Monday, May 9, 2011

Top Ten Do's and Don't about effective discipline

Published on May 4, 2011 by Robert Taibbi, L.C.S.W. in Fixing Families

Okay, you know the basics - no grounding for life, no giving in to candy whines at the checkout line, no time-outs for 6 hours. But bedtime is a moving target and getting up and out in the morning can often have all the drama of an Wagnerian opera.

It doesn't have to be like that. What's needed is discipline. This shouldn't be confused with punishment, those negatives designed to send home a lesson. Discipline is more subtle and more important. It's about teaching your child self-regulation, about self responsibility, and ultimately about creating a sense of security. We now know from research on infant mental health that children as young as 6 months can begin to grasp the concept of No.

This setting of boundaries, when combined with a nurturing relationship, helps your child feel safe. Children without discipline feel anxious, are constantly testing to find and define limits, and over time feel entitled and become demanding. Through discipline your child isn't just learning who's the boss, he's learning how to shape his world.

The Top Ten

The principles of discipline - no emotion, action, consistency, coordination - are simple and effective. Where most parents get stuck is in the fine-print - translating these concepts into concrete action. Here's a list of Top Ten Do's and Don't about effective discipline:

#1. No whining. We're talking about you, not your child. This is the no-emotion rule. Tell your 7-year old child to please pick up his toys, but be matter-of-fact about it. If you are upset about seeing the mess of toys on the floor, go calm down first, then tell him. Keep your instructions short and sweet - no lectures on responsibility, no reminders about the mess from Tuesday, no ranting on about how no one will ever want to marry him because his room is a pigsty. Skip it. Tell him to pick up his toys, by when, and build in a treat (you can watch TV, have some ice cream) when it's all done.

It's said that parents are the child's favorite toy, and the things you get most worked up about - spilled juice, messy rooms - rather than good grades, acts of kindness, signs of responsibility - are instinctively what the child will gravitate towards. Certainly it's okay to get upset when you child runs out in the road. It teaches her that this behavior is really a big deal that she needs to never do. But if you get just as upset about running out in the road as you do about spilled popcorn on the rug, your child gets confused about priorities, or just sees you as always upset. Save your excitement for positive and important things.

#2. Play It Again Sam, again -- Routines, routines, routines. Shape behavior through effective routines - a routine for getting up and out in the morning, one for after school, one for after dinner, one for bedtime. Kids change from the outside in, and the wildest, most out-of-control child will learn to eventually settle down through regular routines and structure. They provide the backbone of security and dependability that kids need.

What's hard to doing them is that you need to set them and keep everyone on track, including yourself. It's the challenge of behavior over-riding emotion - you don't have to feel like to do it, you do it and then you will feel like it. Figure out in advance what routines might work best - playtime before homework, reading aloud after bath - and give your child a forced choice - do you want to take a bath before or after you brush your teeth? Make your bed before or after breakfast? Don't be a drill sergeant micro-managing the process, be more the cruise-ship coordinator - now let's move on to our next activity - bedtime! .... Build in positives to balance out negatives - story after you're all ready for bed, time for video-game after homework is done.

#3. No sudden moves. Your kitchen timer can be your best parenting friend. Keep the routines moving along by giving a warning and setting the timer between activities: "Okay, guys, it's time to get ready for bed. You have 5 minutes. When the timer goes off you need to shut off the computer." Don't march into the room and say, "Okay, it's time to get ready for bed, shut that off now!" This will start WWIII or severe toxic doses of whining, especially if your kids have one more life left in their video-game or are just about to jump to the next level. Give notice.

#4. Empathize with emotions, not behaviors. Your child needs to feel like you understand how she feels, that you will listen to her about her emotions. This is how children learn empathy and this starts as young as 14 months. Empathize with your child's emotions - Yes, I know you wanted to go swimming and I know you feel mad.

That said, you want to hold your child responsible for his behavior - "I know you feel mad, but you cannot hit your brother. I know you want to play your video-game, but you need to finish your homework." This is accountability. Don't confuse it with empathy. Because your child is mad, don't let the homework slide, don't tolerate the hitting. If you do, your child learns that his strong emotions can over-ride his bad behavior. Not a good a lesson to teach.

#5. Put out the fire. Just as you want to separate emotions from behavior, you also want to separate emotions from problem-solving. What this means is that if your child (or your spouse for that matter) is upset, this is not the time to try to get him to understand, make your point, solve the problem. The problem at that moment is your child's emotion. Emotions create tunnel vision and solutions can't be processed.

Put out the emotional fire first by listening - I know you're angry, I know you're disappointed - and by nodding your head. Saying more than that - What do you mean Tuesday?; When you get older... -- is like putting gasoline on the fire, making the emotional fire worse. Empathic listening helps calm the flames and should help your child calm down. If it doesn't and she is still out-of-control, move to containment - hold her or put her in time-out so she can self-regulate. Once she's calm, then talk about the problem - "Okay, you're feeling better. Let's talk about a different time that might be better for doing your homework." These are basic survival skills and are especially important as children move into their teen years when their emotions are apt to get stronger and louder

We finish our list of discipline tips and ways to put them into action:

#6. Don't pull rank. While you're probably tempted to say (oh, 20 times a day) "Because I said so, that's why!" Resist. This pulling rank is about your frustration and anger and your attempt to gain control.  While you may momentarily feel better, your child misses the point about what you're asking. Instead help your child better understand you and how you think by making one-sentence, no-emotion comments about your concerns or worries: "I want you to come home at 6:00 because I'm worried that if you get too tired, you'll have a hard time getting all your homework done." He doesn't have to agree and might even argue, but that's okay and you can still stand by your guns.

Understanding your motivation and intentions makes you seem less like a bully. By modeling good communication and self-responsibility, she has an opportunity to better understand what makes you tick. Over time your words will come inside and she will better understand what makes her tick.

#7. Words matter. This is tied to consistency. Do what you say, say what you mean. If you tell your child that you are all leaving the house at 8:00 am, set the timer and leave at 8:00. If they are half-dressed, bring the clothes and let them get dressed in the car. If they missed their breakfast, grab a banana and some cereal, and they can eat it on the way to school. If you don't be consistent and match words and actions, your child learns that words don't matter. Again this is part of creating a feeling of stability and reliability. Without it they get confused, they test.

#8. Use logic. Or rather logical consequences to shape behavior. This is how we learn as adults. You don't pay your electric bill, your lights get turned off. You come to work late 2 weeks in a row and your boss sits you down for a serious talk, writes you up, or fires you from your job. It's an effective way to learn, it's real life and it teaches children responsibility by showing them the consequences of their actions. "I'm sorry it took you a long time to finish cleaning your room. We don't have time to read a story (or watch TV or go swimming)." Again, matter-of-fact, don't nag, don't scold; it's not about you. This approach can keep you from railing on. It side-steps your kids just seeing you as being mean and missing the bigger point. It teaches your child how life really works.

#9. One positive deserves another. Research tells us that positives shape behavior much more effectively an negatives. The famous studies by John Gottman on marriage and relationships shows that couples need a 4:1 ratio of positive to negative comments in their relationship in order for the other person to hear anything positive. Less than that and the other person feels like you are always being critical or on their back.

Kids are no different. They move towards the positive, especially when there is emotion behind it - excitement, real appreciation -- and when it is specific - You are doing such a good job sharing your toys with your brother; I really like the way you helped carry the dishes into the kitchen when grandma came over - rather than just a generic Good job guys. Look for what's good, rather than always zeroing in on the bad.

#10. Get on the same page. This is for you and your partner. While you both have different personalities and hence, different styles, you shouldn't have different rules or different priorities. If routines fall apart because Dad is in charge instead of Mom or visa versa, kids lose their stability, get confused, start testing, squeeze through the cracks between you both, or quickly learn to play one of you off against the other - ask easy-going Mom instead of mean Dad.

It's easy for parents to polarized - one tough, the other easy-going - as a way of balancing the other guy out. Often underneath it all is a relationship problem that is being played out through the children. This parental split is a relationship issue between you both that needs to be solved. If you suspect that is the case, get the kids out of the middle, talk about your differences and if needed, get professional help.

These do's and don'ts apply to all kids regardless of their age. What you do need to sensitive to is updating and refining them to fit your childrens' changing developmental needs. With a younger child the language will be simpler, the amount of direction may be more. As children get older, you can explain more, can give them more options, get their input in solving problems, give them more room to establish their own routines. By teenage years, your job moves towards being more that consultant, and you save you power for really important issues like health and safety. The principles stay the same, the fine-print changes.

A Plan of Action

If you are seeing a need to make changes in your family, the best place to start is by making a change in yourself. Here are some guidelines to help you get going:

Pick one area. Don't try and do the big make-over. As you look at the list, review your family life, pick on area that you want to work on first. It may be setting good bedtime routines, it may be controlling your own emotions, it may be increasing the positives or talking with your partner about a workable game-plan. Start small so you can build up your self-confidence while not overwhelming your kids.

Come up with a plan. So you decide, for example, that you want to get a handle on bedtime routine, map out the changes in advance when you're not stressed and are clear-headed. Envision how you would like it to be. Think in terms of behaviors - what do you want to do differently, what do you want your children to do - rather than worrying about emotions - how you want them to feel. Change behaviors first and emotions will follow. Be as specific as possible, and build into your planning anticipated obstacles (sharing of the bathroom, individual times for reading stories) and ways around them.

Let you kids know what's coming. Again, it's about prep and warnings: "Tomorrow, I want us to change how we do bedtime. Because I want us to have time to read together, I want you get ready for bed a little bit earlier, take a bath, and pack up your stuff for school. I'll give you a warning and set the timer to let you know when it's time to shut off the TV.

Expect resistance. Some kids handle change better than others, but it's human nature to want no change at all. Be like Mary Poppins - clear, matter-of-fact, no drama, lots of positive comments - good job getting your pajamas on. Empathize with emotions but stick to behaviors.

Get support. If you have a partner, work together as a team, either backing you up, sharing the responsibilities (I'll handle Tom if you get Kathy in bed). Talk about first aide if you find yourself getting frustrated (come stand next me or just give me a quick hug) in order to help you stay on track. If you are alone, work out a plan to call someone for support while the kids are taking a bath. Figure out in advance what you need to be successful.

Evaluate, fine-tune. See how it goes, make minor adjustments (still too rushed, need another 10 minutes) but don't scrape the idea if it doesn't go as smoothly as you hoped. You're not just changing behaviors, or literally rewiring brains - your kids as well as your own. It takes some repetition and time.

Pat yourself on the back. It isn't about doing it Right, it's about doing it different. That's what counts.

Bring in the reinforcements. Finally, don't hesitate to get additional help if you need it - online information, a parenting skills group, a couple of sessions with a counselor. Don't discourage yourself by thinking you have some intractable personality defect; it's about learning skills, pure and simple. Recognizing a problem and being willing to tackle it is 50% towards fixing it.

Treat yourself the way you wish to treat your kids. With determination, support, patience, and a positive attitude.

You'll discover that you can do it.

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