Family Communication 

In her presentation about family communication, North High School’s assistant principal Angela Conway spoke about the relationship between brain development and behavior. She addressed some of the main issues that can lead to the escalation of parent-child conversations and shared advice on how to avoid them.

The first thing Conway wants parents to understand is the issue of skill vs. will.  Due to the fact that children’s brains are still developing in adolescence, while they may not lack the will, they may lack the skills to process what their parents want from them.

The biological background of this issue is that the human brain only becomes fully developed between the ages of 25 and 28. The last part of the brain to develop is the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for a multitude of important functions. Among those functions are impulse control, emotional control, self-monitoring, flexible thinking, organization, task initiation, and prioritizing skills. A lack of these skills can lead to the behaviors that are often the reasons for parent-child conflicts.

For example, Conway described a parent having to repeatedly tell their child to do a certain task. This trouble remembering instructions points towards the child still developing their working memory. Another example is that if a child can’t seem to clean their room by themself, it may be because they lack the skills of organization and task initiation, which makes them not know how to begin the work.

According to Conway, “Something to think about as we are in conversations with our kids is: Are they lacking the will to do it, or are they lacking the skill to do it? Based on this [the research around the not yet fully developed prefrontal cortex], it is most likely skill.” 

Another important factor Conway wants parents to remember is that in stressful situations such as parent-child conflicts, both family members’ brains can become dysregulated, leading to their prefrontal cortexes going offline.

This has to do with the brain’s fight-or-flight response. The human brain constantly scans the room for signs of danger to be able to react instantly and get out of the situation. If there were a bear that suddenly appeared next to someone, their brain would prioritize survival functions and neglect other executive functions, such as the ones from the prefrontal cortex.

Conway described that by becoming agitated, the parent not only triggers their fight or flight response but also turns into the symbolic “bear in the room.” In this process, the parent’s prefrontal cortex goes “offline,” which prevents them from accessing the skills associated with it. As a response to the parent’s confrontation, the child will react with a fight or flight response, and their prefrontal cortex will also go offline.

This means for real-life conversations that parents may temporarily become unable to control their emotions and impulses, which can result in impulsive and unrealistic threats of punishment. In response, children may react overly emotionally by cussing at their parents, slamming doors, and running out the door to escape the situation.

Conway recommends a three-step technique that can be used between family members, not just parents and children, to improve family communication. This technique is to regulate, relate, and reason. 

In a parent-child relationship, the parent should first try to calm down and regulate their own emotions. Conway described it as the calm anchor to their child’s boat in the stormy sea of emotions. This helps to calm the child down and bring both parties back to a level of calmness and “online” prefrontal cortexes. If a child cannot calm down at the moment, it is a good idea to take a break and resume the conversation once they have managed to calm down.

“As an adult, we have to be the calmest person. We are the only ones with a fully functioning prefrontal cortex and communication. And so, we have to be the calm when there’s a storm because sometimes, when our students or kids don’t have access to all those skills of the prefrontal cortex, they’re in a storm that they can’t get out of because it feels so big and chaotic.” 

The next step is to relate and validate the child’s emotions. Validating the child’s emotions does not mean the parent should say it was okay, but they should acknowledge that the emotion was big and that they understand that it might have been overwhelming.

The last step is reasoning, solution finding, and learning from the situation. Parents and children should figure out the problem’s solution and how they could better deal with the emotions the next time they come up. In this step, parents should consider possible consequences or what they want their children to take away.

If parents decide on issuing consequences, Conway recommends that those consequences be directly related to what happened and discussed with the child before the need arises. This helps children know how parents will react and gives them a reason to weigh the benefits and consequences of their future behavior. Having pre-established consequences also helps the parents keep calm in a conversation and respond in a planned and reasonable manner rather than reactive and excessive.

Calm, problem-solving communication between parents and their children helps children develop new neuropathways that make it more efficient for them to access the functions of their prefrontal cortex overall. The goal, said Conway, is to help children become problem solvers by developing the essential skills associated with the prefrontal cortex.

Angela Conway is the assistant principal overseeing the freshman students at North High School. Prior to this role, Conway was the Behavior Supports Program Coordinator. In her 15 years of experience in education, she has worked with staff and students from ages three to older than 18 to support students’ needs. The information she has learned about the importance of the skills of the prefrontal cortex in stressful situations has changed her views on family communication.


  • Think about whether the child is lacking skill or will and treat the situation accordingly
  • Have a planned response: Regulate own emotions and calm down the child
  • Validate overwhelmingness and strength of child’s emotions
  • Find solutions together, issue possible pre-established consequence, help the child learn from situation


  • React impulsively and emotionally
  • Issue spontaneous, unrelated, and unrealistic punishments

Presentation by Angela Conway

Written by Emily Rottaler

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