Discipline: Difficult and Do-Able
Have you ever found yourself really struggling with disciplining your children? Do you find that you just aren’t as effective as you would like to be and that your attempts to discipline quickly spiral out of control with everyone getting angry at each other?
If so, you are not alone. Disciplining children is probably one of the least enjoyable aspects of parenting. Most likely you did not sign on for this part of the parenting experience when you had your children.
Yet, since disciplining is a vital and necessary part of parenting, it is important that you be as effective as you can be in your efforts. How can you avoid feeling frustrated, angry, and unhappy throughout the process?
The Three C’s of parenting can guide your responses and help lay the foundation for any specific discipline strategies you employ in your home.
- Remain Calm and behave in a calm and neutral manner.
- Get and be Clear about why you are disciplining and what you are communicating to your children.
- Be Confident that you have the right and responsibility to provide discipline.
As you approach disciplining in a calm, clear, and confident manner, you are in a better position to demand appropriate behavior, delegate tasks, and deny unreasonable requests in ways that are fair based on the unique needs of your child, flexible based on the situation, and yet, still firm. Such an approach leaves everyone’s dignity intact and preserves the parent-child relationship.
- Have you ever found yourself really losing it on your children while trying to get them to do things around the house?
- Do you find your temperature rising the minute your kids start to fight or protest about your requests?
If you answered “yes” to either of these questions, then you and your family will benefit from learning how to stay calm, even in the throes of disciplining. It enables you to set limits with your children in healthy and more productive ways.
You will be more effective in getting your point across to your kids if you are not losing your temper and yelling and screaming at them. Learning to stay calm helps you to discipline with a clear head. While difficult to do, it is one of the most important skills that you can learn.
Keep in mind, however, that it is not possible to maintain your composure all the time. In fact, anger is a normal human emotion that everyone experiences. However, venting your anger on your kids is not an effective way to discipline them, and intense anger can frighten children.
Being calm is both a skill you can learn and an attitude you consciously choose to adopt. Even faking calm is more effective than disciplining while angry.
Benefits of Staying Calm
- Staying calm allows you to maintain control over your reactions and responses. You are less likely to say and do things you would later regret if you stay calm.
- It helps you to stay focused on the issue at hand. Disciplining is not about being angry or raising your voice; it is about teaching and guiding your children.
- Calm invites calm. When you are calm, your children are more likely to be calm, thus avoiding escalating cycles of anger.
How can you learn to be calm when you are feeling so frustrated with your children? The following list of tips will help you to express your anger in ways that do not hurt your relationship with your youngsters.
- Be reasonably soft spoken. Children sometimes listen more closely when you lower your voice; often whispering can have a powerful impact.
- Speak slowly and clearly.
- Use a firm voice.
- Describe specific expectations and behaviors. “I expect you to hang up your coat when you come in the house.”
- Use appropriate eye contact. With young children, get down on their level.
- Become aware of your tone of voice and your body language. Pay attention to the words you use.
- Be unwilling to get into a debate or battle. Your kids can usually out-argue you. To help you stay calm, you can:
- Use shoulder shrugs and phrases like “That may be” and “I understand that….”
- Use a “broken record” technique, where you repeat the rule or request, such as “The rule is ‘You have to finish homework before playing.’”
- Refuse to be rushed. If your kids need an answer now, your answer will be “no;” if you have time to think about it, they may get a “yes.” Allow yourself time to get more information and to think about your response.
- Give reasons freely but not when emotions are high. When everyone is calm, you can give brief, respectful reasons for your decision or demand.
By remaining calm, you will find that you feel better about being a disciplinarian in your home. By reducing the intensity of your response, the focus will remain on what children have or have not done – not on your reaction – and as a result, you can help your children to become more responsible.
Clear is made up of two parts:
- Getting clear about what is important to you when it comes to raising your children.
- Being clear so that your children understand what you expect of them.
It is not always as easy as it seems to get and be clear.
The following comments may sound familiar to you:
“Mom, why can’t I go to the mall with my friends?”
“You said to get ready for bed. I didn’t know that you wanted me to brush my teeth.”
“Can I just finish playing this game?”
On the surface, these comments may appear to be simple requests or statements. But as parents know, the real issues often lurk beneath the surface. Even straightforward requests can send you into a tailspin.
Let’s take a peak at what the parents who shared the above comments may have been thinking:
“Mom, why can’t I go to the mall with my friends?”
PARENT IS THINKING: Well, I don’t know. Who are you going with? What age is appropriate for children to go to the mall by themselves? Is my answer the same whether it is daytime or nighttime? Whose money will you spend? How do I feel about children going shopping as a leisure activity? Wait, don’t you have any homework and what about finishing your chores?
Or how about:
“Can I just finish playing this game?”
PARENT IS THINKING: Sure, I guess so. Tomorrow is not a school day. But wait, tomorrow you have soccer and then a friend’s birthday party and then we have a family dinner to attend. It’s going to be a pretty full day. You woke up late today and we had a miserable morning. Soccer doesn’t start until 11. Do I even know how long the game is that you are playing?
Or what about:
“You said to get ready for bed; I didn’t know that you wanted me to brush my teeth.”
PARENT IS THINKING: Oh my goodness, do I have to spell out everything? Haven’t we followed the same routine for the past eight years?! Won’t you ever learn? Other parents don’t seem to have these problems. What am I doing wrong?
No wonder parents are exhausted.
This skill requires you to examine why you are setting limits on your children’s behavior in the first place. It involves knowing what you value and what your long-term goals are for your children.
Sometimes you are very sure about the things that are important to you. For example, you may value respect and are very clear that your children may not hit you or curse at you.
But sometimes the lines are a bit blurry. Can your child yell at you? Call you names? What about slamming a door? Stamping his feet? What about leaving the room and not talking to you? Does your answer change if your child is two? What about if he is twelve?
The response to each of these questions will not be the same for everyone. There is no one universal truth and you need to determine what is acceptable to you.
Additionally, even if you are very clear about what you value, sometimes these things can clash. Consider the following story:
A middle-school aged child asks to participate in a school fundraiser. On one hand, the mother is thrilled because she places a high value on charitable activities. On the other hand, she also values family time and wants the family to have a quiet evening at home together. It can be difficult to weigh these contrasting thoughts. To complicate the matter further, the father may have his own set of values that he supports, such as wanting the daughter to put more time into her schoolwork.
First, give yourself time.
You can feel pressured to give an immediate answer to a request. This expectation may seem reasonable if you are looking at it on the surface as a straightforward question. “Can I have it?” The answer appears to be a simple “Yes” or “No.”
Yet as we have just examined, the values that you may be debating can be far more complex. You can allow yourself time to weigh properly all of the issues so that you can come to a conclusion that leaves you feeling good.
Next, identify the underlying values that are being questioned.
See if you can articulate what values you are struggling with. By getting clear, you can avoid unproductive arguments.
Let’s return to the first example of the child wanting to go shopping. The parent and child may spend a lot of time disagreeing about what is an appropriate age for children to go to the mall un-chaperoned, when the real issue for this parent may be valuing the completion of work before play. The parent wants the child to help with chores around the house. Had these tasks been completed before the child requested the social plans, this parent may have consented.
Figuring out your values can take time. Until you find yourself grappling with the same issue repeatedly, you may not know why you are having trouble saying “yes” to your children or why after saying “yes” you feel resentful – even though you agreed to the request.
As a pattern appears, you can determine when consenting to a request helps instill your values and when your acquiescing is in conflict with them.
Discuss your values with others who share parenting with you.
For example, one parent may value a child’s receiving a “good” report card. Another may value a child’s love of learning. At times, these two goals are in sync. At times, they are at odds. By having an open discussion about the underlying issue, you can compromise. Perhaps you agree that loving to learn is more important and that it is okay for a child to get off track reading interesting material that is not pertinent to the test, as long as the child achieves a certain minimum grade.
It can take time to get clear about what you most highly value, and it is worth the effort. Usually it is the things that you are not clear about that cause you to be wishy-washy when it comes to disciplining. The more clear you are about something, the clearer you can be with your children and the more confident you can be as a parent. This leads us to the second part of clear which is “being clear.”
< to read more about values, click here.
Even once you take the time to become clear, you need to be sure that you are using clear communication skills with your children as you set limits or state your requests, positions, and values.
Sometimes children just don’t know what you want. They are still learning and although it seems that your children “should” know what you expect, it may not be apparent to your children.
Guidelines to Follow
- Describe specifically what behaviors and tasks you are requesting.
The more specific you are, the easier it will be for your kids to understand and comply. Depending on their age, they may not know exactly what you want done.
For example, when you tell your child to “clean up his room,” you need to specify that “cleaning up your room” means: pulling up the covers; putting dirty clothes in the hamper; putting books on the shelves; and so on. As children get older, you will be able to remind them with a broad: “Clean up your room.”
- Let your children know when it needs to happen.
Sometimes parents make an open-ended statement, such as “Take out the trash.” You may not expect immediate compliance, but when an hour passes, you may feel your anger rising. Confronting your children may bring innocent replies of “I was just about to do it.”
More effective is to make a request with a time component attached: “Take out the trash before dinner.” Then you can both agree whether or not the action has been completed in a timely fashion.
- Make sure your children know what qualifies as having completed a task.
Sometimes parents get frustrated because they feel that their children have given a job short shrift. Yes, they may have completed the task, but they have not done a quality job.
Before you jump all over your kids, step back and make sure you have clearly stated your expectations. Do they know what an acceptable job is?
For example, if they put away their laundry, do they need to neatly stack the clothes in their drawer or is just having the clothes out of sight okay with you? When you clearly state your expectations, then you will both know if a job has been completed satisfactorily.
- Use direct phrases such as “I need you to…,” or “I expect….,” or “The rule is…”
Avoid using confusing communication patterns.
- Do not ask a question unless you want an answer.
If you want your child to stop watching TV because it is time to take a shower, do not ask, “Do you want to take shower now?” unless there really is a choice. Parents find themselves asking in hopes of gaining agreement from their children and avoiding being the “mean” guy.
Another way that parents undermine themselves is by adding an “okay?” to an otherwise straightforward request: “Time to leave, okay?” Unless you are willing to stay longer, you are setting yourself up for a power struggle.
- Avoid using sarcasm.
Children have difficulty evaluating sarcasm, and it can leave them feeling unsure of both your meaning and what they need to do.
Take the child who is happily mixing all of the food on his plate into a large pile. Perhaps the parent responds with a sarcastic, “Oh, it certainly is a pleasure eating dinner with you.” The child is left to decide if the parent really is pleased with him – maybe a highly creative parent would be – or if the parent is asking him to stop.
Rather than leaving the child to interpret your meaning, it is more effective to say, “Please stop mixing your food and eat your dinner.”
- Avoid rhetorical questions. Like the “Okay?” at the end of the request, rhetorical questions invite an answer when there really isn’t a choice.
For example, there is no appropriate response to the question: “Are you trying to drive me crazy?” Such statements foster indirect communication and are often used to blame, shame, or intimidate a child. It is far better to say, “Stop yelling. Use indoor voices.”
As you learn the skills of getting and being clear, you may notice yourself questioning your values and stopping to listen to your words. At first, this process may feel time-consuming and artificial.
With time, however, you will incorporate these skills into your everyday parenting and find that parenting becomes easier and more effective. Moreover, you will discover that your relationship with your children becomes closer as you both are clear about what is important and what needs to occur.
The third and final “C” involves learning to be Confident about your right to be the executive in your home. You don’t have to be mean when you discipline your children.
The most important thing is to be reassured of your need to be in-charge, especially when you are helping your children to become more responsible, respectful, and capable individuals. You have to believe that being assertive and setting limits is important for your children and a necessary part of parenting.
As a confident parent, you
- take into account your needs as well as your children’s, and you work hard to balance these often conflicting requirements.
- You believe that your children have the capacity to cooperate.
- You are certain that your children will mature over time.
- You set limits in ways that are respectful and kind, yet firm.
With these attitudes, you will not dread or feel guilty about disciplining your children. Disciplining feels less like a burden.
Benefits of Being a Confident Parent
Feel Good About the Limits You Set
With the assurance that you are helping your children to mature and develop important character traits, disciplining won’t feel so distasteful and you can even feel good about the limits you set. This stance will help you to take a more relaxed and unemotional approach and avoid confusion, power struggles, or the possibility of getting sidetracked by other issues.
For example, if you are convinced that you have a right and a responsibility to set a bedtime for your children and that it is in their interests that you do so, you are less likely to be swayed by their nightly protests.
Become Assertive in Other Areas of Your Life
If you are a person who finds being assertive in other areas of your life difficult, there is also an interesting side benefit to becoming confident about disciplining your children. You can actually use that experience to increase your comfort level with being assertive in all areas of your life. As you do that, you provide a model for your children, thus increasing their confidence and self-esteem.
Raise Responsible, Trustworthy Children
Your children also benefit directly by having parents who are willing to take a stand. By having standards that you hold your children to, by stating expectations clearly, and by holding your children accountable for their behavior, you will help them to gain character traits such as maturity, responsibility, trustworthiness, and honesty.
For example, if you establish a definite time that you want your children to be home when they visit friends, then as a confident parent, you would confront them if they are late and perhaps impose a consequence. In this way, your children will learn to respect their commitments in the future by coming home on time.
When you don’t give in to their every wish, you are teaching your children to delay gratification, consider the needs of others, learn your values, and tolerate a bit of frustration.
For example, if you refuse to buy the “in” game because you want your child to save his money to make the purchase, he will learn to work towards a goal and appreciate the value of money and the things he has.
Attitudes of the Confident Parent
Adopting certain beliefs and attitudes about the job of parenting will increase your confidence level. An “in-charge” parent knows the following:
- It is your right and responsibility to act as the executive in your home.
- You do not have to be mean and uncaring to be assertive and confident.
- You can promote your children’s self-esteem and maintain a healthy relationship with them, while you are being firm and assertive.
- You have confidence in your judgment as the adult, knowing you have wisdom based on life experience and knowledge of the needs of your children.
- You are a benevolent dictator when children are young and immature. Gradually, as your children grow and their judgment improves, you can slowly hand over decision making, responsibilities, freedoms, and privileges to them.
- It is alright for your children to momentarily feel angry, rebellious, or upset with you. They can still obey and behave appropriately even if they don’t like your rules and decisions.
- You can be flexible, change your mind, and compromise from a position of strength – the decision to do so is yours, not based on the persistent pleading of your children.
- Your job is not to always make your children happy.
When your relationship with your children is trusting, loving, and supportive, children will feel protected by the structure of discipline, even if they don’t acknowledge it to you.
Having this kind of positive relationship is the key to healthy discipline and is what will make it more likely that your children will follow your guidance and accept your rules.
Specific Techniques of a Confident Parent
As a confident parent, you are willing to:
- Deny your children’s requests when they are unreasonable. For example, you may refuse to buy expensive, designer jeans because spending that much money on clothing for a growing child is in conflict with your values.
- Demand that your children act in responsible ways to meet reasonable expectations. You may insist that your children treat everyone in your home with respect. They can express their feelings, but they may not call names or curse. You may require that they stop teasing the family pet while you show them how to play gently with Fido.
- Delegate certain tasks to your children that are appropriate for their age and development and that help them to gain a sense of responsibility. You may assign age-appropriate chores to your children, and you follow-up to make sure they are completed in a satisfactory and timely fashion.
Being confident in your disciplining does not come naturally for many parents. It may take some “self-talk” and conscious effort to overcome any concerns you may have about saying “no” to your children’s requests.
By realizing that this is part of the parenting job, you can become more confident. As you hold your children accountable, they will learn that you are there to protect and to guide them, even if they are temporarily unhappy with the decisions you make and the limits you set. In the long run, your children’s self-esteem and your relationship with them will be stronger for it.
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