Re-Examining Discipline

4 Helpful Tips for Lasting Behavioral Changes in your Children

By: Kate Herrington, ASW

Many parents come into therapy seeking help with their child’s behavioral concerns. From big meltdowns to fights with siblings, these behaviors have parents wondering what the best way is to handle the situation and get their child to behave in a desired way. These four tips have been shown to help children not only develop skills to handle life more effectively, but also to deepen and nurture a parent’s relationship with their child.

1. Connect: When children are dysregulated we often ask too much of them or immediately put them in a time-out. Connecting with your child in an empathetic and loving way is the first step to supporting behavioral change in your child. Let them know you are on the same team and there to support them. When a child is dysregulated, their amygdala (emotional control system of the brain) is firing and producing big chemical changes in their bodies. It is unlikely your child will listen to your requests or have logical thoughts during that time. Instead, connect first. Get down to your child’s level and voice your observation of their feelings, acknowledging their upset and how hard things feel for them at that moment.

2. Shift Your Perspective: Understanding your child’s reasons for misbehavior is an important part in supporting them. A child may be avoiding their homework since they are struggling to keep up in class. Maybe they feel sad over the lack of special time with a parent and are acting out to get any form of attention. Believing that your child is reserving their bad behavior for you or being irresponsible leads to an adversarial perspective that causes more discord. Once the underlying function of your child’s behavior is better understood, it opens up a space of compassion, which in turn nurtures your relationship with your child.

3. Use Misbehaviors as a Teaching Moment: When children are dysregulated it is an opportunity to teach them something new- about themselves, problem solving and better ways to interact with others. Instead of yelling at your child or threatening a consequence, which causes fear and often further dysregulation, you can use the misbehavior as a teaching moment. Explore with your child other ways they could have responded to your request, or tools they could have used to cope with their frustration. These conversations are possible once your child has calmed down and is able to engage their higher brain again. Give them another opportunity to behave in the desired way or help them come up with an alternative way to cope with their feelings.

4. Model Regulated Behavior: Sometimes we ask and expect so much from our children and yet still slip up as adults with our own anger management, self-discipline, or ability to let go. As a parent, it is important to look at your own behaviors and take responsibility for areas that could use improvement. Learning to take a break to cool down can be invaluable and using loving and yet firm language rather than yelling when upset, can go much further and be more effective in the long run.

What we know about harsh discipline: Despite the fact that fear inducing discipline such as spanking and yelling can sometimes work in the short-term, we know from research that in the long-term these tactics are unhealthy for developing brains and can lead to issues with self-esteem, aggression, and relationships. Instead of using fear to stop an undesirable behavior, take a moment and decide to shift your approach. Help your child to develop the capacity to expand their set of skills that will over time become hardwired and continue to support them throughout their life.

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