Discipline is hard for parents and kids alike. Tempers can flare on both sides. Angry kids are challenging to deal with, but angry parents can actually cause trauma in their children. Indeed, much accidental psychological damage is done during disciplinary episodes. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Let’s look at what causes anger during discipline and see what we can do to prevent it.
Discipline is Education
Offering children guidance and a good parental model is very important. For instance, telling children that they need to refrain from talking with their mouth full of food and also showing them through the parental model that this is how people conduct themselves is the best way to begin to the education process. However, this “one-two punch” is not always completely sufficient to get the point across. For instance, you may be a very responsible person who always comes home on time or at least calls to say when you’ll be late. The fact that you behave this way AND that you’ve explained to your 16 year old daughter how important it is to conduct oneself this way, does not guarantee that your daughter will conduct herself that way. You may have to do more to get the lesson across in a way that affects her behavior. Sometimes “more” involves giving positive attention or even positive rewards for appropriate behavior in order to reinforce that behavior. However, sometimes “more” involves giving negative consequences in order to discourage unacceptable or inappropriate behavior. Negative consequences are TOOLS in a system of discipline.
Discipline is related to the word “disciple” – student. When the parent offers discipline to the child, it is a form of education. As such, it has nothing to do with emotions like anger or behaviors like yelling. A good disciplinarian is simply a good teacher.
The Teaching Moment
Since discipline is nothing more than teaching, it is important to choose an appropriate time and place for any lesson that you wish to impart. This is called “the teaching moment.” A teaching moment is usually fairly private (never in front of guests). It is a moment in which the child is calm. It is also a moment in which the parent is calm. If these conditions are not met, the parent should wait before attempting to discipline. A parent has about 20 years to raise a child – there is no “emergency” (unless the child is standing in traffic). In general, wait until you are both calm and you have an appropriate location in which you can speak. If either of you is upset, just wait longer. It is fine to wait hours, days, or sometimes even longer (the older the child the longer it’s possible to wait).
Most of what goes wrong during discipline happens because the parent did not choose a “teaching moment.” Instead, the parent felt upset and punished the child while still angry. This causes the parent to use emotion instead of appropriate negative consequences, to try to teach the lesson. Since the parent is upset, his or her ability to choose an appropriate negative consequence is severely compromised. Angry feels can seriously interfere with the thinking process. In anger, the parent might choose a negative consequence that is too harsh, too long or otherwise too unreasonable. Moreover, the chances of the parent being able to explain what he or she wants and doesn’t want from the child are fairly slim, due to the parent’s intense upset. Instead of communicating in such a way that the child would be able to hear or want to hear, the parent is likely to communicate in a way that infuriates the child or shuts him down. The parent may use escalatory language and say hurtful things. This, of course, makes the child very upset and he may then lash out in kind or more so. When the parent “loses it” the child is much more inclined to lose it as well. Now we have a shouting match instead of “discipline.”
Arguments and Conflict
A cycle occurs: the child’s upset triggers parental upset that triggers more upset in the child and so on. As the child gets more and more out of control, he is likely to show less and less respect to the parent. The child’s rudeness causes the parent to become more and more offended, insulted, enraged and punitive, which causes the child to feel more offended, insulted, enraged and vengeful.
The one to break the cycle of anger and conflict during discipline is the PARENT. No matter how rude, wild or out-of-control the child is, the parent must stay calm, collected and adult throughout any communication. The parent can use the Two Times Rule – 2X Rule – to carry out discipline (see the full explanation of the 2X Rule in Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice, by Sarah Chana Radcliffe). The parent says something once, says it again with a warning of a consequence, and then gives the consequence if necessary. The parent stays calm and quiet throughout. The consequence has been chosen earlier, when the parent was thinking about the child’s behavioral lapses. If the child argues, a similar structure of communication is used to stop it: the parent follows the “I-Do-Not-Argue-With-You” rule (also described in full in Raising Your Kids without Raising Your Voice).
When children see that their parents can actually stay perfectly calm, respectful, caring and reasonable during moments of intense stress, they will use the model as one of the valuable tools they’ll have for learning how it is done. Moreover, parents can use discipline itself to help teach children that it is fine to feel anger, but it is not fine to just express it without regard to people’s feelings. The Relationship Rule is a step-by-step process for teaching children how to express themselves politely, even when feeling upset. The consistent parental model is very, very important in making the lessons stick!
If children or parents get so out of control during episodes of discipline that they have trouble calming themselves down, professional help can be enlisted to help restore a sense of control and inner discipline. Mental health professionals can offer strategies and interventions that can directly target upset and angry feelings, helping parent and/or child to feel calmer and happier in general, as well as during moments of discipline!