By Rebecca Schall, MS, NCC, LPC-Intern
When I was a child, my parents did not have a consistent parenting plan when it came to raising my three siblings and I. They lacked intention, and while my mom was adamant she would not discipline with corporal punishment, my father was physically and emotionally abusive. Unfortunately, this parenting method of inconsistency and/or abuse is far too common in our society today, and the number of kids experiencing trauma at the hands of their parents are far too great. For this reason, there is no shortage of literature attempting to help parents find the most appropriate method of discipline. So many parents (myself included) find themselves overwhelmed by all the experts who promise to share life-changing strategies for their family, and a lot of it can feel too difficult to master or even try. Because of this, I would like to take the time to point to a voice in the wilderness that helped me clear the air and provide a few simple and practical steps you can begin using today to help train your children up in the way they should go.
A few years ago, my two sons were involved in an ugly custody battle, which left my oldest son, now 9, completely traumatized. We were honestly at a loss with how to help him, and none of the strategies we had previously used in disciplining him were working. He is seeing a wonderful Licensed Professional Counselor in the area that recommended a book to me that I personally and professionally recommend to every friend and client I see struggling to help their children. Written by Daniel Siegel, MD and Tina Bryson, PhD, No Drama Discipline offers an effective and practical method of disciplining children. I give Dan and Tina all the credit for their method, and use it in my practice, as well as in my own home. It is my prayer that you see the value this has for you and your family as well.
No Drama Discipline focuses on discipline, and not punishment. The idea behind discipline is to teach your children, not to punish them for making you angry. When our motivation is to teach, our discipline moments become opportunities to connect with our children and deepen our relationship, instead of wounding it. We do so by being intentional, connecting, and then redirecting the behavior.
Before engaging with any child in a discipline moment, it’s critically important to be in the right head-space. If what has just taken place has your blood pressure rising, take a time out (you, not your child). Say a prayer, take a walk, take a breath, count to 10. Do whatever you need to do to move your brain from reactive to responsive. No effective teaching is going to be had if you’re doing everything you can to just contain your frustration.
While you’re taking a minute, you’ll want to examine any baggage you’re bringing to the table. Is this the 10th time your toddler has spilled his juice, making you want to scream? I’ve been there. Is this the first time your new teenager has slammed her door in your face, and deep down you fear she’s going to turn into the monster you were when you were a teen? No Drama Discipline refers to these thoughts and feelings as “Shark Music.” You know, as in the scary suspenseful background music you hear when Jaws is about to pop up on screen. Every human brings their own background noise into their present experience. But my child is not me, and when I lash out at her for fear that I’ve lost control, I find I’ve only done the thing I was trying to avoid. So taking a moment to notice tension in your body, and taking a small time-out can help you turn down the shark music and stay in the moment with your 13-year-old, before you imagine her as an out-of-control, rebellious 17 year old (all because she once slammed the door in your face).
Once you’re out of your momentary freak-out, examine the situation logically. This is called “Chasing the Why.” Ask yourself: Why did my child act this way? What is going on inside of them? What’s behind their behavior? And when you’ve got a handle on that, remind yourself that the goal of discipline is to teach, not punish. Ask yourself what you want to teach in this moment, and determine the most appropriate method to do so. Now you’re ready to connect.
This is the part I love about No Drama Discipline. I wholeheartedly believe that connection and redirection - not punishment - is at the heart of God’s relationship with us. When was the last time you were struck down by God’s fiery wrath because you sinned against Him? We all deserve it, no doubt, and yet He is relentlessly patient and ridiculously loving to us, even when we make the same mistake over and over again. He is our Heavenly Father, providing us with a perfect example of how we as parents can interact with our kids when they are at their worst.
There are so many benefits to connecting with our children. It helps them to develop their prefrontal cortex (a fancy word for the part of your brain that controls, logic, reason, and upper-level functioning), learn to regulate their emotions, and build a sense of morality, intuition, and empathy. If you want to build resilience in your child, connection is the way to do it. If connection is at the core of our relationship with our kids, even in disciplinary moments, our children will grow with a secure foundation of love and trust. So how do you connect when your kid has temporarily lost his mind?
Start with body language. Whether your kid is 6 or 16, standing over them with a pointed finger is probably only going to increase their negative emotions. Instead, try getting on their level, and give them your full attention with eye contact. If appropriate, make a funny face, and demonstrate empathy with your facial expressions. This will help them remember that you are on their side.
Validate their feelings. Even when you don’t agree with their behavior, their feelings should always be validated. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it right? Just like adults, children are entitled to having a bad moment, even a bad day. Life is sometimes overwhelming. Acknowledging their feelings can help them feel heard and understood.
Listen to what your child has to say. This isn’t the time to lecture your child. Instead, try hearing their side of the story. You may find out you’re missing vital information (which can really save you from some embarrassment later).
Reflect what you hear. When your child has just told you he hates his brother for always taking the last apple in the snack tray, reflect back the meaning behind his words: “You’re frustrated that you didn’t get to have an apple.”
Once you’ve connected with your child, you are now ready to redirect. It’s important at this point to again remember that the goal is to teach, not to punish. You may find it is often not necessary to give a consequence. Your choice of teaching, and whether a consequence is warranted, will depend on the situation. Be flexible, but be consistent.
If, during connection, you realize that your child is hungry or sleepy, there’s no harm in giving them a snack, a drink of water, or a nap. Because the goal is to teach, it may be counterproductive to try to address the situation when your child is unteachable in the moment.
This method offers 8 practical strategies to redirect your child, which they creatively turned into the acronym REDIRECT.
Reduce Words - don’t lecture. Most kids tune out after the first few sentences, so don’t waste your breath. This one has been a hard one for me. I’m a lecturer. But I have found so much value in keeping it short and sweet.
Embrace Emotions - here’s that connection strategy again. Teach your kids its ok to have emotions, and help them learn to differentiate between them. This is a valuable skill they will need in adulthood.
Describe, Don’t Preach - focus on the facts. Tell them what you observed, and give them an opportunity to recognize what they did and why it was wrong. This teaches them responsibility and accountability.
Involve your Child in the Discipline - increase their buy-in and accountability by giving your children opportunities to choose what they should do to make it right. If your boys were in a food fight, maybe they will choose to clean up the mess. The punishment should always fit the crime.
Reframe a No into a Yes with Conditions - instead of saying no to a reasonable request, say yes with a condition. For example, if your child wants to go play outside with the dog, instead of saying no (because her room is still a mess from play), say “yes, after you straighten up your room.” You’ll find you’ll forego a LOT of arguments just by giving them more Yes, and less No.
Emphasize the Positive - encourage your children by focusing on what they do right. Even in disciplinary moments, there can be something to praise your child for.
Creatively Approach the Situation - kids love creativity, and they equally love humor. If you can find a funny way to fix a problem - do it! For example, if my daughter doesn’t want to get dressed in the morning because she’d rather be asleep, I might make funny voices and sing silly songs to get her laughing. It lightens the mood and increases receptivity in your kids.
Teach Mindsight Tools - this is so important. Give your child an opportunity to explore how other people feel when they make bad choices. Help them identify ways in which they can make different choices the next time a difficult situation arises. Giving them a chance to think critically about their behavior, how it affects other people, and what they can do differently next time builds connections in their brain, and helps them buikd relationship - with you and with others.
I have used these strategies at home, at church, and in session with my own clients. I have seen the difference it makes to connect, then redirect. It has been an answer to prayer. You see, I believe that the Lord desires parents to take the time to carefully plan and practice their parenting, to be intentional. His desire is that each of us would bring the Kingdom to earth in the community around us, and in our own homes. I am not perfect, and there are many days that I have thrown the book out the window and really made a fool of myself. But I love that God is gracious, and so is this method. If we mess up, we try again. Because our kids are worth it.
Rebecca Schall is a Licensed Professional Counselor-Intern at Tapestry Counseling in Tyler, Texas. She holds a Master’s Degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling from the University of Texas at San Antonio.