With her PEAK Parenting course, Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW aims to change the deeply entrenched belief that parenting needs to include bribes, threats, and punishment in order to be effective. Her six-month course offers information and support through a new approach that emphasizes understanding, empathy and connection.
MacLaughlin, a 10-year resident of Windham, is a full time social worker as well as author and parent educator. After her book, “What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children,” was published in 2010, she was invited to do speaking engagements, and schools began asking for six week courses for parents. Many times, she said, a course would end leaving participants wanting more. Realizing that online she could reach people in many ways – through direct email, Facebook, and videos – she put it all together to create PEAK Parenting, which uses all of those tools. “It’s about getting information and support into people’s hands,” she said. The support piece is essential, she added. “It’s not enough to get it about the brain. In the moment where you’re triggered, it’s just really helpful to have that connection,” she said.
The main goal of the course is to help parents see that there’s another way, and then helping them through the challenges of putting this new information into action. She has found that parents appreciate gaining basic child development knowledge, as well as learning a different perspective.
When it comes to information, the first step is for parents to understand brain development and child development, starting with how the brain develops from the bottom up, she said. “From the oldest parts of our brain that we share with reptiles and mammals, to the lovely human brain that is wonderful when we’re engaged in it, but not something that we always have access to or conscious control over, and what that means.”
She adds that it’s also important to realize that how the brain functions affect not only how children develop, but how we relate to them. Traditional parenting often asks children to behave in ways the adults aren’t capable of behaving, she said. “We want our children to learn self regulation. I define that as being able to stay in charge of your behavior when you’re upset, and most grownups have a really hard time doing that.”
Brain research shows that the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for the “executive functions” of the brain, including impulse control and adapting intense emotions, isn’t fully formed until close to age 25. And at any age it’s easy to slip into a lower brain state. When this happens, one common reaction from parents is to explain away their behavior. “The tricky piece to watch for is that then we justify our behavior and think that they should be able to pull it together when we can’t,” said MacLaughlin.
Another thing that MacLaughlin focuses on is the power of empathy. Children, and all humans, thrive when they have connection. “The way that we can most easily connect is through our emotional states, and through empathy,” she said. Empathy is feeling with someone rather than feeling sorry for them, she added. “You really have to be able to have a connection to your own emotional state in order to have empathy.”
Traditional parenting strategies move children away from being connected to their feelings, because feelings are messy and often inconvenient, MacLaughlin said. But when children are asked to ignore their feelings so things can move along, “We’re curtailing a really important process,” she said. It’s a new way of thinking to ask how things might go if we make space for the emotions instead of arguing, bribing, threatening or distracting children away from their feelings, she added.
“The irony of the typical punishment is that while we want children to learn empathy and feel for someone else, punishment is so self focused. Anybody who is being punished is wallowing in the misery of their own space,” said MacLaughlin. This makes children unable to feel for others, because their own bad feelings are so exacerbated, she said.
But MacLaughlin recognizes that giving children the space to feel, and react, and develop at their own rate brings many questions about what to do in the meantime. Throughout the PEAK Parenting course she offers many resources to draw from. “I’ve read all the parenting books so you don’t have to,” she said, and she loves to share the information she has learned. Among her favorite resources are The Whole Brain Child by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. and Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D, and Dr. Laura Markham’s book Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, as well as her resources on www.ahaparenting.com.
MacLaughlin will launch another course, R.E.S.E.T., in the new year. This course will be a self paced guide, through workbooks and videos, to help parents move toward taking care of nurturing themselves. The next PEAK Parenting course begins March 1st.
MacLaughlin acknowledged that there is a lot of push back to the parenting approach she teaches. Supporting parents through learning a new perspective and new way of operating is a big challenge, but she is meeting it head on. MacLaughlin’s courses, blog and more can be found on her website at www.sarahmaclaughlin.com.