Anyone can tell you that discipline is a messy business. Not even the best of parents could possibly get it right all the time. However, part of what complicates the process of teaching our kids to behave is that parents bring a lot of their own baggage to the table. Kids can be a big trigger of feelings from your childhood, feelings you aren’t even aware of anymore. When a child acts up, it can stir you up, making you feel intense and heated. It can cause you to feel insulted, disregarded or ashamed. The trouble is, once you’re riled up by your own emotions, you aren’t as equipped to calmly and rationally deal with your child’s.
As Dr. Daniel Siegel says in his new book No-Drama Discipline, co-authored by Dr. Tina Bryson, discipline is about teaching, not punishment. Too often, when parents feel provoked or triggered by their kids, the discipline becomes more about releasing their feelings than teaching the child. Parents will be much more effective when they get a handle on their own emotions and are able to be attuned to their kids. With that in mind, here are some rules to live by when it comes to disciplining your child:
1. Always be calm first.
When you’re wound up yourself, your behavior may not only be mis-attuned but inconsistent. For example, your child may be bouncing on the couch cushions, and you exhaustedly ignore it. Then, the minute they accidentally knock over a lamp, you scream at them, “Look what you did! Stop acting like an animal and jumping all over the furniture!” The child may already be confused. Why were you seemingly okay with the jumping just minutes before? Then, instead of stopping them when you were calm and first noticed the behavior, you blow up the second things inevitably go wrong. A parent startling them and “flipping their lid” looks very scary to children. Moreover, when children are yelled at, they rarely remember the lesson their parent was trying to get across. What they do remember is the fear that overcame them when that parent lost his or her cool. The best thing parents can do before they approach their child is to calm down themselves. Take a few breaths, find a way to relax, then address the situation.
2. Think about the outcome.
Discipline isn’t effective when it’s a matter of releasing your own frustration. Yelling at your kid, “Why are you throwing a fit? You’re driving me crazy!” probably won’t get them to settle down and be rational. Think about what you really want to achieve in the situation, the lesson you want them to take away from the experience. Most likely, you want your child to feel seen and cared about, but to also have a sense of morality and responsibility. You want them to feel secure in your relationship, but understand that they won’t always get their way. When you think about your goal for the interaction, you can take more conscious, effective steps to get there.
3. Connect on an emotional level.
This is a point Dr. Siegel beautifully illustrates in his book and will elaborate on in his upcoming Webinar on “No Drama-Discipline.” When a child is falling apart or experiencing stress and acting out, you should first connect with them on an emotional level that will get to them in that moment. Often, that means making physical contact, kneeling down to their level, perhaps putting an arm around them and looking them in the eye. Find a way to help them calm down without arguing logic or reason. Instead, take a moment to just deal with their emotional state. “It seems like you’re feeling really sad about this.”
Once they’re calmer, you can help them find a solution to the problem. As Dr. Siegel says, “connect and redirect.” If they ask you for a cookie before bed, you could say, “Let’s make cookies together for your friend’s birthday party next week, but right now, how about we read a book?” The resolution won’t always be so black and white. If your child’s falling apart about a homework assignment, the answer isn’t going to be to not do it, but maybe they could spend some time on another project then come back to it or take an entirely different approach to what they’re working on.
4. Never isolate or physically punish.
It’s my hope that, in this day and age, parents know the scientific arguments against physical discipline. There are a million reasons not to strike your child, with maybe the least important being that it does NOT make them behave. However, another common approach that should be questioned is isolation or “time outs.” Without getting too much into the current controversy surrounding time outs, a major takeaway is that isolating your children when they don’t behave denies them an important developmental lesson. You want your child to be able to connect and communicate, even when tough issues arise. You want them to learn how to use others to help themselves emotionally regulate. This is a matter of socializing your children and making them resilient in the real world, where they won’t be able to hide out any time there is conflict.
5. Teach empathy.
It’s a familiar image: the parent dragging their kid across the playground to apologize to a child he or she has upset. “Now look her in the eye and say you’re sorry for taking her toy.” The child halfheartedly repeats what the parent says and scrambles away as fast as he or she can. Little is learned from this exchange, in which you’ve forced your kids to go through the motions without really understanding what they’ve done. A better strategy is to talk to the child and help them understand what the other person in the interaction was feeling. “How would you feel if someone took your toy without asking?” By getting them to relate, you set a foundation for learning empathy. It isn’t about having them dish out empty apologies but helping them gain a real feeling for the emotions and experience of another person.
6. Lead by example… and let them be.
Today, parents want to be liked by their children. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself, but as parents, we have a responsibility to teach our children how to be as adults. Spoiling kids or over-parenting sets them up to have a skewed sense of importance. When they grow up, the world will likely disappoint them. On the flip side, rejecting them or being too strict may make them feel distant from you or compelled to rebel. The best thing to do is to be your best self. Lead by example. Act like the person you’d like them to be. When I say this, I don’t mean be a doctor and expect your kid to be the same. I mean really try to live by the general qualities you admire, i.e. compassion, patience, acceptance, honesty, generosity. Be kind, supportive and loving. Provide structure and safety, but then, let them be. Allow them to explore their world and discover who they are. Don’t impose unnecessary restrictions that reflect only what you want and not what they want. In this way, they will be drawn to internalize your positive qualities, while feeling the freedom to become the people they’re meant to be.
Read More from Dr. Lisa Firestone at PsychAlive.org