6 Tips For No Drama Discipline

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Any parent can tell you that disciplining their child is not easy and no parent does it perfectly.  In my Connected Parenting classes and with my own children, we spend a lot of time understanding and addressing our own triggers that get flared from our kids' behaviors.  As parents, we have a lot of unresolved feelings and issues from our own childhoods that get kicked up every time our kids misbehave.  If we could develop the self-awareness to notice when we're triggered and deal with our own feelings first, we wouldn't react so much to our children, yelling when the tips listed below would work much more effectively. Dr. Daniel Siegel is a neuroscientist from UCLA who has written several books about parenting with the neuroscientific needs of our kids (and ourselves) in mind.  In his newest book No Drama Discipline, he and Tina Bryson, Ph.D. remind parents that discipline is about teaching, not punishment, and give several beautiful illustrations of the most effective ways that parents can address our children's behaviors and emotional needs.  Here are 6 important tips from their book:

1. BE CALM

When a parent is wound up, stressed, with unresolved prior emotions already under the surface, kids and their typical horse play can trigger loud and scary yelling and reactions which get parents and their kids NOWHERE.  Most parents have had incidents where their kids are doing something they're not supposed to do like jumping on the bed and we don't say anything, we don't say anything, it goes on, until something breaks or gets knocked over and we SCREAM at our kids about how wild and irresponsible they are.  The truth is we need to set limits calmly before the behavior gets out of hand and understand that yelling and screaming at our kids is REALLY scary and unsettling for them.  It really breaks trust for them.  Parents need to take some deep breaths and remain calm.  Respond immediately by setting a calm limit when kids start doing something they know breaks the rules.  Don't give in to avoid a confrontation/tantrum and don't wait for the broken lamp and screaming.  State the limit, hold it calmly, and handle it proactively so that kids understand WHY you have a limit (to prevent things from getting broken, including the bed).  Reacting in anger, with yelling and screaming is not discipline, it's simply unresolved rage being projected onto your innocent child and it DOESN'T WORK anyway.

2. WHAT DO YOU WANT THEM TO LEARN?

Thinking about the ultimate lesson you want your kid(s) to learn can help guide your interactions with them.  You most likely want them to learn that they can't have everything they want all the time, bigger ethical qualities like care, responsibility.  Framing those lessons in your mind prior to disciplining (remember it means teaching) them can help guide your words, your tone of voice and help you to remain calm.

3. CONNECT EMOTIONALLY

Because of the limbic functioning of the brain, when kids are acting out, they are actually looking for a connection to be re-established.  If parents understand this, they can respond to off track behaviors by connecting first to help the child regulate his or her emotions.  A parent can get down and get low, put their arm around their child, look them in the eye, speak in a calm and nurturing tone, and prioritize establishing that warm connection.  Once that connection has been made or re-established, a child can calmly function and listen.

4. DO NOT ISOLATE IN ORDER TO PUNISH

The way our brains function is to need connection for self regulation and in order to think well.  When children go off track in their behaviors, isolation actually is the polar opposite response to what the brain is actually needing to function optimally.  It does not teach the lessons intended.  When we connect with our children in difficult moments, we teach them to work with us and trust us as they work through their own lessons to be learned.  We anchor them and provide support rather than isolate them to use shame as a weapon.

5. TEACH EMPATHY

Rather than forcing a child to apologize in a half hearted way that obviously lacks true desire or feeling, parents can ask their children how their actions made another person feel by asking them how they would feel if someone did that to them.  Then we are creating internal understanding and motivation on the part of the child to improve his or her behavior rather than forcing external compliance.

6. BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE... THEN LET THEM BE

If you want to see your most valued qualities in your child, like discipline, kindness, creativity, compassion, etc., be those qualities in your interactions and every day living.  This is how your children will learn them best.  Once you are using these tips to connect, teach, draw on their empathy, create compassion, and demonstrate excellence through your own living example, it's time to let your children be who THEY are.  Let go, allow space for them to be their unique selves.  They are not mirror images or "mini me's" of you.  They are individuals wanting their own unique expression in this world.

Connect Before You Correct!

Parenting Coach in Palo ALto Brain Image
Parenting Coach in Palo ALto Brain Image

Brain science has a lot to teach parents about why their kids exhibit "off track   behavior" and what the most effective responses to these behaviors are. The limbic brain is what I call in my Parenting by Connection classes the "downstairs," or foundation, of a child's developing brain.  This limbic system thrives on secure, attached connection with a caregiver.  Throughout a child's development, this part of the brain knows to scan its environment for close connection so that its primarily emotional needs can be met.  Once the limbic system's needs are met, the prefontal cortex, or the "upstairs," more complex part of the brain that is the center of logic and decision-making, can develop optimally as well.  The prefontal cortex, a.k.a. executive center of the brain, is not fully developed in humans on average until the age of 25!  No wonder teens act as they do :-).

When a child's behavior goes off track (tantrum, whining, talking back, acting out, poor decision-making), it is a signal that the needs of the limbic brain are not being adequately met.  If a child is younger than 5 years old, the prefontal cortex development has not reached a point where during this off track behavior, the child can process logic or reasoning.  And the functioning of the prefontal cortex, or logic center, is dependent upon the optimal functioning of the limbic brain.  So a parent yelling or using words towards a child who is having a tantrum is not productive or effective to support the child in learning what he or she needs to learn in that moment.

As a rule, parents of young children should remember the saying "Connect Before You Correct" in responding to their child(ren)'s off track behavior.  If you want to be effective during those most challenging moments of a tantrum or slammed door, try a new approach.  Get down, get low, hold your child as they are crying, writhing or saying something rude to you.  I know it may make you feel like you are "rewarding bad behavior."  Let that idea go for now.  It is not based in brain science!

Get down to the eye level of your child, look him or her in the eye, hold them close.  Let the emotional wave they are experiencing complete itself.  Once the tears or emotional storm has passed, and there is a calm after that storm, you can discuss how you felt and make a request for different behavior in future.  This is not the time for harsh criticism, punishment or isolation.  Your child's brain is doing what all children's brains do.

It is up to parents to understand what's happening in their child's brain and to respond appropriately.  No child intentially tantrums or cries just to make a parent angry.  There is a need that is not being met and their entire system is functioning to get that need met.  Slow down, get close, and take the time to be an anchor for your child as he or she develops and you will be happy with the results:  more cooperation, more trust, more closeness and more empathy in your relationship!