Smacking/spanking/hitting your child

Alison Lees Parenting, Relationships May 17, 2017

I had the misfortune recently of witnessing a mother smacking/spanking/hitting her child at a communal children’s play area. The situation leading up to this event went as follows:

A little girl, who appeared to be younger than 2, was playing next to another child who was similar in age. Their mothers were chatting nearby while they played. The little girl turned to the child and hit him in the face. The reaction of the girl’s mother to this situation was immediate. She marched straight up to her daughter, bent over her, and smacked her on her arm while at the same time saying “We don’t hit people”.

The disconnect between this mother’s words and her actions astounded me. There are a number of sad parts to this story but possibly the saddest part is that no other caregiver in the playground seemed confused or affected by this mother’s words or actions. They all went about the situation as if this is how one raises a child: you reprimand your child for hitting someone by hitting your child. I am no stranger to the concept of parents smacking their children as a form of discipline in South Africa. It is unfortunately very common and it seems that a common attitude towards smacking is: “I was smacked as a child and I turned out fine so I will do the same to my child” or “How else will kids know they are doing something wrong?”. It seems that these parents are not critically and consciously reflecting on their own childhood experiences and aren’t able to consider alternative pathways to parenting. It’s also highly possible that they don’t have a good understanding of how their children’s brains work and therefore think that their children are deliberately acting out and are therefore in need of punishment. So, we at Attachment Foundation would like to address this situation by focusing on the following facts:

  • Your toddler’s/child’s “thinking” brain is immature and only fully develops in their early twenties.
  • Because of this, your toddler/child WILL act impulsively and WILL act out. Whether they have a tantrum, scream, cry, smack, hit, kick, push, whatever. These behaviours are NORMAL and EXPECTED. It doesn’t mean you are a bad parent and it doesn’t mean your child is acting out to deliberately embarrass, annoy, or shame you. Their behaviour is an invitation for you to help them. 
  • When your toddler’s/child’s thinking brain is disconnected, they need to “borrow” yours. This means you need to be emotionally regulated (cool, calm and collected) in order to help your child in their time of need.

Smacking your toddler for behaving impulsively is like smacking your toddler for blinking. Smacking your child for acting out is like smacking your child for asking for your help. We believe that if more parents knew this, they would think twice about the way they deal with their children’s behaviour. Unfortunately, very few people know this information!

What’s more, parents who are enlightened often feel judged by other members of society, particularly other parents, as their sensitive approach to their child’s poor behaviour is perceived as “doing nothing”. It is a constant battle for a parent with a young child to be around other parents who aren’t familiar with attachment theory and child neurodevelopment. If your child behaves in a way that is perceived as “naughty” or “vindictive” then there is an expectation of you as a parent to punish them, possibly even smack them. However, if you approach your child as being in need of help and connection, it appears to less enlightened parents as if you are doing nothing. There is a lot of pressure on parents to act as if you are sorting your child out and this then prevents parents from connecting to their children and assisting their children in developing optimally emotionally.

So what are alternative options to smacking/spanking/hitting your child? Read one of our recent posts covering practical steps to staying connected to your child while they are acting out. Another great resource for information on sensitively setting limits for your children in response to poor behaviour can be found here

We need to become “evangelists” for attachment theory and attachment informed-practice. So, share this post and as much information on attachment as possible. Let’s spread the good news!

What to do when an adult is emotionally vulnerable

Alison Lees Relationships April 6, 2017

In the last blog post, we looked at some of the unhelpful things we might automatically do in response to an adult being emotionally vulnerable. Here at Attachment Foundation, we want to promote a healthy attachment response to distress. This post will look at practical things you can do when faced with the emotional distress (or big feelings) of another adult.

Let’s return to the example we used of your partner displaying emotional distress (or big feelings) while recounting something that had happened to them. What are some things you could do in this instance (and in any instance when faced with emotional vulnerability)? Dr Bruce Perry provides us with a very useful way of remembering how to react to someone in distress: The 3 R’s


It is helpful to understand a bit of basic neurobiology before we go on. When an adult is emotionally distressed, their “Emotional” or “Feeling” Brain takes over.  The “Thinking” Brain or cortical areas which help us to think rationally, make plans and find solutions, go “offline” when we experience distress. The Feeling Brain must be reassured that it is not under threat before the Thinking Brain will come back online. This is called being regulated. So, how can you help your partner to regulate back from their distressed state and experience a safe relational climate?



Be aware of your own feelings and remain regulated yourself– Big Feelings can be contagious

In a moment when your partner’s Feeling Brain has taken over control, you need your Thinking Brain to be in charge. Seeing a loved one, or anyone for that matter, hurt or upset can be distressing to witness. When faced with the emotional vulnerability of a loved one, a reaction is provoked in us which activates our Feeling Brain and leaves us ineffective to help anyone else if our Thinking Brain is then ‘hijacked’.  In other words, we are of very little assistance to our partner (or other) if we allow our own emotions to take over. We are not saying that we should ignore our own emotions but rather acknowledge that they are there and try to keep them under control.

Being aware of strategies that keep you emotionally regulated and able to use your Thinking Brain is key. Perhaps this involves you taking deep breaths, or maybe noticing the items in the room that start with the letter “a”. A blog post dedicated to learning strategies that keep your Thinking Brain in charge is coming up.

Work on being okay with sitting with negative emotions

Being aware of an emotion that you are experiencing and allowing yourself to comfortably feel it and think about it is called “sitting with an emotion”. For many, sitting with our own negative emotions can be difficult to tolerate never mind sitting with someone else and their negative emotions.  Remember that our partner must feel safe and reassured that they are not under threat before their Thinking Brain will come back online. When our partner is experiencing distress, we therefore need to offer them a SAFE and SECURE space in which they can express, explore and understand their own feelings. If we aren’t able to sit with negative emotions, we aren’t able to provide our partner with that opportunity.



(Help them to feel more connected whilst in distress)

Acknowledge that your partner is experiencing distress/big feelings.

This can be done both verbally and non-verbally. You might find that non-verbal acknowledgement of your partner’s emotions occurs quite naturally. Non-verbal acknowledgement is the use of your body, particularly your face, to reflect someone’s big feelings. “Mirroring” of emotion shows that you are aware of the emotion your partner is experiencing and displays to them that you are still connected. Mirroring can occur without much effort and is often done very naturally. This might be tilting your head to the side when you see someone upset, frowning if you witness anger or smiling when you see displays of happiness.  In addition to mirroring your partner’s emotions non-verbally, you can verbally reflect their emotions in a sensitive and loving tone. Stating the obvious is an incredibly simple tool to communicate a sense of connectedness to the person in distress and will help them to feel less overwhelmed by their big feelings. For example saying something like “I can see that you are really upset” or “It seems like you have been really hurt”. Acknowledging your partner’s feelings and not the events that they are talking about is very important in maintaining an emotional connection.

Listen to what the person is saying and reflect this back to them

How often do we hear what a person is saying but don’t actually listen? For instance, if your partner says, “I just give and give and give and what do I get in return?”, you could hear that your partner is asking you a question. However, if you listen to the message in the question, your partner could actually be saying “I feel unappreciated”. Once you have heard what your partner has to say, reflecting back what you hear to them can be a helpful way of letting them know that you are connected. You could say something like “It sounds like you’re saying that you feel unappreciated and undervalued”.

Use empathy

When trying to relate to your partner during their distress, it is very useful to use empathy. This means putting yourself in their shoes and imagining how they feel in the situation. Perhaps if you were in your partner’s situation you would feel as though the situation is not a big deal and therefore doesn’t require much time and attention in dealing with it. In this case, you might find yourself thinking that your partner is overreacting and would then downplay and devalue their distress, resulting in an instant disconnect between your partner’s experience and your reaction. The opportunity for emotional connection is therefore shut down. If you are able to put yourself in your partner’s shoes you are able to relate to their reality and therefore connect to them easily.

Hold back unhelpful responses

In the previous blog post, we listed a number of unhelpful responses. It is important to be aware of automatic responses that we may have in situations that don’t serve our partner in the best way. Before you respond, consider underlying messages you might be giving your partner. Also, consider what is driving you to respond in such a way. Are you serving your own agenda by saying or doing something? The way you respond to emotional distress should always be in a calm, sensitive, and loving manner.


Hopefully, by this stage, your partner is feeling regulated and related to (or connected to you), and their Thinking Brain is back online. This is now the time for discussing things that you might have previously been drawn to raise early on in your interaction with your partner. Looking for solutions, guiding them through problem-solving, and so on are now possible. Remember to let your partner initiate the problem-solving through requesting assistance. Sometimes, no problem solving is necessary and your partner is merely looking for someone to down-regulate them and connect to them. Making an offer to your partner such as “is there any way I can help in the situation?” gives them the choice to request assistance.

There will be many times when you won’t get this process right, but the important thing to remember is that you keep attempting it. Practice makes perfect and although we don’t believe in perfection, we believe in connection. If consistently attempting the 3 R’s gets you closer to a better connection with others, you are on the right track.  


What (not) to do when an adult is emotionally vulnerable

Alison Lees Relationships March 28, 2017

The last blog post covered practical steps that you can follow to stay connected to a child while they are experiencing emotional distress. In the next few posts we would like to focus on staying present and connected while an adult is experiencing emotional distress.

It is extremely common for adults to feel unprepared and even fearful when faced with the emotional distress of another adult. Lets say for instance you are eating dinner with your partner and while discussing the events of the day your partner starts sobbing while recounting something that happened. What do you do? Do any of these sound familiar?

  • Immediately rush to get them tissues?
  • Tell them everything will be okay?
  • Give them a hug and distract them with compliments?
  • Offer them food or drink?
  • Give them a pep talk on how they need to harden up?
  • Think of all the ways you can rescue them and make the situation better?
  • Tell them a joke to make them laugh and stop crying?
  • Plan all the solutions to the situation?
  • Insult the person or thing that triggered the emotional distress?
  • Tell them what they could have or should have done in the situation?
  • Tell them about an exceptionally sad story that you have just heard so that your partner realises their situation isn’t that bad?
  • Share with your partner how bad your day has been so that they are in good company?
  • Ignore the sobbing and continue eating?

This type of situation can occur frequently in our day to day lives and the way we respond to them is very important, particularly if the distress occurs within an important relationship. Did any of the above reactions sound familiar? It’s vital to consider the way we automatically respond and the underlying messages we give to the other. For example if your partner is emotionally vulnerable in front of you and you leap up for tissues, could you be subtly and unconsciously telling them that you aren’t comfortable with their tears and distress? Or if you tell them everything will be okay when you have no control over the situation whatsoever, the message you could be giving them is one of “it’s not okay to have negative emotions. I can’t tolerate you unless you are positive and happy”. Telling them a story about someone who is worse off could give your partner the message that their emotions (and a part of themselves) are not worthy of your attention and focus. Although these underlying messages are not consciously or purposefully given, they can leave your partner or other feeling ashamed, alone, and disconnected.

There are many alternative, simple, and positive ways that we can respond to emotional distress. The key to responding well is our ability to ATTUNE to another’s emotions whilst also REGULATING our own (recognising our own feelings and responses so that we don’t get overwhelmed by another’s emotions).

Dr John Gottman described attunement in adult relationships as “the desire and the ability to understand and respect your partner’s inner world”.

Through attempting a correct response to the distress we reassure our partner, or other adult, that we are connected to them and work towards a secure and healthy relationship. Stay tuned for the next post where we will discuss these alternate and positive ways of responding.

Steps to staying connected during distress

Alison Lees Relationships March 15, 2017

Last week’s blog post described the role an adult should ideally play in relation to a child in order to optimise the child’s development. We would like to break this down for you further by offering you very practical steps that you can consider when engaging with a child who is experiencing emotional distress.

A child experiencing distress is a very normal and natural phenomenon. Their distress might look like a flamboyant tantrum, clinginess, crying, hurting others or things, refusing to do things, and many more behaviours that I’m sure you could list in your own experience with children. Their immature brains are very often flooded with emotions and big feelings that they don’t yet have the capacity to process for themselves. It is an adult’s job to help calm them down, reassure them, and make sense of their feelings for them.

 When a child experiences big feelings they need an adult to:

1. Identify that he/she is experiencing big feelings 

This means that you need to be tuned into your child to notice when they start to show signs of distress. Very often if you pick up the early signs of your child’s distress and intervene there and then it will prevent the distress from escalating. Being aware of your child’s non-verbal cues (such as nose rubbing, eye rubbing, moaning, becoming more aggressive etc.) will help you identify that your child is starting to feel unsettled. If these early warning signs are missed however, your child will let you know very clearly when their brains have been hijacked by emotions through throwing a tantrum, acting out (appearing to act naughty) and so on.  Being aware of situations or things that commonly trigger big feelings in your child will also help you preempt and quickly identify signs of distress. These triggers might be leaving a favourite place, the end of bath time, having to be in the car for too long, or school drop-offs.

2. Be sufficiently emotionally regulated (cool, calm and collected)

Consider the analogy of being on an aeroplane when there is turbulence. We look to the air hostesses to see whether they are still calm. If they look worried our own anxiety levels often increase exponentially. When a child is experiencing distress, they rely on an adult to be emotionally regulated in order to regulate them. In addition, the air hostess will always tell us that we must ensure we get our own oxygen masks on and normalise our own breathing before tending to children with us.  In the same way in a healthy attachment with another human being, a key component is starting with myself and ensuring I make sense of my own big feelings before I can do that for anyone else. Very often when we are exposed to a child in distress, our own distress is triggered. A child mid-tantrum, for example, is loud, frustrating and exhausting. It is extremely important to identify when your child’s distress triggers your own distress and to learn ways of counteracting it. This might mean taking deep breaths, counting backwards from 10, or taking a moment to empathise with your child. If we understand that a child’s display of distress is merely a cry for help and assistance, it may help us to respond to them more sensitively and gently.

3. Display to the child that his/her big feelings are understood by the adult

This step often occurs quite naturally for most people when faced with obvious emotions of others. For example, you might find yourself tilting your head to the side when you see someone upset, frowning if you witness anger or smiling when you see displays of happiness. This “mirroring” of emotion is a very important element in the connection between two individuals. Your child needs to see that you are able to feel what they are feeling and one of the best ways for you to do this is through your facial expression. Nothing says “I see you and I understand you” better than mirroring a person’s expression. An additional way of doing this is through language. Telling your child that you see and understand what they are feeling is just as important. Sentences like “I can see that you are very upset/angry/hurt and I know what that feels like” display to the child that you have noticed they are distressed and that they are not alone in their distress. You are letting your child know that you are “sitting with them” in their big feelings.

4. Display to the child that his/her big feelings are normal, okay, and tolerable

We are often taught to believe that some emotions are better than others. Anger, for example, is a bad emotion while happiness is good. This unhealthy thinking is something that we should aim at not passing onto our children. All emotions are good, healthy and helpful. How we deal with them can be either bad or good. Talking your child through their big feelings is key in this step. Using sentences such as “It is very normal to get angry when you don’t get your way” or “It’s very upsetting to have a toy taken away from you and it’s okay to feel this way” help to let your child know that their big feelings are tolerable. There should be no shame in feeling big feelings. A sensitive manner and tone is very important while communicating that their emotions are normal, okay and tolerable.

5. Offer a positive reassurance and opportunity for dialogue

We are so often drawn to distracting our children away from big feelings by offering rewards or alternative solutions to stop the emotional display as quickly as possible. Offering rewards to children if they stop crying, or trying to distract them away from their big feelings gives a underlying message to your child that it is not tolerable to sit with negative feelings which is completely counter to step 4.  Instead a healthier response is to offer your child a positive reassurance that you will be with them through their big feelings and that their big feelings will pass. Being physically available for affection (giving a hug, pulling them onto your lap etc.) and using sentences such as “You can be angry for as long as you need and I will be here with you. Is there something I can do to help you?” are essential. If you have a child who is at an age where you can discuss matters, entering into a dialogue about their big feelings is a great opportunity for them to connect to you as well as learn more about their emotions. Inviting this dialogue could be done through saying “tell me more about how anger feels for you” or “what happened when you started feeling this way?” or “do you notice that the last time you felt this way it was also because your brother changed the channel?”.

6. Consistently attempt to achieve 1-5.

A focus on the word “attempt” is important here. Staying connected during distress can be very challenging, especially if you as the adult are distressed as well. There will be many times when you don’t get this process right, but the important thing to remember is that you keep attempting it. Practice makes perfect and although we don’t believe in perfection, we believe in connection. If consistently attempting the steps gets you closer to a better connection with your child, you are on the right track.