My guest this week is Lori Petro, the founder of TEACH through Love, and the creator of Conscious Communication Cards. Lori is dedicated to helping parents learn how to communicate better with their child without blame, shame, judgment, and guilt. She created TEACH through Love as an online resource for conscious parenting, offering non-punitive and trauma-informed education and support.
In this episode, Lori and I discuss the importance of parent-child communication and how it affects children’s behavior and development. Lori introduces her concept of ‘Conscious Communication’ and ‘quality feedback’. She provides us with useful tips to help navigate and implement these skills in order to help improve the parent-child relationship, strengthen children’s neural connections and improve their overall behavior. Learn more about Lori Petro here. Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.
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Show Highlights: How We Communicate With Children Affects Their Behavior and Development (scroll to read)
What is Conscious Communication?
- Becoming aware and present of the words we are using
- Giving quality feedback
- Why am I feeling deregulated that my child isn’t listening to me right now?
- Why is my stress level rising?
- Why can’t I stay confident and calm when I am setting limits?
- Why do I get triggered so much?
Are you using reactive phrases?
- Reactive communication
- Things that do not reflect conscious communication i.e blaming, shaming, judging
- Spitting out directions: “Hurry up!”, “Why aren’t you done?”
- When communicating this way, even when coming from the best intentions, parents must ask themselves how the message is translating to their child
How to Give Quality Feedback
- Offering the child a chance to respond and give you information about what they need
- Restraining from giving directives or judging their behavior
- Ex: “I noticed your backpack is at the door. We’ve got 5 minutes to leave, how can I help?”
Lori’s Three-Prong Approach to Assess Behavioral Issues
- SUPPORT – are the parent and child connected?
- STRESS – is this child sensory or cognitively overwhelmed?
- SKILLS- is this a time where the parent must set limits to help them build or grow in a skill i.e. focus, attention, responsibility
How Conscious Communication Can Help Neurological Development
- Kids tend to thrive mentally, physically and emotionally
- When parents respond to their children with empathy, they help strengthen the neuro-connectors in their brain.
Punitive Behavioral Approaches Can Be Harmful to Parent-child Relationship
- Children who are highly sensitive, trigger easily, are on the autism spectrum or have experienced trauma
- This could lead to hard-wiring of negative behavior, even when your intentions are coming from a good place
Where to learn more?
Episode Intro … 00:00:30
Assessing Communication … 00:03:46
What is Conscious Communication … 00:05:18
3-Prong Behavior Approach … 00:11:35
Affect on Child Development … 00:13:11
Harmful Approach … 00:17:06
Affect On Relationship … 00:21:29
Self-reflection … 00:25:47
Episode Wrap Up … 00:30:46
Dr. Nicole Beurkens:
Hi, everybody, and welcome to the show. I’m Dr. Nicole Beurkens, and today I’m super excited to have Lori Petro as my guest. I’ve been following Lori’s work on social media and online for a while. She talks about a lot of really important aspects of parent-child communication that fit really went well with what I teach to parents in my community.
I just think that this whole topic around the relationships that we have with our kids as parents, and how we can use ourselves and our communication as a powerful intervention and support for our kids is so important. I’m really excited that Lori agreed to do this today. Lori is a child advocate, the founder of TEACH through Love, and the creator of the Conscious Communication Cards. Lori’s dedicated to helping parents learn to communicate without blame, shame, judgement and guilt. She created TEACH through Love as an online resource for conscious parenting, offering non-punitive and trauma informed education and support.
Lori, thanks for being here. Welcome to the show.
Hello. Thank you. Thank you for having me.
We’ve got a lot of questions that we want to dive into over the next half hour, but I’d love actually to just spend a few minutes right now, to have you share your story with people who are listening, how you got into doing this kind of work?
I think in my heart, I’ve always had a real passion for advocacy, fighting for the underdog. Wherever I see injustice, or people being hurt, I have a very visceral reaction to it. I think that was always my path, but I was the misunderstood kid. I didn’t really come from this. I have a degree in education. I had that backup plan, but I wasn’t working as an educator right when I got out of college. I had artistic dreams, but it always came back down to this passion that I had for changing how we interacted.
I was a misunderstood kid. I grew up with a lot of blame and shame and punishment. I was always punished. I felt like I wasn’t doing all the things that people said I was doing. The behaviors weren’t my real problem, but nobody really knew how to get underneath that. That’s where I come. I really come from a place of wanting, just parents to understand their kids and kids to feel like they’re heard and understood by their parents. I think so much of that is missed.
I think that that’s so true. For you to have had the personal experience with that as a child, I see so many kids in my practice who are misunderstood kids. The focus is very much on what’s going on the outside, with their behavior as opposed to looking at what the underlying issues are and what the unmet needs are, that are causing kids to act out in the ways that they are.
I always feel like kids are doing the best that they can and the strategies that they’re using, while we may call those inappropriate or unacceptable, they’re doing the best they can to get their needs met and looking at those underlying pieces and being responsive to those is so important. I so appreciate the work that you’re doing and the experience that you bring to this.
Thank you. That makes total sense. If we could just look beyond those surface behaviors, like you said, really try to figure out what kids are communicating. It would be so much easier for parents. That’s the thing. I don’t want to tell anybody what to do. I don’t want to come into a home to be like “Well you do this and sort this”, it’s more about, why am I feeling just regulated that my child isn’t listening to me right now.
Why is my stress level rising? Why can’t I stay confident and calm when I’m setting limits, why do I get triggered so much? I think when we start to really look deeper, not just at our children’s behavior, but at our own behavior, it just becomes so much easier for us to really connect and communicate and then shift behavior, just as a natural, automatic– just the result looking deeper. We really get what we want without trying so hard.
That’s a beautiful way to put that, and I love how your focus is really on how we, as parents, can shift and change things about ourselves, how we’re thinking about things, how we are communicating, responding and behaving in order to encourage positive change in our kids. Because really, we can’t control anyone but ourselves. As parents, to be able to think about what’s within my control, to change here, to better support my child and to help our relationship move forward is so critical. I love this term that you use, ‘conscious communication’ and I think that that may be a term that’s unfamiliar to a lot of people who are listening, so I’d love for you to delve into “What is conscious communication?”.
Lori: For me, it really just means becoming aware of the words that we’re using. It’s not a list of things to say or how to act, it’s really just “Am I conscious and aware of what’s coming out of my mouth?”. When we’re stressed, we’re usually not very conscious of those words. It’s just a mindfulness that comes with communicating, slowing down and not feeling like we have to say something, because then that gives us a chance to really consider, is this– for me, it’s about quality feedback.
I like to give kids quality feedback, feedback that informs them on how to change their behavior and doesn’t just tell them what to do, or tell them how they’re acting, or tell them how they’re making us feel, or making me angry, or all of this stuff. It’s just about becoming conscious, aware and present of the words that we use.
I love that. I think that you’re right. When we’re in moments of stress, of tension, of dysregulation, of hecticness with our kids, we tend to not be very mindful about the communication that we’re using. Can you give some examples of common things that you see that would represent, that reactive communication or things that maybe, as parents, we would hear come out of our mouths that would not reflect conscious communication? Just so that people are clear.
The thing about this is, it’s definitely what we say. When we’re using, when we’re blaming or shaming or judging, that’s not polite. “Why would you do that?”, we challenge our kids. None of that really helps them figure things out, it just stresses them out. Something as simple as when we’re trying to get out the door in the morning and we’re just standing over them saying, “Hurry up. Why aren’t you done? Get your backpack. Put it in.” and we’re just giving them direction after direction, instead of maybe stopping and thinking, “What’s missing in this situation? Their socks are missing, they’re not on their feet. I noticed you sneakers are still by the door.”, instead of “Hurry up, go get your sneakers on”.
For me what it does is, it gives kids a chance, not only in certain situations it’ll connect us, but it also prompts them to use their brain. That thinking part of their brain isn’t going to just mature and develop without input. If we are yelling directions, or nagging or even if we’re doing it, we think it’s kind and calm, “That wasn’t very polite. Why would you do that to your friend? Look how sad you made her”. Now we’ve got some shame and guilt.
We have the best intentions, but does the message translate? Those are just some really simple things that I am– this is not about perfection, I always say conscious, not perfect. When we say things that are blaming or shaming, we can go back and say, “How can I give this child quality feedback? I noticed your backpack was still by the door.” or “We’ve got five minutes to leave. How can I help?”.
Just offering children a chance to either respond, give us information about what they need, will help rather than always going in and trying to give directives or judging the behavior, or any of those other things that we might use, again with the best of intentions. When we’re not conscious, it seems easy. It’s easy to say all of those things, “If you would just study harder, you would have an easier time on these tests”.
It’s like that doesn’t help the child, look into what’s missing, what’s preventing me from getting this better grade or from achieving success here, what’s really getting in my way? When we look for that, we might find, “This child is struggling with attention.” or they get headaches when they read for too long, so they need to break up their homework into shorter bursts like, “Do 15 minutes here”. There are so many strategies and things that we can come up with, once we take the time to sort of, just step back.
I like this idea of slowing down and getting curious in a way, is what I hear you saying, getting curious about what’s going on behind the issue in the moment, instead of just directing, “Get your shoes, get your stuff, why aren’t you ready?” to step back and get curious about, “Why is this the situation every morning? Why is my kid never ready, what’s going on here and how can I communicate in a way that helps my child to be able to, maybe share what some of the issues are, or allows me to be more helpful or allows us to just be in a problem-solving mode.”
I think that’s really what I hear you saying, is when we get curious about this and step back and get out of that over-directive mode, it allows us to enter into a problem-solving mode of, “What’s really going on here?” What do we need to do to help you be more successful? Because I think that’s really the goal with any area wherein our kids are struggling with managing their behavior or meeting expectations that it’s really about how do we help you be more successful here? What we’re doing isn’t working, how can we help you be successful? I think that’s a really different way of looking at it than that demanding constant prompting type of mode.
When one focuses on what you said earlier, behavior. It’s so behavior-focused that it doesn’t really allow for that problem solving or that regulation to happen because it’s so focused on the external symptoms that we see but they’re really representing something deeper that’s going on. For me, I use a three-prong approach when we have to look at behavior because I feel like it’s always one or some combination of these three things.
Also, the first aid that we apply to help our kids is always going to come from these three things and they are support; in terms of our relationships. How are we connected? Stress. Is the child overwhelmed? Is there sensory stress that’s overwhelming them? Are they cognitively stressed? They have this huge mental load at school all day and something is stressing their system. We can’t think when we’re dysregulated. Then skills. Are we tt trying to connect and repair a relationship to help the child? Are we trying to help them regulate their stress and find a place of calm and comfort so that they can learn and move forward?
Or is this a time where they are calm and they’re connected, but we have to set a limit because we’re helping them build skills. Maybe we’re saying no to something, but we’re not doing it in a punitive way. We’re doing it because we know that they’re working on something and they need to build the skill whatever it may be with whether it be focus, attention, responsibility, whatever skill we’re working on. Skill, stress, support, for me, those are the three areas that we can always look to find the why about why is this behavior happening?
I love that. It really just simplifies all of those areas and helps us stay focused on the three main components of looking at what’s happening. I think that’s great. I want you to share a bit about why you feel that conscious communication, this being aware of our communication. You’ve touched on it, but I really want to be clear for people. Why do you feel like that’s such an important core thing for parents to be thinking about and doing with their kids?
Because this is what kids really need to thrive mentally, physically, emotionally. When we respond to our children with empathy, with prompting them to help them make better decisions without all the judgment to blame shame, judgment, and guilt, we strengthen neural connections in their brain. I don’t like to get too technical with parents about brain science, but if we think of little kids as having very immature responses, it’s because their brains don’t have a lot of strong connection. They are very limited.
Every time we respond in this way to our children, we strengthen the right connections, we strengthen connections to the higher thinking part of the brain whereas when we use more traditional behavior focus type discipline, we really keep them stuck because we typically will trigger their fear sensor in their brain that says, “Okay. Something’s wrong.” Then what do they do? They freeze. They can’t think, they can’t take in new information and learn. If we’re constantly triggering that part of the brain, we’re teaching them how to be hyper-vigilant in the world and we’re going to teach that.
They’re going to be able to handle some tough situations probably because would be they’ll react quicker, but these aren’t really scary tough like death situations, but when we keep triggering that part of the brain, we’re strengthening that and then they resort to using that. They never get a lot of practice. For me, it’s about healthy development. It’s not just that we use this because it sounds nicer, it’s we’re actually shaping the brain by how we interact with our kids and what we say to them and what they think about what we say. Not just what we say because I know we always have the best intentions, but it’s what is that message that’s being translated? What message are the children really receiving?
Yes. I love that. I think it is important for parents to think about how on a neurological level. How our behavior, our communication is shaping their neurological development, especially in younger children because they are developing those neural connections at such a fast pace. I think that’s really important and then especially your comment about triggering some of that anxiety and strengthening those connections. I see that a lot in kids, especially kids who come to the clinic who maybe have diagnoses of things like autism, ADHD, more severe emotional behavioral disorders, many of them have been through the standard recommended treatment approaches out there that really do focus very much on behavior management, on really stern punitive style of communication, very directive style of communication and the amount of anxiety in these kids. Some of them have learned to be very compliant. They will do anything you tell them to do because they’re really terrified not to.
The amount of fear and anxiety in these kids that we then have to unwind first before we can start helping move them forward with other things, it’s really just incredible to see and really frustrating to see that some of the things that are promoted as far as the standard of interventions for kids with these emotional and behavioral needs, we can talk about throw kids with trauma and those kinds of things in there too. Some of the standards of care of things that are recommended in more of the behavioral realm for these kids. Actually, I find can do quite a bit of harm. A lot of it comes down to just lacking this conscious relational supportive communication approach. I’m curious what your thoughts are on that.
You’ve hit my most heartfelt passionate point about all the work that I do and these kids, especially because they’re highly sensitive. Whether you’ve experienced trauma, whether you’re on the autism spectrum, all of these kids get triggered really easily. Sometimes it’s just natural. I feel we know that some of these anxieties and stuff are even passed out so I’m not going to blame outside factors for it. Let’s just say that they have a naturally sensitive temperament.
We’re hardwiring negative behaviors when we use this approach, when we use a punitive approach where, yes. Absolutely, they can become– some kids will become super compliant just to get by, and other kids will fight you and their behaviors will be. Those are the kids where we think, “Oh, they need more firmness.” We think that compliant kids are, “Oh, it’s working.” It’s not. We’re sending them both into that same just hyper-vigilant state where it’s, “How do I live through this?”
We’re never giving them the skill practice that they need and the supportive relationships and the understanding because we’re so focused on Bobby, who punched somebody because they bumped into him next to his locker and he freaked out. We don’t understand that the abusive relationship that he saw his parents and contributed. I’m just making that up as an example when we look deeper and we look at the child’s history. For me, absolutely those kids especially are– I hate to say it, but they’re harmed by punitive measures. They really are.
I know again that professionals and parents do not have that intention, which is why I hesitate to say that they’re harming their children. I don’t want to make it seem so awful or judgmental on my part. It’s just that what we’re doing is we’re harming their development. They’re not being able to thrive in the ways that they really could thrive if they had a supportive environment. It really just takes a shift in thinking, and as soon as we’re able to go, “Okay. I want to investigate this behavior. I don’t want to just look at the surface behavior.”
Parents realize how much benefit and change can come quickly even when they shift. Yes. I completely agree with everything that you said about the anxiety and them really taking it. They take it harder even than say, typically, developing kids or sometimes those kids are like, “Yeah. Whatever.” They kind of let it roll off their shoulders and it doesn’t have the same intense effect, especially the relationship with the parent or caregiver.
That’s what’s affected most. That’s where our influence comes from. I’m not even saying we’re harming development, we’re ruining, but our relationship is the thing that gets harmed the most there. Then, we don’t have influence, because once they don’t have to listen to us anymore, once they don’t have to rely on us, they’re going to seek that advice and support somewhere.
They’re going to go outside probably that main family unit where they should rely and they’re going to seek that connection, understanding, validation. They’re going to seek that outside, and I think that’s what we want to prevent.
Yes, and I think that whole keys to that how the communication in the way that we relate to and engage with our kids impacts our relationship over the long term is so important, because I know you feel the same way that really, parent-child relationships are at the core of where we need to be focused for early development and really development all the way through to strengthen that parent-child relationship. It really sounds like this shift towards conscious communication and parents being more aware of that really helps strengthen that parent-child relationship in general, right?
Absolutely, and can I say something about conscious communication and the relationship?
It also affects the relationship that we have with ourselves. Whenever I do a class or training, first thing I do is talk to parents about that relationship that they have. I’m not going to tell you anything about your kids. We’re going to talk about us. How do I feel, how do I talk to myself? What is my internal dialogue sound like? And sometimes parents realize that they’re so very harsh. They have such a harsh inner critic. They’re so harsh on themselves. They never paid attention to that internal dialogue that they have going on with themselves. Suddenly, they go, “Oh, if I can just change how I speak to myself.” That helps us regulate. That helps us feel like we can then approach somebody else who’s having trouble, but from a compassionate point of view because we’ve learned to be compassionate with ourselves.
I love that. I think that that’s so important because really, in order to be more conscious of our communication with kids, in order to be more curious and come from this stance of relationship first with them, I find both as a parent and a professional that that really requires as a first step that I’m able to keep myself calm and regulated and in a thinking space. When I am getting triggered by what’s going on with my kid, or when I’ve had a long day, or when I’m just not in a good frame of mind. Whether it’s because as you’ve just mentioned that internal negative self-talk or just high levels of stress or whatever it might be, I certainly I’m not coming from a place then of support or relationship and then that impacts everything I do with my child. Would you agree that the first step to this is us, as the adults being able to be aware of and regulate our own emotions and behaviors before we can worry about what’s going on with our kid’s behavior?
Definitely. Definitely, and when we feel that if we’re in that moment and we’re like we need to go set that limit but we don’t feel calm and regulated. Unless somebody is going to be hurt, physically hurt, walk away. Walk away. Even that 10 seconds, which is a really long time. The 10 seconds that it takes you to walk to the other room and you’re breathing, even that can do so much to regulate us. If we can just get a glass of water or sit down, look outside, look at a picture of someone you love. Anything to help reconnect us to ourselves.
Definitely, I would absolutely everytime, unless there’s danger. I recommend that parents do that because they’ll just feel more empowered and confident walking in and then suddenly when the four-year-old’s going, “No, I don’t care.” You’re like, you see that it’s a four-year-old just having a rough time and you’re now like, “Oh you’re not going to tell me. I’m the parent.” You don’t have that reaction anymore. It’s really for us. Makes us feel so much better when we do that for ourselves, so absolutely, I would recommend that.
Well, I know that we’re running on a little bit low on time here, but I do want to have you touch on one thing that I think is important around this. That parents often will bring up when I’m speaking or working with families at the clinic. And that is, “ But I need to set limits with my child, but I need to be firm.” This idea that when we’re thoughtful and calm in our communication that somehow that means that we are being a pushover or we’re letting our kids do whatever they want. I think a lot of people really equate those things in their mind. That I need to be firm and I need to be powerful. I need to be in control because my kid needs to behave and they equate some of the kinds of ways of communication that we’re talking about with meaning that they aren’t setting those limits or that their kid isn’t going to learn having manage themselves. That’s probably something that you hear a lot from adults, too. Can you speak to that a minute?
Yes, that’s definitely a fear that pops up. A lot of that is once we start looking at our history as parents, which is a lot of the work that I do in the beginning, we recognize where that comes from. Where that condition. Where that knee-jack feeling to have it our way or make sure that we’re setting limits. We figure out where that comes from and it starts to lessen once we do that personal investigation. Just to speak to why it’s not a quality feedback for our kids. If we think about– I like to have parents list all the things that they hope their children– All the qualities that they hope their children grow up to embody. They put things like independent, thoughtful, leaders. I want them to be kind, compassionate, and responsible. They list all these things. Then I ask them, so let’s list the five ways that you most often respond to your child. Sometimes the list has bearing things. Well, a lot of times it would sound like there’s yelling, there’s nagging, there’s punishing, there is all of these things that we can come up with that aren’t conscious and then I say, “Look at those two lists. Let’s compare them.” Are we going to get everything on list A if we’re always acting in the ways that we talked about in the second list, list B?
We want to be confident. We want to be compassionate. If we want our children to grow up to embody these qualities… How do we get there? If parents say, “Well, consequences.” Okay, let’s talk about consequences. There’s always so much more to look at. I think that we have to be the model. We have to look– For me, consequences is like, “Why do we have to put something in between us.” We are the influential ones. We are the ones, we want our kids to rely on. When we do consequences, what we do is we essentially send them the message that I’m not in charge. It’s consequences that are in charge and that gets put between us. Kids eventually are going to outsmart that consequence. They’re going to outlast it, so you have to keep getting harsher and harsher. It’s not quality feedback, it just puts external motivators or even just praise. Because then our kids keep looking for that motivator. That thing between us. They don’t come to us they look for that. If it’s not there, are they going to behave in the same ways? I feel like it gives away our power when we say I have to be– and yes, we want to be firm, we want to set limits where it’s necessary, but we never have to be unkind to do it, and I feel like yelling, shaming. Those are definitely unkind, but even punishment and consequences. Let’s look at the real reason that we’re putting this in place. For me, it’s just not long-lasting. It’s just not sustainable. Our relationship is sustainable. It can last. None of these little external controls that we put around behavior, try to reinforce it and do all this — they’re not long term.
Yes. Again that focus on relationship and our sustainability and our teaching kids how to really be emotionally and behaviorally regulated human beings as opposed to just compliant or doing what we want them to do because they’re afraid of what happens if they don’t, right?
Right. Their social-emotional intelligence absolutely is affected, and that would be so– They will have such a greater ability to regulate their emotions and to go in and help others. To really go in to situations and see the conflicts and be able to help other people manage situations. That’s a really amazing gift, and they don’t get that gift when you just use consequences. This idea of being tough, they don’t get that same social, emotional intelligence.
Yes, and that’s a great point. I think really that idea that it’s entirely possible and very beneficial to be calm and firm at the same time. That firmness that helping our kids learn how to manage themselves and regulate their behaviors doesn’t necessitate us being angry, or punitive, or those types of things that we can be calm, kind, empathic, and still firm and have expectations at the same time.
Exactly. I want people to have expectations. Kids love learning and they love building relationships and they love when they get our approval. All these things are good for healthy development, we just don’t want to get in the way all the time.
This has been so wonderful. You’ve shared so many great things for parents and professionals. Any adult to be thinking about in relation to kids. I’d love to have you share where people can find you online. How can they find out more about you and the work that you are doing and what you offer people.
Thank you. Absolutely. You can go to teachthroughlove.com, our website. And then, Facebook. I’m really active on Facebook. I post a lot of conscious communication examples. If you’re wondering I get it but I still don’t know what you mean by what to say just go on my Facebook page and look through all the different examples. Facebook and the website and my YouTube channel as well. Just quick Q&As you can find me on YouTube.
Love that. I think that’s so helpful. I know on Facebook you provide lots of examples. Lori has these things called conscious communication cards that are awesome that give really helpful examples on each card for parents in certain scenarios and situations of what we might typically say and how we might typically respond and then what’s the more conscious or helpful response. I think those are just awesome. I’m sure that people can find those on your website. Right?
Yes. Right at the top, you can always find those. Thank you.
Fantastic. Lori, Thank you so much for being here today to share your expertise with everyone. I know that people will get a lot out of this. Thank you for being here.
Thank you, Nicole.