Keep it Calm (Tips for using positive discipline)

The word discipline has such a bad reputation, yet, by definition, it simply means to teach.  Discipline means helping your children learn to make better choices.  Discipline is a child’s first step into the world of education, provided by parents.

We spend the first year of our children’s lives running to meet their every need.  We hold them constantly and provide more love than we ever even thought possible.  We put our lives on hold to make sure that we are taking good care of our babies.  Then, they become toddlers.  Suddenly we have these curious little beings on our hands that are learning to do just about everything at once, which means that they get into everything.  Cue the limit setting.

There is a lot of chatter right now about positive discipline (or positive parenting), and rightfully so.  Research shows that children who are close to their parents are more cooperative and better able to make positive choices.  Parents who focus on using positive strategies are more likely to raise confident, responsible children. There isn’t a downside.

Positive discipline means keeping your cool and providing appropriate alternatives when children test limits (which they often do).  Positive discipline does not mean being permissive.  Children need structure and limits, it helps them feel safe and learn how to make appropriate choices.

It can be difficult to stay positive all of the time.  Just as Liam has reached the difficult task of learning to share and take turns, Riley has decided testing boundaries is in order.  The redirecting is endless, and sometimes exhausting.  Now more than ever, I am reevaluating my priorities and focusing on the most important behaviors (which are different for everyone).  Below are some tips to help you keep your behavior intervention positive too:

1. Understand child development: Instead of googling “discipline or limit setting”, consider googling child development by age.  It helps a lot to know what your kids are truly capable of (both cognitively and physically), as well as what stages they might be working through. For instance, at 2 ½, Liam is just starting to move away from the stage of getting his needs met all of the time toward wanting some independence and learning to share.  For ages 0-2:  In this range, children really just need love, support, and a lot of help.  They are working on building lasting attachments and trust. For ages 3-5:  In this age range, children are working on becoming independent.  They are curious and ask many questions.  They touch everything as they learn through their senses.  They are known for testing limits and behaving in ways that get attention (good or bad.  Attention is attention, after all). One thing that’s characteristic of both age ranges is that they aren’t capable of sitting still or sitting quietly for long periods of time.  Those fancy dinners out should be done as a couple, or else you’ll just have to wait!

2. Parental checklist: Before you start handing out consequences, it can help to take a deep breath and ask yourself a few questions.  Is the behavior really negative or are you just out of patience?  Does the behavior really need correcting?  Are your expectations realistic given the ages of your children?  Are you responding more to outside stimuli than your child (i.e. negative input from a stranger at the supermarket)? Come 6pm, I find that I am generally out of patience.  No matter how wonderful the day, that last hour always feels impossible.  I work hard to keep a firm bedtime structure in place, and make changes when it stops working, to avoid over-stimulation and poor choices.  Using this mental checklist helps me keep things into perspective when the night starts to get away from me.  Pick your battles!

3. Clear, consistent rules: I’ve addressed this topic in other posts, but it’s always good to review.  Children crave structure and limits.  The best way to help them understand what is expected of them is to set clear rules and enforce them consistently. It’s best to focus on a few important rules (consider focusing on safety) during these early years, as too many rules can become overwhelming.  Use clip art to create a list and post the rules in the most frequently used room of the house. Review them regularly (they won’t always remember every rule from day to day).  It also helps to create a second list of positive behaviors to post next to the rules. When a rule is broken, you can simply review the rules and help your child choose a positive replacement behavior.

4. Get low & provide choices: Negative behaviors happen and will have to be corrected.  It’s part of being a parent and we all go through it.  Get down to your child’s level, make eye contact, and provide empathy. Children in the 0-5 range generally do not act out just to be mean or upset their parents.  Try to understand the trigger so that you can empathize with your child and provide healthy alternatives. If your child grabs a toy from another child in the sandbox (as most 2 year olds do), get low and redirect him to return that toy while helping him choose another.  Children need to feel heard and understood. Saying, “I know you feel frustrated because you have to wait a turn right now” can go a long way toward helping your child learn how to share and take turns.

5. Caught being great: Some parents resist using reward charts because they feel like rewards = bribery.  There’s a big difference.  Bribery occurs when you offer a large reward in exchange for a specific behavior (“if you stand in line and don’t move, you can have that candy bar”).  For the record, I believe that sometimes offering up a lollipop to get through a necessary Target run with cranky kids is not a bad thing.  Intermittent reward charts are used to catch your child in the act of positive behaviors (versus always being caught in the act of negative behaviors). Sticker charts, when used properly, help children recognize positive behaviors and increase their self-esteem and decision making skills.  Choose a behavior (like sharing) and reward with stickers and hugs.  Your child will thank you later.

6. Understanding actions: Young children have a hard time understanding the consequences of their actions.  In fact, they have a hard time understanding that their choices affect other people at all.  Just this morning I caught Riley yelling at Liam during a tea party because he “ruined it by putting all of the forks in the same place”.  Find teachable moments and help your child understand how other people feel. A quiet reminder that Riley does not like to be bossed around by her friends was all it took for her to run into Liam’s room and apologize.  Remember to circle back to appropriate alternatives. In this case, Riley decided that “little guys” probably aren’t ready for “fancy” tea parties and they should play dollhouse instead.

7. Modeling: Children do most of their learning by watching adults.  We all have our weaknesses.  My tendency toward anxiety can sometimes cause me to worry about climbing a little more than is necessary.  Are you a yeller by nature?  If so, you are teaching your child to yell in order to restore order.  Do you check out and isolate yourself when the going gets tough?  You might be teaching your child to hide out and avoid conflict or difficult situations. Try to be mindful of your own actions when your children are present.  Keep your temper in check, your voice tone appropriate, and make good choices.

8. Know when to walk away: It’s impossible to stay calm all of the time.  Life just doesn’t work that way.  Know when to tag out and send another parent in.  Know when to have a mandatory quiet time so that you can ALL regroup.  There’s no shame in giving yourself a moment of silence if it means you can handle the situation with a calm demeanor upon your return.  Give up on supermom; she doesn’t exist.  Just be the best mom that you can be on any given day.

Discipline doesn’t mean punishment.  Helping your child learn right from wrong and how to make positive choices will help build confidence and self-esteem.  Set some limits, stay consistent, and watch your children soar.

How do you stay positive in the face of negative behaviors?   

About Katie

Katie Hurley is a Child, Adolescent, and Family Psychotherapist and Parenting Expert in Los Angeles, CA. She works in private practice in the South Bay area of Los Angeles, writes for PBS Parents, Washington Post Parents, and the Huffington Post. She is the author of "The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World" (Tarcher/Penguin, 2015) and "No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls" (Penguin Random House, 2018)