So maybe you don't want to parent your kids the way you were parented. Much love to mom and dad, but there's room for improvement on the parenting front! The adults in your life used threats, bribes, time-outs or even spanking when you were small. And you know that threats, bribes, time-outs and spanking are not the way to go. Studies show that physical punishment leads to kids who are more aggressive, more deceptive and who behave worse. Threats only work if you're willing to follow through, and then must be esclated as time goes on to elicit the behavior we want. Bribing has a similar pattern of escalation and certainly doesn't foster self-discipline: when the external reward is withdrawn, so is any motivation to continue behaving well. Time outs are a way of sending our kids off to handle their big emotions solo, when they actually need a hand learning how not to get swept away. Plus, do you think they're sitting on the naughty chair feeling remorse or more likely planning retaliation because they're still angry and ashamed? All of these punishments also eventually fail as soon as we can no longer physically impose our "consequences." And that's when it becomes clear that we cannot make our child do what we want them to do. They have to want to listen, want to follow our lead, want to please us. They have to want to preserve their warm, loving relationship with us. This is our lever, our key to encouraging desirable behavior.
So while punishment erodes the connection that leads to better behavior, discipline --which comes from the word "to teach" -- fosters closer ties, and a relationship with you that children are desperate to maintain. It is most certainly possible to discipline, or teach, without punishing.
Do note that if you suddenly stop punishing without working on building that warm relationship with your child, laying the foundation for them accept your influence, you will likely not see much of an improvement in their behavior! However, if you've decided you want to teach your child how to be a responsible, caring person without inflicting harm (ie punishing), here are a few pointers.
So let's start with an example. What to do when you've repeated yourself 50 times and your child is still not listening and is instead ramping up for an epic meltdown? First off, calm yourself down. When your child is most exasperating, they need you the most. Tossing gasoline onto their already raging firestorm of emotion never ends well. So take a moment, take a breath (or 10) and pivot to seeing the behavior as a cry for help, and not something being done TO you. The little person in your life has an immature brain and cannot cope with the flood of emotions in the moment; and they are relying on you to show them how to regulate. Take them up on the opportunity! Teach them to self regulate by regulating yourself. Narrate what you're doing so they get a clearer picture of what to do when they get hijacked.
"I'm feeling pretty upset right now and I don't want to say something I'll regret. I'm going to practice blowing out some pretend candles a few times and then I'm going to give myself a big hug. Want to do it with me too?"
The goal is for you to feel back in control of yourself by modeling how to handle anger and frustration. Hence the slow breathing, the calming self-hug, the stretching and releasing tension in the shoulders, the glass of water, the shaking out of the hands...you get the idea.
Remember that there are still rules and limits. This is not permissive parenting where your child is in charge. The key is to set limits early and often, and most definitely before you get frustrated. It's much easier to see things from your child's point of view, or to empathize, when you still have your good humor and reserves of patience. If a rule gets broken or a limit gets disregarded, focus on how your child can make a repair, particularly if your first instinct is to punish. Instead of frog marching your little one to their room when they've called their sibling "stupid," ask them how it made their sibling feel, and wonder what they might do to repair the relationship.
Which brings me to the next point: don't try to teach a lesson when you or your child are in the throes of upset. Often the parents I work with report feeling caught off guard when they feel they ought to teach a lesson that the behavior is unacceptable right now. "How will they ever learn unless I make the point this instant!?" Take the long view-- you can always talk about what just happened later. After all, you live with your child! The sense of urgency often knocks us off message and results in things being said that we later regret. Morevoer, no one internalizes lessons when they are in a fight or flight or freeze mode, be they a child or an adult. Your brain's reasoning center simply shuts down until it perceives that the emergency has passed. As a guideline, it takes about 20 minutes for all the stress hormones to flush out of the system and the reasoning center to come back on line when you're upset. So go back and have that conversation when both you and your child have cooled down.
So now you're calm and ready to provide empathy and safety to your child, whose behavior indicates there is an unmet need. The physical needs can be the easiest to tackle. Is your son or daughter hungry? Tired? Overstimulated? A little forethought can certainly head a lot of problems off at the pass. Making sure your child gets adequate sleep, is eating quality foods regularly, and is not overscheduled can go a very long way in preventing over-the-top reactions to small bumps in the road. Realizing that there are physical factors at play can also make it easier for us to tap into our own compassion.
"No wonder she's cranky! She skipped her nap and must be hungry too."
If the physical needs are met, but the behavior is still outsized, dig a little deeper and see what else might be going on. Children who "misbehave" are often feeling disconnected, and that's an indication that there is work to be done strengthening the relationship with you. When you come home, are you able to focus 100% on your kids for a few minutes so they feel connected to you? Do you take the time to witness and point out how appreciative you are when they do behave well-- or catch them being "good"? Do you really listen when they tell you about the minutia of their day? Do small things often, so that you lay the foundation for a close, trusting relationship with your child.
A good question to ask when faced with a child who is acting out their emotions is, "What does he or she need right now?" A hug? Someone to listen quietly while they off load their litany of bad things that happened at school? A chance to cry and get all the ugly feelings out? Some roughhousing to get them giggling?
No matter what the circumstance, what your child does need is a calm authority to guide them through the turbulance and to model what loving compassion looks like. As Dr. Laura Markham says, the peace in peaceful parenting comes from you.
This is certainly hard work. If you'd like a hand getting the hang of peaceful parenting your little one, drop me a line. You don't have to go it alone.
Warmest wishes, Olivia