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Reframing Discipline

A common theme I see in my office is difficulty with discipline. Parents come in overwhelmed by certain behaviors and feel that no matter what they do, what they say, or what punishment they give – nothing seems to help. Let’s face it, hearing screams coming from the back of the house, siblings fighting, temper tantrums, kids not doing school work, and getting calls from school can be frustrating. All you want is to get them to stop and make better decisions. How can we do this in a less painful and frustrating way? I would like to offer an alternative framework for discipline that encourages your child to learn and grow.

Traditionally, discipline is thought of as punishment and consequences; in order to get a child to stop a behavior they must be punished and shown there are consequences for their actions. This form of punishment is fear driven. While this may be effective in the short term, it most likely will not change the behavior or teach them anything in the long term. Unhealthy discipline involves yelling, screaming and everyone leaving angry and elevated. Instead of viewing discipline as punishment, we want to reframe the situation as a teaching opportunity. We want to help our kids make better decisions and improve how they handle themselves in the future. In order to stop the bad behavior, we need to nurture our child’s developing brain by teaching them how to handle emotions and situations appropriately.

“The ultimate goal of discipline is to teach. We want our kids to have an improved understanding of themselves, empathy for others, and the ability to make better choices in the future.”

The first thing to do before you discipline is to simply pause. Ask yourself: Why did my child act this way? What lesson do I want to teach? How can I best teach this lesson? We can use the example of a child throwing a controller at their sibling after losing a video game. Why might they have acted this way? Did they have a hard day at school? Are they getting overwhelmed by anger and frustration? Is trying to keep up with their older sibling a theme? Was cheating involved? There is a host of reasons this action may have occurred and we have to keep that mind. What do we want to teach in this moment? Do we want to teach how to appropriately manage anger, respect property, express our emotions properly, better handle the situation?

Second, how can we best teach these lessons? This might look like connecting empathetically with their anger and frustration: “it’s really hard playing video games with older brother, I would be really frustrated and angry too if I kept losing,” “sometimes when I get angry, I just want to throw something too.” Once we have connected and empathize with the child’s emotion, we can take the next step. Maybe we include them in on the discipline: “what do you think we can do differently next time we feel really angry like this?” or “what do you think we can do to make this right?” This creates a dialog and a teaching opportunity to facilitate the understanding of themselves, what may have caused the situation, their emotions, and helps them make better choices in the future.

For more in-depth information on disciplining from this framework I would highly suggest reading No-Drama Discipline by Dan Siegel and Tina Bryson.

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