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nurturing discipline

20 Discipline Mistakes All Moms Make

Some of you have seen my posts about common discipline mistakes even the best parents make.  Mom.me has just posted a re-working of those ideas as a gallery with pictures.  It begins like this: -------------------

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 moms, along with practical suggestions that might come in handy the next time you find yourself in one of these situations.

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View the whole gallery here.

 

 

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.]

 

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.

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.

 

 

I like to move it, move it

We tend to think that our emotions reside in our brain. And they do, but they also spring from our bodies. In fact, when you realize that you’re anxious, your body has already known that for a while—your shoulders are tight, your jaw is clenched, your stomach might be churning. So, one way we can change our emotional states is by moving our bodies

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.