When you look up the meaning of “discipline” on the web, it says that it is training someone “to obey rules or a code of behavior, using punishment to correct disobedience”! This makes it seem that punishment and discipline go hand and hand, but this is absolutely not the case!
Self-“discipline” is about our ability to learn self-“control”, not self-“punishment“! It is this self-control that we are trying to instill in our children when we engage in discipline.
Certainly, we revert to punishment sometimes when we feel helpless to get our children to hear our important messages. But we also know that research shows punishment is not effective in supporting long-term change in the ways we intend, and we would likely choose differently if we only knew how.
And if only it was as easy as it sounds. There are so many ingredients to an effective behavior plan and, like making cookies, you can have the majority of the fundamentals in the mix, but if you’re missing an egg, or someone dropped in a lego, its hard to reflect on the parts you had right.
So while punishment might be one form of discipline, it certainly isn’t the only form, and it definitely isn’t the most effective. For an alternative way to teach your child (self)-discipline, here are Ten Critical Elements to Any Discipline Plan:
1. Have a Plan
You don’t need a therapist to tell you that it’s so much easier to make decisions when you are in a calm emotional state than when you are just recovering from the realization that your child has just risked their life or lost their mind. It is very difficult to think clearly when we are in a heightened emotional state, and this is a fact supported by brain science.
In addition, any parent knows the passion that kids can have for arguing consequences, and this is the last thing parents need to be using their energy on when the time comes to address unacceptable behaviors. Having a plan frees the mind of determining how events should be handled, lessens the likelihood of arguing about consequences over time, and frees parents’ energies to address underlying issues with the child.
2. Limit Your Behavioral Goals
Limit the expectations for change in your child out of compassion for them as fellow human beings. Having too many goals can be overwhelming to your child in the same way that having too high of personal expectations and goals for yourself is discouraging to you.
Also limit their behavioral goals out of compassion for yourself! When you implement a behavioral plan, you can expect that children will initially escalate in order to test the new limits. And nobody wants to be having escalations all over the place and all at once!
Try to set one or two initial goals per child. Some of the most commonly needed expectations involve compliance (exhibiting defiance or disregarding rules) and/or safety concerns. If either of these are true for your child, you would likely do well to start there.
On a related note, don’t be afraid to set different goals for different kids, and do set goals for all kids. This can be a great opportunity to teach or remind children that each person struggles with some sort of problem, even though theirs might be different from another’s. Explain that the structures you are implementing around their expectations are to support success in overcoming whatever their particular challenges are.
3. Define Each Expectation in Very Concrete Terms
In order to make the best decisions for ourselves as possible, it is important to know as much as possible, what the outcome of various decisions will be. That means that in order to make the most appropriate decisions for ourselves, we must be informed if a curfew of 10:00 actually means 10:00, 10:01, or 10:15. We are all likely to adjust our actions based on this type of specific information.
Suppose that safety is a concern. You might define safety as not harming themselves, not harming others, being safe online, maintaining curfew, accurately informing parents of their whereabouts, or any combination of these. Likewise, internet safety might include things like not accepting unknown friends, not posting inaccurate information such as a false age, not posting inappropriate pictures that show specific body parts, allowing parents access to passwords, etc.
Define things like compliance in similar concrete terms. Make sure to decide and inform your child of details like how many warnings they will get (a rule of thumb tends to be providing a single warning) and/or how much time they will have to comply. Regardless of what definitions you establish, be very clear on your definitions as it is not fair to change them after the fact: kids need to know clearly where the boundaries are. Furthermore, kids have less anxiety when they can trust in follow-through and consistency.
Please remember that, if harming themselves or others is a concern, it is very important to make the explicit distinction that talking to someone about these feelings is okay and is within the boundaries of maintaining safety – it is only acting on these thoughts that is not.
4. Use Consequences, Not Punishments
Research has shown over and over that punishments do not produce longterm positive behavioral changes and, in fact, contribute to promoting aggression and power-struggles instead. But what are consequences, if not punishments?
Consequences and punishments can seem similar in that they are attempts to address behaviors, but there are significant differences in their intents, and their outcomes. Punishments are intended to make children feel bad about themselves, and they do. Consequences are intended to emphasize choices and demonstrate that decisions, whether good or bad, impact outcomes. They teach children to consider future goals when making decisions, and offer hope that they can always improve and do better.
To establish consequences for your children, all you have to do is pair an expected behavior (and your child’s choice to meet that expectation or not) with an incentive (or reason for choosing to meet that expectation). For each child, think of what motivates them most and pair each of these with a behavior goal that you identified above. Just make sure that whatever incentive you choose will be available to them on a regular basis so that they can access it as quickly as possible, should their improved behavior warrant it.
Try your best avoid pairing two unrelated behavior expectations with one privilege. This can result in a problem when a child struggles with one expectation, and then loses the incentive to continue maintaining the other behavioral expectation that they may have otherwise succeeded with. Not to mention, the more reinforcements around the ability to succeed the better!
It is not advised to take kids out of regularly scheduled sports or arts activities as these are healthy outlets likely to promote more positive behaviors overall.
5. Make Time Limit’s Reasonable
Grounding kids for a month, or even a week can be much more ineffective than you might think. In fact, implementing consequences for an unreasonably long time generally results in one of two scenarios (or both): (a) your child’s behavior continues and maybe even gets worse as they think, “I’ve already lost my heart and soul (car keys, phone, time with friends, etc.) pretty much forever (fml) now, so what’s the point?” or/and (b) You aren’t able to follow through on implementing the consequences because it’s getting to be too much of a punishment for you!
On the other hand, implementing consequences for a short time may be much more effective than you might think. Just like adults, kids need to be able to picture and believe in the possibility of success in order to keep trying. They will give up if they feel that everything is taken away or if they do not see hope of changing an outcome in a reasonable timeframe.
For fifteen, sixteen, or seventeen year olds whose emotional/social/mental development is near their chronological age, two or three days is generally an appropriate timeframe. For younger children closer to nine or ten, as little as one or two hours may be sufficient.
6. Think of Consequences as Resets
If our goal is to get our children back on track as soon as possible (which of course it is), then our systems need to encourage our children to start being compliant as soon as possible. This is accomplished best when children are able to understand that compliant behaviors will get them faster results. (We all love faster results!)
Always keep in mind that kids need to be able to picture and believe in the possibility of success in order to keep trying, just like we do. The difference between adults and non-adults is, kids and teens aren’t able to imagine into the future as far as adults are able to, and it is necessary for their goals to be attainable in their own minds, not in the minds of their parents.
For that reason, it is very important to not use additive measures of time. You know what I’m talking about: When we say things like, “Ok you want to cuss at me again, well that’s two more hours for you!… What’s that I hear?… Well, there’s two more!” That is using additive measures of time, and that can surely lead to a child losing privileges far into the future, as well as to one or both of you giving up on caring much about good behaviors anymore.
Instead, when compliance is delayed, or defied, or whatever, simply start the time over from the time the child decides to comply. Again, our goal is to encourage our children to be compliant as soon as possible, in order to re-earn their privileges as soon as possible.
A simple way to increase effectiveness for shorter time-frames: have kids start a timer themselves, when they are ready to comply. This encourages additional commitment from the child and ownership of their efforts.
Consequences are best enforced with a neutral, non-judgemental tone. When angry or controlling tones are used, consequences easily come off as punishments, and have a much different effect. Angry or controlling tones are likely to stir resistance and defensiveness, and sabotage the accountability that we are working to cultivate in them.
7. Consider Enforceability
This is where every parent gets tripped up at some point. Pretty much anyone with the responsibility of looking after kids has been here at one time or another where, whoops, we can’t enforce what we just said. Make sure to consider the potential barriers that you might run into when implementing your plan, write them down, and problem-solve them before implementing anything!
As an example, what would you do if your child refused to hand over their phone? You might want to wait for the battery to die for them to give it to you to charge it (if you kept the charger). Or you might decide to disengage the phone by updating it to lost mode. Or you might have your phone carrier temporarily disable service. No matter what you decide, though, you will need to take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that it is enforceable. Make sure that you inform your child of your extended plans, too, should they be necessary.
Not following the rules of the overall behavior structure is the one and only time I might recommend implementing an additive approach. If used, you would only add an increment of the time that you normally use (adding a day to three days, or fifteen minutes to an hour, for instance). Make sure to give a time limit before actually adding the additional time (for example, “You have 10 minutes to relinquish your phone before you will need to meet the expectation for 4 days rather than 3”). And then, if the time is added, do not continue adding beyond that time. Simply start the full time when the child begins complying.
Begin implementation with a commitment to NEVER EVER force compliance. If a kid refuses to relinquish a privilege, wait until either the child decides to comply, or there is a time when you can confiscate an item without a power struggle (such as when the kid goes to school). Getting in power struggles will only take away a child’s need for some autonomy, and can foster (some studies even suggest the possibility of biologically trigger) aggression. Conversely, waiting and responding neutrally and matter-of-factly will model emotional regulation skills and non-reactivity (the self discipline you are working to teach them).
8. Listen With the Intention of Understanding
With the focus off of consequences that have already been established prior, you will be able to hear your child’s explanation for their behavior in a way that isn’t filtering for information to determine how this information should impact their consequences. Instead, you will have the opportunity to listen for how you might be able to help them manage their needs and feelings in a way that doesn’t cause them the same consequences in the future. Did they hit their brother because they were so angry and hurt by what their brother said? Did they need their brother to understand how upset they were? How might they get their brother to understand without hitting him?
The overall goal is this: We want to send the message, time and time again, that while some behaviors are acceptable and others are not acceptable, the child is always accepted. While the behaviors may be unwanted, the child is always loved.
As positive experiences build with this, your child will learn that they do not have to frame their explanations in a way to argue their consequences (since that won’t work), and they will tell more and more of their true experiences as they sense that their feelings will be understood and not judged.
Do your best to listen for the underlying feelings and needs that your child is trying to express or achieve. Some common feelings include feeling irritated, unloved, rejected, overwhelmed, shameful, picked on, jealous, offended, worthless, fearful, stressed, anxious, frustrated, helpless, or betrayed. Examples of needs might include feeling valued, belonging, having autonomy, having fun, or being heard.
This is not something that needs to happen right away. Make sure you wait until emotions have de-escalated enough that productive conversations are likely to be had.
And Another Note:
Yes, one more (No-one said this was easy!). Some children aren’t much of talkers and get uncomfortable talking about feelings. If this is something that your child doesn’t like, you might try talking while engaging in an activity that allows for movement while you are talking.
9. Be Consistent
You know what a baby does when you don’t meet their needs, right? Right. They cry louder… And louder… And louder. And when you first implement behavior structures it might get a little…well…loud.
If you are able to ignore the noise, however, and stick to the structure, this will subside. If you don’t stick to it and give in when the noise reaches, say, 90 decibels…well then… your child will make a mental note of where to start to get what they want the next time. If you simply don’t follow through, due to the fact that truly life is busy, they will be making a mental note of that as well.
But the other thing that they will take mental note of?… If you are consistent! And when they make that mental note, maaaan will you feel it! You might not feel it till the shock wears off, but you will feel it! Things become so much easier when that happens. Absolutely Do Not Do All that Work of Setting Up Behavior Structures and then Miss Out on Those Gems! Be Consistent!
10. Remember That Self Esteem Matters
When kids are struggling with behaviors, they generally don’t feel good about themselves to begin with. They might be feeling insecure or anxious about one thing or another and are struggling in some way; feelings of inadequacy and shame can contribute significantly to acting-out behaviors.
While this approach focuses on incentive structures that still result in consequences for negative behaviors, it also highlights successes and provides positive reinforcements that encourage repetition of the positive behaviors. Kids who are struggling behaviorally need this type of positive encouragement more than ever. Approaches that focus on punishing and making them feel bad would only compound existing problems.
This approach also provides positive momentum overall. Every time a child engages with their earned privilege, they are positively reinforced for doing good and subconsciously reminded of their capabilities to make positive choices. The increase in self-esteem and confidence that they experience acts as a secondary intrinsic motivation to make positive decisions moving forward. In addition, the more they are propelled to make positive decisions, the more they will experience other inherent rewards such as having better grades, feeling more rested, etc., and this will strengthen their intrinsic motivation even more.
Remember, when focusing on punishing our kids, we send the message that they are not measuring up and are not good. By focusing more on privileges that children are able to earn through their efforts, we send the message that we believe they are capable and that their efforts are noticed and valued.
Putting it All Together
Sometimes when I work with couples and families, parents will debate whether they should focus on addressing behaviors through consequences or whether they should focus on teaching children through showing understanding and maintaining a strong bond. My answer is that it isn’t one or the other; kids desperately need both.
When it comes to disciplining kids, each one is a little different. Its like trying to make a special cookie dough for the particular tastes of each one, but without a full recipe. We know we need flour and we need sugar (we must have the foundation of behavioral structures, and we must have the sweetness of the relationship). But we still have to adjust how much of each one we need for each child, and we have to determine what types and amounts of other ingredients we might need to incorporate for the corresponding flavor. And it doesn’t take much to throw it all off.
You might have needed guidance on a lot of these ingredients, or you may have already discovered a lot of these and were just missing a few. Either way, I hope this helps with your recipes.