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The battle for control

NATHAN WALLIS shares his thoughts on why we get so cross with our kids and why we need to work hard at being responsive rather than controlling, especially in moments of stress. By Kate Barber

We love them so much. But there are times when we all get angry and ‘lose it’ with our kids. Our intelligent, understanding adult brains shut down, and our emotional brains fire up, and just as our children do when they’re stressed and upset, we have meltdowns. 

And, as with our kids, it tends to happen when we feel like we don’t have control. 

Then, when all is calm, the waves of parental regret and guilt roll in. 

Nathan Wallis reminds us that powering over our kids to get them to do what we want them to, through threatening or bribing or screaming at them, is damaging to their developing brains. It certainly isn’t good for our relationships with our kids or for their future relationships with others. 

It’s one thing to say that we shouldn’t be controlling. The reality is that we make countless decisions for our kids every day, and the younger they are, the more we do this. 

But, as Nathan says, our kids have an inherent need to be self-determining – over what they wear, what they eat, whatever. They’re little humans, after all. 

As adults, we operate in our frontal cortexes, or procedural brains, 90 per cent of the time, says Nathan. We are thinking things through, getting stuff done, and we like to be in control of our days, which means our kids’ days, too. Whereas children, and adolescents too, operate in their limbic systems 90 per cent of the time, which means they are driven principally by their feelings. Even when we explain, every morning, that they need to put on their uniforms, they often quite simply don’t want to – chances are they have other (better) things they’d like to
be doing.

Therein lies the rub: our kids’ ideas and plans don’t usually line up with ours, which is why, so often, we find ourselves battling for control.

As Nathan says, being a parent, you’re in control a lot of the time, but you also need to be responsive to your kids – because they also want and need some control. This means being flexible, listening to them, occasionally putting your own checklist aside and doing something they want to do, even though it will disrupt your schedule.

“Brick-wall parenting leads to anxiety and aggression in our kids,” says Nathan. When we refuse to listen to what they want, when we always say no, we deny them self-agency. It’s a parenting quagmire: the more we try to control them, the more resistance and rebellion we tend to get, which so often results in us ‘losing it’.

The challenge for us is being aware of how our brains are coping (or not) in the moment. In response to a surge of stress and anger, Nathan talks about the 6-4-6 strategy, where you breathe in for 6, out for 4 and then in again for 6, allowing you to oxygenate your frontal cortex. “Doing this exercise can turn a really nasty, angry response into, ‘I need some space’,” he says.

He also encourages parents to work out a coping ritual that works for them, like walking away and putting on the washing; giving yourself a ‘time out’ can be enough to help you hold it together.  

It can be incredibly difficult to ‘change the record’ of our responses, especially if our own parents often got angry with us. As parents, we need to practise a lot.

What’s imperative is that, “following a rupture, we repair our relationship,” says Nathan. When you’re both calm, you’ll be able to see what they were so desperately trying to achieve and to understand the stressful dynamic that caused you to get so angry. It’s then that you need to restore the relationship – by apologising for your outburst, by having a cuddle on the couch, by reading a book together.

“You don’t need to be a perfect parent or even a great parent to gain all the benefits for your child as talked about in child development literature,” says Nathan. “The literature uses the term ‘good enough’ parent – so don’t be too hard on yourself.”

In presentations across the country and overseas, neuroscience presenter Nathan Wallis provides an informative narrative on the different stages of children’s neurological development and offers valuable advice for parents and educators.


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