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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.
Logic will do no good in a case like this until a child's right brain is responded to. You probably already know that your brain is divided into two hemispheres. The left side of your brain is logical and verbal, while the right side is emotional and nonverbal. That means that if we were ruled only by the left side of our brain, it would be as if we were living in an emotional drought, not paying attention to our feelings at all. Or, in contrast, if we were completely “right-brained,” we’d be all about emotion and ignore the logical parts of ourselves. Instead of an emotional drought, we’d be drowning in an emotional tsunami.
Clearly, we function best when the two hemispheres of our brain work together, so that our logic and our emotions are both valued as important parts of ourselves and we are emotionally balanced. Then we can give words to our emotional experiences, and make sense of them logically.
One day my seven-year-old became furious with me because I told him he couldn’t invite a friend over to play. He stormed off to his room and slammed the door. About a minute later, I heard the door open, then slam again. I went up to check on him, and taped to the outside of his door, I saw the picture you see here. (You can see from the drawing below that he regularly uses his artistic talents to communicate his feelings about his parents.) I went into his room and saw what I knew I’d see: a big child-sized lump under the covers on his bed. I sat next to the lump and put my hand on what I assumed was a shoulder, and suddenly the lump moved away from me, towards the wall. From beneath the covers, he cried out, “Get away from me!”
Often at times like this I can become childish and drop down to my child’s level. I’ve even been known to say things like, “Fine! If you won’t let me cut that toenail that’s hurting, you can stay in pain all week!” (Sometimes I'll throw in a "See if I care!" for good measure.)
But this particular day, I maintained control and handled myself pretty well. I first tried to acknowledge his feelings: “I know that makes you mad that Ryan can’t come over today.”
His response? “Yes, and I hate you!”
I stayed calm and said, “Sweetie, I know this is frustrating, but there’s just not time to have Ryan over. We’re meeting your grandparents for dinner in just a little while.”
After that, he returned to the familiar refrain as he curled tighter and moved as far away from me as possible: “I said get away from me!”
I reminded him of our rule about talking with each other respectfully, then I went through a series of responses, the ones I regularly talk to parents about. I comforted; I tried to use nonverbal connection like touch and tone of voice before I tried to problem-solve; I empathized; I tried again to explain. I even offered an incentive to talk: a playdate the next day. But at that moment, he refused to calm down or let me help him in any way.
The point of this story is a reality that people rarely talk about: Sometimes there’s just nothing we can do as a parent to fix it in that moment. We can work to stay calm and loving, and fully present in the situation, but we may not be able to make things better right away. Sometimes we have to just let our kids work through the moment themselves.
This doesn’t mean that we’d leave a child crying alone in his or her room for a long time. And it doesn’t mean we don’t keep trying different strategies when our child needs our help. In my case, I ended up sending my husband into my son’s room, and the change of dynamics helped him begin to calm some, so that later he and I could come back together and talk about what happened. But for a few minutes, all I could do was to say, “I’m here if you need me,” then leave him in his room, shut the door with the anti-mom sign on it, and let him ride it out the way he needed to in his own timing and in his own way.
I’m writing about this because I’m someone who’s a parenting expert and a pediatric psychotherapist who works with deeply troubled children. People come to me for advice on how to handle problems with their kids. And I want to make it clear that for me, like you, there are times when there just isn’t a magic wand we can wave to magically transport our kids to peace and happiness.
Sometimes the best we can do is to communicate our love, be available if they do want us close, and then talk about the situation when they’re ready.
Making a child aware of the emotional rainbow that exists within them is one of the best ways to help connect the left and right hemispheres of their brain. When they come to understand their own mind and the minds of others, they can then move beyond a black/white assumption that feelings are good or bad, happy or sad. Instead, they can begin to understand the broad spectrum of emotions they experience, and learn to name and express them. Once developed, these skills will last them a lifetime.
Sometimes we act like we only speak and understand left-hemisphere-ese. But we’re missing at least half of the message when we ignore the right-hemisphere-ese. The challenge is for us to use our whole brains and listen to and VALUE EQUALLY the languages of both sides of the brain. To do this well, we have to listen and pay attention with our right hemispheres, too.