The director of my children’s nursery school was a warm and nurturing woman named Andy. I had no problem at all leaving my daughter and twin sons in her care while I was at work. I remember what Andy said to me one day, when I was feeling overwhelmed by having three children under the age of 3: “love not only means nurturing; it also means discipline.” After more than twenty years as a child therapist and parent, I know how important her words were.
Calm, consistent discipline is as much an ingredient of having happy children as nurturing. So many problems I see in my consulting room are the result of parents who have no trouble nurturing their kids. However, for one reason or another, these parents do not enforce consistent rules and consequences. With teenagers, oftentimes parents want to be their kid’s friend rather than an authority figure. This approach works no more for adolescents than it does for younger children. The boundaries created by rules and structure help make kids feel safe, at age 15 as much as at age 2.
Another problem that results when a parent is too soft-hearted to discipline is that the parent’s feelings of frustration builds up. The parent can then end up yelling at the child or even spanking him, and nothing makes a child feel worse than being yelled at or being spanked.
Here are seven suggestions for healthy discipline. Along with love and nurturing, they are essential ingredients to a child’s happiness.
1. Parents should be on the same page about the rules for their child. Most couples, when they get married, do not discuss their views on disciplining children. So they cannot be blamed when they find that they have different parenting styles, with one of them fairly strict and the other more soft-hearted and lenient. Whatever it takes, and sometimes it takes family therapy or marriage counseling, parents need to come to agreement about discipline and all matters concerning their child and back each other up. Having parents who are not on the same page about discipline is a major cause of childhood and adolescent behavior problems.
2. Parents need to sit down together and have a conversation about what the rules are concerning their children's bedtime, curfew, food, homework, etc. When they come to agreement, they should clearly and calmly explain what they have decided to their child. Parents need to back each other up on enforcing consequences, and not allow their child to “comparison shop” between parents to see where he will get the better deal.
3. Discipline calmly without raising your voice. Giving children a “count of three” to do what you are asking is a good way to avoid problems. The child will probably test the “count of three”. (Our kids would push us to 2 ½, 2 5/8, and so forth). But if parents are consistent, and give the child a time out or other consequence after the count of 3, the child will learn that his parents mean business.
4. Offer age-appropriate rewards for outstanding behavior, for example, when your child cleans up her toys or does her chores without being reminded.
5. Sometimes rules have exceptions. Curfew might be at 10:00 on weekends, but when it’s your child’s best friend’s birthday party, you might extend the curfew. Be sure to explain to your child that this is an exception and not the general rule.
6. Use “helping chores” as consequences when your child misbehaves. These are age appropriate chores that contribute to the household. Children and especially teenagers expect to be punished when they break the rules. (Although of course teens would never admit this). Don’t disappoint them. They will actually feel better when they know they are helping their mother with her household chores.
7. Don’t threaten anything you can’t enforce. When a parent makes threats out of anger such as “You are grounded for the rest of the summer,” this is unrealistic. When parents calm down and think about what consequence they can realistically enforce (e.g. “You are grounded this weekend”), discipline will be more consistent.
I cannot count the number of kind, soft-hearted parents who struggle with discipline and finally end up telling me: “You know, my daughter [or son] feels so much better since I finally cracked down and enforced the rules. Deep inside, kids know that their parents should be in charge of them, and not the other way round.
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