“How are you doing today?” my counselor asked as I entered her office. I wondered if she noticed the smudged mascara on my face and assumed, correctly, that I had been crying.
“I’m stressed,” I said, skipping the niceties and and plopping on the floral couch. “My kids are making me insane lately, and I am especially struggling with my son. He’s just so strong willed and independent and emotional and we’re having trouble getting him listen to us and I’m running out of ideas of what to do.”
Just this morning, I went on, I had to navigate the meltdown that happens every time I ask him to wait for a bit to ride his bike. I had to ask him 10 times to get dressed. I heard my daughter crying and found out that he had hit her on the head with his helmet and I, frustrated, took the helmet and bopped him on the head, saying sternly, “How does that make you feel?!” which led to an explosion of tears on his part and guilt on mine. I had asked him to play outside while I did a load of laundry and found him atop the minivan, disassembling the windshield wipers. All of this in three hours.
Then, when I got in the car, I saw a foot-long crack in the windshield; a poetic representation of how I felt in that moment. I cried, then, feeling a sad alchemy of exhaustion, stress, anger, guilt, and desperation.
My counselor smiled empathetically. I am not seeing her to work on my parenting, but I am there to grow and heal, and I figured I could use the insight of a licensed professional counselor on how to work on this ever-difficult issue of discipline.
Thankfully, she had some wonderful insight, some of which I already knew but needed to be reminded of. I’m happy to share them with you now.
1. Expect non-compliance
“Your son sounds completely normal,” my counselor started off, which perhaps was the most encouraging to me. It is developmentally appropriate for children to push back, she went on, confessing that she gets more concerned by the ever-compliant and docile child (this, more often than not, reveals a fear-based, authoritarian parenting style that can do long-term damage to the child).
“Kids are going to disobey. They’re going to push back. When you expect kids to resist, to struggle to listen, you are less likely to…”
“Take it personally?” I filled in.
“Exactly,” she nodded. She reminded me how the rational part of a child’s brain is not developed, and won’t be for a long time. For them, it’s feelings, feelings feelings. It’s our job, as parents, to help them navigate those feelings and teach them how to respond appropriately, as well as to teach them how to meet our expectations.
When we shift our perspective and expect our child to challenge us or disobey, we can be prepared for how to respond when he does.
2. Get on your kid’s level when communicating expectations
“When you talk to your son, the best thing you can do is to crouch down and look at him in the eye,” she said. “That requires more time and energy on your part, but he is much more likely to hear you and follow through with your expectations when you get on his level.”
Expectations are important, my counselor reminded me. Kids need them, and to know there are boundaries, she said. Communicate expectations clearly, as and follow through on them respectfully so that the child knows that you mean what you say.
3. Provide choices and opportunities for autonomy
Kids love being independent and are programmed to develop autonomy. Providing children with appropriate choices is motivating in itself, particularly if the choices are connected to things that your child values: “Mama needs to make supper now. Would you like to color with crayons or play with play dough?”
If we offer choices, we must be comfortable with whatever they choose. (Imagine how frustrating it would be if someone told you you could choose your outfit for the day, but then frowned and said, “No, not those shoes! Not those pants!”)
Also, allow kids the space to do the things they are capable of doing. Allow access to a healthy snack drawer or craft box that they can use at any time without needing permission. This helps bolster their own confidence within your approved parameters.
4. Opt for natural consequences instead of punishment
Punishment uses fear to teach a child not to disobey and can damage the parent/child relationship in the process. Allowing for natural consequences teaches children why they should follow their parents’ expectations and also allows the child to see their responsibility in the matter.
My daughter loves coloring. On herself. Especially after I have just given her a bath, it seems.
My counselor advised me: “Set the expectation: ‘Coloring is for paper only, not our skin. If you continue to color on your skin, you may not color anymore.’ You may need to remind her once more, but if she continues to draw on herself, gently remove the markers and say, ‘All done. You can color another time when you can keep the color on the paper.”
This reiterates that she made the choice to draw on herself, and the natural consequence was a loss of privilege. Mama kept her word, and she can trust that Mama means what she says. It also establishes that if she operates within the appropriate boundaries, she can enjoy the activity again sometime.
5. Provide routine
Kids love routine and like knowing what to expect. When my counselor asked if we have a consistent routines, I faltered. Due to my husband’s wonky work schedule, we have weekly routines, but not strong daily routines. She nodded understandably and suggested that I could make a small chart with our daily activities (I imagine little pictures to represent each activity) that I talk through with my kids so they know what to expect.
Kids also love to look forward to things. In response to the bike-riding issue, my counselor suggested: “What if you said to Levi, ‘Ok, bud, I know you love to ride your bike! Mama is very busy right now. What if we make time when Daddy gets home from work, for you to ride your bike? Then he can watch you and make sure you’re safe.'” That way, she said, Levi can look forward to that time and know that he will, indeed, get to ride that bike.
6. Focus on the positive, avoid the negative
Look for and affirm positive behavior: “You waited so patiently to ride your bike! I am proud of you.” “Thank you for coloring on the piece of paper.”
Limit negative language, and in particular, the use of the word “no” as much as possible. Instead of, “No, you can’t have lollipops for breakfast,” try, “Lollipops are a great treat. Let’s be patient and wait to enjoy one until after lunch.”
7. Throw out punitive terms such as “disobey” and “bad”
“Personally, I don’t like using the terms ‘obey’ or ‘disobey’ because they feel punitive,” my counselor confessed.
“Kids want to obey, they want to please their parents,” she reminded me. When parents respond negatively to a child and use phrases like, “you disobeyed me!” or “what you did was bad!” or “that was naughty!” he can internalize it and become ashamed, perpetuating more negative behavior.
Instead, use more neutral language. Instead of: “I want you to obey,” try: “I want you to cooperate.” Instead of “You are being bad,” try: “You made a poor choice.”
8. Provide a healthy forum for expressing anger
“Anger is a natural human emotion,” my counselor said. “We all get angry, and our children need to be given the space to be angry. It’s what we do in our anger that can be problematic.”
The point is to teach our kids not to cause damage to themselves, others, or property in their anger.
Remind your child that it’s ok to be angry. Then, Set an expectation for what your child can do when he’s angry. Encourage him to take deep breaths. Let him punch a pillow. Let him color out his feelings. Let him growl like a lion. Find something that will help him express is feelings appropriately.
9. Model the behavior your want to see in your kids
Children will learn far more from observing us than they will from what we said, my counselor reminded me. So when we are angry as parents, do we yell, frown, get aggressive? If so, our children will internalize that and demonstrate that as well.
When our children push our buttons, we need to work hard to approach them calmly, using our words instead of our reactions. “You can kneel down in front of your son, even when you are angry, and say, ‘When you chose to do that, it made me angry. It made me feel like you didn’t respect me.'”
I’ve been thinking about this in regards to listening, too. How often has my son tried to get my attention and I said, “One minute!” because I needed to read that e-mail that very minute? Have I been teaching him that tasks are more important than relationships without even meaning to?
If I want my children to listen to me when I speak to them, I best listen to them when they speak to me.
10. Reframe your thinking about discipline
Perhaps the most humbling thing my counselor told me was this: “The parent sets the emotional tone for the family.” If the tone in my home is negative, it is a reflection on me, not my children.
How we think about disciplining our children will greatly impact the emotional tone in our home, for better or for worse.
The root word of discipline is disciple. The point is to teach our children how to behave, how to communicate, how to respond to feelings, how to think. Each day is chock full of learning opportunities, but it is up to us, the parents, to take advantage of them. We can maximize learning opportunities by treating our children with respect, particularly in those moments when we find that they are not meeting our expectations.
We need to be ready and willing to work on this important education.
My goal as a parent is to teach my children how to be healthy humans. But it is a process. It will take time, energy, intentionality, and grace. I will need to demonstrate self-control and patience. I will need to ask my kids to forgive me when I fail. I will need to continue to go to counseling so I can learn how to be a healthy human and model healthy behaviors for my children.
I’m learning this positive discipline stuff as I go (aren’t we all?). I hope that these tips can encourage you and provide you with some guidelines for making your home a healthy, respectful learning environment for your kids.
And may you have ample grace for the journey.
Interested in reading more about positive discipline? Here are three books I’ve referenced in my attempt to learn about this topic (contains affiliate links):
Positive Discipline for Preschoolers – I’ve referenced this book with my preschool aged son, and just recently have acquired a copy of Positive Discipline: The First Three Years. I appreciate how these both address the “whys” as well as the “hows” for positive discipline.
How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk – This “parenting bible” book is full of practical advice and examples for building positive communication and expectations with your kids.
The Whole Brained Child – This little book is so helpful for learning how a child’s brain works and what to expect from them developmentally. I think it’s a must read for all parents.