Parenting and Protest Behavior


Let me begin this post by acknowledging that it is technical.  I need the material described in this post as a foundation for later discussion of parenting.

The child’s symptomatic rejection of a relationship with a parent inherently accuses the targeted-rejected parent of poor parenting practices, which then requires that we assess the parenting practices of the targeted parent to determine if they represent normal-range parenting practices or whether the parenting of the targeted-rejected parent is sufficiently problematic as to account for the child’s rejection of a relationship with this parent.

Yet by what criteria do we assess parenting?  In my next series of blog posts I plan to address this issue.

My professional background is in ADHD and parent-child conflicts generally, not in “parental alienation.” In addition, I am a bit of an odd-bird professionally because I have a secondary expertise in early childhood mental health (ages 0-5).  Acquiring this expertise in early childhood mental health required that I develop a professional-level understanding for the various brain systems and how they develop, since brain systems are coming online all over the place in early childhood.

To work professionally in early childhood requires a fairly sophisticated understanding for how the brain works, and this foundational understanding for how the brain works has profound implications regarding our approach to parenting and parent-child conflict generally.

In order for me to address the issue of parenting, I need to first lay some foundational groundwork in the current scientific evidence regarding parenting and brain development during childhood that I can then refer to in my future discussions regarding the criteria by which we can assess parenting.

This blog post lays one of those foundational bricks regarding the scientific evidence concerning parenting and the neuro-development of the brain during childhood that I will need in future discussions of assessing parenting.

Parent-Child Conflict is Developmentally Normal, Healthy, and Necessary

Context: Understanding Child Development

Parent-child conflict is both normal and developmentally healthy. It is only when there are distortions in how parent-child conflict is addressed that the developmental consequences of parent-child conflict elevates to problematic levels.

The issue is NOT that parent-child conflict occurs, parent-child conflict is SUPPOSED to occur, the issue is how we respond to it.

To understand the developmental origins of normal range parent child-conflict requires an understanding for the context for how the brain develops during childhood.

We Build What We Use

The brain develops based on the principle of “we build what we use.” Whenever we use a brain system or pathway, that system or pathway becomes stronger, more sensitive, and more efficient.

The technical term for this process is called “canalization,” like building canals or channels in the brain, only these are not actually physical channels in the brain, but instead are chemical “channels,” chemical “grooves” in the brain that are created by structural changes in the molecules along the used pathway that make it more likely for that set of neurons, for that set of brain cells, to fire in that pattern again in the future. The technical term for these use-dependent chemical changes is “long-term potentiation.”

Brain cells that are used together also grow additional interconnections, called synapses, along the pathway that has been used in a process called “synaptogenesis.” This increase in the number of brain connections along used pathways makes it more likely that the used pathway will fire in that same pattern in the future.

Key Construct: We build what we use

The renowned neuroscientist, Donald Hebb (1949), referred to this as “neurons that fire together, wire together.”

The Brain is the Cause

Behavior is a symptom. The brain is the cause.

The organized and integrated functioning of the various brain systems produces organized and integrated behavior. Organized and integrated behavior is socially pleasant and cooperative.

When the integrated functioning of brain systems becomes disorganized and dysregulated for whatever reason, such as when emotions become too intense or too painful, or when there is a conflict between differing motivational goals, then this produces disorganized and dysregulated behavior.

Disorganized and dysregulated behavior is referred to as “protest behavior” and can be reflected in children becoming defiant and uncooperative, evidencing behavior that is too rigid and inflexible or that is too fluid and disorganized, and in emotional expressions that are too extreme such as angry tantrums in response to frustration.  All of these “protest behaviors” reflect disorganized and dysregulated behavior that is the product of disorganization and dysregulation in the functioning of the underlying brain systems.

Key Construct: A disorganized and dysregulated brain produces disorganized and dsyregulated behavior.

Key Construct: Disorganized and dsyregulated behavior is called “protest behavior”

Protest behavior is annoying to the parent, who then wants to make the child’s protest behavior stop.

In this way, the child’s protest behavior elicits the involvement of the parent who is motivated (i.e., annoyed by the protest behavior) to help the child regain an organized and well-regulated state (i.e., to make the protest behavior stop).

For mental health professionals:

Protest behavior is “designed” by nature to elicit the involvement of a more mature nervous system (i.e., the parent) who then mediates the transition of the child from a disorganized-dysregulated state back into an organized and well regulated state.

There are a variety of ways of transitioning the child back into an organized and well-regulated state. Essentially these approaches involve the use of either discipline or guidance strategies.

Discipline uses coercive strategies involving punishment to activate the child’s fear system and so induce submissive behavior in the child. The submissive override available through the activation of the fear system organizes the child’s brain networks into a submissive state and so eliminates the protest behavior that was emerging from a disorganized and dysregulated brain state.

Guidance strategies use social negotiation strategies to reorganize and re-regulate brain systems. Authority based guidance strategies are social communications of parental authority that trigger child cooperation with the socially expressed authority of the parent. This social communication of parental authority is predicated on prior (and possibly current) parental use of discipline strategies. The difference is that the communication of authority within a guidance-based approach is sufficient to engage the child’s cooperation without the need for a threatened application of punishment (i.e., the activation of the fear system override); the social communication of authority is sufficient to enlist social cooperation.

Guidance-based strategies also include social negotiation in which reasonable parent-child dialogue is engaged to encourage the child’s socially responsible communication of distress and the child’s consideration of the social and environmental context, in which a mutual goal can be achieved of meeting the child’s needs within the context of social and environmental restrictions.

A disorganized-dysregulated brain produces disorganized-dysregulated behavior (i.e., protest behavior) that elicits the involvement of the parent (because protest behavior is annoying and the parent wants to make it stop). The involved parent then uses discipline and guidance-based strategies to transition the child back into an organized and regulated brain state (i.e., protest behavior stops).

Now this is important to understand…

Through this process of the parent’s mediation of the child’s state transition from a disorganized-dysregulated state to an organized and regulated state, ALL OF THE BRAIN NETWORKS that were used as part of this state transition from a disorganized-dysregulated state to an organized and regulated state become stronger, more sensitive, and more efficient as a result of USE-DEPENDENT processes (i.e.. long-term potentiation and synaptogenesis).

In the scientific literature, the parent’s mediation of the child’s state transition from a disorganized-dysregulated state to an organized and regulated state is called “scaffolding.”

The parent “scaffolds” the child’s transition from a disorganized-dysregulated state to an organized and regulated state, and in doing so BUILDS the neural pathways in the child’s brain for making this transition. We build what we use.

Do this once, do this twice, do this five thousand times, and eventually the pathway is grooved in the child’s brain (i.e., “canalized”) for making this transition, so that the next time the child’s brain begins to enter this type of disorganized and dsyregulated brain state, the child can slip back into an organized and regulated brain state on his or her own without the parent’s active involvement, because the parent has BUILT the transition networks for this phase-state transition.

The capacity for the child to make this phase-state transition from a disorganized-dysregulated brain state (emitting disorganized-dysregulated behavior; i.e., protest behavior) back into an organized and regulated state (emitting organized and regulated behavior; i.e., socially calm and cooperative behavior) as a result of prior scaffolding of the neuro-development of this transition network is called the development of the child’s capacity for “self-regulation.”

The capacity for child “self-regulation” is initially mediated by the “scaffolding” support of the parent, whose involvement is elicited by the child’s “protest behavior” (i.e., disorganized-dysregulated behavior that is the product of a disorganized and dsyregulated brain state in response to a developmental challenge that the child cannot independently master).

Important Points:

1.)  Children are supposed to be annoying.

When a child is faced with a developmental challenge that he or she cannot independently master, the effective integration of the underlying brain systems begins to become disorganized and dsysregulated (such as from too intense or too painful an emotional state, or from conflicts in motivational goals). As the effective integration of the brain begins to break down into a disorganized and dsyregulated state, the child begins to display disorganized and dsyregulated behavior (i.e., “protest behavior”) as a consequence of the underlying disorganized and dsyregulated brain state.

The protest behavior is “designed” to elicit the involvement of the parent who then scaffolds the child’s transition back into an organized and regulated brain state (and organized and regulated behavior) through the well-modulated use of discipline and guidance strategies. In doing this, the parent builds the networks in the child’s brain (through use-dependent neural processes) for managing the developmental challenge that the child initially faced and that was threatening the collapse of the organized and integrated functioning of the child’s brain systems.

That’s EXACTLY how things are SUPPOSED to work.

The child’s protest behavior is not a “problem” – we only perceive it to be a “problem” because we find protest behavior annoying. But protest behavior is supposed to be annoying in order to elicit our involvement.

The child, or more accurately, the child’s brain, is doing EXACTLY what it is supposed to be doing. A disorganized and dsyregulated brain produces disorganized and dsyregulated behavior to elicit the involvement of a more mature nervous system to help re-regulate the brain and in the process of re-regulation to BUILD through use-dependent processes of “canalization” the neural capacity to manage the developmental challenge.

These developmentally vital relationship exchanges are called “breech-and-repair” sequences.

2.)  The issue is not that children are annoying, of course they’re annoying, they’re supposed to annoy us whenever they are having trouble and need our help.  The issue is not that children’s protest behavior is annoying, the issue is how do we respond to their protest behavior?

That becomes the central question of parenting.

Parent-child conflict is normal and natural.  Minor parent-child “breech-and-repair” sequences are developmentally essential for the healthy maturation of the child’s brain systems. It is what is SUPPOSED to occur.

Parenting involves an ongoing dance of consolidating the relationship through affectionate bonding, followed by minor “breech-and-repair” sequences of helping the child navigate developmentally challenging situations.

Vygotsky called these developmental challenges the “zone of proximal development”

Kohut called the normal-range breech-and-repair sequences providing the child with “optimal frustration” that builds the child’s “self-structure.”

3.)  Protest behavior is neuro-biologically “designed” to elicit the parent’s involvement.

Protest behavior (i.e., angry-oppositional behavior, inflexible-defiant behavior, angry tantrums, fearful-timid behavior, etc.) is an “attachment behavior” designed to elicit GREATER parental involvement. That’s how the brain works.

Protest behavior is NEVER a “detachment behavior” designed to DECREASE parental involvement. That is NOT how the brain works.

A disorganized brain creates disorganized behavior (i.e., protest behavior) that elicits greater parental involvement in order to mediate (“scaffold”) the brain’s transition back into an organized and regulated state, and thereby build all of the brain networks associated with this phase-state transition from a disorganized-dysregulated state to an organized and regulated state.

A Complex Self-Organizing System

I’m going to close this post with a somewhat technical construct that I need to establish relative to criteria for evaluating parenting.  Placing restrictions on children that force the child to accommodate to the restriction is developmentally vital for the healthy maturation of brain systems.  In addition, these imposed restrictions must be well-modulated to the child’s own rhythms and “periodicities.”

The brain is a complex self-organizing system.  As such, its maturation benefits from some external restrictions (challenges) being placed upon its “degrees of freedom” so that in accommodating to these restrictions the integrated functioning of the various brain systems will be forced to organize their integration at a higher maturational level. 

If no restrictions are placed on the degrees of freedom afforded to the developing brain then there is little impetus for it to develop into a higher organizational level, and the elaboration and integration of its brain systems remains flaccid and immature,

See Vygotsky’s construct of “zone of proximal development”

At the same time, if these imposed restrictions on the degrees of freedom afforded to the brain’s functioning are too rigid and inflexibly applied, then the organized functioning of the brain will collapse into chaos.

The restrictions placed on the integrated functioning of the developing brain of the child must be well-modulated and responsive to the child’s own rhythms and “periodicities.”

“A controlling parameter effectively limits the degrees of freedom within the system and thus constrains the system to assemble itself in more stable and productive ways. Mothers/instructors can act as communication partners/control parameters who constrain their children’s behavior in a way that promotes transitions to more highly organized, complex phases of organization.” (Cherkes-Julkowski & Mitlina, 1999, p. 7)

“Constraints must be well modulated. Strong constraints could infuse excessive amounts of energy, causing extreme perturbation, wildly chaotic activity, and a resultant rapid fall to a less organized, more entropic state. On the other hand, constraints that are too weak may provide little impetus for higher order development (Nicolis & Prigogine, 1989; Schmidt et al., 1990).” (Cherkes-Julkowski & Mitlina, 1999, p. 7)

“Well developing dyads move together as intentions move in a more gradual progression back and forth between the instructional intention and the child’s intention.” (Cherkes-Julkowski & Mitlina, 1999, p. 13-14)

“Effective instruction would begin with a goal not too disparate from the child’s and pursue it flexibly, with ample acknowledgment of the child’s intention. This is tantamount to providing weak constraint, one that provides some reduction of response parameters while at the same time allowing enough degrees of freedom for the child to self-organize according to her or his own periodicities.” (Cherkes-Julkowski & Mitlina, 1999, p. 14)

Craig Childress, Psy.D.
Clinical Psychologist, PSY 18857


Cherkes-Julkowski, M. and Mitlina, N. (1999). Self-Organization of mother-child instructional dyads and latter attention. Journal of Learning Disability, 32(1), 6-21.

Brain Development References

Hebb, D.O. (1949). The organization of behavior. New York: Wiley & Sons

LeDoux, J. (2002). Synaptic Self: How Our Brains Become Who We Are. London: Penguin Books.

Perry, B. D., Pollard, R. A., Blakley, T. L., Baker, W. L., & Vigilante, D. (1995). Childhood Trauma, the Neurobiology of Adaptation, and “Use-dependent” Development of the Brain: How “States” Become “Traits”. Infant Mental Health Journal, 16(4), 271-291.

Shore, A. N. (1994). Affect regulation and the origin of the self: The neurobiology of emotional development. Hillsdale, NJ: Earlbaum.

Shore, A.N. (1996). The experience-dependent maturation of a regulatory system in the orbital prefrontal cortex and the origin of developmental psychopathology. Development and Psychopathology, 8, 59-87.

Trevarthen, C. (2001). The neurobiology of early communication: Intersubjective regulations in human brain development. In Kalverboer, A.F. and Gramsbergen, A. (Eds) Handbook of Brain and Behaviour in Human Development. London: Kluwer Academic Publishers

Tronick, E.Z. (2003). Of course all relationships are unique: How co-creative processes generate unique mother-infant and patient-therapist relationships and change other relationships. Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 23, 473-491.

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