Ten keys to effective child discipline

Originally posted on 2 January 2015 on the WordPress Blog “Called to Parent”.  I think it is still relevant….

When I work with parents I am often asked about child discipline, and so I will present some ideas here.  These ideas are mine, and they represent my own experiences in working with parents and children over the years.  I believe that these ideas will be useful to most people, but I do not claim to present the holy grail of child discipline.  I suggest that you read this with an open mind, and then decide for yourself what is useful to you.  Keep what is relevant, and reject what is not.  Every parent, child and family is uniquely different, and the challenge for each parent is to find what works best for his or her own situation.  I present ten of my most important learnings below in the form of five things that parents should avoid doing, and five things they should strive to do, when disciplining children.  This is by no means an exhaustive exploration of this topic, and I think it barely scratches the surface.  However, we must start somewhere.

There are a lot of good books on the market for any parent wanting to learn effective ways of disciplining their children.  There are also a lot of books that will attempt to sell parents very questionable ideas and practices, and it is not always easy to distinguish between good and bad advice.  Practically every book will at some stage claim that the principles it promotes are based on scientific research and proven practice, and yet these books and sources will often contradict one another.  How do parents filter out the bad in order to retain the good?

The best place to start is with you as a parent yourself.  You have to know what you believe about what it means to be a parent.  You have to know what is important to you about life, and what is important to you about parenting?  How do you want to raise your children?  Can you be specific about these things?  Often people will say things like:  “I want only the best for my children”, “My children will grow up to respect me” or “My children will have the kind of parent that I never had”.  Each of these statements reveals something about the underlying belief system of the parent, but they are still very vague.  What exactly does “only the best for my children” mean?  How will you know when you have that?  These are not easy questions to answer, but they are important as self-knowledge and awareness are the foundation of making decisions about what information or advice to accept, or to reject.

I would like to say something about the word “discipline”.  I do not like to use this term, because it means so many different things to different people, and therefore it leaves a lot open to interpretation.  I also do not accept the implied assumption that discipline is something to be done to children, in which they are simply passive recipients.  However, I make use if it here for the sake of “readability”.     

Here are five things you should avoid doing as a parent:

1.  Make decisions or punish when you are angry

It is normal to respond to certain situations with anger.  However, when responding to a situation with your child anger is unlikely to help you make an effective decision.  Anger is experienced both in our minds and our bodies and an emotion that is effective at mobilising our bodies for action, often at a perceived threat.   When we perceive a threat, part of our brain (the amygdala) reacts immediately and mobilises the body to respond: neurotransmitters are released to provide a burst of energy, heart rate accelerates, blood pressure rises, rate of breathing increases, blood rushes to our limbs in preparation for immediate action.  All of this happens before the information reaches the part of the brain that deals with reason and judgement (the cortex), because in order to protect ourselves in a dangerous situation, we need to act fast.

For this reason, when you are angry is not the best time to respond to the behaviour of your child that has upset you.  Your body is primed for physical action, and your “thinking brain” is not really in charge.  One can also understand why corporal punishment is an almost automatic response for some parents – it takes effort to regain control of one’s senses after becoming very angry.  In this state, you are likely to make decisions that you will later regret.

  1. Call your child names or humiliate him or her

Sometimes when we respond to a situation with extreme anger or fear, we can say things that we would not normally say.  Children respond very negatively to humiliation, especially by someone they trust, even though they may not show this at the time.  Avoid humiliating your child at all costs.

  1. Make threats

Making threats to children about consequences for behaviour to come is ineffective.  How many times have you said (or heard other parents say) “I am not warning you again…”, only to repeat this threat many times before finally giving in to anger (and then responding inappropriately and therefore ineffectively).  Making threats does not work.  Children learn very quickly that threats are not followed through, and will continue to test the boundary until it is communicated to them with clear intent and followed up with an action.

  1. Nag or plead

Many parents fail to respond to behaviour that is mildly annoying or upsetting to them, and instead continue to nag – almost pleading – with their children to stop the behaviour.  This is not effective, and inevitably only leads to a build-up of anger which is likely to result in a volcanic reaction.  Do not plead with your child; tell them what you expect, and then act firmly and decisively (not aggressively).

  1. Use violence

Do not use physical violence of any form to discipline your child.  It is not an effective method of providing discipline, and is always destructive to the parent-child relationship.  Spanking is a touchy subject for many parents: some claim it is the only things that works, others say that it is child abuse – and many parents are desperate for clear sensible guidance of the subject (for this reason a more detailed exploration will be provided in a post to follow soon).

Here are five things that will radically improve your ability to respond effectively to a challenging situation with your child

  1. Maintain self-control

First things first: ensure that you are calm and collected before you make a decision or respond to a situation.  Note that there is a difference between reacting and responding:  reacting is instinctual, while responding involves thought and choice.  If you are angry, chances are that your ability to think clearly is temporarily impaired, and therefore you are likely to overreact or underreact to the situation.  First regain control.  Take a step back from the situation (literally if necessary), take a few deep breaths and count to ten (or think about anything irrelevant to this situation) – in order to regain control.  Get your thinking brain back online.  When you are no longer angry, you will be able to respond with the full use of your rational brain.

  1. Keep the relationship central

Remember that the foundation of everything with your child is the quality of your relationship – everything else comes second.  Children respond far better to discipline when they have a significant relationship and emotional connection to the parent.  If you do not have a good relationship or connection with your child, nothing you do as an attempt to correct behaviour will be effective in the long run.  Make the relationship first priority, the rest falls into place easily after that.

I must qualify this statement with some further explanation.  I am not saying that parents should NOT discipline their children in fear that they will damage the relationship between them and their children.   Discipline often results in friction and conflict (which is another opportunity for children to learn).  This is fine – as long as the parent always keeps in mind the long-term goal and bigger picture – the relationship is the foundation of everything for the child, and if the relationship has been ruptured, it must be repaired.  Making such a repair is the responsibility of the parent, and not the child.  A more detailed exploration of attachment and the child-parent relationship will follow in a separate blog post to follow soon.

  1. Understand the behaviour – respond rather than react

It is important for parents to understand the reason for a child’s behaviour before deciding how to respond.  Children do not have the same knowledge and life experience as an adult and will therefore often act from false beliefs, or inaccurate perceptions.  Understanding these will allow a parent not only to address the situation in the here-and-now, but also to prevent future misunderstandings.

One model of development (the Circle of Courage) holds that all behaviour is an attempt to meet one or more of our basic human needs (i.e. the need for belonging, mastery, independence and generosity).  If a parent can understand what underlying need is being met by a certain behaviour, then the parent can respond more effectively.

  1. Respond according to each child’s unique personality

Each child is uniquely different, and will respond differently to discipline.  Respond to each child with an understanding of what that child needs to learn from the situation.  Just because children are siblings or part of the same family, does not mean that they think and feel the same way.  What may be very effective discipline for one child may be very harmful to another.  It is important to be mindful of this.

  1. Model behaviour

The best way to teach children how to behave constructively is to model this behaviour to them.  When children see a behaviour modelled many times over, they are likely to repeat it.  When parents expect children to behave in ways different than what they model, children are not always able to understand the message.  When someone tells you one thing, but does something different – which do you believe – their words or their actions?  There is no method more powerful for shaping a child’s development than a parent or caregiver who models what they teach.

At the end of the day, parents can only give their children what they as parents themselves already possess.  You cannot teach a child discipline if you do not have self-discipline.  When we discipline children, we provide the “container” for their behaviour to teach them how to self-discipline themselves.  How can we do that if we cannot contain our own behaviour?  Our first priority as parents are to ourselves, to clear up our own baggage from our own childhoods, and take control of ourselves and the people we want to be.  We have to be the best we can be first; we have to find our way in the world first, then it is easy to help children find their way.