All children need consistent guidelines and reasonable expectations to help them learn, as well as to feel safe and understood. Discipline is most effective when approached as an opportunity to teach a child appropriate behavior, rather than as a punishment. A parent can be an invaluable resource when he or she is able to guide a child who is struggling with issues of impulse control and frustration tolerance.
Here are a few practices that will help parents think constructively about discipline:
- Set up a daily routine that provides predictability. Children thrive in routines and predictable environments.
- Offer choices. Sometimes you need to change the environment and not the behavior.
- If you notice that your child has difficulty transitioning into and out of new situations, giving him ample time to adjust will allow him to naturally down-regulate his nervous system, enabling him to manage himself, not get overstimulated, and have more control over impulsivity. Another example is using narration and a “preventive I-message” to help your child to wait for your attention, whether you’re in a checkout line or on the phone. You might say, “Joey, I’ll be busy in a moment doing some work, but when I’m finished we’ll get in the car and go to the park”.
- Give a 5-minute notice before ending any activity to allow your child ample time to transition.
- Tell your child both what she can do as well as what she cannot For example, “I can’t let you play with that power cord, but here are some shoelaces you can play with instead.”
- Set a limit and stick to it every time. Consistency is critical. Note that you may have to help your child navigate some big feelings when you hold a line!
- Acknowledge your child’s feelings while setting clear limits. Teach him to empathize with the experience of others. For example, “I see that you are really sad, but Jane is not ready to give you her toy. I can’t let you take the toy from her.”
- Narrate the situation for your child, saying what you think she may be thinking and feeling as well as describing his or her actions. You are teaching your child to know and articulate her feelings and needs. For example, “You wanted to go up the steps all by yourself but you missed one and you fell on your bottom. It looks like you feel scared and frustrated.”
- Decide whether a problem really is a problem. Focus on the important behaviors and let some others go. Think, What are the important rules of my home? And always keep in mind why you wanted to be a parent in the first place: to enjoy your child!
(Adapted from Parent Effectiveness Training [PET] by Thomas Gordon)
For further tips and ideas about how to address your child’s feelings visit blog.wellbabycenter.org.
Deborah Groening is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist, Psy.D. Candidate, and Certified Infant-Mental Health Specialist. She is also the Executive Director of Well Baby Center.