Common Discipline Methods
Books for Teaching Emotion and Empathy
Last week, we discussed things we can do in daily life to help our children succeed in managing their behavior. We need to take care of ourselves and make sure our children are fed, rested, and active. We also need to communicate with our partner and caregivers. Lastly, we need to provide our children with safety and security in our relationships, expectations, and the language we use with them.
Now we are going to discuss common discipline methods and what they may look like in practice. Behavioral management or discipline has changed since many of us were children despite having same goals. Our goal is to raise children with who are good friends, family members, and community citizens. We want our children to be able to problem solve. We want children to have sense of personal responsibility meaning they know they are responsible for their own behaviors, mood, and reactions.
Our goal in managing behavior is to build resiliency. Resiliency is the ability to recover from difficult situations. In order to build resiliency, we need to help out children build communication skills, coping skills, self-awareness and compassion.
There are five main categories of discipline methods: Boundary-based limits, positive discipline, gentle discipline, behavior medication, and emotional coaching. Below we will discuss these methods. Rarely does a family exclusively use one method. Often it is a combination of all the methods and parts of each method. You may need to use parts of each depending on your temperament or personality, your child’s temperament, and the situation you are in.
BOUNDARY BASED DISCIPLINE
Boundary based discipline is where you set a limit or expectation to show children what is acceptable. Unacceptable behaviors have a known consequence. All children will experiment by testing the edges of any set limits. By holding the boundary of the limit or expectation, you are demonstrating to the child that they are safe and that their life is predictable. Children are “boundary pushers” which is 100%, completely developmentally normal. It can be frustrating but setting and enforcing boundaries is essential to behavioral management and parenting,
Children also will retest the boundaries over and over again. This is part of the learning process. It may be frustrating. We know they are smart, why didn’t they learn the first time you set the boundary? This repeating of the behavior is healthy developmentally. Your child needs to test a certain boundary or behavior in many different scenarios and situations and find security in where that boundary is set.
Setting boundaries is very hard. It is hard to see your child get upset. It is hard to hold that boundary when you are tired, frustrated, in public and your child is having a temper tantrum on the ground. But every time you give in, your child realizes they just have a to push a bit longer to get what they want.
Often in this system, there is an expected consequence for unacceptable behavior. Often these are predetermined consequences or consequences based on the particular boundary. For example, if your child will not stop throwing sand in their sandbox, they are removed from the sandbox for the day.
Emotion coaching is teaching children about the link between feelings and behaviors. Remember, behaviors are result from a reaction to situation or stimulus. These stimuli or situations cause feelings a child including happy, sad, angry, frustrated, disappointed, or scared. These are all big feelings and can be scary for a child. Often a big feeling comes with a physical response such as tears, increased heart rate, stomach upset, or increased adrenaline. By identifying feelings, we help our child learn what is happening in their body, learn that feelings and the changes in our body are normal, and we can help them learn to cope with these feelings.
Emotional coaching teaches children three important things around feelings: identifying the emotion they are feeling, normalizing and okaying the emotion, and learning how to cope with that emotion. Many of us adults were not raised to identify or regulate our emotions. This can make this work challenging but you can do the work right along with your child. Practice makes perfect! And your child will learn from watching you learn!
The first goal is to help children identify their emotions both good emotions and uncomfortable emotions. There are lots of ways help your child identify feelings. One way is to check in at dinner or bedtime. Discuss what made them happy today, what made them sad, or angry. You can identify things that you also felt. Talk about emotions and what their body may feel. Read books about emotions or point out and discuss emotions characters may be feeling in books or on tv shows. And make sure you label both good feelings, such as happiness or feeling proud, as well as uncomfortable emotions.
We need to help our child empower our children that they alone are in charge of their emotions. They cannot control outside circumstances, but they have the power to change how they react to those circumstances as well as their mood. We also want children to know they only they can control their emotions. They are NEVER in control of someone else’s emotions. In order to help them understand this, we should never use language such as “I’d be so happy if you did X, Y, Z” or “It makes me sad when you A, B, C.” You are reinforcing that other people have power over their emotions when you use language like that. Instead try using “I” based language such as “I felt sad when dinner was burned” or “I feel happy when we rode our bikes together because I like spending time with you”.
If your child is having a hard time identifying an emotion, the short-term goal is to make them feel seen. This is particularly important in toddlers who don’t have the language skills to identify emotions. This can be as simple as saying, “it looks like you are having big feelings” or “it looks like you are feeling happy” or “it looks like you are frustrated”. This sentence can also be used with older children who are having a hard time identifying their emotion and letting them confirm if that feeling is true.
Research shows that children aged 2 through 18 years who can identify their emotions having fewer anxiety symptoms, label their emotions as less intense, show less of a physiological response to an emotion, and have less activity in the emotion centers of the brain. They are better able to cope with the emotions that they feel. Research also shows if we help a child identify a feeling and understand that emotion, they are much less likely to be impulsive with their behavior around that feeling.
Teaching our children empathy can also help with identifying emotions. Empathy is letting a person know that you understand how they feel. Teaching empathy begins with infants. Have you ever noticed baby cry just because another baby nearby is crying…that is empathy! Do you ever cry during a sad scene in a movie? That is empathy. We feel the emotion of the characters. Children can also work on developing empathy through identifying feelings in books, toys, or characters on shows. You can also help them understand empathy by modeling it, Modeling empathy means showing your child you understand their feelings and acknowledge their feelings.
Next, we need to normalize that all feelings are ok feelings no matter if it is a good emotion or uncomfortable emotion. We all would love to be happy all the time. None of us enjoy having uncomfortable emotions but it is part of the human experience. We have to feel sadness, anger, disappointment, and fear. By trying to limit uncomfortable emotions in children we rob them of the experience of learning how to sit and cope with those emotions. This is essential practice during childhood that if they do not get will be very detrimental to their emotional health as an adult. Every emotion serves a purpose in our body. They are not necessary a bad thing even if that emotion does not feel good. Part of normalizing emotion is helping your child tolerate uncomfortable feelings and learn coping mechanisms for these feelings
Once your child is able to identify their emotion, reinforce their feeling is an okay feeling to have. You can have any feeling and it doesn’t have to be what another person would feel in that same situation. Feelings are very individual. We also want to remember to accept their feeling even if YOU do not feel that feeling. In accepting their feeling, do not belittle their feeling. Do not tell them to “calm down” or “It’s okay, you’re fine!” If you are upset because you just burned dinner and are expressing that emotion, and someone tells you to calm down, it doesn’t make you feel better, right? Often it makes you even more angry. It makes you feel better if someone says, “I’m sorry, I know you worked hard at that. Can I get out some cereal or call for a pizza?”.
Reacting to Emotion
Lastly, we need to work on helping your child react to their feelings. This can involve many things but for negative emotions it includes comforting or soothing your child and teaching your child to comfort and sooth themselves. This is where the hard work comes in. Children who are feeling strong feelings will often act out physically or behaviorally to express or cope with that feeling. Our job is to teach them healthy ways to do this and that it is not okay to express or cope with a feeling by hurting yourself, someone else, or belongings.
To help your child react to feelings in a healthy way we need to develop their coping skills. For children, coping skills are often taking time to sit with an emotion or to calm your body down. It takes times to learn coping skills and coping skills may change with age and situations. Coping strategies will be different for every child. Brainstorm ideas your child can try and that are developmentally appropriate. The best time to brainstorm is when your child is not having a big feeling or after a recent big feeling has passed. Practice their ideas when your child is calm. Some ideas include:
• Deep breathing
• Taking a walk
• Getting a hug
• A glitter jar or another calming toy/device
• Hard scribbling on a piece of paper or a chalkboard
• Listening to music
• Big movements including swinging, running, jumping, dancing
• Smaller movements such as clenching hands, tapping fingers,
• Timed breathing techniques
• Making art (the messier the better)
• Positive self-talk
• Spending time outdoors
• Playing by self or with someone else
• Connecting with others
• Trying to activate other senses (bite into an orange, crunch a carrot and observe taste/sensation)
• Holding a special object
• Mediate thinking about a special person or a happy time
You can even practice temper tantrums! You can have your child pretend to be upset but leave out a part of the behavior, such as kicking or hitting. Children thinks it is hilarious to pretend but their body is more likely to no kick if it has the memory of not kicking!
Once you have identified coping techniques, it’s time to practice them. You will practice over and over again. Children need time to learn these skills and they will need your support or gentle nudging to try a new coping skill. When your child is having a big feeling, help them identify that feeling, okay that feeling, then remind them to try one of their coping skills you have brainstormed together. After the feeling passes, talk with your child to identify if that particular skill was helpful or not helpful.
If that coping skill is not helpful, normalize that is also okay and next time you will try another idea you have brainstormed. By helping them through this process you are teaching problem solving, the process of identifying the problem and evaluating which solution works best.
As they get older and more practiced, we can let our children take over the problem solving. We do not always want to solve problems for them but just be there to provide assistance if needed. Problem solving and coping skills are essential life skills in addition to learning about their emotions. Children who are not taught to identify, accept and cope with emotions will become adults that fill the void but often with unhealthy behaviors such as binge eating, drug use, gambling, excessive spending, or compulsive behaviors.
COMBINATIONS OF BOUNDARY-BASED AND EMOTIONAL COACHING
The most successful discipline technique combines the boundary-based limit and emotional coaching methods. This combination is backed by neuroscience research and child development research. This method comes highly recommended by child psychologists and behavioral therapists, This method recommends using the following steps when your child is having big feelings or an unwanted behavior:
1. Identify the feeling
2. Acknowledge and accept/normalize the feeling or emotion they are having
3. Reinforce the set boundary
4. Work on coping skills
5. A. If appropriate, give a related consequence.
B. Tell them what they can do, shift to the yes!
For example, if you child does not want to leave the playground but it is time and they are upset you can say this, “I think you are feeling upset. I see that you are angry and sad you have to leave the playground. It’s okay to be upset, you were having fun. It is time to go. We can come back again tomorrow. Let’s go home and color.” And then you hold that boundary! You leave the playground. Even if your child is crying and screaming and you need to carry them. Even if it is easier to just stay.
Often, once you acknowledge their feeling and shift to what they can do and not what they can’t do, they will calm down. This method tends to deescalate their behavior accepting the emotion and providing a safe, secure and predictable boundary. But if they are still very upset, this is the time you remind your child and help them practice their coping skills.
Behavior modification is a style of discipline that uses feedback to guide behavior. Generally, this means praise or rewards for acceptable behavior and ignoring or negative consequences for unacceptable behaviors. There are four types of reinforcement or punishments in this method. These include positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment.
Positive reinforcement is giving a child something that reinforces good behavior. This can include praise, a reward system or a token economy system. Reward systems can be very effective for some children. To be successful they need to have simple goals that are expressed in a positive way. There should only be 1-3 goals at any given time. If the goal is overwhelming break the goal into parts. For example, if the goal is to get ready in the morning it can be broken down into getting dressed, brushing teeth, eating breakfast, packing their bag, and putting on shoes and coat. Work on one goal at a time and build up on that.
The reward does not need to be material or cost money but should be motivating. One way to increase motivation is to have a child come up with ideas and put them all in a jar. Every time the child earns a reward, they can pick a reward. The element of surprise with which award they will receive can be motivating. A token economy system is one in which a child earns smaller tokens that they can turn in for a bigger prize. They earn rewards but also learn about saving and delayed gratification.
There are some child psychologists who do not recommend using reward systems. These providers believe that behaviors need to internally motivated not externally motivated. This means your child wants to do a behavior because it is the right thing to do and not for the reward. Reward systems can be useful though especially if used short term or with certain behavioral disorders.
Positive punishment is one way of stopping negative behavior. It is a confusing term from a parenting perspective but is a word based in psychology research. With positive punishment, a consequence is added to help deter the child from repeating that behavior. For example, if a child lies about a behavior, they receive and extra consequence in addition to the one for the behavior to discourage lying.
Negative reinforcement is when a child changes behavior to avoid an unpleasant situation such as a parent yelling at them or a parent nagging. If you frequently nag your child to make their bed, they may start making their bed just to not hear you nag! The terminology is confusing because most parents would see this as a positive!
A negative punishment is one that takes away something such as a toy or takes away a privilege such as screen time. Negative punishments are very similar to reward systems and are often used in conjunction with that discipline method. Again, there is debate in the psychology world as to its use and motivations, but it can be beneficial for certain situations and behavioral disorders. And I don’t think ANY of us has made it through this pandemic without removing or threatening to remove screen time! Negative punishment also includes ignoring a child during a temper tantrum or using Time Out. Time Out will be discussed below.
Behavioral modification can be used in the other of the five discipline methods, but especially in positive discipline and gentle discipline which are discussed below.
Positive discipline is similar to emotional coaching in that uses problem solving as a behavioral modification technique. Positive discipline makes a distinction between discipline and punishment. There may be consequences to behavior, but these consequences are meant to teach rather than punish.
Positive discipline starts with an authoritative approach. Authoritative parenting is a style of parenting that sets rules and consequences for behavior but with extra consideration for explaining reasoning and taking the child’s feelings into consideration. This is not the style of “Because I said so.”
In this method, parents and children will often meet or discuss behaviors, feelings, mistakes, and ideas about their problems. Parents and children then work together to resolve issues. Parents using this method often provides lots of encouragement to their children especially around the problem solving and efforts applied.
A common method in Positive Discipline is the use of a Time In.
Most parents are familiar with “Time Outs” as a discipline technique. This method, although widely used, is often used incorrectly to the detriment of the child and family. A better method is “Time In”
A Time In should occur in a safe location and you should STAY with your child. It should be a calm and comforting time. You should stay close to your child. For some children they may need physical touch, some may just want you nearby. You should be at eye level or able to make eye contact with your child. Just like in emotional coaching, you want to help them identify their emotion or feeling and okay that feeling with them. If they had an unacceptable behavior you can discuss that behavior once they have calmed down. This is also when you can problem solve unacceptable behaviors.
It should end when your child has recovered enough to choose the acceptable behavior or has regulated their emotion. It should not be threatened as a punishment but be explained to a child a short time in a separate place where they can work on emotional regulation. It should be a safe place for your child to practice those coping skills.
Gentle discipline, not to be confused with permissive parenting, is a method that focuses on discipline but not punishment. It is very similar to positive discipline. It includes avoiding shame, embarrassment, or corporal punishment.
This method focuses on long term behavioral management. This is by making everyday situations a learning experience. Parents using this method use thorough explanations and plenty of choices to enable a child to learn acceptable behavior. Parents discuss expectations for behaviors with explanations of those behaviors before situations occur. Children also are aware of the consequences before they are involved in experiences. These consequences are usually logical or natural. And like emotional coaching, this method involves identifying and discussing emotions and then problem solving.
This method also uses redirection, especially with toddlers. Instead of yelling or saying no, they redirect and reengage the child in a new, acceptable behavior or activity. This method may also use Time In.
There are methods of discipline that we no longer use or recommend that we often were raised with or have used on our own children.
Traditional Time Outs have been punishment based. They often leave children on their own to cope with their emotions. Time Outs have been shown, by research, to increase unwanted behaviors. Fear is a terrible motivator. It can impact long-term learning of coping skills and behaviors. It often makes children MORE upset, increases anger, and can increase resentment.
Time Out also does not teach coping skills. This is especially true in toddlers who do not have the ability to think logically or critically about their behaviors or emotions. It also teaches children that we reject them if their behavior isn’t perfect, and they take from the experience that we only want to be with them if they are happy and behaved. In the long term this creates an unhealthy people-pleasing personality and relationship issues that can be detrimental to their mental health. We prefer for their behavior to be internally motivated and not for the approval of others.
Corporal Punishment or Physical Punishment
Corporal punishment is physically disciplining your child. This includes spanking, hitting or other methods of causing pain. We do not ever recommend spanking. It does not effectively work as a discipline tool and often escalates over time due to the lack of effectiveness. It also is psychologically harmful to children. In the short term it can cause hostility, rage, and a feeling of powerlessness. Long term effects include impaired cognitive ability, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression and relationship issues as an adult. It can also lead to antisocial behavior and aggressive behavior. It also reduces the volume of gray matter in the brain.
Children who are disciplined using physical punishment are more likely to be physically aggressive with others both as children as adults. There is link between children who suffered physical punishment and dating and sexual violence in adults. The earlier physical punishment starts and the frequency and severity of this type of punishment will have increasingly negative effects.
Every parent will parent differently and needs to parent differently based on their own personality and temperament as well as their child. Remember, most often many of the above parenting styles are used. But what do you do if your child has a specific behavior that you need help redirecting like lying or whining? Next week we will explore specific behaviors. How do you know if your child has normal behavior for their age or if it is more of an issue? We will also explore common behavioral problems and the best treatment for these.
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