by Tina Feigal, M.S., Ed. Founder, The Minnesota Center for the Difficult Child (See her bio below)
This is the second in Tina Feigal's series of articles about the Nurtured Heart Approach (NHA) created by Howard Glasser.
As stated in the introductory article, The Nurtured Heart Approach is based on the concept that intense children are subconsciously seeking the emotional energy of the adults in their lives. If you could take a trip inside the brain of the ADHD or Oppositional Defiant child, you would see numerous fast-firing neurons producing in the child a hunger for activity, intensity, and speed. When an adult reacts to a child who is misbehaving, the usual response is filled with emotional intensity in the form of a raised voice, big gestures, and wide eyes. The adult's emotional intensity "matches" the intensity inside the child's very active brain, which satisfies the child's hunger for greater intensity from the adult. Unfortunately, this adult response inadvertently rewards the undesired behavior.
In Psychology 101 we learn from study after study that when behavior is rewarded, it is repeated. If we want to see intense children repeat desired behaviors, then we, as parents and teachers, need to reward them with intensity that will "match" the activity in their brains. The Nurtured Heart Approach teaches adults to add the necessary intensity, but the intensity is given to the positives in order to truly create the reward. As anyone who has ever parented or taught a challenging child will tell you, "Thank you" and "Good job" only go so far in helping these kids learn desired behaviors, such as speaking politely, not talking back, and cooperating with routine. They require an extra level of intensity on our part to "get" the feeling of reward that needs to follow the "desired" action.
What about Adolescent Challenging Children? Does this work with them?
I often remind parents and teachers that even though adolescents seem to care very little about the opinions of the adults in their lives, they really do. They just can't let us know that our opinion of them matters a great deal. We owe it to them and ourselves to look past their rebellious gestures of independence. Ironically, their defiance is very necessary for their developmental task of individuation (i.e., becoming uniquely themselves, as in "not-mom" and "not-dad"). Even so, when teens complete anonymous questionnaires asking who is the most influential person in their lives, they answer "Mom" or "Dad" with the greatest frequency.
The Nurtured Heart Approach offers a whole new script for the future of families and schools. I find that adults, whose children are discovering that they can get strong emotional energy for good behavior, are more content than they ever thought possible. Their children are doing the previously unimaginable, seeking energy through positive behaviors. You may be wondering whether "opportunistically" acknowledging successes while providing predictable consequences isn't a lot of work. It is. And it's the most worthwhile work a parent or teacher can do. The payoffs include easier and more satisfying adult-child relationships and most importantly, successful, whole, and happy children.
In my training and coaching sessions I teach adults how to add intensity to the positives, so that they truly download as a success in the child’s heart. The positive statements gain effectiveness when they are expressed with more intense emotion, and are delivered in a "When you…I feel…because" format. Here are some examples of language to use that add intensity to the positives.
When you picked up the toys just then I felt so proud of you. I can see you are really cooperating!
When you spoke in your indoor voice, I was so happy because you were acting like a big kid…you are amazing me today!
When you didn’t fight with Alex on the playground, I was really impressed because it shows what a good listener you are. You made my day!
When you asked so nicely for more juice, I just loved that. Your manners are something else!
Research from Heartmath Institute has shown that the heart muscle actually responds physiologically to emotional input. The nature of the heartbeat changes with "downloads" of success and heartfelt appreciation. The research has also revealed that the heart has its own neurological system that sends messages to the brain. So if we continually give positive input to the heart, we teach the brain a new lesson:
I am successful. I can please these adults. I can do the right thing!
When we take the opportunity to give heartfelt appreciation to the child multiple times each day, we strengthen the heart-to-brain message of success, rewarding the behavior we want, and increasing its frequency. This all sounds a bit technical, but when one thinks about it, we are dealing with an existing brain-body connection that is reflected in the child’s visible physiological responses of anger, rebellion, and even rage. It makes sense that the solution is for parents and teachers to mold a new physiological response.
Transforming the Difficult Child: The Nurtured Heart Approach, by Howard Glasser.
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Tina Feigal's background
Tina Feigal is a former school psychologist who now trains and coaches parents and professionals in applying the principles of The Nurtured Heart Approach. The approach is a set of highly effective techniques used to help intense children, ages 3-18, to gain control of their behavior and to see themselves as successful. Tina was trained and authorized by Howard Glasser to share ideas with adults on ways to bring out the best in intense children. Tina holds workshops for groups, and phone coaching sessions for couples and individuals, who want to hone their skills in applying the approach. Tina is also a parent, whose second of three sons went through a period of opposition and defiance related to a serious illness. He is now a graduate student in counseling psychology and living a full, productive and successful life.