When kids behave, things are easy. The problem is when you need to discipline them. Most parents know which methods they don’t want to use to correct their children, but aren’t as sure which methods they should use.
So what is discipline? The word comes from the Latin “disciplina” — which means “to teach.” And, in the end, that’s what we need more of. Every time a kid misbehaves it’s an opportunity to teach them valuable skills like empathy, self-control, problem-solving, and dealing with emotions.
Merely punishing kids might stop bad behavior in the short-term but without a lesson, all it teaches them is that whomever has more power gets to enforce their arbitrary rules. (Hint: this does not bode well for their future relationships.)
Yes, you want them to stop painting the toilet purple but you also want them to learn to consider the feelings of others, and build other long-term skills that will help them lead successful, happy lives. And you want them to feel closer to you after a dispute, not further away.
The research is really clear on this point. Kids who achieve the best outcomes in life—emotionally, relationally, and even educationally—have parents who raise them with a high degree of connection and nurturing, while also communicating and maintaining clear limits and high expectations. Their parents remain consistent while still interacting with them in a way that communicates love, respect, and compassion. As a result, the kids are happier, do better in school, get into less trouble, and enjoy more meaningful relationships.
So how the heck do you do all this? (No, a taser is not involved.)
You want to “connect and redirect.” This is the system recommended by Daniel Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, and Tina Payne Bryson, a pediatric and adolescent psychotherapist.
They are the New York Times bestselling authors of No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm the Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind.
Okay, let’s get to it…
If your kid is in mid-yell or mid-cry, they cannot hear what you are saying. Reread that. Get it tattooed on your body. How logical are you when you’re overwhelmed by emotion? And you expect a kid to be any different?
So immediately doling out punishments will rarely be processed and just escalate an already bad situation. You need to connect.
Connection means showing that you’re on their side – while still maintaining boundaries. You need to tune into their feelings and show them that you understand. This helps move them from reactivity to receptivity. It allows the emotion to dissipate so they can start using their thinky brain instead of their emotional brain. Connection has 4 parts:
They cry, you yell and things get worse, not better. Sound familiar? Because it’s now a fight for power instead of a conversation. As NYPD hostage negotiators know, “behavior is contagious.” If you want to be in a fight, by all means, give an angry look, raise your voice and wag your index finger. If you want this to be a somewhat sane interaction, act like it is one. Communicate comfort. Make them feel safe.
How do you react when someone dismisses your feelings and tells you “stop making a big deal out of this and just calm down”? Exactly. So don’t expect a child to be any better at it. Validate their feelings — though not all their actions. They need to feel understood in order to calm down. Until the big emotions are out of their way, logic is powerless.
Your child is really angry about something. You know what always works? A really long lecture. Going on a rant to someone screaming at the top of their lungs is incredibly effective in showing them the error of their ways and getting them to calm down. No child would ever respond by tuning you out. And make sure to repeat the same points over and over. People love this, especially surly teenagers…
Um, no. They won’t process a thing until they get to talk about how they feel and you show them you understand. So listen.
When they tell you how they feel, repeat it back to them. You want to show, not tell. If you say, “I know how you feel” they’ll reply, “No, you don’t!” If you say, “It really upset you that I wouldn’t let you build a nuclear reactor in the basement” they’ll say, “Exactly.”
After you communicate comfort, validate feelings, listen and reflect, ask yourself one question: “Are they ready to hear, learn, and understand?” If not, repeat the steps.
Whoops, actually there’s a second question to ask yourself: “Am I ready?” Because if you’re overly emotional this will not go well. They need to be calm — but so do you.
(To learn more about how you and your children can lead a successful life, check out my bestselling book here.)
Okay, so you’ve connected. Now it’s time to “redirect.” That’s an acronym because 8 more steps is a lot to remember, especially after junior decides to give the living room wall an unapproved mural. So let’s start with “R”…
Again, listening beats lecturing. If you regularly bemoan your child’s short attention span then you should know better than to launch into an hour-long keynote on proper behavior. If it is a big issue, ask questions and guide a conversation, but don’t lecture.
We strongly suggest that when you redirect, you resist the urge to overtalk. Of course it’s important to address the issue and teach the lesson. But in doing so, keep it succinct. Regardless of the age of your children, long lectures aren’t likely to make them want to listen to you more. Instead, you’ll just be flooding them with more information and sensory input. As a result, they’ll often simply tune you out.
(To learn how to raise emotionally intelligent kids, click here.)
Alright, you’re being brief and getting to the point. What’s next?
All feelings are permitted; all behavior is not. Do not insist that their emotions be rational or make sense. (If the world was always rational and made sense, you wouldn’t be having this fight and I’d be married to Olivia Wilde.)
…it’s what we do as a result of our emotions that determines whether our behavior is OK or not OK. So our message to our children should be, “You can feel whatever you feel, but you can’t always do whatever you want to do.”
(To learn how to make sure your kids have grit, click here.)
You’re being brief and accepting their feelings. Cool. Now how do you actually correct a child?
Parents always wonder why their kids tune them out. The answer is simple: because they know what you’re going to say and then you say it anyway.
Chances are, they know what they did was wrong. So instead of lecturing, just call attention to whatever they did: “The couch is on fire.” This is less likely to put them on the defensive or lead them to tune you out.
The natural tendency for many parents is to criticize and preach when our kids do something we don’t like. In most disciplinary situations, though, those responses simply aren’t necessary. Instead, we can simply describe what we’re seeing, and our kids will get what we’re saying just as clearly as they do when we yell and disparage and nitpick. And they’ll receive that message with much less defensiveness and drama.
(To learn the science of being a better parent, click here.)
You gave a description instead of a TED talk. Awesome. But the only way you’re really going to get them to learn anything is if they’re engaged…
This needs to be a dialogue, not summary judgment. Ask questions. Get them to suggest how the situation should be handled and you’ll organically shift into talking about right and wrong, and how other people are impacted by your child’s behavior. This is how they learn empathy and problem-solving.
Once you’ve connected and your child is ready and receptive, you can simply initiate a dialogue that leads first toward insight (“I know you know the rule, so I’m wondering what was going on for you that led you to this”) and then toward empathy and integrative repair (“What do you think that was like for her, and how could you make things right?”).
(To learn how to deal with out-of-control kids — from hostage negotiators — click here.)
Now it’s a conversation and they’re learning something other than why you’re a meanie. So how do you tell children “no” without a screaming match — and teach them self-control at the same time?
“Yes, you can watch more TV — after dinner.” It’s not a magic spell but it’ll often meet with less resistance than a flat “No more TV.”
Obviously, some things are non-negotiable: “No, you cannot perform an appendectomy on the family dog.” But often you can phrase things with this formula and help them learn about boundaries and self-control with a lot less drama.
An out-and-out no can be much harder to accept than a yes with conditions. No, especially if said in a harsh and dismissive tone, can automatically activate a reactive state in a child (or anyone). In the brain, reactivity can involve the impulse to fight, flee, freeze, or, in extreme cases, faint. In contrast, a supportive yes statement, even when not permitting a behavior, turns on the social engagement circuitry, making the brain receptive to what’s happening, making learning more likely, and promoting connections with others.
(To learn 4 vital parenting tips, click here.)
Now you know how to say no. So how else can we discipline children — without making them hate us in the process?
Say what you want, not what you don’t want. “I need you to brush your teeth and find your backpack,” beats, “Stop messing around and get ready, you’re going to be late for school!”
And make sure to praise them when they do things you like. If every time you open your mouth only criticism comes out, what feelings do you think they’re instinctively going to associate with you? Yup.
(To learn the 10 steps to making your kids smarter, click here.)
So what’s a good way to sidestep drama altogether — and have a laugh in the process?
Be playful. If there’s toy on the floor where it shouldn’t be, try a dramatic pratfall instead of a stern glare. Instead of arguing about getting into the car, become a scary monster and chase them into it. With some creativity you can get your point across in a way that reduces defensiveness.
When we exercise response flexibility, we use our prefrontal cortex, which is central to our upstairs brain and the skills of executive functions. Engaging this part of our brain during a disciplinary moment makes it far more likely that we’ll also be able to conjure up empathy, attuned communication, and even the ability to calm our own reactivity.
(To learn the 10 steps to raising happy kids, click here.)
So we know a lot of ways to defuse conflict — but how do we teach them some valuable life skills and reduce the intensity of the next meltdown?
Siegel and Bryson basically mean teaching your kids mindfulness. You want to focus on making sure they learn to not just merely experience their emotions, but also observe their emotions.
Teaching your child to ask, “What is my brain doing right now?” allows them to step back from the chaos going on in their head and study it, versus being consumed by it. You don’t want a child that is overwhelmed by feelings or denies their feelings. You want your kid to notice their feelings — and do something about them.
This teaches them they don’t have to be stuck in a negative mood. They don’t have to be a victim to external events or their whirlwind emotions. With practice they can cope with feelings and take charge of their behavior.
Brain studies reveal that we actually have two different circuits—an experiencing circuit and an observing circuit. They are different, but each is important, and integrating them means building both and then linking them. We want our kids to not only feel their feelings and sense their sensations, but also to be able to notice how their body feels, to be able to witness their own emotions.
(To learn the 20 simple secrets of happy families, click here.)
Okay, we’ve learned a lot. Let’s round it all up and discover what to do when you screw the above up…
Here’s how neuroscience can help you be an amazing parent:
You’re not always going to be perfect. (I really hope this did not come as a surprise.) But even your mistakes as a parent can be valuable if you handle them right.
Then they get to see you model how to apologize and make things right. They experience that when there is conflict and argument, there can be repair, and things become good again. This helps them feel safe and not so afraid in future relationships; they learn to trust, and even expect, that calm and connection will follow conflict. Plus, they learn that their actions affect other people’s emotions and behavior. Finally, they see that you’re not perfect, so they won’t expect themselves to be, either.
So it all comes down to “connect and redirect.” And when you screw up, don’t worry. Apologize, make a joke, try again.
You want your kids to know that everyone makes mistakes and that anger doesn’t last forever.
Children need to know that arguments happen — but that doesn’t mean people stop loving you.
I wanted to thank everyone for helping my first book become a Wall Street Journal bestseller. To check it out, click here.
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Originally published on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.
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