Brain-Based Parenting: The SCARF-model Applied

In the past few decades, the field of neuroscience has gifted us with invaluable information about how the brain works. If we took the time to understand how the human brain worked, we would have less conflict in relationships, deeper connection and ultimately, increased well-being.

The SCARF-model, proposed by Dr. David Rock in 2008, is a “brain-based model for collaborating with and influencing others”. This model is heavily used in business coaching and professional development, but today I will attempt to apply the model in parenting. The five letters stand for: Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness.

These five domains of the ‘human social experience’ activate either the primary reward or the primary threat circuitry of the brain. So, as parents, we must learn ways to help children’s brains minimize threat/ danger, and maximize reward (Note: ‘reward‘ in this context means ‘psychological safety’). This is important because a child’s behavior is triggered by the threat or the reward circuitry/ response. In other words, a child will react to the home environment: will self-protect when threatened, and will thrive when feeling safe.

STATUS: a child’s sense of significance, or importance to parents and others. A child’s future sense of SELF will stem from how parents treat a child’s status at an early age.

Parents threaten a child’s Status when they:

  • say “because I say so!”
  • refuse to take child’s perspective into account
  • punish, ground, or take away things to “teach them a lesson”
  • yell at very young children and don’t repair the rupture later on

Parents can nurture the reward circuitry (i.e., psychological safety) related to Status by:

  • treating their child with equal respect in the family
  • treating each child’s unique personality with respect
  • not comparing siblings
  • not comparing child with other children
  • listening to child’s point of view without judgement

CERTAINTY: the ability to count on a predictable future, which is paramount in the first 7 years of life for optimal development.

Parents threaten a child’s need for Certainty when they:

  • don’t keep their promises, big and small
  • don’t have routines and rituals
  • change jobs, cities, or homes often
  • divorce
  • remarry (too) soon after the divorce
  • fight (marriage / couple unresolved issues)
  • have mental health problems, and do not seek professional help
  • are addicted to alcohol or drugs

Parents can nurture Certainty by:

  • having routines and rituals, especially during 0-7 years
  • having a clear co-parenting schedule (if divorced)
  • informing the child about changes in the schedule, big or small
  • having consistency with the rules and limits around sugar, digital devices, school work, etc
  • maintaining friendships over time
  • making big changes when the child is ready, when possible (change of school,for example)

AUTONOMY: having a sense of control over events, situations and life in general.

Parents threaten a child’s need for Autonomy when they:

  • make all the rules and rules are non-negotiable
  • dictate all decisions, big and small (rigid schedules, imposed activities)
  • punish mistakes and reward achievements
  • make sudden life changes and there is no space for processing the change
  • minimize a child’s emotions
  • micromanage

Parents can preserve healthy levels of Autonomy by:

  • giving children age appropriate options to choose from
  • respecting a child’s preferences
  • respecting a child’s personal space and body limits
  • respecting a child’s inner compass for how much food, sleep, physical activities, and social interactions he/she needs at any given time
  • making failing safe (mistakes are welcome)
  • listening without judging or trying to fix (the child, the situation, etc); just listening!

RELATEDNESS: having a feeling of safety and belonging around parents, teachers and others.

Parents activate the threat response in their child’s brain (re: Relatedness) when they:

  • disconnect emotionally
  • distance themselves physically or emotionally (walking away, silent treatment)
  • are on their phones instead of engaging with the child
  • aren’t making eye contact with the child
  • withhold physical affection (hugs, kisses, gentle touching)
  • don’t play with their children
  • favor one child over another
  • are overworked and constantly exhausted
  • spend most of their time working or away from home

Parents can activate the reward response re:Relatedness (i. e., the child feels safe and connected to the group) by:

  • laughing and having fun together regularly
  • having Special Time with each child regularly
  • roughhousing
  • following the child’s lead in play
  • apologizing when they hurt the child
  • allowing for all emotions to be expressed in the family
  • advocating for the child in school
  • being silly together
  • spending time together without devices
  • spending time in nature together
  • having routines and rituals for “togetherness”

FAIRNESS: the sense of fair treatment- very important to all children.

Parents activate the threat response re: Fairness when they:

  • say one thing and do another
  • give a child overwhelming responsibilities
  • over-estimate a child’s abilities to handle a task (homework included)
  • compare child with siblings or other children
  • don’t keep promises, big and small

Parents can nurture a child’s need for Fairness by:

  • having age-appropriate expectations
  • embracing child’s mistakes as learning and growth
  • being humble and transparent
  • admitting their own mistakes and limitations
  • treating everyone in the family equally and with respect
  • listening to child’s perspective in a conflict
  • having open conversations and safe spaces to resolve conflict and hurt

Where are you struggling the most in the SCARF-model, as a parent?
What kind of tools do you think you need to help your child minimize threats and maximize rewards?
I want to hear from you. Let me know via DM on Instagram @prof_mihaela

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