Do you ever find yourself wishing you could whip out a magic wand when your child is acting out?
I do this frequently. Especially when I’m stressed and tired.
In my mind’s eye, with an impressive flourish of the sparkle stick and a few random mysterious words, I have it all under control. I remove my pointy hat and cape and normal Mom service resumes. Smug smiles all round.
Then I snap out of my reverie and realize that my 4 year old has just released the wooden brick he was threatening to throw at his big sister. It is a millisecond from connecting with the side of her head. And I am two milliseconds away from having to switch from Magic Mom to Nurse-and-Disciplinarian Mom.
The ‘How do I deal with this?’ question in response to unacceptable behavior like this is usually followed by an instant decision fueled by the emotion of the moment.
But snap decisions aren’t always the best. In that moment of anger or frustration our parenting sense is compromised. Our response comes from a place of internal conflict rather than from one of calm consideration. And it is often punitive as a result.
Fed up with yelling at my kids I have recently been trying very hard to arrest my learned response of shouting and doling out punishment, choosing instead to actively employ positive, calm discipline.
In the wise words of Dr Laura Markham at AhaParenting:
Think Loving Guidance, not punishment. Punishment is destructive to your relationship with your child and ultimately creates more misbehavior.
This is the basis of positive parenting. At an instinctive level, this idea resonates strongly with me. And in those moments of parenting calm and joyfulness, I even manage to muster up a fair impression of being that ideal positive parent.
But in times of stress, when snap decisions need to be made, I often flounder. I need something to ground me in those moments. A reminder of how to be that positive parent.
A solution presented itself during a word game with my daughter. We’ve been playing with mnemonics to help her remember things. Her favorite is Roy G Biv, where each letter acts as a reminder for the order of colors in the rainbow – Red, Orange, Yellow, and so on.
As she chuntered happily through her colors something clicked. I had found my grounding prompt for those parenting stress moments. After a little juggling of ideas I came up with the following STEPS mnemonic to act as my guide:
See through their defenses
Touch and connect
Peace is the new default
Stop doling out orders
In moments of stress when an instant decision is required, just thinking “STEPS” helps me get a hold of my default punitive response and choose to be a positive parent instead. I’m sharing it with you in the hope that some of you will find it useful too. Give it a try. And watch the magic unfold.
1: See Through Their Defenses
Time to don those x-ray specs!
Relying on verbal expressions alone from your children provides an important but very narrow view of what’s really going on in their heads. Think of their words (or their silence) as walls that conceal what lies beneath.
The ‘throwing-the-brick-at-the-head’ scenario happened during the course of a routine day in my house. My daughter sobbed into me, clutching her head. I comforted her and made sure no immediate medical intervention was required.
Then I looked towards my son.
I took a minute to really watch him (forcing myself to use my x-ray vision).
He was pretending to be busy with a toy train. But he was moving it absently back and forth, shifting uncertainly from foot to foot as he did so. He kept glancing over. He sucked his lower lip under his teeth.
I saw through his wall.
He knew he’d done wrong. And now he was hurting too. On the inside.
But at just 4 years old he has neither the mental capacity to understand what he’s feeling, nor the vocabulary to explain it.
What would I achieve if I punished him in this state?
Except to make him feel even worse about himself. The brick-throwing had been a physical expression of some emotion he was already trying to reconcile – the result of his action had compounded that.
He was lost, sad, and afraid.
His body language as he waited was silently communicating all of that. His lip-sucking-foot-shifting uncertainty was begging for compassion and understanding.
As both children became calm we talked for a minute about what had just happened… how my daughter had backed away as he had raised the brick… how he had missed that cue to stop…
He wanted to make it right, so he gave his sister a hug. She was stiff and reluctant. We talked about how this was an expression of her still feeling cross inside…
And through discussions like this they, too, are both learning about x-ray specs, and the magic of non-verbal cues.
2: Touch and Connect
The plethora of advice about non-physical ‘discipline’ methods in recent years has virtually brainwashed us into believing that most forms of discipline are fine as long as no physical harm is done to the child.
It’s a massive and positive leap forward, but beware – hidden among these fresh approaches lurk punishments in disguise. Take a closer look at the messages that some of the ‘peaceful’ alternatives send out and you’ll see why:
On the face of it Time Out offers a calm, non-physical form of discipline. Everyone gets time to cool off, the situation is controlled, parental emotions remain even.
And yet … the main sense a child gets from Time Out is one of isolation. In their moment of deep emotional distress they are abandoned and left to cope alone. The misbehavior that led to the Time Out was a call for help in regulating an overwhelming emotion. Your child’s real need at that moment is one of connection not rejection.
Brain scans show that the isolation of punishment causes relational pain that mirrors that experienced when a child is physically abused. Decades of research have shown that when children are distressed they need closeness, not space.
Time Out may be effective at one level, but it is still a punishment in your child’s eyes.
It can be tempting to turn your back on your child when they are acting out. To walk away from the drama with the message that:
‘I’ll come back when you’ve calmed down and are ready to listen!’
This may help with your own emotional regulation – and goodness knows we all need a moment to get a grip of our own mounting frustrations at times – but what are you really doing when you walk away?
You are abandoning your child.
You are forcing them to self-regulate precisely at the instant when they need your guidance most. You are effectively communicating to them that their emotions are undesirable, shameful, and unwelcome.
If your child was sobbing because of a grazed knee would you walk away? No. Emotional pain is no different from physical pain. It’s just harder to spot.
Dishing out Consequences
‘If you don’t do X, I’ll do Y and you’ll suffer Z!’
Consequences. As a form of discipline they can be incredibly effective. But the very nature of a consequence is that it works through fear.
Our children respond because they are afraid of losing a privilege, having a toy taken away, missing a favorite TV show, being put in Time Out …
When good behavior comes from a place of fear, that compliance is won at the price of trust. We are not guiding our children with consequences – we are bullying them into doing what we want.
I’ve been using all three of these supposedly ‘soft’ forms of discipline with my children. But looking at them with fresh eyes I can see how potentially damaging they are to our relationships.
I see the pleading for connection in my son’s eyes as I turn away from him, or leave him in a Time Out. I see the look of resignation on my daughter’s face when I serve up yet another consequence.
And I watch as they shift away from me emotionally. They are wary.
Why wouldn’t they be?
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve no truck with setting limits. It’s crucial for their healthy development that I do. And I know these limits will not always be popular.
But I now try to set them with empathy, connection and acceptance – I’ve zapped the whole punishment thing into touch and try to stay connected with my children in a non-judgemental way when they are dealing with tricky emotions.
Instead of Time Outs, Walking Away or Random Consequences, I’m choosing Time Ins or Calm Down Corners for my young son, and pre-established calm-down drills for my older daughter. These involve reading books, solving puzzles, writing a journal, listening to music etc. in her favored safe place.
I make a point of staying with them through the Time In, or to give a hug or shoulder squeeze to physically reconnect as we part ways into the Calm-Down routines. There is no right or wrong approach – the key is to be non-punitive and focus on staying connected while acknowledging that you each need time to get a hold of the emotions so you can handle things better when things are calmer.
In our house, since we have started using this alternate approach, the kids are more content in themselves – and the frequency of acting out has diminished.
What could be more magical than that?
3: Explain Why
Children thrive on sensible, compassionate limits. But we can sometimes become so focused on establishing them we forget what they are for:
Limits are there to guide, not constrain.
We need to think carefully about where we direct our energies. It remains up to us to establish limits, but if we can guide our children towards understanding why limits exist, we give them the tools to create their own.
The real magic comes when our children learn to recognize the boundaries of acceptability for themselves, and start to self-regulate.
I realize that I’ve been using the word ‘Don’t!’ a lot, especially when talking to my son. He is an insatiably inquisitive little chap who cannot resist touching, pressing, testing, pulling, bashing, opening and closing stuff. Learning to control his physical impulses is taking time.
My ‘Don’t!’ response is designed to keep him, and those around him, safe of course:
‘Don’t touch this frying pan while I’m dishing up, it’s hot!’
‘But I can touch THIS bit can’t I?‘
His finger lurched towards the metal connection between pan and handle and touched it before I had chance to stop him. He received a little burn on his finger. It hurt.
As we ran cold water over the little blister that was forming we talked. Instead of berating him for not listening I explained that this was the ‘Why?’ behind the ‘Don’t!’.
Next day we had a similar ‘Don’t!’ moment as I was ironing – he was curious about the hotplate. He was also desperate to push the button that squirts the water. But instead of lurching for it he asked for permission ‘So I don’t burn my finger this time Mommy’.
I smiled. And made a mental note to keep role modelling my limit-setting in all areas by expanding my ‘Don’t!’ to ‘Don’t, because …’
4: Peace is the New Default
There is a wonderful anonymous quote that makes me catch my breath whenever I read it:
Peace – it does not mean to be in a place where there is no noise, trouble or hard work. It means to be in the midst of those things and still be calm in your heart.
It’s wisdom speaks to me as a parent, and in the chaos of daily life I try to remember it. When the mayhem threatens to overwhelm me and I feel that Angry Mom start to surface, I strive to reject the inner turbulence and make peace my new default.
As I’ve practiced disciplining my children with peace, compassion and empathy, I have observed wholly positive side-effects that I wasn’t expecting and it’s all good:
- Each child seems lighter in themselves – they’ve always been fairly content, but the overall happy barometer in our home has ticked up a significant few notches. They are playing more independently. And humming and singing more too. Happy sounds are filling our home.
- My need to intervene in sibling spats has dropped off – they are re-modelling some of the calm and measured responses I’ve been using with them, on each other. Just the other day my son grabbed the TV remote from my daughter. Normally she’d have thumped him on the arm. Instead she got on his level, held his gaze and firmly stated why his action was wrong and could he please return the item to her. He looked slightly shocked. After a minute of holding onto it, just because he could, he gave it back. Peaceful resolution in action.
- There has been less physical acting out, especially from my son – on several occasions I have had to stop myself from losing my rag with him: one time he bit down hard onto my shoulder; on another occasion he kicked out and winded me in the gut. In the past, in shock and pain, I’d have probably shouted at him. Maybe even slammed a door or angrily thrown something down onto the floor to release my anger. But because I’ve been actively preparing for calm in such situations I was able both times to rein in and ‘hold’ my anger, expressing in words to him what I was feeling instead. It was tough, but worth every ounce of effort when today I saw him respond in a similar way when his sister did something to upset him.This final example more than any other inspires me to continue with a positive discipline approach. It doesn’t work all the time. But that’s okay. We are all still learning this new way of dealing with challenges in our family. It will take time. And that’s okay too.
5: Stop Doling Out Orders
Words have a hidden power that we often underestimate. When used in the right way with our children they can boost, empower and encourage. Used unwisely, and they can do untold damage to a child’s confidence, self-esteem and interest in the world.
The way in which we communicate with our children invites either co-operation or resistance. This was reflected beautifully to me by my daughter the other day:
Me: ‘Can you please tidy away your pens from the table?’
Ella: ‘In a minute’
Me: ‘No, now, dinner’s almost ready.’
Ella: ‘But I’m just finishing this!’
Me: ‘I don’t care, I just need them gone. Now.’
This exchange continued for several minutes while I simultaneously danced inelegantly around the kitchen juggling pans, draining pasta and avoiding toy cars strategically littered across the floor. I finally got frustrated and resorted to a consequence.
Cue a cleared table, one grumpy girl, and a frazzled Mom.
As we sat down to eat I asked my girl why she didn’t just do as I asked. She answered with a shrug:
‘I didn’t want to.’
I know I started out with a please and a request, but she simply wasn’t invested in the outcome I was after. In the fluster of the evening rush I had returned to my learned default and simply ordered her to comply.
Now, sometimes we all have to do things we don’t want, and it’s important our kids learn that. But the most effective way to achieve co-operation and stimulate desire is by using words that encourage, rather than direct. This works by creating choice, instead of demanding compliance.
Leading educational expert Alfie Kohn suggests that:
Children learn to make good choices by having the chance to choose, not by following directions.
This truth is just as valid in the home as it is in the classroom. And words are a very powerful means of achieving it. Consider these alternatives for how I could have reacted instead:
Me: Ella, are you ready to start tidying up or do you want a couple more minutes to wind up your game?
Ella: I want to play some more.
Me: Ok, start the timer for 2 minutes then, and when the timer rings you have to clean up immediately, ok?
Turning it into a game
Me: I bet you’re hungry after your busy day, I know I am. How about one last game before dinner? Do you think you can finish tidying up before I finish up fixing dinner? Do you want to say “Ready-Set-Go”?
Me: Hey sweetie, I need some help with setting the table. Here, let me help you with tidying up your toys and you can help me set the table while I get dinner served.
Me: Alright Ella, it’s 6:30pm. What’s the first step in our dinner routine?
These alternatives may still be met with a degree of resistance, but notice the difference – in the first approach I was laying out my agenda in an authoritarian way. In the alternatives I’m presenting a joint agenda based on reason and logic, and an opportunity for my girl to choose to actively participate rather than grudgingly comply.
Choose your words wisely, and watch them weave their magic before your very own eyes.
So there you have it – a little mnemonic that helps me stay grounded when I am stressed and tired.
With STEPS, I’ve waved my wand, I’ve seen the magic in action and I don’t ever want the sparkle to stop. With that in mind, here are my action plans for staying focused…
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
The need for discipline is an ongoing thing with kids so keep your STEPS at hand. And to go with it, here are 3 more spells to try out:
- The ‘Freeze’ Spell – when tensions mount and you know a discipline moment is approaching just Freeze. And take a few seconds to regulate your own emotions before you act. Try doing this in situations away from your children too, and hone your ability while your emotions are more level
- The ‘Out of Body’ Experience – remember that effective discipline is about perspective. Practice viewing any situation you are in from an outsider’s point of view. When your kids are acting out it will become second nature for you to shift your perspective to a place of compassion
- The ‘Two Wise Monkeys’ Trick – take a parental time out in any interaction with your children during the day and close your ears and mouth. Use your eyes to read the situation. Get used to interpreting body language, and learn to spot the things your child isn’t saying
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
The more you choose positive discipline and loving guidance over punishment the more natural it will become. But habits can be hard to break, so it’s important to top-up your compassion tank regularly:
- Make noticing and modelling respectful interactions part of your everyday life. If you are on the receiving end of a disrespectful communication from your child, or witness one together, take the opportunity to discuss it and remind yourself of what compassionate, respectful communications look like.
- Reflect on discipline moments you have had with your child and imagine how you could improve the way you responded. This technique is powerful because it trains your brain to seek alternative solutions – when the emotional barometer rises and your brain is in battle-mode you will have gentle guidance techniques to hand.
- Focus on your successes, not your near misses. We may operate with the best of compassionate intentions, but there are times when loving guidance evades us all and our responses become punitive once more. View these moments as an opportunity to reflect on how far you’ve come in changing your default response from one of punishment to positive discipline. Forgive yourself for this miss and give yourself a big pat on the back for all the successes along the way.