The very most common referral concern that I see in my clinic as a psychologist working with children and parents is challenging behavior. Unfortunately, often by the time parents have finally called for help, the challenging behaviors are the least of our problems. More typically what has happened by then is that the manner in which the parents have been responding to the child’s challenging behaviors has driven a wedge between parent and child. This wedge in turn has created all sorts of emotional turmoil and fallout. And that turmoil and fallout has lead to an escalating pattern of even more difficult behaviors, anxiety, mood disruption, sleep challenges, and school issues.
If I could change one thing about how we as a culture are growing up our children in order to most improve emotional health, it would be to change how we view discipline, and as a result, how we react to our children’s behaviors.
Here is a list of three important ideas that you can put into play immediately in order to help you along in the right direction:
- Resolve to be firm but kind.
A lot of parents find themselves in a rut where they have gone too big with “kind” or too big with “firm”. Neither works out well for anybody involved. You have to be both firm and kind. And the bigger your FIRM becomes then the bigger your KIND must be.
Try using the “No, I know…” sound bite as the backbone of limit setting conversations with your child. For example, “No you can’t go over to Melissa’s house (cue child’s resistance flaring up). I know you are disappointed. I think if I were you I would feel the exact same way.”
If your child continues with a resistance flare up, then you just continue with your empathetic, “No, I know…” responding for as long as it takes.
For example, “The answer is still a no… I know that isn’t what you wanted – you really like playing with Melissa don’t you?”
- Resolve to understand “misbehavior” as a child who is “struggling.”
Misbehavior is really just a symptom of a dysregulated brain. The more undone your child is, the more dysregulated his brain is. The science of child development has shown resolutely that the most powerful way to climb into your child’s brain and settle it is through relationship and connection. If you can think of your hitting/yelling/tantrumming child as a child who is really struggling, you will find that your response to her automatically will be much more compassionate.
As part of this, try to ground yourself as a parent and Quit Taking It Personally. Sometimes to help parents remember this I actually encourage them to stick a QTIP in their pocket. Holding onto the idea that your child is not out to get you can help you find yourself much more emotionally present and available to your child, rather than reactive and upset.
In your grounded and present state, find yourself responding to your child’s behavior with relationship rather than responding to the behaviour itself. Maybe it sounds like, “Oh my goodness – you are having a terrible time – come with me. I will help you sort this out. Let’s grab you a drink of water and we can problem solve together.”
The more frequently and consistently you respond this way, the more likely your child will grow a brain that is eventually capable of self-regulation, impulse control, and solid decision-making in heated moments. Neurons that fire together, wire together.
- Focus on relationship as a core element of your approach to discipline.
Children are much more likely to do the bidding of people with whom they have a nurturing relationship. This is an instinctive thing! Think about it – you really wouldn’t want your child to do the bidding of a stranger! All of us have a built-in protection around this – we resist the influence of people to whom we are not emotionally connected. But the kicker is that if your child is having even a few moments of feeling disconnected from you, much less your whole relationship being flavored by a sense of disconnection, they are going to be resistant to your directive.
Try to focus on ensuring your relationship with your child is filled up with care and positivity each and every day. Find opportunities to know joy with your child in the small and big moments. Find ways to infuse normal daily activities, like tooth-brushing and shoe-tying with a sense of light-heartedness and love.
Also think about how you charge into issuing a directive to your child. If connection is going to help them come alongside what you are asking of them, then it makes sense that prior to issuing a directive to your child, you might join with them FIRST so that their sense of connection with you is strong, and issue the direction SECOND. Maybe something like, “Wow – look at your amazing Lego creation – you are a rock star Lego builder. I love how you mixed all of those colors in. Now listen, I need you upstairs in 3 minutes to wash hands and be at the table for dinner.”
Connection and positive relationship make everything about discipline a zillion times easier.
And as you think about implementing all three of the above, think about doing so with swagger! It is only when parents are absolutely in charge, in the most loving and caring of ways, that discipline can be handled as nature intended, giving our children the chance to grow up in the best possible way.
Dr. Vanessa is a registered psychologist (#1856, BC), parenting expert, mother-of-two and the author of Discipline Without Damage, an easy-to-read, science-based book. Her goal is to show parents and caregivers how discipline affects children’s development, and why the disciplinary strategies that may have been used on us as children are not necessarily the ones our children really need.