There are so many things we want for our kids: resilience, self-confidence, internal satisfaction, fulfilling relationships, and more. And yet, once we recognize what we want our kids down the road… we have to reflect on where the road begins. And to me, it seems that all good things start with understanding. I think that might be the most important “equation” for parenting and, really, any relationship. Understanding = Connection = Safety = Regulation … and from regulation comes resilience, self-confidence, internal satisfaction, fulfilling relationships, and more.

So let’s go through this equation, one step at a time:

First, Understanding: this is actually the most challenging step. Most of us have the impulse to change or fix, rather than to understand. We see our child crying, we want her to be happy; we encounter our child’s rudeness, we want it to stop; we see our kids arguing, we want them to get along. If understanding is the goal: we see our child crying, we are curious about her big feelings; we encounter our child’s rudeness, we wonder what he’s so upset about; we see our kids arguing, we try to appreciate both of their points of view.

Feeling understood in our distress feels better than anything else. It really does. Why? Because it’s understanding that brings connection.

Second, Connection. Connection is the feeling of being close to someone. It’s the feeling of having someone say, “I’ll pull up a seat and be by your side.” Humans are relational beings, and connection communicates that you are good and loveable. Ah… relief.

Third, Safety. Safety is that feeling in our body where things feel warm and cozy or where there’s a relative lack of anxiety and fear. We all feel safer when we have someone sitting next to us who exudes non-judgmental curiosity and validation.

Last, Regulation. This is what we all want for our kids, right? Kids who can say “No more chocolate ice cream? I’ll have a different flavor!” or “Oh you need five minutes for your call? Ok, I can wait.” If regulation is the goal, then let’s remember how we get there: first understanding, second connection, third safety. Through these first three steps, children internalize their parent’s calming presence, which is what regulates distress.

One other word to throw in here: boundaries. Yes, boundaries around behaviors are important. But often we over-focus on boundaries about behaviors and under-focus on the feelings underneath that are screaming for understanding, connection, safety, and regulation.

Try This At Home:

Rather than trying to lead with Understanding in the moment of your child’s meltdown or rude proclamation – both times when you are likely feeling dysregulated as well – lead with Understanding during a calm moment of the day. Think about a time of struggle between you and a child: maybe it’s about independence or screen time or sibling arguments. Approach your child when things feel good between you, maybe at the start of the day, and offer something like, “Hey… I keep thinking about how bad things feel when we try to figure out screen time. Tell me more what it’s all like for you – you seem so frustrated and upset with me, and I want to better understand.” Then listen. Nod. Say things like “Oh, wow, I didnt know that” or “Wow, you feel so strongly about it, I’m so glad you’re sharing that.” With a younger child who may not be able to verbalize what’s happening, offer understanding proactively: “I know it’s so hard to share toys with your brother. Sharing is hard and having a brother is hard. I love you.”