The 'Empowered To Connect' Parenting Method Worked For My Family

by Rachel Garlinghouse
Originally Published: 
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I’m sitting next to a new friend at the park. We’re chatting and watching our kids climb the playground equipment when my middle child appears next to me and demands that I hand over the snacks I packed to share.

With my voice steady, I lock eyes with her and firmly say, “Try again with respect.”

Her shoulders droop a bit, recognizing that I’m not going to give in to her command. She responds calmly, “May I hand out the snacks, please?”

I smile, give her a high five, and respond, “Sure!”

She gallops away, juice pouches cradled in one arm, a party size bag of veggie chips in the other. I look back to my friend who is wide-eyed, her mouth gaping open. “Um, what was that?” she asks.

Puzzled, I ask her what she’s talking about, worrying if she’s unhappy with the snacks I brought.

She tells me she cannot believe that the conversation with my daughter was that easy. Her kids would literally fall to the ground the second she didn’t hand over snacks. They’d likely argue with her about the juice flavor or complain about the lack of food options.

Her response is common. When I explain to other parents that we use a parenting method called Empowered to Connect (ETC), and when I expand on what that means, I get a lot of doubt, shock, and disbelief. It sounds unreasonable, maybe a little bonkers, that children actually respond respectfully, get their needs met, and parents and children can co-exist without excessive drama.

It’s taken well over a year, but with time, patience, and dedication, we’ve managed to teach our kids how they should communicate with us and how we respond.

I get it. When I first heard about this uncommon parenting practice, I was skeptical too.

We knew we needed change. With four kids, three of whom were born within four years of each other, home life could quickly spiral into dramatic chaos. One of our four kids has sensory processing disorder, resulting in some epic meltdowns.

And like many couples, my husband and I tend to parent quite differently. My husband is known to give the kids too many opportunities, where I’m the opposite. I’m very much a “my way or the highway” parent. The result? Our kids were confused. Were rules made to be broken or kept? What were the expectations? The consequences?

We needed to find balance, implement consistency, and therefore, create peace. There are hundreds of “how to” parenting books, but none of them intrigued us quite like ETC.

ETC is based on Trust Based Relational Intervention (TBRI) which was designed to help parents raise kids from “hard places,” also known as kids who have faced adverse childhood experiences (ACEs), maltreatment, and toxic stress. I became interested in this form of parenting because all four of my children were adopted as infants, and arguably, all adoptees have experienced trauma when they were separated from their biological parents.

But ETC isn’t just for children who were adopted. Increasing research and discussion surrounding Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) is garnering a lot of attention. Such experiences include abuse, neglect, and witnessing violence. A shocking 48% of children have experienced at least one ACE.

The more ACEs a person has experienced, the more likely he or she is to experience the effects of the experiences. Risks include depression, anxiety, suicide, unplanned pregnancy, cancer, alcohol and drug abuse, and reduced income and educational opportunities.

ETC is the clapback to raising kids who have faced ACEs, maltreatment, and toxic stress. And it works. Yes, trauma changes the brain, but ETC teaches the child that he or she matters, is safe and loved, and can learn to communicate needs.

Sai De Silva/Unsplash

The central principle is that parents need to first connect with their kids, then correct. “Correct” is the ETC term, but you probably call it discipline. This idea blows the top off today’s parenting methods, whether you consider yourself a free range or helicopter mom.

Here’s an example: Time-outs don’t happen in our house. Yes, you read that correctly.

Of course, we all know removing a child from an escalating situation can help. But punishing a child for having feelings by making him or her sit still and be quiet for a set amount of time isn’t solving the problem or helping the child learn. Conversely, letting the kids always just work it out themselves doesn’t help either. Time-outs or ignoring altogether further neglect to meet the child’s need.

Instead, we bring the child to a quieter space and talk through what happened. If the child isn’t in a place to talk at that time, meaning he or she is in a state of dysregulation, we first have to work to regulate (aka: calm) the child. We do a time-in.

Once the child is regulated, we get down on the child’s eye-level, use a steady voice, and gently touch the child. Then we talk through what happened and what we can do to rectify the situation and meet the child’s need. Typical needs are sometimes underlying but important and include hunger, thirst, fatigue, and sensory overload.

ETC doesn’t give the child a free pass to do whatever he or she wants. In fact, it’s a second chance, a “do over.” Opportunities to do the right thing help the child learn what the right thing is the next time as well as understand that parents will help the child. This enforces attachment.

Apologies happen. Natural consequences happen. Connection happens, too.

If you’re wondering if ETC parenting is time-consuming and energy-grabbing, the answer is yes. It’s a lot of work. But the pay-off is huge.

Have you ever gotten so fed up with throwing out random consequences and hoping that one of them would stick long enough for your tween to stop back-talking you?

That’s called nattering, when you promise to take the child’s phone for a week, then say your feelings are hurt, then swearing to cancel the child’s birthday party scheduled two months from now. And it’s exhausting to be so damn creative all the time.

As we all know, not only is nattering ineffective, but it sets the parent and child up to fail. Without standards and expectations, no one wins.

A parent whose tween is being disrespectful can use playful words (I use a touch of sarcasm) to engage. There’s no yelling, no grounding, and no escalating the drama.

What I love about ETC is that it provides concrete, go-to, consistent parenting rules. Kids know the expectations, always, and grow up feeling valued, loved, and believed in. Parents also know what’s expected of them, and with practice, can provide that consistency to their children.

After practicing it for a few years now, I’ve found ETC to be relieving. Of course, things don’t always go well, and I’m not an expert by any means. But certainly, I’m thankful for connective parenting and the healing it’s brought to our family.

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