“I think of discipline as the continual everyday process of helping a child learn self-discipline.” – Fred Rogers
Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent, you play an essential role in your child’s success. Through our discipline practices, we can intentionally teach our children to take responsibility for their actions, internalize their own sense of responsibility and self-discipline, and grow a positive parent-child relationship.
Children ages 5-10 will naturally test limits and break rules. Those mistakes or misbehaviors are a normal part of their development and necessary for their learning. In addition, they are exercising and developing self-control, a fundamental ingredient of self-discipline. And they are also working to empathize with others, to view thoughts and feelings from another person’s perspective. Empathy is also an essential ingredient of self-discipline. Children need to learn that their actions have an impact on others around them. This kind of consequential thinking – “If I pinch my sister, she’ll cry and run to Mom” – is developed over time and requires a lot of practice.
Research confirms that when young children learn to manage their emotions, it simultaneously strengthens their executive functions.1 They are better able to use self-control, problem-solve, and focus their attention. This directly impacts their school success and ability to follow the rules. However, the converse is also true. Those children who do not learn to manage their emotions through the guidance and support of caring adults have attention issues, a lack of impulse control, and difficulty in problem solving.
Yet, there are challenges. A national parent survey by Zero to Three, revealed that 57% of parents report they struggle to figure out the most effective way to discipline.2
The key to many parenting challenges like disciplining in supportive ways that build skills is finding ways to communicate so that both your needs and your child’s needs are met. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters to prepare you to help your child take responsibility for their actions and develop a sense of self-discipline.
Whether it’s your five-year-old melting down in frustration and envy over their sister’s new set of toys or your ten-year-old refusing to go to bed, our children’s lack of cooperation, showing disrespect, or breaking the rules and the many accompanying emotions that go with those problems can become a regular challenge if we don’t create plans and strategies for dealing with them along with input from our children.
Today, in the short term, discipline can create:
- a sense of confidence that we can help our child regain calm and focus;
- greater opportunities for connection and enjoyment as we work together to care for each other;
- trust in each other that we have the competence to manage our intense feelings; and
- agreed upon rules and expectations.
Tomorrow, in the long term, discipline helps your child:
- build skills in self-awareness;
- build skills in self-control and managing emotions;
- learn independence, life skills competence, and self-sufficiency; and
- build assertive communication to express needs and boundaries, critical for keeping them safe and ready to deal with peer pressure.
This five-step process helps you discipline to build skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are best done when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child thinking about rules and learning agreements by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your child’s thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges. In gaining input, your child:
- has the opportunity to contribute to the hopes and goal setting of the family and see the connection with why we have rules;
- has the opportunity to become more aware of how they are thinking and feeling and understand when they break rules;
- can think through and problem solve through any challenges they may encounter ahead of time;
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve thought through and designed themselves, and with that sense of ownership, comes a greater responsibility for implementing new strategies;
- will have more motivation to work together and cooperate because of their sense of ownership; and
- will be working with you on making informed decisions (understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about critical aspects of their life.
- Ask questions. You might just start by asking:
- “What do we want for our family?”
- “What are our hopes?”
- “How do we establish rules that help us work together toward our hopes and dreams?”
- “When and why do you break rules?”
- Use your best listening skills! Listen closely to what is most concerning to your child without projecting your own thoughts, concerns, and feelings. It helps to use a paraphrasing technique to ensure you are fully understanding what your child is communicating.
- Paraphrasing is echoing back to the person a summary of what they’ve said to check how accurate your listening is and also to confirm to the speaker that you have heard them. It may seem awkward at first. But this step is an important way for you to check your own understanding while simultaneously teaching children how to listen for comprehension.
- It might go something like this:
- Child: “When my brother stepped on my foot, I got so mad that I hit him.”
- Parent modeling paraphrasing: “So, I hear that when your brother stepped on your foot, you responded by hitting him and breaking a house rule.”
- If you hear a subtext of feeling, as in this example, you can also reflect back the feeling implied. Also, you can seek further clarification if it’s needed. Parent reflecting feeling: “I hear you were mad. Were your feelings hurt too when he stepped on you?”
Write your hopes down together. Then write your rules on a separate sheet. Keep them simple and brief, 3-5 short statements only.
- Explore the mind-body connection. In calmer moments with your child, ask, “How does your body feel now?” See how descriptively they can list their physical signs of wellbeing. Now ask, “How does your body feel when you are angry?” For every person, their physical experience will be different. Find out how your child feels and make the connection between those symptoms and the normal feelings they are having.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
In order to respond to a misbehavior by transforming it into a teachable moment, it’s critical to discover your child’s motivation for the misbehavior. If you can uncover why your child is acting out – and there’s always a good reason – then you can best respond in ways that prevent that destructive behavior for the future while promoting other more positive behaviors. Here are the most common mistaken goals children have that motivate misbehaviors. These four areas (Attention, Power, Avoidance of Failure, and Revenge) come from a research-based teachers’ guide entitled Cooperative Discipline by Linda Albert.3
- How Your Child Misbehaves and Why: Whether it’s tugging at you incessantly while you are talking to someone else, acting noisily or unsafely, or threatening to break something, these actions are all a ploy to get your attention. And they work! If your child is teetering precariously on the edge of the furniture making wailing sounds, you’re bound to respond and quickly.
- Parent Clues on Motivation: How you feel when your child is acting with the goal of attention can clue you in to the fact that, that’s exactly why your child is misbehaving. You’ll likely feel irritated and annoyed but not yet intensely angry. This tool will show you more effective ways to respond.
- Empathizing With Your Child: Every child seeks their parent’s attention and requires it for their very survival. Children need to learn how to ask for attention appropriately. This is normal, and your response will be key in helping define boundaries and practice positive skills.
- Parent Tendencies: We may be inclined to nag, scold, or come to the rescue. These responses sometimes will stop the behavior in the moment because the goal of your child getting your attention has been reached. But they don’t prevent the behavior in the future nor do they teach a new skill or positive behavior to replace the misguided one.
- How Your Child Misbehaves and Why: Whether it involves throwing a tantrum, refusing to do something or go somewhere, or giving an impassioned “I can do it myself!” the message of these behaviors is “let’s fight!” Your child may be feeling powerless or out of control and needing to regain some power in their life. All humans – young and old – require a sense of control and power over their own lives, but they need to seek it in positive ways. A child can also quietly not comply or conveniently forget as a form of passive power seeking. But the way they are seeking power is inappropriate.
- Parent Clues on Motivation: In this situation, you’ll likely feel angry, highly frustrated, or upset. Power struggles can press our hot buttons. This tool will show you more effective ways to respond.
Empathizing With Your Child: Because children are attempting to gain power, they may also possess important potentials like leadership, assertive communication, and independent thinking. These are key attributes for wellbeing and often children who try to engage in power struggles need to be re-guided to hone these skills and use them in contributing ways.
- Parent Tendencies: We will be inclined to get angry and respond to our anger by fighting back, by raising our volume, yelling, and showing our child who’s in charge. Our body language may get bigger and more aggressive to overpower our child. We may scold, punish, or send a child to their room for a timeout or take away a beloved toy or device. But these responses don’t prevent the behavior in the future. In fact, they can create more power struggles in the future because the child again feels powerless, hurt, and rejected. The response also does not teach a new skill or positive behavior to replace the misguided one.
- Avoidance of Failure
- How Your Child Misbehaves and Why: This can manifest as a frustration tantrum. “I’m too upset to do my homework.” A child might procrastinate on a task they know they must do. It could also result in refusing to go somewhere or do an activity. Some children may claim boredom, sheer lack of desire, or just give up on the task and on their abilities. They may claim they’re temporarily incapable with a headache or tummy ache. It’s important, if you can, to determine whether this is a real occurrence based on anxiety or an excuse. But children themselves often don’t know whether it’s real or perceived. The goal of the child here is to avoid failure. And with an emphasis on competition and performance in academics or extracurriculars, this can be a common occurrence.
- Parent Clues on Motivation: Initially a parent may feel concerned or worried or even sad. That worry can escalate into anger and frustration if a child refuses to do what they have committed to doing time and again.
- Empathizing With Your Child: Your child is likely so intent on being successful that they cannot bear the thought or chance of failing. They may feel like they just cannot meet their own or others’ expectations for them and their performance. They also might feel as if their identity or even others’ love is wrapped up in whether or not they can perform to a certain standard.
- Parent Tendencies: We might lecture, push, yell, or punish depending on how much we need our child to follow through on their commitments. We may feel like failures as we attempt to get our child moving, and they dig in and refuse to budge. This tool will show you more effective ways to respond.
- How Your Child Misbehaves and Why: These children may be generally more unhappy than happy most of the time. When they lash out, it’s about retaliation whether they are seeking revenge for real or perceived hurts. The undercurrent of this child’s behavior is that they are hurting or feeling rejected. They may anger easily. They may attack with words that may cut to our very core as parents like “I hate you!” or “You don’t love me!” There may be physical attacks or the threat of physical attacks like breaking a sibling’s toy on purpose, taking a parent’s wallet or phone, or drawing with a Sharpie marker on our freshly painted walls. Withdrawing and giving the silent treatment can also serve as revenge if the child is intending to hurt you with their removal.
- Parent Clues on Motivation: Parents will feel angry, hurt, and upset. They may even feel scared for themselves and for their child or siblings since their child is intending to harm others.
- Empathizing With Your Child: When your child is seeking revenge, you know that they are hurting deeply. This behavior may be a protection mechanism attempting to ward off more hurt. This is a sign that a child needs ongoing emotional support.
- Parent Tendencies: A parent might tend to yell or punish more harshly than with other behaviors when revenge is involved since the intent is to hurt or cause harm. This response deepens the hurt in the child and further contributes to the problem. The child, though they might stop in the moment, will likely continue with revenge behaviors until they get the emotional support needed. Parents, if they have tried with no success, may seek outside help feeling helpless as the problem deepens. This tool will show you more effective ways to respond.
- Learn together. Since intense emotions often can trigger a misbehavior, talk about what happens when you’re upset, angry, or stressed and what you do to manage.
- Teach your child positive behaviors. Each time your child misbehaves, ask the question: “What positive behavior do I need to teach and practice that can replace the misbehavior?”
- Brainstorm coping strategies. There are numerous coping strategies you and your child can use depending on what feels right. But when you are really angry and upset, it can be difficult to recall what will make you feel better. That’s why brainstorming a list, writing it down, and keeping it at the ready can come in handy when your child really needs it. Here are some ideas from Janine Halloran, the author of Coping Skills for Kids.4:
- Imagine your favorite place, take a walk, get a drink of water, take deep breaths, count to 50, do Jumping Jacks, stretch, play a game, talk with someone you trust, use a fidget, draw, write in a journal, blow bubbles, read a funny book, color, build something, listen to relaxing music, take a break, take a shower/bath, or use a calming jar.
- Work on your family feelings vocabulary. Yes, at times, parents have to become a feelings detective. If our child shuts down and refuses to tell us what’s going on, we have to dig for clues. Though your five, six, seven, or even ten-year-old has been speaking fluently for some time now, they take longer to develop their feelings vocabulary. That’s because they hear feelings expressed in daily conversations much less frequently than thoughts or other expressions. Being able to identify our emotions is the first step to successfully managing our emotions.
Though at times it can feel like it, there are no “bad” emotions. All emotions have a positive intention. In fact, every feeling we have is a vital message from our ourselves quickly interpreting what’s happening around us. Because feelings are merely that – an instant interpretation – we always have the opportunity to reinterpret our circumstances and particularly our response to our feelings.
The saying “name it to tame it” really works! Look for ways to identify feelings and name them. Post this feelings list on your refrigerator as a helpful reminder. The more you can name a range of feelings in family life, the more comfortable your child will get with articulating what they’re feeling to seek understanding.
Play feelings guessing games with the family. At a meal, share facial expressions showing a range of emotions and guess which they are.
When you are reflecting on your child’s feelings, you can think about unpacking a suitcase. Frequently, there are layers of emotions that need to be examined and understood versus just one. Anger might just be the top layer. After you’ve discovered why your child was angry, you might ask about other layers. Was there hurt or a sense of rejection involved? Perhaps your child feels embarrassed? Fully unpacking the suitcase of emotions will help your child feel better understood by you as they become more self-aware.
- Create a calm down space. During a playtime or time without pressures, design a “safe base” or place where your child decides they would like to go to when upset to feel better. Maybe their calm down space is a beanbag chair in their room, a blanket, or special carpet in the family room. Then, think through together what items you might place there to help them calm down.
Tip & Trap
The only way this space serves as a tool for parents to promote their children’s self-management skills is if they allow a child to self-select the calm down space. You can and should practice using it and gently remind them of it when they are upset. “Would your calm down space help you feel better?” you might ask. But if that space is ever used as a punishment or a directive – “Go to your calm down space!” – the control lies in the parents and no longer in the child, and the opportunity for skill building is lost.
- Teach positive ways to ask for attention. We may get into a habit of pointing out what children are not doing right. Particularly, when children are misbehaving to get our attention, they have not yet learned how to get our attention in positive ways. So consider: “How can my child learn to seek my attention in acceptable ways?” Then, proactively teach these kinds of attention-getting behaviors. Would you like your child to say a polite “excuse me” when they need you and you’re engaged in a conversation? If so, practice as a family. Do a dry run so that all are comfortable and then, reinforce that positive behavior to create more of the same.
Create a nonverbal signal to gain your attention. So often, a parent is on the phone, across the store, or heavily embroiled in a conversation with a neighbor. One example of a nonverbal signal is to hold up your high five showing you need five more minutes and then you’ll respond. Practice using it and then be sure and follow up with your child after five minutes so that they discover success with the signal.
- Reflect on your child’s feelings so you can be prepared to help. Ask yourself:
- “What needs is my child not getting met?” Their needs can be emotional needs like needing a friend to listen or give us their attention, needing some alone time, or needing to escape a chaotic environment.
- “Can the issue be addressed by my child alone or do they need to communicate a need, ask for help, or set a boundary?” One of the hardest steps to take for many can be asking for help or drawing a critical boundary line when it’s needed. You’ll need to find out what those issues are in your reflections with your child first. But then, guiding them to communicate their need is key.
- Teach assertive communication through I-messages. When you or your children are in the uncomfortable position of disagreeing or arguing with another, it can be difficult to know how to respond in ways that won’t harm yourself or others. That’s why teaching and practicing I-messages can provide a structure for what you can say. This statement works effectively from partner to partner, from parent to child, and from child to child. Here’s an example: “I feel _______________________(insert feeling word) when you_________________ (name the words or actions that upset you) because ________________.”
This helps the individual take responsibility for their own role and their feelings while avoiding blaming language like “you did…” (which closes down the mind and ears of the other). It helps communicate the problem constructively without harming the other involved. Here’s how it might sound if a parent is using it with a child: “I feel frustrated and angry when you keep playing and don’t seem like you are listening, because I feel like you are ignoring me, and I believe what I have to say is important for both of us.”
- Teach your child to repair harm. A critical step in teaching our children about managing anger is learning how to repair harm (physical or emotional) when they’ve caused it. And they will. Mistakes are a critical aspect of their social learning. We all have our moments when we hurt another. But it’s that next step that matters in healing emotional wounds and repairing the relationship.
- End the day with love. When children misbehave during the day, they often end the day feeling badly about themselves. Children tie your love to their behavior. If you act proud of them, they feel loved. If you are disappointed or mad at them, they feel unloved. Be sure that you spend one-on-one time with a child who has had rough patches that day. This teaches your children that they are loved no matter what choices they make.
Create a ritual of sharing words of love and care at bedtime. Consider that ending the day reflecting on how much you appreciate one another could just be the best way to send your children off to sleep.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Confidence, and Develop Habits
Practice can take the form of pretend play, cooperatively completing the task together, or trying out a task with you as a coach and ready support. Practice is not only nice, it’s necessary in order for children to internalize new skills. Practice makes vital new brain connections that strengthen each time your child performs the new action.
- Use “Show me…” statements. When a child learns a new ability, they are eager to show it off! Give them that chance. Say: “Show me how you can ask for attention.” This practice will prepare your child to use it when they require your attention, and they are tempted to misbehave to get their need met.
- Offer limited and authentic choices. Particularly for a child who is acting out to seek power or even revenge, they have lost sense of their own control and are attempting to meet that need. Offering them a choice, even if small – “Do you want to do your homework sitting at the kitchen counter or at the dining room table?” – can return a sense of control to their lives. It also offers valuable practice in responsible decision making.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like, “I notice how you used our “wait five minutes” hand signal. It worked! That’s excellent!”
- Accept feelings. If you are going to help your child become emotionally intelligent in managing their biggest feelings, it is important to acknowledge and accept their feelings – even ones you don’t like! When your child is upset, consider your response. You could say, “I hear you’re upset. What can you do to help yourself feel better?” If your child is motivated by power or revenge, this is critical in returning their sense of control. Instead of focusing on their actions, the problem or the misbehavior, focus on their feelings FIRST. Take care that they feel understood. Look for ways to assist them in feeling better. Then, address the behavior.
- Practice deep breathing. Because deep breathing is such a simple way to assist your child anytime, anywhere, it’s important to get in plenty of practice so that it becomes easy to use when needed. Here are some enjoyable ways to practice together!5
- Blowing out birthday candles breathing. You can pretend you are blowing out candles on a birthday cake. Just the image in your head of a birthday cake brings about happy thoughts. And in order to blow out a number of small flames, you have to take in deep breaths.
- Ocean breathing. Practice making the noise of the sea waves while breathing deeply from your diaphragm. Close your eyes with your child and imagine that your anger is a fiery flame waiting on a sandy shore. And as you breathe life into the ocean waves, they grow closer and closer to the flame to extinguish it.
- Include reflection on the day in your bedtime routine. Begin by asking about worries or problems that your child will surely consider after you leave the room. Listen and offer comfort. Demonstrate that you are allowing and accepting of the uncertainty of unresolved problems. You could say, “There’s no amount of worrying that is going to fix things tonight. So how can you talk about accepting what you have and where you are now and working on it tomorrow?” Then, turn to gratitude. Children may not have the chance to reflect on what’s good and abundant in their lives throughout the day, yet grateful thoughts can be a central contributor to happiness and wellbeing. And, grateful thoughts directly wipe out ruminations. So ask, “What happened today that made you happy?” or “What were the best moments in your day?”
- If your child is exerting considerable effort to create a power struggle or seek revenge, ask your child for help. Engage your child side-by-side in taking action together to make things better in your household, at your school, or in your community.
- Follow through on repairing harm. When your child has caused harm, it’s easier to shrink away in shame and attempt to escape the problem never to return hoping time will heal all wounds. But if real damage has been done – emotionally or physically – then your child needs to take some steps to help heal that wound. It takes tremendous courage, however, to do so. So in order for your child to learn that a next choice can be their best choice, that they can make up for the harm they’ve caused, they need your guidance, encouragement, and support in following through on those steps. They may need to hold your hand through that process and that’s okay! They are learning the invaluable skill of responsible decision making.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child some new strategies. You’ve practiced together. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, coaching, and when appropriate, applying logical consequences. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Ask key questions to support their skills. For example, “You are going to see Julie today. Do you remember what you can do to assert your feelings?”
- Learn about development. Each new age and stage will present differing challenges and along with them, stress, frustrations, and anger.
- Promote an “I can” belief. Our self-talk is so much a part of who we are and how we operate we can take it for granted, and children certainly do too. But particularly for the child who is avoiding failure, they need to hear that you believe in their ability to learn anything with time and hard work.
- Foster friendships. Close friends can be an invaluable source of empathy and support for your child.
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for trying out new and different coping strategies can help offer additional support and motivation for your child when tough issues arise.
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should come soon after the negative behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process. First, get your own emotions in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your emotions are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior. Second, invite your child into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2. Third, if you feel that your child is not holding up their end of the bargain (unless it is a matter of them not knowing how), then apply a logical consequence as a teachable moment.
Meet an attention need with a quick hug and a promise to spend more time talking at a specific and designated time later that day.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
Though adults tend to forget, our attention is our child’s sweetest reward. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness and business of getting tasks accomplished to get to work and school on time in the morning, for example. But if your child is working hard to manage their big feelings, it will be worth your while to call it out. After all, your recognition can go a long way to promoting more of the same positive behaviors and expanding your child’s sense of competence and responsibility. Add to your child’s motivation to work hard with the following simple steps.
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When children are using the self-management tools you’ve taught them, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I noticed you when you got frustrated with your homework, you moved away and took some deep breaths. Yes! Excellent.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. They need to happen along the way. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, we’ll get our business taken care of first with our bedtime routine, and then we’ll snuggle up to a good book and talk about our reflections from the day. Include hugs in your repertoire of ways to appreciate one another.
Be specific. “Good job” seems to not carry much meaning. However, a specific compliment about a pointed behavior – “You went to your safe base when you were upset earlier. Love seeing that!” – can promote more of the same.
Avoid sticker, gifts, or other physical rewards for performance. These actually have a de-motivating effect on children. When you remove the candy, for example, have they internalized the skills and also the sense of responsibility for performing them? There’s less of a chance if you’ve offered a “bribe.” Focus on your attention as the best reward. This is an essential strategy in discipline for skill building.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.