How to discipline a child effectively? So often, our children don’t listen, they act out, or don’t behave the way we have taught them. Inside you will read the most effective approach on how to discipline a child.
Get a printable with tips on being a calmer parent at the bottom of this post.
As parents, we have an internal desire to give children more opportunity, richer experiences, and a better upbringing than we had. Part of that involves avoiding our parents’ mistakes and parenting our kids to the best of our abilities. Despite the best of intentions, the way we were raised largely acts as the foundation from which we parent.
This means that if we were raised with threats of being spanked, constantly lectured, or sent into timeouts when we misbehaved, chances are, at some point, we will use the same tactics with our own kids.
Related reading: Time In vs. Timeout and the Fundamental Mistake you Want to Avoid
For example, if I’m not mindful, I catch myself lecturing my kids.
I find it happens when I’m tired, desperately trying to just get the house cleaned up, or an assignment finished for school.
My kids sense my preoccupation.
My daughter will have an elaborate play scene set up including a makeshift restaurant, a pool, and a hotel. All of the food will be organized in rows. She will have tables made out of small boxes, grocery baskets, and little menus. That’s when her little brother decides this is his chance to move in beside my daughter. He always seems to get just a little too close.
She states she needs space.
My son takes this declaration as an invitation to annoy her more.
The frustration that has been brewing in my daughter for minutes boils over. She pushes my son away.
That’s when I snap out of the get-‘er-done trance I’m in. But because I’m still somewhat focused on finishing the task at hand, I do not parent mindfully. Instead, I default to lecturing.
“Keep your hands to yourself! You should know better.”
Or, “She said she wanted space. LEAVE HER ALONE!”
I tend to catch myself saying one of the two more than I’d care to admit.
Related reading: Put a stop to sibling rivalry using unbelievably simple strategies
The problem with this approach is this.
Lecturing doesn’t work all that well. When I scold my children, their brains are in a reactive state. For my daughter, she has just had her brother encroach on her territory. And his trespassing has put her into a fight mode. She pushes her brother because she is in a state of hyperarousal. Then, I come in and talk to her in a stern tone further underscoring her feelings of threat.
My son feels rejected because his sister won’t play with him. And, he feels threatened because his sister just pushed him. Then, I come in and scold him reinforcing his mental state of fight, flight or freeze.
Neurologically, neither child is in a state where he or she can listen to what I am saying. Epinephrin (adrenalin), norepinephrine (noradrenaline) and cortisol (the stress hormone) are present in their brains impacting their ability to listen. Even if they weren’t in a state of hyperarousal, my children are strong-willed at the best of times and don’t respond well to authoritarian parenting.
How to discipline a child effectively
In order to help our children understand and embody our values, we must scaffold them from a reactive to a receptive state. This means we need to connect with our child. According to Dr Daniel Seigel, clinical professor of psychiatry, what moves anyone from a reactive to a receptive state are feelings of:
- empathy, and
Once a child is calm, he or she is in a receptive state to be disciplined. To learn more about reactive versus responsive states, check out this video from Dr Siegel below.
The three-step approach for how to discipline a child
First, it is important to distinguish between the two meanings of discipline. The first is to code behaviour by use of punishment. The second, according to Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, is to correct or train the mental or moral faculties.
We understand that the former approach puts a child into a state where she feels threatened, fearful or frozen. The latter creates a situation where the child is likely to listen and behave in the future.
Here is how.
According to Daniel Siegel, MD and Tina Payne Bryson, PhD, answering these three questions will help ensure you are parenting in a way that promotes calmness and encourages listening, aka a receptive state. When you’re about to discipline your child, ask:
1. Why did my child act this way?
Was she tired, overstimulated, and/or lacking the word to express her feelings? Did she feel like she needed me and I wasn’t available? Is she scared, insecure, or worried? Does she feel threatened? Has my child been getting enough attention from me?
2. What do I want to teach at this moment?
Is it calmness, sharing, or for him to use his words? Do I want him to learn patience, selflessness, kindness, or compassion? Establish what you want to teach before proceeding.
3. What is the best way to teach this lesson?
As mentioned above, it is not best to teach a child when he is in a reactive state. For instance, I have tried to tell my son he’s okay when he’s had a full-blown meltdown.
It does not work.
The best approach, in my experience, is to wait for calmness and then engage in a dialogue about what happened. My daughter is the most open to having hard discussions when we’re in the car one-on-one, snuggling before bedtime or while colouring. My son is better right after he’s let out all of his feelings. Sometimes, this means going into his bedroom with him and waiting quite a while for him to regain composure. Only when he’s calm and is ready to engage with me, then we talk.
How to discipline a child – barriers to success
While this approach is a simple and effective way to discipline a child, it is not easy. In fact, if you’re new to this approach, it will feel foreign. And, there will be times where you don’t perfectly execute it.
Read more about why it’s completely normal to fail as a parent here.
Understand like all new behaviours, it will take a while before these three questions become habitual. In fact, the authors of No Drama Discipline suggest it might be helpful to copy out the three questions and put them on post-it notes. Then, place the notes around your home and in the car as reminders.
Aside from remembering how to discipline a child, there will be other barriers to success like:
- Not enough self-care,
- Perceived scrutiny of others – maybe there are people in your life that feel that if you aren’t scolding your child, you aren’t teaching her.
- Lack of support.
If you can brainstorm your barriers to success and create a plan, this approach will be much easier to implement.
Becoming a more mindful parent is a process. There are times we will default to mistakes of our past. However, the more we practice, the better we will get at promoting a receptive mindset where our kids want to listen.
For additional reading on this approach, I highly recommend reading the following books: