A Blueprint for Child Discipline in Stressful Times

Part 3: Using preventative maintenance when a child acts out.

Posted Feb 03, 2021

Olesia Bilkei/AdobeStock
Source: Olesia Bilkei/AdobeStock

In our last post, we emphasized how important it is to connect before setting your limit when addressing your child’s challenging behavior. In this post, we will discuss the final steps you should take to address your child’s acting out and to help prevent the behavior from repeating.

6. Address the needs behind repeated misbehavior.

If your child is teasing their sibling, you do need to set a limit in that moment: "Those are words that could hurt. Our family rule is be kind, and that means no teasing." You probably also want to coach the child being teased to stand up for himself: "You can tell your sibling: I don't like it when you call me a baby!"

But if you really want the behavior to stop, you'll need to address the source. Maybe your child is trying to get your attention, which means you need to step up your empathy and Special Time.  Maybe there's some long-standing sibling rivalry that you need to address. 

Or maybe your child is just bored or having a hard time with their own unhappy emotions, in which case your best bet is to scoop them up and say, "Hey, are you out of hugs again?! Let's see what we can do about that!"

7. Use daily preventive maintenance to keep your kid out of the breakdown lane.

Your "discipline" — or guidance — in the moment will be a lot more effective if you use preventive maintenance daily to stay connected and help your child with big emotions.

Your child may not be able to articulate it, but they're feeling some of the tension of this long-haul pandemic. How could they not be? Most kids are vocal about their disappointments (No playdates! No playoffs for their team!) but not about their scarier fears (What if mom or dad dies?).

So the best discipline strategy of all is prevention. Here are some best practices. 

  • Train yourself to respond to everything your child says or does with empathy, even if you then need to set a limit.
  • Roughhouse daily with lots of laughter to reduce the stress hormones circulating in the body and increase the bonding hormones.
  • Use routines, which help kids know what to expect so they feel safer and less anxious, and give you regular connection opportunities.
  • Welcome all emotions. Remember that behind anger you will usually find fear or sadness, so if your child is angry, resist taking the bait. Breathe deeply, stay calm, and invite your child to show you all that upset: "You must be so upset to speak to me like this... Tell me more, sweetheart...  I'm listening." The more safety you can create with your tone, the more likely it is that your child will move past the anger to the tears and fears beneath. (Does your child get stuck in anger, but can't cry?)
  • Before you sit down to work, be sure to "fill your child's cup" so they can do without you for a bit. If you're trying to get work done at home on a regular basis with your kids there, remember that kids don't feel safe when you're there but distracted — they need to know that you're there for them if they need you — and be sure to read this.
  • Make it a priority to spend one-on-one time with each child to strengthen your relationship with them and help them open up to you.
  • Talk to your child about their feelings — about remote school,  the pandemic, how much you're yelling lately — everything. Expressing fears, even unreasonable ones, to a caring witness (you!) has a way of making them more manageable. And when we allow ourselves to feel and acknowledge our big emotions, we start to gain conscious control over them, so their power begins to dissipate.
  • Teach kids to manage their worries with skills like stop, drop and breathe, focusing on what they can control rather than what they can't, and noticing how upsetting thoughts lead to upsetting feelings.
  • Keep reminding yourself that kids pick up on what we're feeling. If you're a nervous wreck, or fighting with your partner, your children will feel the stress. Take responsibility for the mood you're radiating to everyone around you. That means developing a repertoire of practices to manage your own stress.
  • Turn off the news. Research shows that it increases everyone's anxiety. You can listen to the news on earbuds or read the paper online. And you can have family discussions at the table. But there's no reason for kids to listen.
  • Start a family mindfulness practice, like listening to a guided meditation together every day or a gratitude practice at dinner every night.

This has been a hard year for kids as well as parents. That means that you can expect your child to act out anything they can't express in words. So this is the perfect opportunity to increase your child's resilience by connecting more. It also means that you'll need to take your parenting game up a notch if you want to be a good role model for your child about how to manage anger, work out conflict and exhibit grace under pressure.

That means that your most important discipline strategy is actually for yourself: Do whatever you need to do every single day to replenish yourself, so you can stay emotionally generous with your child, yourself, and everyone else. That's the kind of discipline that will help you get through tough times in a way that makes your whole family stronger: with love.