17 Aug

Why Punishing Kids Doesn’t Work & 3 Steps to Finding Solutions to Problem Behaviors

Mother scolds the child

Many adults complain that parents ignore or excuse kids’ rude behaviors and don’t punish them enough. “Today’s children are entitled” “They tyrannize their parents.” Parents should teach them a lesson, they say, by giving them tough consequences––a good slap, scolding, or time-out.

I disagree. Punishing isn’t the most effective way of delivering a message of respect or responsibility. Here are some reasons:

  1. Criticism, shaming, and blaming do nothing to teach children how to cooperate and be accountable. Not that a parent should condone the unruly or disrespectful child’s behavior. Far from it. You should be firm about what is acceptable and what’s not. Help your kids be open to learning by approaching them from a place of kindness and respect, not anger and retribution. When you hit or yell at a child for being disrespectful, you’re relying on physical or emotional pain to be the teaching mechanism. True, your kids will remember the pain, but it won’t teach them the long-term life lesson you’d like it to.
  2. Slap your kids and they’ll focus on how unfair and hypocritical you are, not on what you’re trying to teach them. They see their parent lose control and do something––hit or scream––that they know you don’t want them to do. Or, if they’re smart and sneaky, they may strategize how to get away with the behavior that you’re punishing them for by hiding it better next time. Some will hold onto their resentments and plot how to get back at you. Others do this unconsciously by underperforming at school, picking on their siblings, or finding passive-aggressive ways of disappointing or undermining you.
  3. As much as you might like to, you can’t control your kids’ thoughts. If you put kids in time-out and try to get them to “think” about what they did wrong, they quite possibly might sit there and stew in their anger at you for putting them there. They’re not saying in their heads, “Oh, I’m so lucky to have parents who care so much about me that they’ve given me this opportunity to think about how to improve my behavior. I’ll use this time wisely to contemplate why I behaved so poorly, and then I’ll surely figure out how to become a nicer human being!” No, that’s not how it works.
  4. Your kids may take the blame and shame to heart and begin thinking of themselves as “bad” or “unworthy.” You don’t want to diminish your child’s self-respect while trying to encourage respect for others. Doing this teaches them to submit to others, even if it means losing dignity, or gives them carte blanche to wield power over others by trying to force them to submit.

Three Steps to Finding Solutions for Problem Behaviors

In the heat of the moment, neither of you is capable of logical thought. Upset adults react to their children’s upset. This means that they, too, have lost control. And when adults’ judgment is clouded by raging emotions, they’re not able to respond skillfully to their children’s misbehavior. So, Step One is:

  1. To get to the bottom of misbehavior, first you and your kid need a cooling off period so you can get back to your senses. This might mean a positive time-out where each of you finds a calm, safe place to relax and pull yourself together. In your peaceful place, you might listen to soothing music, read a funny or inspirational book, or look at pictures or objects that are calming to you. Your children’s positive places may be equipped with pillows, fun books, stuffed animals or other toys that make them feel relaxed and peaceful. Once you and your child are calm, proceed to Step Two:
  2. Figure out what’s really going on. Take time to connect emotionally and show empathy for your child. What emotions are motivating the misbehavior? When a child acts up, they’re in an upset state. Research shows that people who are upset are in their “reptilian” or limbic brains and their logical, reasoning brains are off-line. To get them into a more balanced, rational state, you need to calm them, or allow them time to calm themselves, and then show empathy. Without condoning the poor behavior, you begin by connecting to your kids emotionally so your kids can access the higher level cognitive skills needed to work on solutions. Use your intuition and be sure to act from your heart. An emotional connection can involve a hand on the shoulder, a kind expression, or a statement showing empathy for the feelings they’re expressing. Only after you’ve connected can you re-direct.
  3. After you’ve established connection, it’s helpful for you to ask “curiosity questions.” Gently inquire with open-ended questions. Encourage kids to figure things out for themselves, instead of telling them what to think. When kids find the solutions themselves, they’re more likely to act on them.

Here are some questions you might ask (from Jane Nelsen’s Positive Discipline: the classic guide to helping children develop self-discipline, responsibility, cooperation, and problem-solving skills):

“What happened?” or “What’s wrong?”

“What do you think caused it to happen?”

“What were you trying to accomplish?”

“How do you think this affected _______ (the other person or people)?” or “What do you think _______ (someone) felt when this happened?”

“What did you learn from this?”

“How, in the future, can you use what you learned?”

“What ideas do you have for solutions?”

You’ll get a better understanding of your child’s world if you listen carefully, and show empathy and acceptance. Try to avoid asking “why” questions, which invite defensiveness.

For some adults, showing empathy sounds like a “reward” for poor behavior. They believe that kids should “pay” for their misbehavior. However, research has shown that punishment, punitive time-outs, scolding, taking away privileges, and other forms of parental retribution only serve to further activate the child’s limbic system, where dysregulated emotions run the show. Punishment triggers the limbic-based fight-flight-or-freeze reaction, setting the child up to resist and react. At best, the child learns nothing in the process––except perhaps to suppress anger or resentment, better hide the undesirable behavior, or turn the anger inward as low self-esteem or unworthiness.

You have a choice as a parent. You can go down the path of imposing consequences when your kids misbehave, or you can make an effort to connect to your kids with empathy, kindness, and firmness. One strategy for doing this is asking the right questions and allowing children to work on the solutions themselves, and with your help when needed. This opens the door for you to teach them life-long skills in cooperation and problem-solving––a win-win for everyone.

To your joyful and wise parenting!


21 Sep

Conscious Parenting: 4 Simple Steps to Keep Your Cool as You Grow Your Child’s Brain

discipline, responsibility, conscious parenting, mindfulness, mindful parenting, creative problem solving, Dr Becky Bailey, STAR method, calm parent

This Sunday morning, 6-year old Mary Sue got up well before her parents, so excited to be making them breakfast––”the best-est, special-est breakfast ever!” she thought. From the frig, she got out all the yummy stuff she could think of, eggs, olives, pickles, ketchup, and salsa, dragged out the step stool, and climbed up get a big mixing bowl from the cabinet. As she yanked the bowl out, it slipped out of her small hands and came careening down, knocking over the egg carton on its way to the floor. There was a huge crash as the bowl shattered on the kitchen tiles. Mom and Dad arrived in the kitchen rubbing their eyes and saw Mary Sue standing in the middle of a big, gooey mess. Broken eggs and ceramic shards were everywhere. “I didn’t mean it! I didn’t mean it!” Mary Sue was bawling, “I wanted it to be a surprise. Now it’s all ruined!”

Well, if you were her mom or dad, what would you do? Of course, above all, you’d be concerned for your child’s safety. There’s broken ceramic all over the floor. And, admittedly, you’re upset that there’s this monstrous mess! You wish your daughter had just slept a bit later, or maybe, just maybe, would have thought to ask for help. On the other hand, you value her independence and love the fact that she put so much effort into trying to do something special for you.

If your goal is to teach your child to take responsibility for her behavior, you might give Dr. Becky Bailey’s STAR approach a try:

  1. “S” = Smile. Yes, even if that seems counter-intuitive, you’d be surprised how smiling relieves stress, takes your child off the defensive, and allows you to return to your senses.
  2. Next, “T” = Take a deep breathe, which calms your heart rate.
  3. “A” = And hold it.
  4. Then, “R” = Relax!

When you’re relaxed and calm, you can see things more clearly so you don’t let your surprise and upset get the better of you. It becomes more clear that your child was simply acting like a child and not deliberately trying to push your buttons. Your calmed state of mind allows you to connect emotionally with your child. Coming from a place of mindful awareness, you become a role model for composure––showing her it’s possible to deal with distress without losing your cool.

On the other hand, had you chosen to do what many parents do automatically, which is to scold, criticize, or punish, you’d be triggering your child’s survival mechanisms. Questions or commands such as, “why didn’t you ask me for help?” “what on earth do you think you’re doing?” “how come you’re always making such a mess?” or “you’re in time out! go to your room right now!” only feed into the fight, flight, or freeze reaction. What you’ll get is your child screaming back at you, defending herself, running off, or shutting down and turning her fury inward at herself. This latter reaction can cause a life-long pattern of anxiety, depression, and low self-worth. Your aim is not to provoke feelings of incompetence, guilt, and shame, but to encourage creative problem-solving. Ultimately, you want to get her into a calmer, more rational state so she can learn to make good choices, even in the most challenging situations.

Rather than give way to those rote reactions you learned from your parents, and your parents learned from their parents, you have a choice! You can make a conscious effort to boost your child’s sense of personal competence by creating an emotional connection with her. Once this connection is made, right brain to right brain, she’ll be reassured that she’s safe, physically and emotionally. Keeping a kind, soft expression on your face, holding her in a reassuring way––if she’s open to being touched––or, possibly, just placing a hand on her shoulder or back, you are showing her, in no uncertain way, that you’re there for her, no matter what.

Best of all, you’re calming your child’s reactive state so she can get her rational brain back on track. You’re helping her use those upper level thinking skills that allow her to solve problems logically. With your support, and once you’re grounded in the present moment using the STAR method, your child can become more cooperative while acquiring skills that will help her have a happy and successful life.

To your joyful parenting!


07 Sep

How to Tame Tantrums: One Strategy That Really Works!


Three-year old Jake was desperate to play with his older sister and her friend, who were setting up an family camping outing with their Playmobile toys. He had played alone since lunchtime and wanted to be part of the fun. The girls had just gotten the campsite set up, having placed the toy family at the campfire, when Jake asked to bring in his favorite toys, a gang of dinosaurs. But the girls saw no place for the dinosaurs in their story and told Jake, “no, leave us alone!” Jake turned bright red in the face, did all he could to contain his tears, and then lashed out. With repeated kicks left and right, he proceeded to destroy the entire, elaborate scene that they’d spent hours putting together. Pieces of the girls’ camping haven were now scattered in every corner of the room. Jake stood there fuming, glaring angrily at the girls, and looking helpless and defeated.

As a parent, how would you deal with Jake? Would you punish him by putting him in time out? Or yell at him to stop bothering his sister? Perhaps you’d tell him, or the girls, to be “nice,” or else…? What other choices do you have?

With the understanding of why your child has tantrums, you could take a more proactive stance. In most cases, the child having a tantrum is totally out of control and needs your guidance. In full-blown tantrum mode, the child’s upper level thought processes are entirely off line. He has lost the use of his cerebral cortex, the part that gives him the ability to think, be flexible, and express his feelings. Utterly dysregulated, he doesn’t know how to deal with the big emotions he’s feeling, nor does he have the tools to ask for what he needs. He needs your help to soothe his distress.

“When your child is at his worst, that’s when he needs you the most,”
– Daniel Siegel, No Drama Discipline

Try to remember this the next time your kid drives you crazy. Your connection with your child comes first, and, besides protecting him and others from harm, and keeping property intact, this is more important than anything else. The upset child is in a reactive state: his “reptilian brain”––the part that’s wired for fight, flight, freeze or faint––is on alert. He can’t listen to reason or logic. By approaching with an empathic and nurturing attitude, you can help soothe out-of-control emotions and lead him to a calmer state where he can experience self-control.

Through your gestures, body language, and facial expressions, you can show him that you really understand and feel his distress. This might mean quieting your voice to a warm, friendly tone, giving a gentle touch or a hug, sitting down on the his level, and softening your facial expression. You might gently pick him up, rub his back, and soothe him, letting him know that you get how much it hurts. All of these gestures signal to your child that he is safe and he is not alone. You are setting limits of physical safety by preventing him from harming himself or others, or from damaging property. This helps re-integrate the brain, which means he’ll have moved from being reactive to being receptive, and will be able to use some higher level thinking.

When he’s calm enough to look you in the eyes, you could use a few quiet, empathic words to show you get it (i.e., “you really wanted them to let you play” or “you felt left out”) and go on to redirect him about asking for what he wants by telling him something like, “you can say, ‘I want to play, too.’” By connecting in a soothing way, you’re training his brain to self-regulate, to cope with anger and frustration. You’re helping him regain self-control. As a result, he’ll be able to listen to the limits you’ve communicated to him and absorb the message (i.e., “kicking your sister’s toys is not respectful. You can tell her you’re sad she’s not letting you play”).

By being there for him emotionally, you give him a foundation for learning upper level skills such as sound decision-making, emotional regulation, personal insight, flexibility, empathy, and morality. These skills, which he’ll need to enjoy a balanced and meaningful life and healthy relationships, are governed by a part of his brain that won’t fully mature until he’s in his mid-twenties!

So, the next time your child throws a big, messy tantrum, keep in mind that you are a co-builder of your child’s brain. Jump in and connect with him emotionally. You’ll not only be teaching your child to self-calm and make positive choices, you’ll also be deepening and strengthening your relationship with him.

To your joyful parenting!