The first post in this series described the challenges of parenting after intimate betrayal, i.e., when one parent betrays the other through violation of the implicit promise that gives us the courage to love:
No matter what happens, the person you love and trust will care about your well being and never intentionally hurt you.
Intimate betrayal can take the form of abuse, deceit, infidelity, covert misuse of communal resources, continual resentment, anger, criticism, stonewalling, and other isolating or hurtful behaviors. In all its forms, it has serious effects on children and on the parents’ confidence in parenting.
The storms of guilt, shame, anxiety, resentment, and anger that naturally occur after intimate betrayal make effective discipline of children especially difficult.
Like all human beings, children need discipline to function at their best. They actually want it. Those who receive little discipline tend to feel unloved and unprotected. Many adolescents from low-discipline homes lie to their peers, making up limits that they attribute to neglectful parents.
Compassionate parents set firm limits about important issues of safety, health, learning, education, money management, and morality. With everything else, they encourage cooperation. The key to cooperation for children (and adults) is showing value. The valued self cooperates; the devalued self resists. Always treat your children with the value and respect you want to receive from them, even when you don’t like their behavior. That’s if you want them to value and respect you when they don’t like your behavior.
Emotional discomfort caused by nervous energy and anxiety accounts for a great deal of misbehavior. Discipline that increases anxiety, such as yelling or shaming, will likely cause more emotional discomfort and produce more of the undesired behavior in the long run. Be sure that your intervention lowers anxiety and helps your children focus on the behavior you want. The more anxious they are, the less they are able to focus.
"The long run" is key. Discipline is never just about a specific behavior. It's a long-term project whose purpose is to establish general guides for behavior over time.
General Rules of Effective Discipline
• The regulation of behavior must be established in the child, not in you as policeman.
• Discipline does not mean punishment. It's a regimen of behavior that helps us do better. It should focus on how children can do better, not on what they did wrong.
• Be sure your children know the real reason you are disciplining them: Because you love them, you want them to do well and be well.
• Be mindful of your motivation. Discipline must be implemented with positive motivation to protect, nurture, encourage, influence, guide, and set limits.
• Keep the focus on the child's behavior, not on your emotional state. Never discipline in anger. (When you do, the child learns more about your moods than his/her behavior.)
• Help children understand that their behavior is a choice. They always have the power to choose more successful behavior. Ask questions that will help them think through the consequences of their behavior choices, especially the response their choices invoke in other people. Always ask what choices might have served them better.
• Help them think of ways in which their long-term best interests are served by cooperation.
• Solicit solutions and sanctions from them. ("What do you think will help you remember to do your chores tomorrow?" "What do you think is a fair sanction for your mistake that will help you to be truthful in the future?")
• Focus on what you want, not what you don't want. ("Put your feet on the floor," works better than "Don't put your feet on the sofa." Behavior follows attention.)
• Fit the discipline to the temperament of the child. Discipline that works well for an outgoing, high-energy child can be damaging to a sensitive, inward child.
• Never force a child to apologize.
This last point needs explanation - I can hear disgruntled parents gasping as they read.
When forced to apologize, children perceive apology as submission and humiliation rather than reconciliation. Adults who have trouble apologizing were usually forced to apologize as children.
The most important social skill for children to acquire is sensitivity to the effects of their behavior on other people. When focused on their humiliation for being forced to apologize, on top of shame for their mistake, they are less likely to understand and more likely to resent the offended child whose hurt has gotten them into trouble.
Here’s what to do instead of forcing the child to apologize. Have the offending child take a time out, until he/she can describe what the behavior was like for the hurt child and what they could have done differently to avoid the mistake. After a few iterations of this process, most children get the importance of sensitivity and will begin to apologize on their own. They will learn that apology is not punishment but an effort to reinstate relationship bonds. They will be more interested in maintaining relationship bonds if they do not associate them with shame and feelings of humiliation.
Try this exercise in taking your child’s perspective. Describe in as much detail as possible the perspective or point of view of your child in a recent dispute. (In describing it, do not edit it or comment on it, simply relate it the way he/she would.)
Was he/she experiencing a symptom or defense (anger, anxiety, obsessions, depression, manipulation, controlling behavior, etc.)?
Which was the deepest of the core hurt driving the child’s behavior? (e.g., feeling disregarded, devalued, rejected, powerless, inadequate, unlovable)
Did he or she feel understood?
How would the child describe you at that moment if he or she could (what did your behavior seem like to him or her)?
What solution to this problem would you suggest now, remembering that children need firm guidance with caring support?
While children are limited in their ability to think through the consequences of their behavior, they learn very well through modeling. If you model calm, firm, and caring perspective-taking, they will learn to do the same over time.