Fixing Families

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Discipline: 5 Ways to Do It Right

Making change from the outside in

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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.

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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 (part one):

#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.

To be continued...

Bob Taibbi, L.C.S.W. has 40 years of clinical experience. He is author of 6 books and over 300 articles and provides training nationally and internationally.

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