Rethinking Discipline

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Positive Parenting is all about connecting to your child and keeping that the first goal in all communications with your child. Discipline actually means “to teach”. Someone recently asked me how I discipline my children, what they meant was, “how do you punish them when they don’t do the right thing?”  Discipline is helping a child solve a problem, not punishing them because they have a problem. We can do this as parents even when the child has not done the “right thing.”

 

Let’s assume your child has done something wrong, it probably won’t be too hard to go back in your recent memory to think of an example. The traditional way to “discipline” that child and teach that that is not ok is to get loud, lecture and dole out punishment. Think back to when you were a child, did that work? If you decided not to do that activity again, it was probably because the consequence was not worth it, not because you were convinced it was wrong. And if the consequences were not a deterrent to your activity, you probably just got better at hiding it from your parent. Walls are up, tempers are up, and connection is down.

 

Also, think of the last time you were reprimanded as an adult, how did that feel? You probably felt belittled and angry even if you deserved the reprimand. Your child has similar feelings and wants the same thing you want in those situations, empathy and connection.

 

So. when you need to correct your child, think of these three things:

Stay calm

Stay connected

and teach

 

Stay calm is the biggest one. Once you can control your own impulses to react and slow down and take a deep breath before engaging with your child, the rest should come easier.

 

Stay connected by validating the child’s feelings if you know what they are. If you don’t know what they are, be curious and ask questions.

“I know you don’t want to share your toy with your sister, that can be frustrating.”

Or

“You seem angry, can you tell me about it?”

 

Take the time to connect especially when your child is caught in the act of doing something they know you wouldn’t approve of. This helps the child keep his own thinking brain online instead of being reactive, and is able to listen and engage by mirroring your calm and connection.

 

 

Depending on how emotionally charged the situation is, you may decide to teach now or later. If you are upset, please talk to your child later about his behavior. When you feel like it is a good time, talk with your child about the incident.

“Hey about that thing that happened this morning, that didn’t go so well, what do you think we can do next time?

 

This type of discipline affords the child with respect and empathy and allows him to make his own path to right a wrong to maintain connection rather than out of feelings of shame and anger. It’s connection.

How do you Feel?

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If I’ve learned anything about trauma, regulation and parenting it is that first you have to know yourself. That applies to your children and it applies to you. If you aren’t in the habit of self-reflection and asking yourself how you feel and what do you need, you are most likely a reactive person who is comfortable telling yourself that your reactions were justified because someone else “made you do it”.

 

While it is very true that we attune to people and tend to match the emotions we see in someone else we focus our attention on (see my previous post on Atunement), it is important to be able to have enough self-awareness to understand when you are having negative feelings and examine those feelings before you disconnect with that person- in this case your child.

 

If you are not in the habit of self-reflection, I would suggest you look up some mindfulness techniques. They don’t have to take a lot of time during your day. You can do something as simple as pausing every now and then during the day and labeling your feelings at that moment to yourself. “Right now, I’m feeling- happy, anxious, calm, angry…” Remember behavior is communication. It’s true for your child and it’s true for you. If you are being short with your children, label your feelings and that can help you identify why you might be behaving the way you are.

 

Now for you children, self- reflection and attunement might be hard concepts for them to grasp. But you can still teach your children how to know themselves. I’m big on family time, family meetings, family meals whatever ritual you establish that pulls your family together so you can talk and share. Our family gets together before bedtime every night to talk, read, pray and dole out goodnight hugs and kisses. This is the time where I sneak in some sort of mindfulness activity we do as a family. One exercise we tried recently was that we each had to say how we felt at that moment and put a label on our emotion. It may be difficult for your kids to put a word to how they are feeling as we typically don’t say much about our emotions beyond, “fine”, “good”, “tired”, or maybe even an eye roll when a parent asks how a child is feeling. It’s a good place to start building up self-awareness. Try it!

 

Another exercise you can do with your children that is fun is playing a sort of feelings charade game with them. Have each person take a turn choosing a part of their day to act out and they have to show in their face how they felt about that experience.  By focusing on non-verbal communication with no words. The rest of the family will be attuned to the person’s body language and facial expressions to try to figure out how they are feeling. This game has a two-fold benefit of helping the person who is acting out to again label their emotion to themselves and then tie that emotion to a facial expression, it links the left brain label/category and words factory to the right brain sensing and expressions to help them process how they felt about a part of their day. The rest of the family trying to guess the emotion, will be attuned to the person and their mirror neurons will be activated as they watch the expressions and register the feelings themselves in the right brain- then say the word- activating the left brain. Its’ a fun way to integrate thoughts, feelings and empathy by using both sides of the brain while building self-awareness skills.
And self-awareness brings knowledge

Holiday Help: Stay Attuned

child and Christmas tree

The holidays begin! All the fun of baking, decorating, traveling, traditions, family and friends is great but often overwhelming. We love the holiday season, but most of us are just as ready for things to slow down after the holidays and get back to normal. Our children are no different.

 

My holiday advice to you is to stay mindful of your own feelings, energy level and stressors and how it affects your behaviors and your interactions with others. Do what you need to do to regulate even in this busy season to meet your own needs. Your needs will be a variety of wanting love, solitude, fun and stability. Be conscious and ask yourself what you need to feel present and regulated right now and do it. You may not have the luxury of changing your schedule, but you can quickly refresh yourself by doing some deep breathing for a minute or two, give yourself some positive affirmations, drop your shoulders and relax your muscles.

 

When you are mindful of your own emotions, you can help your child with his regulation during the holidays. Kids have notorious big behaviors during the holidays, if you don’t believe me, just browse the internet for funny/not funny Santa pictures with unsmiling children.  Your own children have the same problems you do in shifting through different emotions and trying to stay present and regulated. Stay attuned to your child’s needs and ask the same questions that you asked yourself about what your child needs right now. See past the child’s behaviors and see what he needs from you to feel safe and regulated. Remember behavior is communication. It’s true for you, and it’s true for your child.

 

If your family is not your child’s first family and he came to you through adoption, foster care or a blended family, be particularly conscious that the holidays have different context for your child and may trigger memories that are unpleasant or sad. Be attuned to your child who may need more regulation and felt safety at this time. Meet your child’s needs with compassion and regulation. It is easier to do when you can see past the behavior and see that the root cause is fear, or simply being tired or hungry. They will be able to mirror your own regulation if you are in a calm place to begin with. If you are not regulated in your own body, it will be hard for your child to feel calm.

 

If you need some ideas of how to build in family connection times you can read my previous post about that here.

 

Enjoy the season with your family!

What is Your Attention Focused on?

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There is a great anecdotal story that circulated during the Diamond Jubilee of Elizabeth II. She made a lot of public appearances that year and a lot of “regular folk” got their chance to interact with her. One woman stood in line to meet the queen for a long time. She finally got her chance and just as she was presented to the queen the phone in her purse began to ring. What to do? Act like she can’t hear it? Fumble in her purse and turn it off? Answer it? What is the royal etiquette for this situation? The queen herself solved the problem by saying, “you should answer that dear, it could be someone important.”

 

While we might debate whether the once in a lifetime experience of meeting the queen is more important that whoever might be on the phone, what this story reminds me of is our daily choice of what we pay attention to. We cannot multitask very well.  The most important thing is the thing we are thinking of right now. Whatever that woman decided to do there, that was the most important thing. If she took the call, she would have been focused on the call. If she ignored the call, she is deciding the queen is the most important thing right now.

 

In parenting we chose to either react to the behavior or look at what is causing the behavior. Do you react to the deed or respond to the need? Which one do you pay attention to, which one is important? In connected parenting, the need behind the behavior should be the most important thing that we focus our attention on. You’ve done this before. When your child did something risky that may have resulted in an injury, your first impulse is to rush in and ask, “are you hurt? Are you ok?” It’s not the time to lecture. Your child’s safety is the most important thing right now.

Outside of an emergency, it is usually a bit harder for a parent to prioritize the need over the behavior. But it is still just as important in a non emergency to make sure your child is ok. To do this we have to be able to parent from a calm regulated place so we have the ability to pay attention to the most important thing. Take a slow deep breath. Drop your shoulders to relax your muscles. Doing these physical things help your body to relax. Here’s a fun fact- you cannot be anxious in a relaxed body! Try it.

 

Once you feel you are regulated, look at your child, remind yourself that you love him and his behavior is a communication of some deeper issue. Is your child scared, hungry or tired? Are they trying to meet their needs for freedom, fun or power? Does he need someone safe to address those needs more than he needs a lecture about how he just messed up? Right now, decide which is more important, the phone call or the queen? Chose the need, and focus all of your attention on it, and later you can go back and address the behaviors.

Choosing Connections to Meet our Needs

 

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In a previous post, I wrote that behavior is communication. Whatever behaviors we choose, it seems to us to be the best way to get our needs met. Psychologist William Glasser came up with a list of 6 basic needs that every human seeks to have met. I know every philosopher and psychologist has their own list, so bear with me, you may have your own list, this is the one I like.

These basic needs are:

Survival

Power

Belonging

Love

Freedom

Fun

 

If you are not getting your basic physical needs met, then your need for survival will surpass all the other needs and they will not matter until your need for survival is met.

 

So, assuming the need for survival is met, then each person has varying degrees of how much of the other needs they require to have a fulfilled life. The amount of each need we require will fluctuate according to our age and circumstances and personality. You may find at some point in your life you have a high need for power, and at other times you may find that you need freedom more than power.

 

Look at that list and think about which of those needs are most important to you. You should be able to recognize that one or two of those needs are very important to you, and you may even be willing to give up some of one need in order to get more of another need.

 

Look again at that list and think about your child. What needs do you think are important to him?

 

Think about your relationship with your child through the lens of your needs and his needs. Each one of you is trying to get your own needs met. Your behaviors are a way to meet those needs. Most likely when there is friction in the relationship, one or both of you are trying to meet those needs through external control. External control means you are using controlling behaviors like criticizing, blaming, complaining and nagging to try to get the other person to meet your needs. The friction happens when that controlling behavior contradicts what the other person needs.

 

It is so important as parents to pause and look past the behaviors and see what your child needs right now. When we understand that we are making choices to meet a need, we can understand that the other person in a relationship is also trying to meet a need. To get along in a relationship, whether it is parent/child or any other close relationship, the external control has to stop, and you must find a way to negotiate your needs. That may sound rational in an adult relationship, but hard to conceive in a parent/child relationship. But it can be done when a parent keeps in mind that what he wants out of his relationship with the child is ultimately a connection and he can negotiate his own power when possible to help the child meet his own needs of power, or freedom or fun. When we are able to stop controlling someone else, the amazing thing is that we gain control and we have a stronger connection with that person.

 

Practically speaking, negotiating your needs and your child’s needs could look like this:

 

Parent of teen: “You want to go to this party (fun, belonging, freedom), and I want to make sure you are safe (love and power). How can we both get our needs met here?”

 

Only bring to the discussion things that you are willing to negotiate, don’t say anything that the child should do. This brings the child to your side to help you solve the problem together without any judgement from either of you.

 

Parent of younger child: “You want to watch TV (fun) and I want these chores done (power), what can we do to solve this so that we are both happy?”

 

It will take a lot of creativity and negotiation on both sides, but ultimately, you are bonding with your child, keeping communication open and you are also teaching him great self-honoring decision-making skills that will benefit him throughout his life.

 

References: Glasser, William (1998). Choice Theory. Harper Collins, New York, NY.

The Gottman Institute: https://www.gottman.com/parents/