When our kids are little, sleeping and eating are usually the main things with which parents concern themselves. As they grow into curious and mobile toddlers, discipline inches up to the top of that list. It can be confusing if you do not have a plan for discipline – or at least a few strategies – upon which to rely.
Talking to friends and family members who are parents is helpful. It’s also a good idea to ask your pediatrician for guidance about discipline. While there is a plethora of information online, I also recommend the following books: Raising a Secure Child by Kent Hoffman, Glen Cooper, and Bert Powell; Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child by John Gottman; and The Whole-Brain Child by Dan Siegel.
Last month in RFM, I shared the new guidelines from the American Psychological Association that suggest adults refrain from spanking children. There are many reasons I do not use spanking. As promised, here are some strategies for discipline and how to manage your children – and yourself – when your children misbehave.
1. Be present and aware.
First and foremost, build a relationship with your child. In general, the better relationship you have with your child, the less discipline you will need. Spend time with her doing things she enjoys and delight in who she is. Watch over her – make eye contact regularly, smile, and try to stay off your phone – even if she is playing on her own.
2. Use soothing techniques and acknowledge feelings.
While eating and sleeping are a primary focus for parenting babies, soothing is also critical. That does not change as children get older; it just looks different. As parents, one of our biggest jobs is to help our children make sense of their emotions. Children need to learn to regulate their emotions and behavior. They first develop that skill by having parents regulate their emotions for them when they are babies, and then, having parents help co-regulate (guide and coach) their emotions as they get older.
To calm a baby, parents may bounce or rock an infant and pat his back. For a toddler, parents might comfort her through a scraped knee by providing a band-aid (even if the skin isn’t broken). If your children are older, talk to them and try to understand their perspective without judgment or offering too much advice. This idea of parents as emotional coaches or emotion co-regulators for their children may be a new idea for some parents. (To learn more about emotion co-regulation, see the books I recommended.)
No matter their age, when children become emotionally upset, parents should take all feelings seriously. It is important to help children manage their feelings before trying to fix problems or asking a child to think about what he or she did. Until feelings are soothed, children (and adults!) cannot access the thinking/learning/memory part of their brains very well.
3. Stay kind.
Whether parents are engaging in play, watching their children explore and learn, or helping children manage their emotions or build connections, it is important for parents to be in charge in a kind way. Children need to see that their caregivers can handle the world around them in a way that makes children feel safe and respected.
4. Give positive instruction.
Use positive language that describes to your child how you want him to behave; don’t just tell him not to do something. Provide a specific and brief explanation of how you want him to act. Correction or instruction is a form of discipline, in that you are shaping your child’s desired behaviors. You guide and instruct him on how you expect him to behave and to treat others. Rather than just telling your child not to throw his toy when he is angry, you should provide an alternative for him to manage his anger so he knows there is an appropriate way to respond.
5. Be consistent and follow through.
As adults, it is important for you to do what you say you are going to do. Following through makes your children’s world predictable, and it develops trust – whether you follow through on a promise or give the consequences you warned about. Similar to number three, be consistently kind and stay calm. If you handle similar situations in a similar manner, kids know what to expect and learn how to make sense of the world.
6. Use natural consequences.
Allow your children to experience natural consequences of their behavior. When your toddler throws her toy on the floor when she is buckled into the cart at the grocery store, she no longer can play with that toy. If a child forgets to do a homework assignment, she needs to get a grade that reflects her mistake. Parents frequently want to remove any frustrations or disappointments for their children, but from an early age, it is important to learn to manage those negative feelings appropriately and not have parents intervene immediately.
7. Stay in control.
When children become upset or angry after a parent or caregiver sets a limit, corrects their behavior, or gives them a consequence, it is important to stay calm. Staying calm shows that you are in charge and that you can handle their feelings. If a parent becomes irritated or angry, everyone’s emotions will likely escalate. Your child needs you to be in control of your emotions and remain calm on the outside (even if you are having different feelings inside). Children respond better when choices or consequences are given in a calm voice and with patience.
Try to remember, discipline should be applied based on what the child needs, not according to a parent or caregiver’s frustration level. As parents, if we take out our negative feelings on a child or amp up the consequences she receives because we are angry, it shows that we are not in control of our anger. Out-of-control emotions, especially anger, are scary for children and adults, too. When we work to build a proper foundation for discipline from the beginning of our relationship with our children, we can raise kind and respectful children.