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Parenting & Discipline

Posted on November 19, 2014

It’s hard to figure out how to discipline our kids. Many parents I talk to know the kind of discipline they don’t want to use, but they don’t know what to do instead. Instead of being reactive, they want to be responsive to their children’s needs, and develop a clear and consistent strategy for managing misbehavior. What’s needed first, then, is a clear understanding of what you actually want to accomplish when your child misbehaves.

Whilst most people think of discipline as punishment or providing consequences, the overall goal is ultimately to teach and build skills. Indeed, the word discipline comes from the Latin word disciplina, which means teaching, learning and giving instruction. Children need to learn skills like inhibiting impulses, managing big angry feelings, and considering the impact of their behaviour on others. So whilst getting our kids to cooperate and do the right thing is an immediate goal of discipline, a second major goal is about helping them develop self-control and a moral compass so that even when authority figures aren’t around, they are thoughtful and conscientious. And that’s one of the ultimate goals of parenting in general – that kids become more insightful, empathic, and able to make good decisions on their own. This means we need to view the times they misbehave as opportunities to not only stop a bad behaviour or promote a good one, but also teach skills that will help them make better decisions and handle themselves well in the future.

If discipline is about teaching, and teaching requires children to be receptive to learning, providing instruction while a child’s emotions are running high is rarely going to be successful, because they will be unable to hear the lessons you’re offering. A child in the midst of a tantrum is not experiencing a “teachable moment”! So if you can help your child calm down first, it will move them from a reactive state to a receptive place that allows them to understand what you’re trying to tell them – and much more quickly than if you just punished or lectured them in the heat of the moment. From this perspective, the first step to effective discipline is to connect with your child emotionally. In fact, because children’s misbehavior is often the result of getting overtaxed emotionally, these moments are generally when they need connection with us the most. Through connection, we can soothe their big feelings, which they don’t yet have the capacity to manage on their own. This process acts like an emotional modulator that keeps feelings from getting too high, allowing children to begin to regain control of their emotions and their bodies and into a state where they can be more receptive to the lessons we want to teach. Only once we’ve connected with our child, and helped them to calm down so they can hear and fully understand what we’re saying, can we then redirect them toward more appropriate behaviour and assist them to see a better way to handle themselves.

It’s important to note here that connection is not the same thing as spoiling. Connecting when a child is upset or out of control is about meeting that child’s needs (remember that they need us to help them calm their big feelings because they can’t do that on their own yet), and is not the same as giving in to what they want. It’s about being there for them when they’re emotionally suffering, just like we would if they were physically suffering. Nor is connecting about permissiveness. Kids need to feel that we care what they’re going through, but they also need us to provide rules and boundaries that allow them to know what’s expected in a given environment. We still need to set limits – we can’t let a child, in his distress, harm himself, destroy things, or put others at risk – but our objective in that moment is to first comfort the child and help them calm down so that they can regain control of themselves. In other words, connection can and should be combined with clear and firm boundaries that create needed structure in children’s lives.

So the next time one of your children loses control or does something that drives you crazy, try to remember that the overall goal of discipline is to teach, but as teaching requires receptivity, and as receptivity results from connection, using this step before you guide them toward more appropriate behaviour can often be a more efficient and effective way of responding. Every child is different, however, and no parenting approach or strategy will work every time. If you would like to discuss more specific ways that you can connect and redirect with your child when they’re upset, please contact Felicity Farmer, an experienced Brisbane therapist and Psychologist, for a consultation today.

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