Effective discipline is a big topic especially when what we do varies greatly depending on the age of the child and the situation. This blog will offer some general behavior principles as well as some practical discipline strategies.
When it comes to discipline, especially right now you have to do what is right for you. It’s okay to make the decisions that are right for you, not what your friends are doing, not what you are seeing on Instagram or Facebook. Only you know how this is impacting you and your family, and what you are balancing right now.
Maybe this is a great opportunity with everyone home to implement some structure that you have been wanting to but did not have the time to implement before, or maybe you are just struggling to make it through each day and all the normal rules have gone out the window and now is not the time to make big changes.
Be kind and patient with yourself and remember that we are all doing the best we can.
Discipline is like a house
We need a strong foundation to build on. That foundation is parent self-care and positive reinforcement our children. If we think about building a house Positive reinforcement is the foundation, and elements of discipline are the walls that cannot stand up without a strong even foundation. The roof that ties the whole thing together and keeps everyone safe is predictability and consistency.
I want to start by emphasizing that it’s important to look for opportunities to take care of yourself right now too. Put your own oxygen mask on first so that you can help your family. Try to get creative with how you can do self-care right now. Carving out time for yourself or time with others doing the things you enjoy that ground you or energize you will allow your best parenting to come forward. Any discipline we do is going to be more effective when we are calm and centered.
We all like to get positive feedback. Positive reinforcement throughout the day for what kids are doing well is going to be key to any discipline system you incorporate into your home.
Kids and Stress
Kids are picking up on our stress levels right now and being affected. There are different reasons why children may misbehave more right now.
- Cabin fever/boredom– I think of this like those kind of just physically antsy feelings in their body that movement or getting outdoors if possible might help with. If our kids are bored it is a great opportunity for them to creative with their imaginations.
- Emotions- Kids are having a ton of their own emotions about our current situation, the Cornoavirus or being at home so much, missing regular school and friends. We do not want to punish emotions so we want to make we are supporting our kids to express and process their emotions before implementing any structure of discipline. If they are yelling before jumping right to reprimanding them validate that they are upset and offer an ear and an opportunity to hear what they are going through. Kids thrive on structure and some of that has been taken away with school being out. Their emotions may be raw and they may need more emotional support than discipline right now.
- Attention We may be very preoccupied with all that is on our plates right now and for understandable reasons not be giving our kids the attention they need. Children love attention but they often, especially in times of undue stress, care much less about whether that attention is positive or negative… and if it is easier to get your attention more quickly by misbehaving even if it means being yelled at they may pick that option.
For behaviors we want children to do more of we want to catch every time they do it without prompting (catch them being good), we may also want to figure out a way to motivate them to do it more. We can incentivize it with small rewards and use behavior charts to track their progress. There are a ton of behavior charts available at www.freeprintablebehaviorcharts.com or you can make your own!
Rewards don’t have to be something you buy it can be time doing something together or extra time earned doing something your child enjoys. Sometimes that means not giving open access to highly valued activities such as screen time. If open access to screens is the only way you’re getting work done and getting through your day then maybe you won’t choose to limit screen time right now. Again you have to make decisions that will be right for you and your family under current circumstances.
Rewards do need to be something that is motivating to the child, and that may change and be a bit of a moving target. Some pitfalls with behavior charts can be that the rewards have lost their value because our children’s interests have changed, menu of rewards. Or we may have set the bar too high. We want them to experience success right away and have the goal low enough to be attainable. Once they experience success and are motivated we can make that target gradually more difficult.
Sometimes life gives kids natural consequences. One of their toys gets stepped on and breaks because they did not pick it up off the floor. They bonk their head when rough-housing with a sibling. Those natural consequences of the toy breaking or that head bump may be enough consequence in and of itself for them to learn to self-correct their behavior and we may not need any added consequence.
Setting the stage for consequences with clear directions
If we are ready to give a consequence we want to be sure that we are giving a consequence because a child has chosen not to obey and not because they did not understand our expectations. When we need something done and are willing to give a consequence if it is NOT done we want to start with giving a really good direction. PCIT gives us some great guidelines for making sure that you are giving an effective direction that we can remember using the acronym BE DIRECT.
- Be specific– say exactly what you need done
- Every command positively stated– say what to do not what to stop doing
- Developmentally appropriate– make sure they can do it alone and understand you
- Individual rather than compound– one direction at a time
- Respectful and polite– great role modeling and helps you stay calm
- Essential commands only– use only when something must be done
- Carefully timed explanations– explain why before you give the direction
- Tone of voice neutral– helps kids listen to clam voices
One of the Global Trainers for PCIT (Dr. Cheryl McNeil) explains taking on discipline in the moment like challenging your child to a duel. So decide before give that direction if you are ready to fight that battle and see it through to the end. It is not helpful for anyone if we make threats that we cannot or will not end up following through on. We want to set limits only when we can and will follow through so we don’t undermine ourselves. We want to Save these clear effective directions for when you are ready to draw that sword and follow through. Otherwise do it for them, teach them how, give them choices, or ask them to help you by doing it and be okay if they decline your invitation. You can also consider contingencies. By contingencies I mean making what your children want to do contingent upon first doing what you need them to do. The important thing here is to be willing and able to withhold what they want the whole day if they don’t do what you need (put dishes in sink), which may not be realistic right now.
Expect that anything new you try to implement may be met with resistance. It will be less frustrating for you expect your kids to challenge it. Kids thrive under structure but that doesn’t mean they will invite it. If you draw your sword be ready to expect your child to follow your direction and be willing to deliver a consequence if they don’t.
There are a lot of parents who have reservations about time-out. Time-out means time-out from positive reinforcement so there still needs to be positive time and attention outside of discipline. It is giving a child a brief break you’re your attention will be returned quickly upon completion of their consequence. Time-out should be given in a very neutral not punitive way, and the child should be given a chance to know that the consequence is coming. We give a direction and wait quietly to give the child a few seconds to follow it, but if not followed repeat the direction so they can hear it again along with a calm warning that there will be a time-out. With little ones if they leave the chair we can bring them back calmly. We use 3 minute time-outs regardless of age.
As children get older somewhere around 8-10 and are too big to carry back to time-out we can still use time-out, but if they will not complete their time-out we can suspend privileges until they complete their time-out and follow the direction.
Somewhere in that upper elementary age range we will transition away from time-out to privilege loss. Pure privilege loss looks like taking one specific privilege away for not following directions. Again we want the child to hear our direction twice and have that warning with it the second time so that they know the consequence is coming. That privilege is lost for the day and cannot be earned back. A second privilege can be lost for a second direction not being followed. And if gets to the point of their being a third direction not followed then the child would be on total shut down for the day with nothing fun allowed. If they follow the 3rd direction they can get off total shut down but never earn back first 2 privileges. It’s important to keep the consequence to one day so that the child can have a fresh start the next day. When we get into taking things away for extended periods of time we are less likely to be able to stick with it ourselves and children adapt and learn to care less about whatever has been taken away and find other engaging things to involve themselves with. It risks keeping negativity going in the relationship for extended periods of time when really want them to have a chance at a fresh start the next day to try to do things better. For having more control over screen time and electronics a lot of families use an app called Circle that allows them to control the devices in their home. You can also change passwords on electronics so that a parent needs to enter the password and kids don’t have open access all the time. Be realistic with yourself and what you are capable of implementing right now. Is the privilege that you want to take away something you are able to take away? Willing to?
Consistency and Predictability
The key to any structure of discipline is consistency and predictability. That means you being consistent in how you are approaching things across time, and ideally any other caregivers in the home supporting what you are doing and being consistent with it as well. Kids may not like the changes you decide to make, but they excel under structure and predictability so they will adapt if you stick with the changes you have decided to make and implement them calmly. Implementing them calmly is where that self-care and putting your own oxygen mask on first come in. If you are frustrated or angry in the moment it is okay to step away and take some time to regulate yourself before disciplining your children. You can even say aloud what you are doing, so that you are role modeling good emotion regulation for your children. You might say “I’m really frustrated right now and I don’t want to yell so I will talk to you about this after I take a few minutes to myself to calm down.” When we just walk away our kids don’t always know what to do. This tells them that you care not only about what they did but about them and about handling it calmly and that you will be back.
- Your attention is a powerful tool. You can give the behavior less attention and give more attention to the positive behaviors.
- You can use incentive systems to boost up those positive behaviors you want to see more of.
- You can set limits by making things your kids want to do contingent on doing what you need done first.
- You can set limits. But if you set them stick with them.
- If you need your child to do something, start with an effective direction.
- You can use time-out or privilege loss as a short-term consequence if your direction is not followed.
- There is no one correct way to discipline. There are many approaches out there, and you always have choices for how to address behavioral struggles with your children. You have to figure out what is right for you and your family and what approach you can be as consistent and predictable with in general, and right now in particular, while things are so different from our norm.
Parent-Child Interaction Therapy Protocol (2011, Rev 6/16) By Shelia Eyberg & Beverly Funderburk, PCIT International