The Discipline Dilemma: Guiding Principles for Finding an Approach that Works for Your Individual Child and Family
Feelings are not the problem, it’s what kids (and adults!) do with them that can be problematic.
I started my career as a child development specialist at the ripe age of 24, before having kids of my own. My brilliant approach was to tell parents what to do, for example, to count to 3 to magically get their children to “behave”, or to just set a limit and stick to it for goodness sake. When parents returned week after week reporting that these strategies weren’t working—3-year-old Jason simply didn’t care about any consequences they threatened; 2-year-old Felicia threw such horrifying tantrums in public they had to be stopped at all costs—I blamed the parents. If only they had followed through on my advice, all would be well.
Then I had my own kids—major rude awakening—and I wished I could go back to all those families I had worked with and apologize, for being so patronizing, condescending, insensitive, and ultimately useless in helping them find a way to set and enforce appropriate rules and limits. Instead of building parents’ confidence, I eroded it.
So for the last quarter century I have been striving to do better—to figure out how to truly help parents with this discipline challenge, which is so important, because discipline is about much more than correcting “misbehavior”, it impacts all of a child’s development. It teaches children to manage their emotions, learn right from wrong, follow the rules and cooperate, and to be compassionate, empathic human beings—attributes all parents want for their children.
And parents are struggling mightily with finding effective ways to discipline their children. Tuning In, the national parent survey ZERO TO THREE conducted in partnership with the Bezos Family Foundation in 2015, found that over half (56%) say that managing their child when he/she misbehaves is one of their top challenges. Nearly 6 in 10 parents (57%) say they struggle with figuring out the most effective way to discipline. Further, 60% wish they had more patience and 47% wish they could do a better job of managing their own emotions.
These findings are reflected in my direct work with parents. I get calls every week from families struggling with any number of challenges, such as the 2-year-old who won’t go to sleep until she has been read an ever-increasing number of books, so that bedtime is now 2 hours long; or the 3-year-old “fascist dictator” who is holding the family captive with his endless demands for control—over EVERYTHING. These parents are exhausted, frustrated, angry and resentful; they are also sad and feel like failures, because by the end of the day they feel like all they have done is yelled and dealt with ugly power struggles, leaving little room for love or joy. And parents are trying really hard to get it “right”. They use a range of discipline strategies but find most ineffective. Of the 86% of parents who use redirection or distraction, only 29% say it’s effective. Of the 81% who take toys away as a punishment, only 28% find it useful. Parents find harsher discipline strategies even less effective. More than a quarter of all parents (26%) say they “pop or swat” their children a few times a week or more, but a full 80% of these parents say it is not an effective strategy. Sixteen percent say they intentionally embarrass their child regularly, but 85% of these parents don’t find it useful.
Our research with parents also showed that parents don’t want to use harsh strategies. Almost a third (30%) of all parents say: “I spank even though I don’t feel okay about it.” Often through tears, parents in our discussion groups shared that using physical methods to get their children to behave was not just painful for their kids, but painful for them. One mom summed it up: “If I could learn [something] besides the no’s…and the time outs that don’t work…If there is another way they can listen to me without a spanking, I would prefer not to spank them.” So it wasn’t surprising that the survey found that almost 6 in 10 (58%) parents say they wish they knew more effective ways to discipline their child.
At the same time, our research showed that parents are tired of and overwhelmed by the “parenting industrial complex” telling them what to do. And they are underwhelmed by the usefulness of what they find when they seek information on coping with challenging behaviors. They don’t want one-size-fits all approaches and they mistrust “experts” who offer guidance without even knowing their child. A majority of moms and dads (58%) say there is so much parenting information available that it’s hard to know whom to trust. 63% say they are “skeptical of people who give parenting advice and recommendations if they don’t know my child and my situation specifically.” While a full 89% of parents say they rely on medical professionals for guidance, only 62% say they find it effective. 82% go to parenting websites but only 47% say what they find there is useful.
So what’s a child development specialist to do? What kind of guidance can we offer that is helpful, and not patronizing or prescriptive, that is not a one-size-fits-all, formulaic, approach that often leaves parents feeling incompetent because it doesn’t work? I have come to the conclusion that what’s most helpful to parents is to offer “frames”—a lens through which they can decode the meaning of their child’s behavior and develop an approach to discipline that works best for their individual child and family.
Be sure your expectations for your child match his/her age and stage of development. Recognize that young children are driven by emotions, not logic, so irrational behavior is totally normal. Expecting more from children than they are capable of can lead to lots of frustration for both parents and children. Our research revealed that a majority of parents believe children start developing self-control much earlier than brain science tells us is possible. More than half (56%) of parents believe children have the impulse control to resist the desire to do something forbidden before age 3. And 36% believe that children under age 2 have this kind of self-control. 24% of all parents believe that children are able to control their emotions, such as not having a tantrum when frustrated, at 1 year or younger, while 42% believe children have this ability by 2 years. In fact, these skills start developing between 3.5 and 4 years, and take many more years to be used consistently.
Having appropriate expectations is critical because the meaning you assign to a child’s behavior influences how you react. If you think your child is purposefully breaking rules, you are much more likely to react in harsh ways that escalate, instead of calm, your child. If you see these behaviors in the context of normal development, you are more likely to approach your child with empathy and appreciate these moments as opportunities to teach good coping skills.
Feelings are not the problem, it’s what kids (and adults!) do with them that can be problematic. Recognizing and naming feelings is the first step toward learning to manage them in healthy, acceptable ways over time. Validating children’s feelings also reduces the child’s need to act-out on those feelings.
Manage your own emotions. It is important to tune in to and manage your feelings, because how you react in these challenging moments with young children deeply affects their ability for self-regulation, self-control, and overall emotional health far into the future. Research (and real-life) shows that when parents react harshly (emotionally or physically), children’s distress tends to escalate. Children can’t learn when they are upset or scared.
Look at the world from your child’s perspective. Learning to manage emotions and deal with life’s frustrations and disappointments is hard work for little ones who have just been on this earth for two or three years. Toddlers have strong feelings but few tools for managing them. The part of the brain responsible for managing behavior and impulses is still very immature. Young children need help to cope with life’s rules and limits. They need support and guidance to learn about controlling their emotions and adapting to the many rules of everyday family life.
All behavior has meaning. Throwing a tantrum in the grocery store might be due to sensory overload, fatigue, or disappointment about not getting a cookie from the bakery. Biting might be due to a need for stimulation or to keep others from invading her space. Trying to understand the root cause of a behavior can help you come up with discipline strategies that are sensitive and effective. This means considering some factors that impact behavior: What’s going on in your child’s world—has she experienced a recent move? A loss? The arrival of a new baby? Parental stress? It’s also important to think about your child’s temperament. Is she a big reactor or a go-with-the-flow kind of kid? Is he persistent or does he gets frustrated easily? How does she react to new people and experiences—does she jump right in or need time to feel comfortable? All of these factors influence children’s ability to cope with life’s natural stressors such as: adapting to a new experience, not getting everything they want—when they want it, having to share or to sleep in their own room, or stopping an activity they love to do something they don’t love (like having to leave the playground to go home for a nap.)
See your child as a partner in solving problems. Starting at around 2.5 to 3 years of age, children begin to understand logic—why things happen. This means they can start to participate in problem-solving. “Throwing balls at people is not okay—It hurts. What are other ways you can use the ball?” “Two boys, one truck, what should we do?” The more children feel they are a part of the solution, the more likely they are to cooperate with it. Life is a series of problems to solve every day, so nurturing this skill in young children is one of the greatest gift you can give them.
Avoid harsh punishment. There is increasing and overwhelming evidence that harsh emotional and physical discipline methods (i.e., verbal shaming, spanking) are harmful to children’s social-emotional and cognitive development. While it may appear to work in the moment—stopping a behavior out of fear—it is not effective in teaching self-control in the long term.
Discipline comes from the word “disciple”, which means: follower, believer, and pupil. Parents have got a lot of power. Teach them well.