How To Change Your Child's Behavior—Without Punishment
How will my child learn how to behave without punishment?
Posted Apr 29, 2014
“Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make children do better, first we have to make them feel worse? Think of the last time you felt humiliated or treated unfairly. Did you feel like cooperating or doing better?” –Jane Nelsen
Parents are often surprised to hear that most of what we think of as discipline—spankings, consequences, even timeouts—doesn't help kids become responsible, self-disciplined people. After all, parents punish so kids will learn to behave, right?
But children learn what they live. The most effective way to teach kids is our modeling, and to treat them the way we want them to treat others: with compassion and understanding. When we spank, punish, or yell, kids learn to act aggressively.
Even timeouts—symbolic abandonment—give children the message that they’re alone with their big scary feelings just when they need us most. Instead, I'm a big fan of Time-Ins, during which we create safety and connect warmly, to help the child process the feelings that were causing him to act out.
That doesn’t mean we renege on our responsibility to guide our children by setting limits. No running into the street, no hitting the baby, no peeing on the carpet, no picking the neighbor’s tulips, no hurting the dog. But we don't need to punish to set or hold such limits.
Are you wondering how your child will learn not to do these things next time, if you don’t “discipline” him when he does them? Then you’re assuming that we need to punish children to "teach a lesson."
In fact, research shows that punishing kids creates more misbehavior. That's not really surprising. If your boss criticizes, yells, humiliates, or docks your pay, does that make you want to follow his lead?
Being punished erodes the parent-child relationship so kids don't want to follow our lead. It makes the child angry and defensive. It floods them with adrenalin and the other fight, flight or freeze hormones, and turns off the reasoning, cooperative parts of the brain. Kids quickly forget the “bad” behavior that led to their being punished; they just go on the defensive. If they learn anything, it’s to lie so they can avoid getting caught. Punishment disconnects us from our kids so we have less influence with them. Quite simply, punishment teaches all the wrong lessons.
If, instead, we can stay kind and connected while we set limits, we create less drama and more love. Our children are more likely to accept our limits and take responsibility. Because they see us, their parents, model emotional self-regulation, they learn to manage their own emotions—and therefore their behavior.
So how can we guide children without punishment?
1. Regulate your own emotions.
That’s how children learn to manage theirs. You’re the role model. Don’t act when you’re upset. Take a deep breath and wait until you’re calm before you address the situation. Resist the impulse to be punitive; it always backfires.
2. Empathize with feelings.
When your child is hijacked by adrenaline and other fight or flight hormones, he can't learn. Instead of lecturing, pre-empt the bad behavior with a "Time-In" where you stay with him and acknowledge his feelings. This is not a punishment, but an opportunity to reconnect so he can get emotionally regulated. If he moves into a meltdown, don't try to reason with him. Just create safety with your compassion so he can express and work through the emotions that are driving his bad behavior. Afterward, he'll feel so much better, and so much closer to you, that he'll be open to your guidance.
3. Give support so they can learn.
Consider the example of potty learning. You're very involved at first. She gradually takes more of the responsibility, and eventually, she’s doing it all by herself. The same principle holds for learning to say Thank You, taking turns, remembering her belongings, feeding her pet, doing homework, and most everything else you can think of. Routines provide the “scaffolding” for your child to learn basic skills, just as scaffolding provides structure for a building to take shape. You might be mad that she forgot her jacket again, but yelling won't help her remember. "Scaffolding" will.
4. Connect before you correct
Connect before you correct, and stay connected, even while you guide, to awaken your child’s desire to be his best self. Remember that children misbehave when they feel bad about themselves and disconnected from us.
- Make loving eye contact: "You are so upset right now."
- Put your hand on her shoulder: "You're scared to tell me about the cookie."
- Stoop down to her level and look her in the eye: "I see how mad you are. I'm listening. Tell me in words."
- Pick her up: "Nothing's going right for you today, is it?"
5. Set limits—but set them with empathy.
Of course you need to insist on some rules. But you can also acknowledge her perspective. When kids feel understood, they're more able to accept our limits. If possible, give a choice or a redirection about what the child CAN do to meet her needs or solve her problem.
- "You wanted your sister to move, so you pushed her. No pushing; pushing hurts. Tell her: 'Move please!'"
- "No biting! You’re very very mad and hurt! Tell your brother—in words."
- "You wish you could play longer. It's hard to stop playing and get ready for bed. Let's go."
- "No throwing the ball in the house. You can take the ball outside, or you can throw stuffed animals inside."
6. Teach kids to repair.
Begin with the early lesson that we all clean up our own messes, by matter-of-factly grabbing paper towels and helping your child clean up his spilled milk, with no blame and no shame. As he gets a bit older, suggest that once he calms down, he can find a way to make up with his sister after a fight: Would she like a hug? A drawing? To play a game? Resist shaming, and model repair and apologizing. You'll find him following in your footsteps.
7. Remember that all “misbehavior” is an expression, however misguided, of a legitimate need.
He has a reason, even if you don't think it's a good one. His behavior is terrible? He must feel terrible inside. Does he need more sleep, more connection with you, more downtime, more chance to cry and release those upsetting emotions we all store up? Address the underlying need and you eliminate the misbehavior.
8. Say yes.
Kids will do almost anything we request if we make the request with a loving heart. Find a way to say yes instead of no even while you set your limit.
"Yes, it's time to clean up, and yes I will help you and yes we can leave your tower up and yes you can growl about it and yes if we hurry we can read an extra story and yes we can make this fun and yes I adore you and yes, how did I get so lucky to be your parent? YES!"
Your child will respond with the generosity of spirit that matches yours.
9. Re-connect, every day.
Remember that every interaction is an opportunity for either connection—or disconnection. And once a day, turn off the phone, close the computer, and tell your child
"Ok, I'm all yours for the next 20 minutes. What should we do?"
Follow her lead. The world is full of humiliation for kids, so for these 20 minutes just be an incompetent bumbler and let her win. Giggling releases pent-up fears and anxiety, so make sure to play, giggle, be silly. Have a pillow fight. Wrestle. Snuggle. Let her tell you what's on her mind, let her rant or cry. Just accept all those feelings. Be 100% present. Feeling delight in your child may be the most important factor in his development. And his cooperation.
10. Remember that connection and compassion are the secrets that help children want to follow your lead.
We only have influence with our child when he feels connected to us. He only feels connected when he feels understood, when we respond with compassion and acceptance instead of judgment.
But compassion isn't only for your child. Start with yourself. You can’t be a loving parent if you’re feeling bad about yourself, any more than your child can act “right” if she feels bad about herself.
When all else fails, give yourself a big hug. Then give your child a big hug. Connection and compassion will transform any relationship.
Don't believe it? Try prioritizing connection and compassion this week and see what kind of miracle you can make.
Note: A study done by the National Institute of Mental Health[i] concluded that timeouts are effective in getting toddlers to cooperate, but only temporarily. The children misbehaved more than children who were not disciplined with timeout, even when their mothers took the time to talk with them afterward. Michael Chapman and Carolyn Zahn-Wexler, the authors of the study, concluded that the children were reacting to the perceived “love withdrawal” by misbehaving more. That’s in keeping with the studies on love withdrawal as a punishment technique, which show that kids subjected to it tend to exhibit more misbehavior, worse emotional health, and less developed morality [ii]. These results aren’t surprising, given how much children need to feel connected to us to feel safe, and how likely they are to act out when they don’t feel safe.
For more information, I recommend the index of Alfie Kohn's wonderful book Unconditional Parenting, which lists hundreds of peer-reviewed studies with similar findings.
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