blown tantrum in this case) is a ball of negative energy flying right at my face as I stand at one end of a ping pong table. My natural and normal instinct is to protect myself from it. However, a defensive or offensive or absent response on my part doesn't eliminate any negative energy in the room (energy cannot be created or destroyed, only transferred or changed). If I use a reactive response (including an isolating time-out), it may protect me from the negative energy for a moment, but it also deflects the negativeness that we are all trying to cope with back onto my child's side of the net for his/her underdeveloped brain to process again immediately (with more fear or anger or wildness, etc.) or hold onto as a not-so-pleasant-memory-that-will-some-day-need-to-be-unleashed-in-a-not-so-pleasant-way-in-the-future (using "stored" fear or anger or wildness, etc). What we really all need is for someone to grab that negative ball of energy and change it into something positive, which (I think) is the job of a mature PFC...and then hit it back.

In other words, a child who is dealing with stress or immaturity (like a big-ol' tantrum) needs the presence of a peaceful person in whom complete trust resides standing at the other end of the table. Otherwise the negative behavioral energy stays negative...and someone will have to deal with it again. If I want true change to occur in my household, I've got to be the mature one that not only notices negative energy flying around, but is also willing to grab it and sit with it long enough to transform it into positive energy before releasing it back out into the room.

Just thinking about this process makes me breathe a big sigh of relief.

Now back to what happened next in The Bumbo Battle...

<photo taken a few days after the dust settled>

After about 30 seconds of attentive listening to their unsuccessful pleas for space in the Bumbo chair, I gently asked Cienna to give up her ground and move to the blue and yellow booster chair and let MaryAnn sit in the fluffy pink chair this time. Cienna did as I said, but feeling defeated, tears streamed down her face. Keeping the front of my brain as engaged as I could, I knelt down to Cienna so our eyes could meet. She angrily dashed her eyes away from mine as I said something like, "When two people want the same thing, we have to take turns. Thank you for helping Mommy do that. If MaryAnn hurt your feelings with her screaming, I'm really sorry. It's hard to work through these tough challenges. We'll keep trying."

I offered a hand of comfort and Cienna refused it. I didn't 'react' to the frustration that she threw at me...instead I sat at her level for a moment longer and focused my mind on absorbing as much of her sadness as I could without judging her or her actions as bad or good. I felt grateful for the chance to stand as a symbol of peace and transformation. When her eyes finally met mine, I smiled softly and stood up to begin pouring cereal and milk into her bowl. I'd returned the energy she'd flung at me. I'd saved it just for her. Only now it would feel so different to her...much warmer and more peaceful. I sensed relief in her soul. She went on to eat her cereal.

MaryAnn on the other hand is brand new to this whole transforming immature energy thing. As a nearly 2-year-old, she has enough brain development to recognize negative energy (self-centered intents like the Bumbo take-over threat coming from older sister)...rightfully despise it...and ruthlessly defend herself from it (usually in the form of a counter-attack or a major meltdown). This is an important part of child development and I applaud her for making progress in life. But I also look forward to the day when she will be able to couple this key emotional awareness with the prefrontal cortex wisdom of choosing how to respond to it peacefully. For now it looks pretty ugly.

Even though she was triumphant, MaryAnn's body was feeling so out-of balance from her battle with Cienna that she still screamed at the top of her lung's capacity...a natural attempt to re-establish a more tolerable chemical balance. When I turned my attention to her, she screamed louder and flailed her arms and legs (which is kind of hard to do in a Bumbo chair, but she managed). I'm glad she felt safe showing her mother just how mad she was. With her back arched and her feet kicking, her eyes searched my body language for answers about what to do with all these wild and scary emotions.

I showed her what to do by being at peace. I felt my soul open up and reach for her struggles and hold them close to me until we could examine them together in the a much later time when her brain was calm again and ready to comprehend more.

Because she was in the mood to reject my comforting gaze and hands, I respected her wishes and let her wiggle and scream while I bustled around the kitchen. Though I was attending to other children, I kept the experience MaryAnn was having at the forefront of my awareness and continued to soak in her anxiety as she exerted it out into the room. I accepted her unruly behavior as part of who she is right now in life and simultaneously envisioned the mature woman she'll become when her body (and especially her brain) is more complete. My eyes glanced lovingly in her direction many times and I watched for an opportunity to re-connect with her, but that didn't happen before I heard cries for help in the bathroom upstairs--Allison needed the temperature adjusted on the water that was spurting from the tub faucet. Her shrieks showed me that some of MaryAnn's chaos had likely wafted upstairs for Allison to absorb as well.

That's okay. We'll eventually get it all processed.

I motioned for MaryAnn to join me in my jaunt upstairs, because I wanted to show her that I was still very much in tune to her needs. But as I neared her, she increased the volume and intensity of her fit. Most likely assuming I was coming to de-throne her, she clung to the Bumbo chair like her life depended on it, tears streaming down her face. Such confusion she must have felt.

Again (knowing I'd return very quickly), I respected her status as queen of the Bumbo chair and I let her flail in it for a few more moments while I ducked upstairs to settle my 6-year-old. "I'll be back very soon," I gently told her.

When I returned to the kitchen a couple of minutes later, MaryAnn was still going strong with her rageful fit.

Only now she had a bigger audience. Diggy and Kirsti (Kenny was still asleep) sat at the table observing her scene and feeling rather helpless.

"What's wrong with her?" they asked sympathetically. "Why does she keep screaming like that? What should we do? How can you stand it?"

This wasn't the first major tantrum MaryAnn's older sibs had witnessed...but still. They felt accurately alarmed by her tame-less screams. Her high-pitched screeches and twisting body movements threatened their inner peace. I could read my children's minds. I used to feel vulnerable to toddler tantrums, too. (Sometimes I still do.) I remember feeling helpless...and mad...and then helpless again...when my kids were out of control. I remember attempting to stop the madness by plucking them up from their tantrum spot and planting them down in a corner or on a chair or in their bedroom until they "learned to control themselves". I even had the non-emotional 'your-tantrum-doesn't-phase-me' face down. By the time Allison came around, we made her sit in the herself...until she stopped screaming so she wouldn't disturb the whole household. (oh if I could turn back the clock!)

I'll never forget the looks on our older children's faces when they witnessed Mom and Dad isolating an out-of-control child and then pretending nothing was wrong while she wailed away in despair. I saw their trust in us melting away. I saw fear or coldness or both enter their systems.

So before Allison's brain could develop any further (she was about 24 months old), I changed. I'm a different parent now. I'm learning, by the grace of God, how to give peace during turbulent tantrum times. And I'm discovering that God grants me His peace as I do so. We are all so (with a google o's) much happier!!

But now how could I explain this peacemaking process to my older children, so they, too, could rest their minds and hearts on this Sabbath day?

A thought came racing in:

"Do you remember when MaryAnn was a tiny baby? She did lots of sleeping and even when she was awake she hardly noticed when life around her got complicated? Well, now she's older and more mature. Her brain has more connections now, but she's not completely grown up yet. She's old enough to recognize emotional stress, like a sibling rivalry over a pink chair, and the chaos often engulfs her in darkness kind of like the sun going down at night. She feels lost and confused. She doesn't have enough brains to process the darkness peacefully yet so she seeks for ways to cope temporarily by screaming and fighting. She's in darkness, but she is not the darkness. Do you see the difference?"

They got it.

"If I saw her flailing around and thought her light had gone out forever, how would I likely respond?" I continued.

"You'd be scared. Or mad. Or worried."

"You're right. Is that how you feel?"


"Sometimes I feel that way, too. It's pretty normal. And sometimes those feelings make me react in a self-centered way so I can settle those unpleasant emotions pretty quickly. But I don't feel scared or mad or worried now because I know MaryAnn is not the darkness that she's feeling temporarily. So, if I know for certain that her lovely sunshine will brighten the world again soon, just like I know the sun will come up every morning, how am I likely to respond to her?"

"You wouldn't be scared. Or mad. Or worried. You would be okay."

"Right again. That's how I feel now. I feel very comfortable and confident that MaryAnn's sun will come up again. I also know that I can help lead her back to that brighter place. Young minds are very willing to follow. So, how can I help her find sunshine again?"

"You could hold her hand and give her a flashlight while it's dark." They smiled at the thought.

"Exactly. At this age, MaryAnn knows to search for light because she can tell darkness is a yucky place to be. But if I leave her to cope with the darkness all on her own, I would feel a little nervous. She may wander towards a light, but perhaps not the brightest and warmest sunshine that she deserves. And she may gather extreme cloudiness along the way which would make it hard to tell when she's standing in daylight again. Instead of expecting her to handle this on her own, I feel very aware of MaryAnn's sadness and confusion right now, so she's not alone. I'm not ignoring her. I'm happy to lend her my light and gently lead her toward True Sunshine again. I think she can feel my light radiating towards her right this minute because I'm in her presence and even though she's still screaming, she can tell that I'm aware of her in a warm kind of way. As she grows, her mind will mature and be able to handle darkness a little more independently. After many years, she'll not only recognize Perfect Light, but because of all our practicing together, she'll know how to get up and move towards it even if I'm not there."

By the time my explanation was over, MaryAnn was listening to my voice tell her siblings that "I love MaryAnn. I know I can help her through her dark times by being a glimmer of light for her to follow," and she was quiet.

It was time to roll out some bread dough. Having soaked in the majority of MaryAnn's out-of-control emotions and having kept them close to my heart as they transformed into peace, I sensed it was time to share them again with her.

Bending down at her level, I asked, "MaryAnn, do you want to help Mommy spread flour all over the counter so we can make bread?"

She sheepishly leaned in my direction, testing her trust in me. I scooped her up in my arms and hugged her tenderly, letting the love flow between us, before setting her down on a chair so her eyes could tower over the beveled edge of our dark grey Corian.

 <It was such a lovely moment, I actually asked one of my older kids to snap a picture.>

Working alongside a present-minded mother did wonders for MaryAnn's emotional balance. Sharing the peace that God has granted me--especially during so many of my tantrum moments--with my sweet daughter in her time of need did wonders for stretching my patience far enough to reach a greater capacity to understand, respect, love, endure, and rest. It felt like climbing a mountain...and making it to the top.

As the morning continued, I could tell MaryAnn's body was still trying to process the residue stress hormone leftover in her brain from The Bumbo Battle. She remained on high alert as simple stress tilted her emotional scale a few more times. I had to stay focused on being steady and strong and patient for her sake as we descended the other side of the mountain. But an hour or so later when I showed her a purple dress she hadn't worn in a long time, she smiled with all the delight of a rainbow coloring the sky as the storm departs.

I basked in the sunshine with MaryAnn and paused to take in the moment's triumphant beauty. I could not have led my daughter to light without having first received light from the Source of all Light myself. Because of the challenges that face my two-year-old as her brain develops, I have a greater opportunity to commune with Deity. What a blessing! Especially on a Sabbath morning.

I sent a prayer of gratitude heavenward.

Epilogue: Just moments before the final mad dash out the door, I stood in front of my bathroom mirror for my usual 2-minute make-up application. All four of my girls surrounded me as they fumbled with makeshift eye shadow brushes and lip gloss sticks. When Kirsten noticed me smearing yellow goop on the dark circles under my eyes, she paused from powdering her face and inquired, "Why do you put on make-up anyways?"

Without the added strength and wisdom I had gained from the yoga-like concentration I'd needed during MaryAnn's tantrum earlier that morning, I'm sure I would have flippantly rambled about blemishes and whale blubber and good impressions.

But because my mind had stretched into a greater place of awareness and peace, I paused long enough to remember that my responses to my children's questions have monumental impact on how they view life...and on how they feel about themselves. I felt my heart and mind fill up with a wisdom greater than my own before I casually relayed the response, "I like the way my make-up highlights the natural beauty God gave me."

I moved on to my eye-liner, but kept my glance on Kirsten as she carefully examined her own reflection and smiled with a joy that melted my heart. Her younger sisters had paused to watch her, too. Having been enlightened, they went back to rummaging through their make-up bags.

And we eventually arrived at church happily ever after that Sunday morning. Luckily "The Bumbo Battle" went down in the history books just in time for the commencement of "The Bench Battle: 6 Kids on a Pew while Daddy Conducts the 70-minute Meeting." All sorts of peace and rest just waiting to come my way again...

Wedding Prep

posted May 18, 2013, 4:30 AM by Smith Moments   [ updated Jul 28, 2016, 5:20 AM ]

So Kirsti's brain is grasping reality more and more every day. I can tell because she continuously asks realistic questions that have direct impact on her future. For example, "Can Santa really go to every person's house in one night?" (Thus, we've shared the ins and outs of folks like Santa and the Tooth Fairy with her. She gets that parents want to give anonymously from time to time.)

Kirsti thinks a lot about how she'll handle the future and I can see her wheels turning as she tries to prepare herself for what's ahead. Smart girl. (a sign of being in the Accountability Stage)

After looking at our wedding album recently and reminiscing about Aunt Bridget's bridal shower, Kirsti had an important question for me this last week:

"Are there any secrets that moms tell their daughters before they get married?"


I sensed a need to summon all my attention for this one.  "What do you mean by secrets?" I asked, trying not to sound nervous.

"Well, I know that the boy and the girl can make a baby after they get married. Are there any other secrets that you're going to tell me before I get married?" She sounded urgent...hoping I wouldn't wait until the last minute to share important information with her. (which I wouldn't do, of course ;)

[Yep. This was definitely a good time to use my prefrontal cortex to become present-minded as quickly as possible and review a few facts for a split second before answering wisely: I knew she already knows that private parts are important for making babies and that when a boy and girl are mature enough, their sacred, private body parts contain the tiny cells that will create and nourish a new little person. We've scratched the surface on putting the pieces together...and apparently here we go into a much more detailed discussion on human sexuality. I'm okay with that. I'm ready.

But then I also remembered: A child's brain doesn't think the same way an adult's brain does. Let's make sure we're on the same page. Jumping onto her wavelength to lead her along is always a waaay better idea than whip-lashing her onto mine.]

I turned my heart and my eyes toward her. "I can tell you everything I know about getting married when the timing feels right. Is there something specific that you're worried about?"

"Well...if I want to get to someone's will I know how to get there?"

[Not at all what I was expecting. Her innocence caught me off guard for a second...but then I recalled that she'd asked a similar question while we were driving together recently. Evidently, she'd concluded that married people seem to know where they are going and she didn't want to eventually become the only spouse in the world who was clueless about navigating around town. Makes sense. It is worrisome to feel lost. I should have reassured her that there are lots of married people who still need to ask for directions. But I didn't go there.]

"Good question," I said. "I use a map. Do you know how to use a map?"


"I'd be happy to teach you."

We spent the next 30 minutes typing in addresses on Google Maps, discussing N/S/E/W, and acting out which direction we'd turn at each corner on the way to her friend's house.

Questions drive much of the education around here. Questions are an indication that the mind is ready to really work at soaking in new information...and actually put it to good use or permanently store it...instead of letting it drift back out into space without hardly acknowledging its existence.

If I'm not too distracted, I notice my children's questions and jump at the opportunity to foster learning at these keys moments when they are naturally most ripe for it.

"Now you'll be ready to go anywhere you need to go after you're married," I stated confidently. [wink and phew]

She was relieved. And we checked geography off our list of weekly goals.

We'll brush up on human sexuality another day...well before her wedding day, for sure.

Kirsti's been wedding-planning for some time now. She asked Grandma to make her a wedding dress for her 4th birthday a few years back (pictured above). She googles 'wedding dress designs' regularly and now she knows how to read a map. She'll be a very beautiful (and well-prepared) bride some day.

Woody to the Rescue

posted Feb 4, 2013, 8:13 AM by Smith Moments   [ updated Jul 28, 2016, 4:53 AM ]

I was tapping away at my computer on our basement couch when high pitched screeches from a few feet away wailed out of control.  With great distress, Cienna and MaryAnn battled for the same toy. "I had it first!" screamed one. "Whaaaah!" wailed the other.

It was obvious their prefrontal cortex neurons weren't going to kick in on their own this time without mirroring a few of mine. So...though naturally annoyed that my personal few minutes of peace were up, I sensed the need to pull up my boot straps and lend my slightly more mature mind to assist my two little ones in managing the high emotions that go along with the conflict their ACCs had accurately detected. 

In this particular case, I took a wild guess that the 1-yr-old (who has plenty of exploring-the-world neurons, but sharing-what-I-discover neurons...not so much) had indeed taken a toy without having a mature discussion with older sibling about how to negotiate shared time with the hot commodity. As I approached the situation, I concentrated on having my body language say, "Oh, I see you've discovered a conflict. I can help!" as opposed to "Not again...what's wrong with you two immature hoodlums?" This took some personal prefrontal cortex power. Trust me. 

"I'm sorry MaryAnn took your toy, Cienna. It looks like she'd like a turn. When you're done playing with it, can you pass it to her?" Cienna happily nodded, felt validated, calmed down, and went on playing.

MaryAnn, however, whose hands I had to pry off the toy during the above conversation, screamed even louder and beckoned for her motor skills to help her process all the emotional energy she was feeling. She rolled around on the floor and flailed wildly. Her eyes glared at me and tears streamed down her face.

I again summoned my own prefrontal cortex neurons that are responsible for emotional regulation and empathy and compassion because 1. If I didn't, I would feel out of control myself and 2. I knew this very conflict MaryAnn was having was the perfect opportunity for her budding prefrontal cortex neurons to witness mature conflict after many more similar practice sessions, she can eventually gain this skill as well...kind of like slowly learning to walk emotionally.  In other words her tantrum is a chance to practice taking an emotional baby step because her prefrontal cortex growth (which she needs in order to experience healthy and happy adulthood) can only occur if she is in the presence of someone who displays prefrontal cortex maturity (that would be me...hopefully) during a conflict (which she was obviously having). 

I focused my concentration on MaryAnn as she kicked and screamed. I picked her up to show genuine comfort and concern. I gazed deeply into her eyes while imagining the confusion, frustration, and sadness she must be feeling. She screamed louder and whacked me a few times with her hands and feet, squirming to get out of me arms. I showed respect for her body that was trying desperately to manage these emotions by putting her gently down in front of me, my attention still focused on her needs. I watched her roll around on the floor for another minute or two. I particularly noticed how her eyes, fierce with emotion, repeatedly glanced at mine as if to continually and naturally sense whether I was still connected to her...or not.  

Perfect. Those searching eyes are such a classic sign of attachment. I feel thrilled...not in a cocky, arrogant sort of way...but in a tender, peaceful, loving sort of way. I also knew that if her body did not sense my mature attention, she would have to cope with this negative emotion on her own. Her brain would find a way of course...but that other way would not involve positive prefrontal cortex growth.

But with my focused attention on her needs, with my connection to her, she could freely bounce her negative energy right out at me and instead of bouncing it right back at her with my frustration, worry, anger, etc., I could instead willingly absorb it and help her change it into something positive...using my prefrontal cortex...thus making me a stronger, better person as well. 

Whenever there's a conflict, there are two goals to accomplish: 1. Shrink the negative energy that's detected and 2. Produce positive energy to take it's place. In many cases with  my children, I've noticed that in a moment of distress (like a tantrum) simply shrinking the negative is accomplishment enough for the moment. Then later (like hours, days, or weeks later) when the mind is "free" again, we can work on producing some positiveness to fill in that new empty space. 

As I soaked some of MaryAnn's negative energy in (thus helping her shrink it), I pondered what I could do to assist my sweet, struggling girl in what TO DO in place of the negative reaction she'd had. Ideas came to my mind. 

I grabbed a princess and a Care Bear and modeled happy playtime. When Wish Bear invited princess over to play at her house, MaryAnn stopped screaming and watched for a second. But when princess took too long to answer one of Wish Bear's questions, MaryAnn's mind reminded her that she still felt hurt inside and she started crying again. This back and forth, between two emotional worlds, happened a few more times...

I sensed that it might be best to end our positive disciplinary session. I felt content to take her and her vulnerable feelings with me upstairs to help me cook dinner. Spending more time with me doing something very different would help to shrink the rest of the negative energy and build up our relationship a bit more so we could work on the playing nicely part again later...when the timing felt more natural.
But then I noticed a famous cowboy sitting nearby. And I knew that unlike Big Sister who was always frightened of toys that made noise as a young child, MaryAnn loves them.

So, like a true gentleman, this cowboy strutted fearlessly right up within inches of MaryAnn's face and said, "Howdy partner! My name's Woody. Do you want to play with me, MaryAnn?" [I helped him say the last part.]

She nodded yes...with a BIG smile on her face.

And for another 10 minutes, Woody, Wish Bear, Princess, and MaryAnn played hide-and-seek in their castle, went grocery shopping, ate pretend apples, and talked about sharing (naturally).     

Fear of Bubble Bath

posted Jan 31, 2013, 9:00 PM by Smith Moments   [ updated Jul 28, 2016, 5:05 AM ]

These bubbles represent brain growth. 

A few years back when my sweet and extremely highly-sensitive Cienna was between 6 months and about 3 years old, her newly activated alert system worked over-time (compared to most children her age) to warn her against potential threats. This phenomenon, coupled with her amazing memory of past events and her incredibly responsive amygdala (the brain’s center for fear), caused anything remotely close to invading her personal space to receive major rejection and often a full blown panic attack that included vomit.

So, when I noticed Cienna’s eyes grow big with fear the first time she examined bubble bath foaming in her familiar bath water, I knew those innocent air-filled balls didn’t stand a chance on her acceptance list. Even with her siblings splashing happily away near her, as the bubbles began to stick uncontrollably to her tummy...and arms...and face, she screamed and I quickly plucked her out of the water before she could add her lunch to it.

Without a bit of brain development knowledge, I’m certain I would have routinely freaked out myself and projected all sorts of misery for Cienna’s future because obviously (based on this experience) fear would rule it...forever.

And of course my worry about her future, my frustration for not finishing her bath, my annoyance that my child was now screaming like a wet noodle in my arms all would certainly have thrown even more “conflict” out into the bathroom for her little mind to process in that awful moment a few years ago. Without a deep understanding and concern for Cienna’s brain development, after drying her off, I probably also would have been tempted to devise a plan to “strongly encourage” her to get used to bubbles sooner than she was ready just to settle my own anxiety that she may never fully experience joy in life without bubbles in it.  

(I’m certain about this potential “reaction” because I used to make such judgments and self-centered disciplinary plans when my older children were younger. The temptation still crops up when conflict arises in our home today...but now I’m a little more prepared for it...and I have The Pyramid...dun, dun, dun.)

Back to what really happened with the bubbles...I simply noticed Cienna’s wild reaction to the bubbles and accepted it as part of who she was at that moment. I didn't make a judgment that she would be "that way" her whole life. While I calmly scooped her into my arms to dry her off and reassure her that all would be well, I settled my nerves by sorting through and feeling grateful for a few neurological explanations:

1. Conflict Awareness: Cienna is not an infant anymore, her brain is developed enough to alert** her of conflict or uncertainty. That’s excellent and essential for future progress. Yeah! 

**Scientists have identified the Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC, highlighted in yellow above) as a center for detecting error and conflict. I find it fascinating that this brain area sits between our lower, emotional brain and our higher, cognitive neurons. It seems to me that when a conflict (like bubble bath sitting on your skin or immature/unruly behavior in our children) is detected, the ACC gets the message and then calls for help in solving the conflict--asking either the lower emotional brain to take charge (via a natural, emotional/physical reaction) or the higher prefrontal cortex to step in (pausing to truly think through and choose a wise path). The brain area with the most experience is the one most likely to get summoned to help in a “crisis” young children, this is almost never the prefrontal cortex because it hardly exists yet.  

2. Some (but not all) Memory Skills: Cienna’s implicit memory is working better than her explicit memory at this age. That basically means that she remembers everything from the past (emotional responses included) as if it is happening to her in the present moment. In other words, between 12 -24 months-ish (and a few years older in some cases), she can’t recall a “scary” past event without feeling like it is happening again right now. Her body will automatically physically react as if she’s in danger again because she doesn’t have enough explicit memory to tell her that the “event” was from a long time ago. This is the same memory reaction that people who struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome have. 

So, if Cienna had ever had a frightening experience where something was uncontrollably on her skin (like an ant or something), perhaps she’s reliving that trauma with the bubbles. And that’s okay. Her brain is working to protect her as best it can right now. I can respect that...and when things are settled, I can be in tune to help her explicit memory appropriately progress. And I can remember that implicit memory is also a blessing...adding such beauty to life as we recall Christmas morning and wedding days and snuggling with our children when they were young...even when those times are past.   

3. Emotional Development: Because the brain develops from back to front and from the inside out, I know Cienna’s emotional brain that sits inside her outer cortex part (and especially her amygdala) is now highly functional, making her extremely reactive. When she was first born, she didn’t have this she’s making progress. High re-activity is a normal developmental challenge for many years, but also a blessing...because without out-of-control bursts of emotion, Daddy walking in the front door wouldn't be nearly as big of a celebration...every day.     

4. Lack of Prefrontal Cortex Help: At the age of 1, or 2, or 3, Cienna’s prefrontal cortex, which helps control emotional reactions, isn’t fully developed yet....but that doesn’t mean it won’t catch up eventually (like gradually over the next 20 years...the prefrontal cortex’s slow development is the #1 reason why parenting is so hard!!). When it does catch up with her newly developed emotional abilities, she’ll have the capability to freely sort through conflicts and pick how to respond to them appropriately. I’m an adult. I’m supposed to have a developed prefrontal I can use it (and thus make it stronger) to practice patience while I observe and assist my daughter in this growth process.  

5. Using My Own PFC: To help her prefrontal cortex develop, I’ll let her mirror mine by showing her how to manage conflict. (I like to remember NAP: 1. Notice the conflict, 2. Accept the current levels of immaturity in all parties, including myself, and 3. Prioritize concern for others over my personal defense against fear in order to Progress.)

Ultimately, because of her new growth in conflict awareness, Cienna’s natural defense system was also developing rapidly at that age in order to process conflicts and feel stable again. As I observed her personal natural defense tendencies (screaming, then panic, then nausea), I could also take the opportunity to be aware of my own “reaction” and be honest about whether she had to cope with my negative energy as well or if I truly put myself on her team in battling the conflict she was experiencing together with her.

In short, I recognized back then that Cienna’s crazy reaction to bubbles was a combination of new brain development in some areas and lack of brain development in others, especially in the prefrontal cortex region. I knew this future brain development was still set to expand in future months and years, so we erased “I hope my daughter can enjoy bubble baths” from our list of expectations and waited patiently for more neurons to make connections before re-introducing pink liquid into her bath water again.

Fairy-Tale Ending
Cienna’s is almost 4 ½ now. I don’t quite remember when she decided that bubbles were okay. But when she giggled with delight as I poured bubble bath into the tub a few days ago and it started foaming all around her while she quickly dabbed some all over her face and grabbed the fake razor, I had a flashback...and then felt a warm tingle as I marveled at the magic of brain growth.   

The Ryde

posted Jan 11, 2013, 11:55 AM by Brent Smith

My ten-year-younger brother recently started a shuttle bus service for the BYU college campus. He carries hundreds of students to & from their homes so they can study and learn. He calls it “The Ryde”.

As you might imagine, when a bus breaks down, it is quite the scramble to get it working correctly. Otherwise, students miss classes, get frustrated and ultimately find another way to school.

Amy and my parenting has followed a similar “ryde”. Sometimes our ‘bus’ is running great! Our riders are happy and getting the learning they deserve & need. Other times, we break down causing our kids to miss valuable learning and get frustrated.

I’m sure you and I are the same in wanting our children to be happy and successful, serving in society and living by key values. One of my worries as a dad, has always been that my children may ultimately decide to find a ‘different path to learning’, leading them away from what I value and believe will make them happy.

For some of you, this may have already happened and your kids have found a different ‘ryde’. There may be nothing you could have done to keep your child from choosing a different shuttle service. Often times though, it is our own broken-down or run-down bus that contributes to them going to a competitor.

Maybe its time for a tune-up! There are lots of ‘parent’ mechanics out there. What we found though, is that most focus on fixing your riders instead of the bus. In my biased perspective (haha), during Amy’s late night pondering over the last 13 years she has come up with some great diagnostic tools and fixes that have helped our bus run much smoother. I must say though, most of the fixes have involved opening my own hood.

So the next time you crack open your hood in an effort to diagnose and fix the problems in your own bus, I’d encourage you to open up Amy’s instruction manual. You won’t find the quick fix solutions that leave you broken down again in a week. You’ll find an ongoing maintenance plan that will keep your bus running smoothly.

I love you Cutie! You make a great mechanic. And I am so glad you’re raising our kids!

Hitting (Attachment Stage 0-3)

posted Jan 11, 2013, 8:45 AM by Smith Moments   [ updated Jul 28, 2016, 5:00 AM ]


 My adorable angel, MaryAnn (17 months), started hitting...regularly.

MaryAnn is old enough to have a few cognitive hopes and dreams now (looking at books, taking baths, eating treats)...and recognize when those dreams aren’t coming true (when Mom says, "Not now, Dear"). Recognition takes more brain power than she had when she was a newborn. (Yeah for her!)

But it also means the beginning of intense emotional drama. 

Recently, the youngest three took turns sitting in a black office chair while Kirsti and Diggy shared in the job of spinning, rolling, and saying, “Keep your arms inside the car at all times. Enjoy your ride.”

MaryAnn observed for several rounds and then bravely stepped forward to join in. She grinned and giggled during her first adventure. She could tell that she was imitating ‘the good times’ she’d witnessed a few minutes before. Happy chemicals (like dopamine) were flowing through her body, and her memory cells worked hard to connect “big black chair” with “happy feeling”.

But then it was time to switch riders.

Kirsti scooped MaryAnn out of the chair and declared that it was Cienna’s turn. Naturally, those happy chemicals stopped flowing and her body went into a state of alarm and protest. She arched her back and squealed as Kirsti plopped her on the couch next to Allison. Still feeling out of balance from this shocking transition, MaryAnn resorted to more physical exertion in the form of her arm whacking Allison in the face. (This made Allison bite her tongue and burst into tears.)

I was in the kitchen when the chaos reached my ears. I stopped what I was doing and went into battle.

“MaryAnn hit Allison,” reported big sister.

By now, MaryAnn had joined Allison in crying.

I looked Allison deep in the eyes and asked if she was okay. I hugged her for a moment and told her I was sorry that MaryAnn had hit her. She continued to cry, but after hearing my empathy, her body relaxed and seemed relieved. I assured her that MaryAnn’s brain is still growing...she’s using what she has right now (like motor skills), but it’s not done developing yet. I made sure Allison felt confident that I could and would help her sister learn know how to handle those hands of hers over the coming months.

Then I went to MaryAnn and picked her up. I held her close and talked softly in her ear. I think I said something about how hitting hurts people. I also told her gently that she’s growing up--she recognizes fun when she sees it. But my main message was that I could tell she was feeling out of control and I knew I could help her whenever she feels that way. She can trust that my brain will show hers how to handle these tricky situations.

The prolonged crying didn’t bother me (like it sometimes does) because I felt fully present...focused on my child’s needs instead of my own. I knew that this was an emotional cloud that would roll on soon. I knew that tears are a good sign that the body is (1) aware of its out of balance state and (2) in need of finding an effective way to release some stress hormone. Tears can do that. I actually gained energy as I thought about how my tenderness in this difficult moment would bond my children to me (including the innocent by-standers) and give me more strength to teach and lead them toward worthy goals (like not hitting) when the storm passed.

I continued to cradle MaryAnn until the crying stopped after several minutes. Then I stayed nearby for several more minutes.

I joined in “the game” to assist MaryAnn in waiting for her turn. I held her on my lap while we patiently waited. I repeated the word “turn” (Allison’s turn...Cienna’s turn...MaryAnn’s turn) lots of times because she’s been soaking in so many word-meanings lately that I knew she’d catch on.   

It’ll probably take a few more weeks of practicing for her brain cells to myelinate, or in other words automatically remember that Turn = Fun Coming Soon, but she’ll eventually get it.

This wasn’t the first time she’d hit. Sometimes when I tell her “no,” her emotions get the best of her and she hauls off and smacks me while I’m in the very act of consoling her because life doesn't always produce the piece of candy she knows would taste good. Hitting is one of her current ways of communicating, “I feel pretty out of control!” It releases at least some of the negative energy she's feeling. I don’t take it personally. Well actually I do...she’s willing to share her most frantic moments with me...her mother. I’m glad.

Or sometimes when she’s playing with the kids, the game gets wild and she can tell that flailing arms contributes to sibling bonding. She hits to join in with the rough-housing. They laugh. So does she.

I have memories of assuming my child would lead a life of violence if I didn’t zap the hitting-thing with at least a gentle punishment (like a consistent time-out) that would corner him/her into “choosing” more wisely next time. But now I know what’s going on in that little innocent, but ignorant and often out of control brain. I know that some simple following in my footsteps will take care of the ignorance part. And I know that a healthy prefrontal cortex will keep developing in my little one’s mind (which will assist her in taming natural impulses and balancing emotions) if I keep using mine wisely in her presence. And until then, I’m happy to shoulder the burden of her immaturity with her. It makes us both stronger.    

By lending her my prefrontal cortex for a few minutes after the “Roller Coaster Chair” incident, I felt a deeper connection to her than before I’d set down my broom a few minutes earlier.

Because of it, I will actually now have an easier time teaching these important hand-slappin' neurological connections:

Smashing Pumpkins = Awesome (at least for now--we'll revisit this topic during teen years)


Fist Bump = Bonding Moment

Drum-Bashing = Future Stardom


Hitting People When Mad = Not Good

Originally Posted 27th November 2012 on by Amy

Labels: Attachment Stage Hitting


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