Viewing entries tagged
discipline

Common Misconceptions About Parenting

There are certain “truths” about parenting that we act on without ever really examining them.  Maybe we’ve heard them from someone else, or maybe we’ve just fallen into them over time.  Either way, they spell trouble for our understanding of and relationship with our kids. 

Here are some so-called “truths” about parenting that, when we really think about them, simply aren’t true.

 

It’s all up to me.

Parents often believe that they are solely responsible for their child's success and skill building.  Of course parents have a huge impact on who their children turn out to be, but many other forces are at work as well.  One of the most successful contributors to a child's socialization is in fact her own peers. Some of the behaviors you can't get her to change with months and months of nagging will disappear in one moment if a peer says something about it.  Let her pick her nose once on the playground, and see how long that habit sticks around. So it's not all on you. Do your best, but know that other teachers, other kids, and other relationships will influence how your child turns out as well.

 

If I mess up I’ll mess up my kids.

Parents worry that when we yell or lose our tempers a bit, or when we’re not patient, we’re harming our kids. In fact, as long as we’re repairing with them and apologizing and making things right afterwards, small ruptures are actually valuable experiences that teach kids important lessons about how to handle things when conflict arises in a relationship.  Abuse is obviously different, but to a huge extent, our mistakes with our kids can teach valuable lessons when they’re a part of an overall loving relationship.

 

Child development is linear.

Parents often think that kids grow and develop along a straight line that leads from less mature and capable to more mature and capable.  Actually, development usually happens in spurts, with plenty of steps backwards along the way.  Just when they learn to tie their shoes, you may see them regress in some other emotional or fine-motor skill.  Be patient.  Development will happen, it’s just that you can’t expect it to be consistent and predictable.

 

Kids choose when they behave, and when they don’t.

By the time a child is four or five, he knows the rules for the most part.   For example, when he’s mad, he’s not supposed to hit or call someone “Fart-face Jones.”  But he keeps doing it.  And we think, “Why in the world would he do that?”  The fact is that he does know the rule, but his immature brain prevents him from remaining in control, emotionally, so he’s at least temporarily unable to make good decisions.  So it’s not fair for us to expect him to make good decisions all the time.  Sometimes he’s actually incapable of behaving the way he should.  This means we should be talking to him about his thoughts and feelings that led to the behavior, and not just the behavior itself.  This is also just one more reason not to say, “How many times do I have to tell you . . . ?”

 

It’s now or never.

Avoid fear-based parenting.  Just because she’s acting a certain way now doesn’t mean you have to worry that she’ll act that way forever.  You don’t have to teach every skill and root out every misbehavior today, or even by the end of the week.  Resist the temptation to think, If I don't nip this in the bud right this second my child will become an ax murderer. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to address behaviors and build skills each and every week of your child's life.  So relax a little.

 

Consistency is the key to good discipline. 

Actually, this isn’t a misconception, but it needs to be reframed. Consistent love and clear expectations are the key to good discipline. But too often, consistency gets confused with rigidity. Be willing to make exceptions at times, and even to cut your kids some slack when necessary. Yes, children need to know the rules and see you enforce them in a predictable manner; but as you do so, be sure to consider the context of a situation, like the child’s age and capability, the time of day, whether someone’s hungry, and so on.

 

I shouldn’t negotiate with my child.

It doesn’t make you weak to listen to your child’s point of view.  You can still maintain your authority in the relationship while remaining flexible and open-minded.  Be willing to listen to alternative positions, and to reward your child’s ability to make good arguments to achieve what he wants.  If you’re in the right on a position, hold your ground.  But if your child can convince you that he’s right in this instance, then how much sense does it make to continue to insist that he’s wrong?

 

You can be a parent or a friend.

The problem here is the either-or dichotomy.  Yes, you need to be an authority figure for your kids.  They need that in order to understand how the world works and to feel less chaotic in their lives.  But that doesn’t mean that you two can’t also share all the elements of a strong friendship—like sharing your lives, laughing and celebrating together, and knowing you’ve got each other’s back.

 

When we discipline, we need to explain a lot.

I know that sometimes my kids want to scream, “Please stop talking!”  Especially when they’re in trouble and already understand what they’ve done wrong.  Discipline will be much more effective if we simply address the behavior, along with the child’s state of mind that led to the behavior, then move on.  Too much talking quickly becomes completely counter-productive.

 

The original version of this article can be viewed at Mom.me.

Overestimating Your Child's Ability to Deal?

We expect so much of our kids, don't we?  But when we misperceive their ability to handle themselves well, we make things hard on everyone involved. That's the gist of my new article at mom.me:

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I hear it from parents all the time.  They’ll come to my office and say, their voices full of frustration, “He’s capable of handling himself well.  He does it at school and usually at home.  But then there are times he just acts so immature and freaks out.”

Sound familiar?  Does to me, too.  In fact, it sounds just like my kids.

And like these parents, I’ll sometimes take the next, seemingly logical, step and assume that the fact that a child can often make good choices and handle herself well, means that she can always do so.

A father in my office last week described his daughter like this:  “She wants things her way.  And if things don’t go her way, she might lose it; and she could clearly make a better choice.  I know she can deal with stuff well, she just chooses not to.”

Again, this can seem like a logical conclusion.  But is it?  In other words, if a child often, or even usually, handles herself well, does that mean that when she doesn’t do so, she’s being manipulative or somehow choosing to make things hard on her parents so she can get her way?

Let’s apply it to ourselves.  Could someone say something similar about you as a parent?  “She’s capable of parenting well.  She does it lots of places, and usually she handles herself great at home.  But then there are times that she just acts so immature and freaks out.”  I don’t know about you, but if someone said that about me, my only response would be, “Guilty as charged.”

But obviously, you and I don’t have bad parenting moments because we’re intentionally acting belligerent so we can get our way.  Manipulation implies that we are calculating.  But when we mess up with our kids, it’s because the emotions get the best of us and we temporarily don’t act like the kind of parents we want to be.

You see the point I’m making.  Just because we parent well lots of times, doesn’t mean we can parent well all the time.  The way we handle ourselves really depends so much on

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Read the whole article here.

7 Ways to Deal With a Toddler's Tantrum

I have a new post up at mom.me.  It begins like this: ---------------- I recently wrote about why we should be grateful when our little ones throw a tantrum. But aside from understanding that a tantrum is normal and even healthy, what else can we do when we’re actually in this kind of high-stress moment with our kids? I don't believe parents should ignore a tantrum. When children are truly out of control, that’s when they need us the most. We still need to set clear boundaries, but our response should always be full of love, respect and patience.

Here are seven suggestions for dealing with a toddler’s tantrum:

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View the whole gallery here.

Ten Bites of a Quesadilla: Transforming Moments through Creative Discipline

Creativity allows us to transform a battle and a disconnection into an opportunity to bond, to play, to teach, and even to develop the higher parts of our kids’ brains. I don’t always achieve this lofty goal, but when I’m able to, I’m reminded of just how powerful it can be when we use our creativity to transform the moments we’re given.

Five Reasons I’m Not a Fan of Time Outs

More and more, I find myself questioning time outs as an effective discipline strategy.  I’ve written some about this already, but now I’d like to go into my reasons in a bit more depth. I know lots of loving parents who use time outs as their primary discipline technique.  I’m not saying that time outs are completely unhelpful; more that I don’t think they’re the best alternative we have when it comes to discipline—the goal of which, remember, is to teach.

 

Reasons I’m Not a Fan of Time-Outs:

#1.  What we know about the brain. 

Because I know that brain connections are formed from repeated experiences, I don’t want my kids’ repeated experience to be isolation, which they may view as rejection, when they’ve made a mistake.

What I DO want them to repeatedly experience is doing things the right way.  So, instead of a time out, I’ll often ask my kids to practice good behavior.  If they’re being disrespectful in their tone and communication, I might ask them to try it again and say it respectfully.  If they’ve been mean to their brother, I might ask them to find three kind things to do for him before bedtime.  That way, the repeated experience of positive behavior is getting wired in their brain.

 

#2.  False advertising and missed opportunities. 

What’s the point or the goal for a time out?  It’s supposed to be for a child to calm down and reflect on his or her behavior.  In my experience, time outs frequently just make children more angry .  And how often do you think kids use their time out to reflect on their behavior?  I’ve got news for you:  The main thing they’re reflecting on is how mean parents are.

When they’re reflecting on their horrible luck to have such a mean, unfair parent, they’re missing out on an opportunity to have experiences of building insight, empathy, and problem-solving.  Putting them in time out misses a chance for them to practice being active decision-makers who are empowered to figure things out.  We want to give them practice at being problem-solvers, and at making good choices.  You can do your kids a lot of good by simply asking, “What are you going to do to make it better and solve this problem?”  Given the chance once they’re calm, they’ll usually do the right thing, and learn in the process.

 

#3.  Time outs often aren’t linked to the misbehavior.

Usually, we want to choose consequences that are directly and logically connected to the misbehavior.  Using a broom to whack the TV means the broom is put away until the child can make appropriate choices with it again.  Riding a bike without a helmet means no riding for a few days.

Time outs, though, often don’t relate in any clear way to a child’s bad decision or out-of-control reaction.  As a result, they’re often not as effective in terms of changing behavior.

 

#4.  Time outs are too often used as punishment, as opposed to a teaching tool.

Even when parents have good intentions, time outs are often used inappropriately.  The idea behind time outs is to give kids a chance to calm down and pull themselves together.  Then they can move from their internal chaos into calm.

But much of the time, parents use time outs punitively.  The goal isn’t to help the child return to her calm baseline, but to punish her for some misbehavior.  The calming, teaching aspect of the consequence gets totally lost.

 

#5.  Kids need connection. 

Often, misbehavior is a result of a child inappropriately expressing a need or a big feeling.  She may be hungry or tired, or maybe there’s some other reason she’s incapable in that moment of controlling herself and making a good decision.

Like, maybe she’s three, and her brain isn’t sophisticated enough to say, “Mother dear, I’m feeling frustrated that we’re out of my favorite juice, and I’d like to respectfully request that you put it on your grocery list.”  So instead, doing her best to express her crushing disappointment, she begins throwing toys at you.

It’s during these times that she most needs our comfort and calm presence.  Forcing her to go off and sit by herself can feel like abandonment to the child, especially if she’s feeling out of control already.  It may even send the subtle message that when she isn’t perfect, you don’t want to be near her.

 

Again, if done appropriately with loving connection, such as sitting with the child and talking or comforting – often called a “time-in” – some time to calm down can be helpful for children.  But there are often more nurturing and effective ways to respond to kids than to give them a time out.

 

If I Could Tell You Only One Thing about Discipline

Discipline is a complex and complicated subject.  I could write a whole book about it.  In fact, I’ve already started working on one. But when we talk about effective discipline and how parents can achieve the results they want when they interact with their kids, it can actually be it pretty simple.  If it were a math formula, it would look like this:

 

WARMTH  +  AUTHORITY  =  EFFECTIVE DISCIPLINE

 

The research is really clear on this point.  Kids who achieve the best outcomes in life – emotionally, educationally, and relationally – have parents who raise them with a high degree of warmth and nurturing, or what I like to call emotional responsiveness, as well as a high degree of authority, where clear boundaries are communicated and enforced.  Their parents remain firm and consistent in their boundaries, while still interacting with them in a way that communicates love, respect, and compassion.  Warmth and authority are the two sides of the effective-discipline coin.

 

The first side of the discipline coin:  Warmth

When we nurture our children and attune to their internal world, we allow them to know and believe that they are seen, heard, loved, and approved of by their parents.  Then they’ll interact with the world around them based on that belief, so that their brains are wired to expect that their needs will be met in intimate relationships.  On the other hand, if a parent repeatedly shames and criticizes his or her child, then the child learns that relationships are based on power and control.  He will store up all kinds of negative emotions that will be expressed either externally through bullying and aggression, or internally through depression or anxiety, but either way he’ll be forced to seek bigger and bigger ways to get his needs met.  His brain won’t develop in ways that make it easy to problem-solve and reflect on his experiences; instead, he’ll most likely live his life reacting.  He’ll operate from a primitive reactive brain, instead of a thoughtful proactive brain.

It’s absolutely vital that parents nurture their children and do all that they can to offer them love, compassion, and understanding by consistently meeting their needs, even when the kids are difficult and act out with “bad” behavior.

 

The second side of the discipline coin:  Authority

It’s just as vital, though, that parents remain the authority in their relationship with their children.  Kids need boundaries so they can understand the way the world works, and what’s permissible, versus what crosses a line.  A clear understanding of rules and boundaries helps them achieve success in relationships and other areas of their lives.  Our children need repeated experiences that allow them to develop wiring in their brain that helps them delay gratification, flexibly deal with not getting things their way, and contain urges to react aggressively toward others..  By saying “no” and drawing boundaries for our children, we’ll help them know that rules exist that offer safety and predictability in an otherwise chaotic world.

 

Discipline as a Two-Step Process

Emotional responsiveness plus authority.  They go hand in hand, and when we discipline, we need to communicate both to our children.  You can think of it as a two-step process that can happen in either order.   You provide boundaries in a matter-of-fact tone:  “You know the rule about wearing your helmet, and I’m sorry, but you broke that rule, so now the skateboard can’t be ridden for the rest of the week.”  And, you offer empathy regarding the emotional effect of the consequences:  “I know that my taking your skateboard away makes you really sad.”  You can even combine the two steps with a statement like, “I’m letting you face your consequence because I love you, and it’s my job to teach you about being safe and how to be a responsible person.”

We want our kids to learn that relationships are about respect, nurturing, warmth, consideration, cooperation, and respecting other people.  When we interact with them from a perspective of both warmth and authority – in other words, when we repeatedly pay attention to their internal world, while also holding to standards about their behavior – these are the lessons they’ll learn.

I’ll close by emphasizing the point that was a bit of a revelation to me when I first understood it in relation to my parenting:  It really is possible to be calm and loving, and to connect with our children emotionally, while disciplining them and setting clear boundaries.  I don’t always do it, and neither will you.  But it’s important, and it’s healthy and helpful for everyone involved, when we combine clear and consistent consequences with loving empathy.

 

 

 

 

Common Discipline Mistakes Even the Best Parents Make: Part 1

Because we’re always parenting our children, it takes real effort to look at our discipline strategies objectively. Good intentions can become less-than-effective habits quickly, and that can leave us operating blindly, disciplining in ways we might not if we thought much about it. Here are some parenting mistakes made by even the best-intentioned, most well-informed parents, along with practical suggestions that might come in handy the next time you find yourself in one of these situations. Common Discipline Mistake #1: We lay down the law in an emotional moment, then realize we’ve overreacted.

Common Discipline Mistakes Made by Even the Best Parents: Part 2

  [This is a revision of the second article in a two-part series.  Click here to see the first four mistakes.]

 

Here are more discipline mistakes made by even the best-intending, most well-informed parents, along with practical suggestions that might come in handy the next time you find yourself in one of these situations.

Common Discipline Mistake #5:  We get trapped in power struggles.

Everyone says to avoid power struggles.  But no one seems to tell us what to do once we’ve gotten ourselves into an inevitable one.  And when our kids feel backed into a corner, they instinctually fight back or totally shut down.  So here are three ways to help you get out of those lose-lose power struggles you sometimes find yourself in.

A.  Give your child an out or a choice that allows her to comply with your expectations, while still saving face:  “Would you like to get a drink first, and then we’ll pick up the toys?”  The phrase “It’s your choice” can be a powerful tool to wield, since it gives your child some amount of power, which can often diffuse stand-offs.  So maybe you ask, “Would you like to get ready for bed now and read four bedtime stories tonight, or play 10 minutes longer and read two stories?  It’s your choice.”  (If she chooses fewer stories, it’s a good idea to remind her several times before story-time about her choice.)

B.  Negotiate:  “We’re not really getting anywhere here, are we?  Let’s see if we can figure out a way for both of us to get what we need.”  Obviously, there are some non-negotiable issues, but negotiation isn’t a sign of weakness; it’s a sign of respect for your child and his desires.  It teaches him important skills about considering not only what he wants, but also what others want; and it’s a lot more effective in the long run than bullying or simply arguing with him.

C. Ask your child for help:  “Do you have any suggestions?”  You might be shocked to find out how much they are willing to bend and bring about a peaceful resolution to the standoff.  Recently, my 4-year-old HAD to have fruit snacks at 9:30 in the morning.  I told him he could have it after lunch, but he didn’t really like my plan.  He started to whine and flop about, so I interrupted him and said, “I know you’re really sad about not getting the treat now.  Do you have any ideas?”  His eyes got big with excitement and I could see his little cognitive wheels turning.  He called out, “I know!  I can have one now and save the rest for after lunch!”  He felt empowered, the power struggle was averted, and I was able to give him an opportunity to solve a problem.  And all it cost me was allowing him to have one fruit snack.  Not such a big deal.

 

Common Discipline Mistake #6:  We let “experts” trump our own instincts.

By “experts,” I mean authors and other gurus, but also friends and family members who offer well-meaning (It is well-meaning, right?) advice on how to raise your kids. But it’s important that you not discipline your child based on what someone else thinks you ought to do.  So fill your discipline toolbox with information from lots of experts (and non-experts), then listen to your own instincts as you pick and choose different aspects of different approaches that seem to apply best to your situation with your family and your child.

Also, be aware of times you might be disciplining differently because you’re concerned about what someone else will think.  If you need to discipline in public or when others are watching, you might want to pull your child away from the crowd and deal with the situation quietly, or even leave the room, so you won’t be tempted to parent in a way that pleases those watchers.  Instead, you can focus on what your child needs from you in that moment.

 

Common Discipline Mistake #7:  We discipline in response to our habits and our own feelings instead of responding to our individual child in a particular moment.

We all do it from time to time, don’t we?  We let our own feelings and issues override our decision-making about what’s best for our kids.  And we know it’s not fair (though it’s completely understandable) that we lash out at one child because we’re so fed up with his brother who’s been acting up all morning.  Or we explode in anger simply because that’s the way we were parented or we don’t know what else to do.

Practically speaking, there’s no simple solution to this common discipline mistake. What’s called for is for us to reflect on our behavior, to really be in the moment with our children, and to respond only to what’s taking place in that instant.  This is one of the most difficult tasks of parenting, but the more we can do it, the better we can respond to our kids in loving ways.  It can be helpful to consider how our children are feeling when we act in these ways and to take care of ourselves.  Parenting is physically, emotionally, and mentally exhausting because it requires so much, so much of the time.  Taking care of yourself is an essential part of parenting well.

 

Common Discipline Mistake #8:  We confuse consistency with rigidity.

Consistency means working from a reliable and coherent philosophy so that our kids know what we expect of them, and what they should expect from us.  It doesn’t mean maintaining an unswerving devotion to some sort of arbitrary set of rules.  This means that sometimes you might make exceptions to the rules, turn a blind eye to some sort of minor infraction, or “cut the kid some slack.”

There may be times, then, that we should wait before responding to misbehavior.  For example, when our kids are out of control—when we see that they’re becoming an emotional tsunami —that may not be the best time to rigidly enforce a rule we’d enforce under different circumstances.  When the child is calmer and more receptive, he’ll be better able to learn the lesson anyway.

Recently, for instance, our 4-year-old has been insane at bedtime.  In response to our cajoling he’ll often say something like, “Well, I’ll come find you and kick your eye!” (I often have to hide my smile as his anger and threats end up sounding more funny than ominous.)  We’ve found that our usual strategies—trying to talk to him, offering incentives, redirecting him—haven’t been working.

So two nights ago I tried to simply avoid the situation.  As he began to argue from his bed, I said, “I love you.  Goodnight,” and left the room.  Amazingly, it actually worked!  (Apparently it never crossed the poor little dude’s mind to actually get back up out of bed.)  So then, yesterday, when he was in a great mood, I addressed the situation and told him I didn’t like the way he had been acting at bedtime, and we did some problem-solving.  He went to bed beautifully last night.  We’ll see how tonight goes. . .

In closing, let me emphasize that we’re all going to make mistakes while setting limits for our children.  But if we can discipline with consistent and clear boundaries, and with a high degree of nurturing and respect, then any mistakes we make will be clearly overshadowed by the reliability and love you offer your kids.

[This is a revision of the second article in a two-part series.  Click here to see the first four mistakes.]

 

A Different Take on Spoiling

The other day a reporter asked me to respond to a few questions about spoiling, and what it means for our kids. With the holidays coming up, this seems like a pretty timely subject. Here’s how I answered the reporter’s questions about what spoiling is, and just as importantly, what it’s not. WHAT IS SPOILING? DOES IT HAVE TO DO WITH MONEY SPENT? TIME? NEVER SAYING NO? ALL OF THE ABOVE?

Let’s start with what spoiling is not: Spoiling is NOT about how much love and time and attention you give your kids. You can’t spoil your children by giving them too much of yourself. In the same way, you can’t spoil a baby by holding her too much or responding to her needs each time she expresses them.

SO HOW DO WE SPOIL OUR KIDS?

Proactive Parenting: Getting Ahead of the Discipline Curve

When your kids misbehave, your immediate reaction may be to offer consequences with both guns blazing. You hit your sister? That’s a time out. 

You broke the book shelf while climbing to reach the matches?  You just lost your playdate this afternoon.

 Your kids act, and you react.

If you’ve heard me speak, or if you’ve read other pieces I’ve written about discipline, you know I’m a big believer in setting and enforcing boundaries.  At times, giving consequences may be the best response in order to teach lessons about appropriate behavior and observing boundaries.

But here I want to make the case for stepping in before things escalate, before you have to start thinking about consequences.  I’m talking about proactive parenting, as opposed to reactive parenting.

When we parent proactively, we watch for times when we can tell that misbehavior and/or a meltdown are in our kid’s near future, and we step in and try to guide them around that potential landmine.  Sometimes you can even catch the misbehavior as it begins to surface, and redirect your child in a better direction.

Yesterday, for example, my sweet and usually compliant eight-year-old was getting ready to go to his swim lesson.  I noticed that he overreacted a bit when I asked him to apply sunscreen – Why do I have to use sunscreen every day?! – but I didn’t think much about it.  Then while I was getting his little brother ready, he sat down at the piano for a minute.  He started playing one of the songs he’s learned, then when he missed a couple of notes, he slammed his fist down on the keyboard in frustration.  I stopped what I was doing and walked over and set an apple in front of him.  He looked up at me, and I simply offered him a knowing smile.  He and I have been talking lately about his tendency to lose control of his emotions when he gets hungry.  He nodded, ate the apple, and moved back into a place where he felt in control of himself.

I’m not always this quick at reading cues, and of course, sometimes no obvious signs present themselves before our kids make bad decisions.  But this particular morning, I saw the signs and, out of justifiable fear at what was coming, took one simple, proactive step to address the situation.

Sometimes all we can do is react.  But other times, we can take proactive steps to stay ahead of the discipline curve.  That might mean enforcing a consistent bedtime so your kids don’t get too tired and grumpy.  It might mean stepping in to begin a new game when you hear that your children are moving towards significant conflict with each other.  It might mean telling a toddler, with a voice full of intriguing energy, “Hey, before you throw that french fry across the restaurant, I want to show you what I have in my purse.”

Parenting proactively isn’t easy, and it takes a fair amount of awareness on your part.  But the more you can watch for the beginnings of negative behaviors and head them off at the pass, the less you’ll end up having to lay down the law and give consequences, meaning you and your children will have more time to simply enjoy each other.

Upstairs and Downstairs Tantrums

Summary Bullets:

  • A child’s tantrum may originate in the upstairs brain, meaning the child is in control and is using the moment to intentionally achieve a desired end.  In moments like these, parents should respond with love, but set clear boundaries and avoid rewarding manipulative behavior.
  • If, however, the tantrum originates in the more primal downstairs brain, and the child is truly out of control, then the parents’ response should be less about setting boundaries, and more about nurturing the child and guiding him back into a state of calm and control.

If you’ve heard me speak before, you may have heard me talk about the upstairs brain and the downstairs brain.  Or maybe you’re read about the concepts here, where I help you teach the basic information to your kids.

Right now I want to apply that information in a way that can help us deal with one of the most unpleasant parenting issues we all face:  the dreaded tantrum.

 

The Downstairs Brain and the Upstairs Brain

The basic idea is that we can think about our brain as a house, with a downstairs and an upstairs.  The downstairs brain includes the brain stem and the limbic region, which are located in the lower parts of the brain, from the top of your neck to about the bridge of your nose.  Scientists talk about these lower areas as being more primitive because they’re responsible for basic functions (like breathing and blinking), for innate reactions and impulses (like fight and flight), and for strong emotions (like anger and fear).

Your upstairs brain, on the other hand, handles much more sophisticated thinking.  It’s made up of the cerebral cortex and its various parts—particularly the ones directly behind your forehead, including what’s called the middle prefrontal cortex.  In other words, it is literally the higher (and thus upstairs) part of your brain.  This is where more complex mental processing takes place, like thinking, imagining, and planning.  Whereas the downstairs brain is primitive, the upstairs brain is highly sophisticated, controlling some of your most important higher-order and analytical thinking.  Because of its sophistication and complexity, it is responsible for producing many of the characteristics we hope to see in our kids:

  • Sound decision-making and planning
  • Control over emotions and body
  • Self-understanding
  • Empathy
  • Morality

In other words, a child whose upstairs brain is properly functioning will demonstrate some of the most important characteristics of a mature and healthy human being.

Two Different Tantrums

What does all this have to do with tantrums?  Well, when your child begins to throw a fit of some sort, one of the first questions you should ask yourself is whether it’s an upstairs tantrum or a downstairs tantrum.

An upstairs tantrum originates in the upstairs brain, and this is the strategic tantrum.  Here the child is control of himself and is willfully and manipulatively acting upset to achieve a desired end:  to get a toy he wants, to stay at the park longer, whatever.  He is purposefully employing tactics to get things his way.

When you see an upstairs tantrum, in the words of Tina Fey, “Shut it down!”  Do not give in.  Your child is in control of himself and is trying to make your life so unpleasant at this moment that you choose to do something other than what you’ve already decided is best.  Never negotiate with a terrorist.  You should still be nurturing and respectful to your child, but your primary response should be to set and maintain a boundary.

If, however, you determine that your child is undergoing a downstairs tantrum, your response should be much more nurturing and sympathetic.  If he’s so upset that he’s legitimately and honestly out of control, then he needs you in this moment.  When you determine that he’s unable to regulate his emotions and actions, then it’s unjust to punish him or try to discipline him.  If you ignore him when he’s in this emotional distress state, it’s like ignoring him when he’s physically in distress.

If his downstairs brain has taken over, he can’t remain calm and make good decisions, no matter how much you demand that he do so.  Even if you give him what he wants, he’ll continue to lose his mind.  In that instant, your job is to use a soothing voice and nonverbals (like touch and empathetic facial expressions) to help bring him back from the emotional precipice so he can regain control of himself.  Then, once he’s calm, you can talk to him about making good choices, and you can handle whatever disciplinary issues you need to address once he’s recovered and it’s actually a teachable moment.  While you’re still going to maintain boundaries, your main emphasis in these moments is comfort.

 

The Point:  Remain Flexible, Providing Both Boundaries and Nurturing

The point here is not to get rigidly locked into one response for every tantrum.  Instead, do what’s most loving.  I know, I know.  People always say that the proper way to address a tantrum is to ignore it.  But if it’s an upstairs tantrum, you should directly address the inappropriate way your child is communicating, and if it’s a downstairs tantrum, he may need you to help him calm down and pull it together.  You’ll need to employ boundaries and nurturing in both cases, but if your child is still in control, emphasize boundaries; and if he’s lost control, emphasize comfort.  Even though it can be challenging, try to look beyond how difficult your child is making things for you in this moment, and provide him with what he most needs right now—clear communication about where the boundaries are, and lots and lots of love.

When a Parenting Expert Loses It: How NOT to Discipline a Preschooler

Here are some things parents say to me about their discipline frustrations:

--I feel like I just put my daughter in time out all the time and don’t know what else to do when she’s misbehaving.

--I don’t feel like I have an overall theory of discipline.  It’s more that I just do whatever comes out at the time.  Sometimes my reaction or instinct is really good, and other times I’m being just as immature or reactive as my toddler.  I just feel like I need to give more thought to it and have a plan.

--I feel disempowered.  I think I’ve been told a list of things that I should NOT do –spank, yell, etc. – but I don’t know what I CAN do, other than just take a toy away.  So I find myself making empty or meaningless threats ("Do that again and you’re going to be in BIG trouble!") and then I’m just so frustrated.  I don’t know what to do in the moment.

Do these parents’ comments resonate with you?  I can certainly identify.  I remember how clueless I felt as a new parent, and even though the stories often end up being funny in retrospect, I’m embarrassed at how I responded at times when my kids acted out.

 

The Parenting Expert Gets Taken Down by Her Own Reactive Brain

One day my three-year-old got mad and hit me.  I guided him to his time-out spot at the bottom of our stairway, sat next to him, and smiled.  I lovingly (and naively) said, “Hands are for helping and loving, not for hurting.”

While I was uttering this truism, he hit me again.

So I tried the empathy approach:  “Ouch!  That hurts mommy.  You don’t want to hurt me, do you?”

At which point he hit me again.

I then tried the firm approach: “Hitting is not OK.  Don’t hit any more.  If you’re mad you need to use your words.”

Yup, you guessed it.  He hit me again.

I was lost.  I felt I needed to up the ante.  In my most powerful voice I said, “Now you’re in time out at the top of the stairs.”

I marched him up to the top of our stairs.  He was probably thinking, “Cool!  We’ve never done this before. . . I wonder what will happen next if I keep hitting her?”

At the top of the stairs, I bent over at the waist, my pointer finger wagging, and said, “NO MORE HITTING!”

He didn’t hit me again.

He kicked me in the shin.

(As he points out these days when we re-tell the story, he was technically obeying my no-hitting instructions.)

At this moment virtually all of my self-control was gone.  I grabbed his arm and pulled him into my room at the top of the stairs, yelling, “Now you’re in time out in Mommy and Daddy’s room!”

Again, I had no strategy, no plan or approach.  And as a result, my young son was simply enjoying wielding his power as his increasingly red-faced mother yanked him from location to location in the house.

By this point I was alternately cajoling and scolding and commanding and reasoning (waaaay too much talking): “You may not hurt mommy.  Hitting and kicking is not how we do things in our family. . . Blah blah blah. . . .”

And that’s when he made his big mistake.  He stuck out his tongue at me.

In response, the rational, empathetic, responsible, problem-solving part of my brain was hijacked by my primitive, reactive brain, and I yelled, “IF YOU STICK THAT TONGUE OUT ONE MORE TIME, I’M GOING TO RIP IT OUT OF YOUR MOUTH!”

In case you're wondering, I don’t recommend in any circumstance threatening to remove any of your child’s body parts.  This was not good parenting.

And it wasn’t effective discipline, either.  My son dropped to the ground, crying.  I’d scared him, and he kept saying, “You’re a mean mommy!”  He wasn’t thinking about his own behavior at all—he was solely focused on my misbehavior.

What I did next was probably the only thing I did right in the whole interaction, and it’s essential each time we have these types of ruptures in our relationship with our children:  I repaired with him.  I immediately realized how awful I’d been in that reactive, angry moment.  If anyone else had treated my child as I just had, I would’ve come unglued.  I held my young son close and told him how sorry I was and allowed him to talk about how much he didn’t like what had just happened.  We retold the story to make sense of it for him and I comforted him.

 

How Would I Handle This Situation Now?

I usually get big laughs when I tell this story because parents so identify with this type of a moment, and I think they enjoy hearing that a parenting expert has these moments, too.  Virtually every time I tell the story, someone raises a hand and asks, “What would you do now?  How would you handle this situation differently?”

For several reasons, I’m not a fan of time-outs anymore, especially for a child this young.  Instead, once my son had hit me the first time, I would have used a simple, four-step approach.

  1. Address the feelings behind the behavior:  “Wow, I can see that you’re feeling really frustrated.  Do you feel mad?”
  2. Address the behavior: “Hitting hurts.  No hitting.”
  3. Give him alternatives.  Tell him what he can do instead:  “Be gentle with mommy’s body.  It’s OK to be mad, but when you are, you can tell me about it, or even hit the pillow, like this.”
  4. Move on:  “Hey!  Let’s go outside and see if there are any worms on the sidewalk.”

Some people may wonder about consequences for my son’s actions.  For an older child, you might choose to make consequences a part of the discipline process.  But as I always say, the purpose of discipline is to teach, not to give consequences.  If consequences help teach, then it might be appropriate to use them.  But I believe that for a child this age, the most effective approach is to address his feelings and the behavior, tell him about a more appropriate response, then move on to other things.

I’m guessing you’d agree that this four-step approach might be even more effective and loving than threatening to remove a body part.

 


Does Your Discipline Ever Move From Consistent to Rigid?

There’s no question about it:  consistency is crucial when it comes to raising and disciplining our children.  Many parents I see in my office realize that they need to work on being more consistent – with bedtimes, limiting junk food, or just in general – when they interact with their kids.  But there are others who have placed such a high priority on consistency that it’s moved into a rigidity that’s not good for their kids, themselves, or their relationship. Let’s begin by getting clear on the difference between the two terms.  Consistency means working from a reliable and coherent philosophy so that our kids know what we expect of them, and what they should expect from us.  Rigidity, on the other hand, means maintaining an unswerving devotion to rules we’ve set up, sometimes without having even thought them through.  As parents, we want to be consistent, but not rigid.

Kids definitely need consistency from their parents.  They need to know what the rules are, and how we will respond if they break (or even bend) those rules.  Your reliability teaches them about cause and effect, and about what to expect in their world.  More than that, it helps them feel safe; they know they can count on you to be constant and steady, even when their internal or external worlds are chaotic.  In this way, we provide them with safe containment when they’re exploding because they want an extra scoop of ice cream.

So how do we maintain consistency without crossing over to rigidity?  Well, let’s start by acknowledging that there are some non-negotiables.  For instance, under no circumstances can you let your toddler run through a busy parking lot, or your older child swim without supervision or get into a car with a driver who’s been drinking.

However, this doesn’t mean you can’t ever make exceptions, or even turn a blind eye from time to time when your child misbehaves.  For instance, if you have a rule about no toys in a restaurant, but your four-year-old has just received a new puzzle game that he’ll play with quietly while you have dinner with another couple, that might be a good time to make an exception to your rule.  Or if your daughter has promised that she’ll finish her homework before dinner, but her grandparents show up to take her on an outing, you might negotiate a new deal with her.

The goal, in other words, is to maintain a consistent-but-flexible approach with your kids, so that they know what to expect from you, but they also know that at times, you will be thoughtfully considering all the factors involved.

The biggest deciding factor when it comes to discipline is what you’re hoping to accomplish with your child.  Remember, the point of discipline is to teach, not to give consequences.  If consequences help you teach the lesson you’re wanting to teach, then great.  But don’t be rigid on this, applying the same consequence to all infractions.  Look for other ways to accomplish your goal, and to effectively teach what you want your kids to learn.

For example, try a “do-over.”  Instead of immediately offering a punishment for speaking to you disrespectfully, say something like, “There’s a much more respectful way to talk to each other.  I want you to try that again. You can tell me how you’re feeling, but use respectful words and tone.”  Do-overs allow a child a second chance to handle a situation well.  It gives them practice doing the right thing.  And that’s often much more beneficial than a time-out.

Or, if you do decide to go the consequences route, be creative.  Saying “I’m sorry” doesn’t fix the broken Buzz Lightyear nightlight that was thrown in anger.  An apology note and using allowance money to buy a new nightlight might teach more.  Try asking them to brainstorm with you:  “What can you do to make it right?”

The point is that in your efforts to be consistent, remain flexible to other alternatives.  Kids need to learn about right and wrong.  But as an adult, sometimes you need to be able to see the gray areas, and not just the black and white.  Make decisions based not on an arbitrary rule you’ve previously set down, but on what’s best for your kids and your family.

 

 

 

Do You Discipline on Auto-Pilot? (revised)

Auto-pilot may be a great tool when you’re flying a plane.  Just flip the switch, sit back and relax, and let the computer take you where it’s been pre-programmed to go.  Pretty great. But I’ve found that auto-pilot is not so great when I’m disciplining my children.  It can fly me straight into whatever dark and stormy cloudbank is looming, meaning my kids and I are all in for a bumpy ride.  So instead, I’m always working on DECIDING how I want to interact with my kids when I discipline them.

For example, let’s talk about consequences.  For most parents, when we need to discipline our kids, the first question we ask ourselves is, “What consequence should I give?”  That’s our auto-pilot.  But through my years of parenting, I’ve begun to significantly re-think my use of consequences.

My four-year-old, for instance, hit me the other day.  He was angry because I told him I needed to finish an email before I could play legos with him, and he came up and slapped me on the back.  (I’m always surprised that a person that small can inflict so much pain.)

My immediate, auto-pilot reaction was to want to grab him, probably harder than I needed to, and tell him through clinched teeth, “Hitting is not OK!”  Then I would, of course, give him a consequence.

But how effective would that really have been when it came to teaching my son?  And would it have addressed the issue behind his behavior?  Maybe, but maybe not.

So instead of that consequence-based approach, I’ve shifted to begin my discipline by asking three different questions:

1.     Why did my child act this way? If we look deeper at what’s going on behind misbehavior, we can often understand that our child was trying to express or attempt something that they didn’t handle appropriately.   If we understand this, we can respond more compassionately, proactively, and appropriately.

2.     What’s the lesson I want to teach in this moment? The goal of discipline isn’t to give a consequence.  The goal of discipline is actually to teach, but we forget this easily.

3.     What’s the most effective way to teach this lesson? Answering this question may allow you to be more creative and effective in teaching the lesson, instead of just doing the same thing over and over.  In fact, answering this question may reveal that your current practices aren’t actually teaching the lesson you want to teach in the best way—or, it might affirm what you’re already doing.

When I felt the small-hand-shaped imprint of pain on my back, it took me a moment to calm down and avoid simply reacting.  But when I could ask myself these three questions, I could see more clearly what was going on in my interaction with my son.

#1:  He hit me because he wanted my attention and wasn’t getting it.

#2:  The lesson I want him to learn is not that misbehavior merits a consequence, but that there are better ways of getting my attention than resorting to violence.

#3:  While giving him a time-out might teach him that lesson, I decided it would be more effective to remind him and give him the words to communicate his needs.  So first, I connected with him by pulling him to me and letting him know he had my full attention.  Then, I acknowledged his feelings and modeled communicating these feelings:  “You really want me to play, and you’re mad that I’m at the computer.  Is that right?”  Finally, once he was more calm and I had his full attention, I could get eye contact and explain that hitting is never all right, and ask him to list some alternatives he could choose the next time he wants my attention.

I’m not saying that there’s never a time to use consequences.  They can be an effective tool you want to consider when it’s time to discipline.  I’m just saying that consequences aren’t the goal of discipline.

So the next time you’re disciplining your child, do your best to avoid switching to auto-pilot, and instead, stay focused on what it is you want to teach and accomplish.  That will benefit not only your child, but the relationship you two share as well.

 

 

Ask Tina: How can I get my daughter to do what I ask the first time I ask her?

Q:  Tina, do you have any suggestions for getting my daughter to do what I ask the first time or to help me not have to repeat myself over and over? A:  The best suggestion I have for not having to repeat yourself so much is to stop what you’re doing and focus on the situation.  I usually find that the reason I’m repeating myself is because I’m preoccupied with other things and not following through immediately when one of my sons doesn’t do what I’ve asked right away.  By the time I notice that he hasn’t done what I asked, I get even more frustrated because now it’s been so long since I first told him what to do.

Of course you wish your daughter would just do what you say, but one way to at least cut down on the nagging and frustration is to stop what you’re doing, kneel down, make eye contact and put your hand on her arm or shoulder.  Then turn your voice way down, almost to a whisper.   Ask her to repeat what you’ve said.   Say, “Maybe you didn’t understand what I wanted you to do, or maybe you’ve forgotten, so I am going to say it again.  Then I want you to jump up two times to let me know you know what to do, and then go do it!”  You can also try something funny:  “Hmm.  I think I told you to do something, but I don’t know what it was.  Maybe you can go do it and then surprise me!”

Small children easily forget and become distracted.  So give simple instructions, and only one or two in a row.  Also, stay focused yourself, so you don’t become distracted and then discover ten minutes later, when it’s time to leave for school, that your daughter still hasn’t put her shoes on.

To some extent, this will always be a battle you’ll fight with your kids.  But focus on helping them execute your instructions, and before long you’ll see real improvement, which will at least decrease the amount of daily frustration you feel.

Sick of Time-Outs?

[Update:  I've spelled out some of my main reasons for not being a fan of time-outs here.]  

There are far worse discipline tactics than time-outs, but I think that there are some alternatives that can be better in certain situations.  Few children actually use their time-out time to reflect or calm down; in fact, it can even cause them to get more upset, depending on the child.  I prefer some other approaches that require my kids to get more practice using the problem-solving, empathetic, choice-making part of their brains:

  • A “re-do.”  One way I do this is by saying “Stop, please.  Now go out of the room and then come back in and ask me the right way,” or, “I’m going to take that toy, and save it for you when you’re ready to play with it nicely.  Just let me know when you are ready.”  Sometimes I even say, “I know you know how to do this the right way.  I’m going to give you a do-over.”  Not only does this approach address what your child has done wrong, it (more importantly) gives them practice at doing something right.
  • Ask questions about intent.  Sometimes misbehavior occurs when a child is trying to make something happen, and goes about it poorly.  By asking “Is that what you meant to happen?” or “What could you do differently next time?” you can get at motives and intent.  For example, if your child really wants another child to play with them, and the other child is not interested, your child might grab the other child’s shirt to make them play.  This would be a good time to ask these questions and talk with your child.
  • Encourage them to repair the situation:  Ask, “How can you make it right?” or “How can you show your sister that you’re really sorry?” or “How can you help your friend feel better?” This gives them practice at thinking about how their actions affect others, and how to begin to think about how other people feel.
  • Ask them to help you solve the problem:  “I’m not sure that taking the car out of his hand is the best thing to do.  But how we are going to solve this?  You want to play with the car, and your friend wants to play with the car. . . hmmm.  Do you have any ideas?”  This gives them problem-solving practice, as well as giving them a little choice, instead of hearing “Share!”  commanded all the time.
  • For older kids,  earning privileges for good behavior works really well as well (like a family walk, getting to choose what’s for dinner, getting to choose where they sit at the table, getting a game time or longer reading time with a parent, or other things that are important to them).

Clear and consistent boundaries are, of course, very important when it comes to good parenting.  The question is how to most effectively set and communicate those boundaries.  I’m not saying not to use time-outs.  But I do think that lots of time (and possibly even most of the time), we can find more productive and effective ways to respond to our kids’ misbehavior.

[Update:  I've spelled out some of my main reasons for not being a fan of time-outs here.]

Do You Discipline on Auto-Pilot?

When your child needs to be disciplined, how do you decide what to do?  Do you decide, or are you just going with what you always do?  Are you disciplining on auto-pilot?  Most of the time, when we need to discipline, the first question we ask ourselves is “What consequence should I give?”  Instead, I’d like to encourage you to begin asking three different questions: 1.     Why did my child act this way?  If we look deeper at what’s going on behind the behavior, we can often understand thatour child was trying to express or attempt something that they didn’t handle appropriately.   If we understand this, we can respond more compassionately, more proactively, and more appropriately.

2.     What’s the lesson I want to teach in this moment?  The goal of discipline isn’t to give a consequence.  The goal of discipline is actually to teach, but we forget this easily.

3.     What’s the most effective way to teach this lesson?  Answering this question may allow you to be more creative and effective in teaching the lesson, instead of just doing the same thing over and over.  In fact, answering this question may reveal that your current practices aren’t actually teaching the lesson you want to teach in the best way—or, it might make you feel great about what you’re doing.

Setting boundaries AND connecting emotionally

One thing that isn’t on the notes that we discussed is the importance of boundaries and consequences. It’s important for us to remember that connecting emotionally with our kids, joining with them, and looking at the underlying needs/emotions beyond the surface behavior doesn’t at all mean we should be indulgent. As an example, I think it would be weak and indulgent to respond to a child who’s crying and tantruming in public because he doesn’t want to leave somewhere by asking, “Are you upset? Why are you upset? It’s OK. We can talk when you’re ready.” And leave them crying and being upset, and not making them leave–giving them control over the situation. It doesn’t feel good to them or to you to allow their emotional states to dictate what is happening. A more appropriate response would be something like, “I can see that you are upset. Do you want to tell me about it? Ok, well, we can talk when you are ready, but right now we need to get in the car. You can either come right now on your own or I’ll help you get in the car. “ These are subtle distinctions, but important ones.

Sometimes they don’t know why they are upset—they just feel it. What’s important is that we let them feel that we care about how they are feeling, but also that we provide some limit and structure to the situation. For an older child, when she is losing it at bedtime, we can say something like “I know it can be hard sometimes and you can go ahead and let your feelings out. I’ll be here for you if you need me, and I can just listen if you want to talk or I can just sit here with you. In 5 minutes we’re going to turn off the light so you can get to sleep, but I can be here for you however would feel best to you for the next 5 minutes.” Our non-verbal tone of voice, body posture, facial expression matter a lot in how we come across.

I saw a mom at the park this afternoon who had a son who was about 5 or so. He was being a bully on the play structure and the mom didn’t intervene (saying she didn’t want to solve his problems) until another mom let her know that he wasn’t letting the other kids go down the slide, etc. The mom reprimanded him at which time he started calling her stupid and throwing sand. She told him they had to leave and gathered their things and kept trying to get him to leave, but never enforced it. They were still there when I left.

A way this mom could’ve been both attuned to his emotional state AND enforce boundaries would be to tell him that the way he was acting wasn’t OK and that they were going to leave (it might be OK to give him a second chance with a clear warning about what would happen with any future infractions depending on the situation and severity). When he started calling her stupid and throwing things, she could say “I can see you are really angry and disappointed about leaving the park. We can’t stay at the park because you didn’t make good choices, so we are leaving now. You can either walk yourself to the car or I will take you to the car. It’s your choice.” And then make it happen.

When we tell them “I know you’re having a hard time” or “I can see you are really upset” or whatever we say to connect with them emotionally and to let them feel felt, we also MUST expect behavior to meet our expectations, give consequences. We do want to offer emotional connection, but we never want to indulge their behavior. Again, it doesn’t even feel good to them to allow their emotional states to drive the situation.

Emotionally responsive parenting is at the heart of optimal development, but emotionally responsive parenting isn’t at all about being indulgent.