How We Get Discipline All Wrong

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Ask any mom or dad of a kid past toddlerhood to tell you the hardest parts of parenting, and chances are that “discipline” will figure high on the list. Nobody likes it, and nobody — not any parent I know, at least — thinks she’s any good at it. Maybe it’s because it’s simply not fun, and because, at its core, it means doling out punishments, which can make us feel like we’re crushing our kids’ awesome spirits.

“We go into these defense modes and use power and control, which leads to more reactivity, or else to your child shutting down,” Tina Payne Bryson, pediatric and adolescent psychotherapist and coauthor of the new “No-Drama Discipline,” tells Yahoo Parenting. “Then we feel even more upset, and guilty, not to mention helpless, and ineffective as parents.”

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But it doesn’t have to be this way, according to Bryson’s new discipline guide, coauthored with University of California Los Angeles professor of psychiatry Daniel J. Siegel. Bryson and Siegel are the same duo behind the best-selling “The Whole Brain Child,” and they firmly believe that calm and empathy are not only acceptable when it comes to discipline, but vital.

“In our culture, somehow being empathetic with our children when they’re having ‘bad behavior’ has become equated with being permissive,” Bryson laments. “But it’s possible to set boundaries and be empathetic.”

In fact, Siegel tells Yahoo Parenting, he believes that a fundamental flaw in our culture is that, somewhere along way, we have come to equate the term “discipline” with “punishment,” when what it really means — at least according to its Latin roots — is “to teach.” In their book, the authors stress a move toward “reclaiming it as a term that’s not about punishment or control, but about teaching and skill building — and doing so from a place of love, respect, and emotional connection.”

Bryson said a helpful way to think about your child’s arguing, yelling, thrashing, refusal to clean up, not listening, insistence that she wear her swimsuit and feather boa to school, not wanting to say hello to your friends, and whatever else gets under your skin is to realize this: “Behavior is communication. It’s your child saying with a bullhorn, ‘These are things I need help with!’” And often, the places where they are lacking revolve around emotions that come in a flood too overwhelming for their little brains to handle. How you as a parent or caretaker respond to the resulting freak-out is key to both not repressing them and letting them know that you’re there to support them, even when they’re not at their best.

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To that end, the duo advises against punitive forms of discipline, including the popular go-to known as the “time out.” While time outs were designed to help children calm down and reflect on their behavior, and can be helpful when used with elements including brevity and positive parental feedback, Siegel says, the technique seems to often be used too frequently and for too long, and out of anger and frustration. Bryson and Siegel spoke out against the technique in a recent Time article that has proven to be hugely controversial among both parents and parenting experts (though much of the controversy, they concur, seems to have stemmed from the magazine’s use of a title and subtitle that compared time outs with physical abuse, which is “inconsistent” with their view, Bryson and Siegel say).

“Maybe in the short run it will be effective,” Siegel says. “But using social isolation, during which children are filled with fear because they will be alone, makes them feel banished and misunderstood instead of feeling connected and understood.” He suggested trying a “time in,” which can simply be thought of as a calm break, preferably together. Bryson added, “When kids are falling apart, that’s when they most need connection. It’s a stressful state in their bodies.”

So what, exactly, can you do when your kid is freaking out or acting obstinate? Here are a few “No-Drama Discipline” pointers:

Connect and Redirect.”

This is the main mantra to stick to, according to Siegel and Bryson. “A brain is either in a receptive or a reactive state, and the brain learns best in a receptive state,” Bryson explains. “When your kid is being disrespectful and we go into our ‘Are you kidding me?’ mode, they are in a reactive state, so that is not the optimal time to learn.” If you can attempt to “swim through the behavior,” whether it’s aggression or disrespect, and instead try to soothe the feelings behind the behavior — to connect — you’ll help ease their brain into a receptive state. One way to do this, the book suggests, is to get down below eye level with your kid; tell him you can see he’s having a hard time, and that you’re there for him. Then, when he is calm, you can “redirect,” or try to address the behavior. “You could say, ‘Wow, those were some big emotions,’” Bryson suggests. “‘Can you tell me about what was going on?’ Then you might actually be able to have some reflective dialogue.”

Think about your motives.

“A lot of disciplining is done out of parental fear — ‘I have to show him that this is not okay or he will grow up to be a terrible person!’” Bryson notes. Other times, punishing comes from shame. “Some of the times that we don’t honor what our children need in the moment are times when we are afraid to be judged,” she says. Like when our kid is singing at the top of her lungs on an airplane, or pitching a fit in the middle of a supermarket. It can be annoying and embarrassing — and it’s certainly important to address the behavior — but we can find ourselves reacting in ways we might not otherwise, ignoring what our child really needs.

Remember: listening does not equal spoiling.

Parents have a worry that’s ironic, Siegel says. “They think if they are emotionally tuned in to their child, they’ll make their child spoiled. But you don’t become narcissistic by having someone who tunes in to your needs — it’s the opposite.” Those who do not learn “emotional competency” from a parent, and who do not have their needs listened to, he said, are actually the ones more likely to become “entitled, lost, and spoiled,” because their needs for connection are unfulfilled and they don’t know how they’re feeling. Something to think about during the next dreaded tantrum. 

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