3 Questions to Ask Yourself Before Disciplining Your Child

[EDITOR’S NOTE: The advice here is for parents who want to make discipline less of a fear-creating reaction and more of a skill-building response.

However, this mindful approach can be applied to all our relationships. We may not need to teach our spouse or our friends or our co-workers a lesson like we do our children, but we can certainly learn to stop and choose a reaction that may create a more positive, productive outcome.

These three basic questions are great ones to consider any time we’re faced with a difficult moment in our relationships. After all, we teach others how to treat us, and that starts with modeling the kind of behavior we expect of them – and ourselves. And if you’re a parent … well then, these questions will transform the way you relate to your kids!]
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From No-Drama Discipline by Tina Payne Bryson and Daniel J. Siegel

Let’s look closely at three questions that might help us respond to the four-year-old who slaps you while you’re emailing.

When you hear the smack and feel the tiny, hand-shaped imprint of pain on your back, it may take you a moment to calm down and avoid simply reacting. It’s not always easy, is it? In fact, our brains are programmed to interpret physical pain as a threat, which activates the neural circuitry that can make us more reactive and put us in a “fight” mode.

So it takes some effort, sometimes intense effort, to maintain control and practice No-Drama Discipline. We have to override our primitive reactive brain when this happens. Not easy. (By the way, this gets much harder to do if we’re sleep deprived, hungry, overwhelmed, or not prioritizing self-care.) This pause between reactive and responsive is the beginning of choice, intention, and skillfulness as a parent.

So as quickly as possible, you want to try to pause and ask yourself the three questions. Then you can see much more clearly what’s going on in your interaction with your child. Every situation is different and depends on many different factors, but the answers to the questions might look something like this:

1. WHY did my child act this way?

He hit you because he wanted your attention and wasn’t getting it. Sounds pretty typical for a four-year-old, doesn’t it? Desirable? No. Developmentally appropriate? Absolutely. It’s hard for a child this age to wait, and big feelings surfaced, making it even harder. He’s not yet old enough to consistently calm himself effectively or quickly enough to prevent acting out.

You wish he’d just soothe himself and with composure declare, “Mom, I’m feeling frustrated that you’re asking me to keep waiting, and I’m having a strong, aggressive impulse to hit you right now—but I have chosen not to and am using my words instead.” But that’s not going to happen. (It would be pretty funny if it did.)

In that moment, hitting is your son’s default strategy for expressing his big feelings of frustration and impatience, and he needs some time and skill-building practice to learn how to handle both delaying gratification and appropriately managing anger. That’s why he hit you.

That feels much less personal, doesn’t it? Our kids don’t usually lash out at us because they’re simply rude, or because we’re failures as parents. They usually lash out because they don’t yet have the capacity to regulate their emotional states and control their impulses. And they feel safe enough with us to know that they won’t lose our love, even when they’re at their worst.

In fact, when a four-year-old doesn’t hit and acts “perfect” all the time, we have concerns about the child’s bond with his parent. When children are securely attached to their parents, they feel safe enough to test that relationship. In other words, your child’s misbehavior is often a sign of his trust and safety with you. Many parents notice that their children “save it all up for them,” behaving much better at school or with other adults than they do at home. This is why. These flare-ups are often signs of safety and trust, rather than just some form of rebellion.

2. WHAT lesson do I want to teach in this moment?

The lesson is not that misbehavior merits a consequence, but that there are better ways of getting your attention and managing his anger than resorting to violence. You want him to learn that hitting isn’t OK, and that there are lots of appropriate ways to express his big feelings.

3. HOW can I best teach this lesson?

While giving him a time-out or some other unrelated consequence might or might not make your son think twice next time about hitting, there’s a better alternative. What if you connected with him by pulling him to you and letting him know he has your full attention?

Then you could acknowledge his feelings and model how to communicate those emotions: “It’s hard to wait. You really want me to play, and you’re mad that I’m at the computer. Is that right?” Most likely you’ll receive an angry “Yes!” in response. That’s not a bad thing; he’ll know he has your attention. And you’ll have his, too.

You can now talk with him and, as he becomes calmer and better able to listen, get eye contact, explain that hitting is never all right, and talk about some alternatives he could choose—like using his words to express his frustration—the next time he wants your attention.
Excerpted from No-Drama Discipline by Tina Payne Bryson and Daniel J. Siegel. Copyright © 2014 by Tina Payne Bryson and Daniel J. Siegel. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House LLC, A Penguin Random House Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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