Your Blueprint for Discipline During Tough Times

Part 1: Connection is your secret weapon for challenging behavior.

Posted Feb 02, 2021

"Dr. Laura ... I never used to scream at my kids. But now with three children still at home doing remote schooling at least part of the time since they have hybrid schedules, while I'm trying to work and get them to do their schoolwork, how do I get them to listen? I feel like I've lost so much ground during this pandemic and I'm just worn out. I spend my day threatening them with loss of screen time, early bedtime, and anything else I can think of, until I'm forced to start shouting."

 IdeaBug, Inc./Adobe Stock
Source: IdeaBug, Inc./Adobe Stock

If your children are difficult, demanding, defiant, and screen-addicted right now—regressed and bored—you're not alone. This has been a hard year for everyone, and kids who are not yet back to school full-time are likely to be having a hard time, and therefore driving you crazy.

Many schools and teachers have been heroic about trying to engage kids in remote learning, but focusing on Zoom all day is hard for anyone, and it's certainly not an age-appropriate way for kids to learn. Most kids are just plain tired of remote learning.

And if you're trying to work at home while keeping your child focused on school? It's easy to find yourself shouting—sorry, repeating—instructions over and over, ending up with reprimands and threats.

But if you don't address the source of your child's challenging behavior, it doesn't go away. You spend your day in escalating drama, only to explode eventually.

And if you have a teen, you already know that they're under even more pressure than younger kids because of the social isolation and schoolwork demands, and many are struggling with depression and anxiety. You may be fed up with their behavior, but yelling just makes things worse.

There's a better way. And no, it doesn't require your child to be back at school in person. You can start this now, and you'll see immediate results that will last long after regular school schedules resume.

Here's your secret weapon: Connection.

Connection may seem tame, but it's the most powerful tool you have. And it's the only way you have any influence with your child (or anyone else). 

What does that look like in practice? Start by seeing the situation from your child's perspective. Wouldn't it be wonderful if your child could tell you how things feel to them right now?

"Hey, Mom, Dad? I know this is a bad time for everyone, but I'm just a kid. You yell a lot more than you used to. I hate school online; I really can't stand another day of it. You make me do schoolwork but you don't explain it very well and you're so impatient; I end up feeling like I must be dumb. You're driving me crazy, and my sister and brother are driving me crazy, too. I can't stand feeling so cooped up. I can't get a break. I hate that I can't see my friends. Some of the kids are pretty mean online. It's not fair that there aren't any games or birthday parties or sleepovers anymore. The only thing that's fun is getting to the next level of my game and you're always making me turn it off! Nobody seems to care what I want or how I feel. And people are still dying. I worry all the time. What if Grandma gets sick? What if she dies? What if you die?"

You may be thinking, what's wonderful for a parent about hearing all that?

But when children can't articulate something, they "act it out." And since your child can't explain all these big feelings to you, those feelings are driving your child to act badly. So they:

  • Push their sibling out of your lap.
  • Fall apart when you ask them to start their schoolwork.
  • Purposely interrupt your work call when you told them not to.
  • Scream at you when you tell them it's time to turn off the screen.
  • Tease their siblings to the point of tears, just because they're bored.
  • Sneak off to play Minecraft with their friends.

Then, when you reprimand them, they yell "I hate you, I want a new Mommy (or Daddy)!"

How should you respond?

Should you ignore the infraction since you know your child is having a hard time right now, given all the disappointments and tensions of the moment? No, not unless you want your child's misbehavior to escalate. Your child is trying to tell you something, and their "misbehavior" will get louder if they don't feel heard. Understanding why your child is acting out doesn't mean that you don't set limits.

Should you crack down, so your child understands that your limits still hold? Well, you definitely want your child to listen to your limits. But your child is "acting out" big emotions they can't express. They need your help to manage those emotions if you want them to follow your limits. So cracking down on the behavior with threats and punishment won't keep the behavior from happening; it will only increase the drama.

Our next two posts will describe the seven-step blueprint for responding to challenging behavior during these tough times.