This fall, WHYY is hosting a series of parenting seminars, moderated by behavioral health reporter Maiken Scott. Here are some highlights from the first discussion with experts and families on the subject of discipline.
Discipline can be a challenge from the terrible twos to the teenage years. How can parents encourage the behaviors they want to see, and get their children to stop trouble behaviors? How can parents work together, and rather than being “divided and conquered” by their kids? Which situations seem to trigger the worst behaviors, and can they be avoided? The next parenting seminar, focusing on the topic of healthy food habits, will take place on November 8th at 6:30 p.m. at WHYY.
Avoiding confusion Maiken Scott: How important is it for parents to be on the same page? Sometimes parents fight over how to discipline the kids. Brandi Davis: When I talk to parents, even during prenatal conversations, this is one of my biggest topics. Same page parenting is so important because kids get so confused, and confused kids act out, and it creates a lot of friction in your house. As parents, you come from different places, and that affects how you parent, and you don’t have to agree and be of one mind on everything, but you have to sit down and discuss how you are going to approach big topics in parenting such a discipline. Maiken Scott: Dr. Blum how important is it to understand where your child is developmentally, in order to do discipline in an age-appropriate way? Nathan Blum: discipline starts shortly after the child is born – for example what happens when a child is biting while nursing, and the mother reacts by putting the child down. So, the baby begins to understand that there is a link between actions and consequences. Understanding your child’s developmental abilities is important, but it goes beyond that to their temperament. You can have a child who is more anxious, needier, less adaptable. So you have to understand all of those things about your child because they can make what are routine activities for one child much more difficult and complicated for another child. Without understanding who your child is in terms of their temperament, children’s behavior often doesn’t make sense. Maiken Scott: How do anxious children act out differently? Tamar Chansky: A lot of times, anxious children want to do the right thing. So let’s say an anxious child is upset over not being allowed to use the computer, it may talk back just like any other child, the difference is that anxious children are already berating themselves and feel really bad, when the parents are just looking at them. With kids like that, it is important for the parents to know that less is more. Find out what the kid already in knows in terms of what they have done wrong, and allow them to tell you. Audience question: Sometimes we are trying to figure out why our child acts a certain way, is she tired, hungry, or is it her age? How do you get on a good path, and remove the bad behaviors and replace them with good behaviors? Nathan Blum: I’m going to assume that we are talking about recurrent behaviors. All of us have experienced bad behavior out of the blue that is not typical, and those are more difficult to deal with. But when we are talking about recurring behavior that you can anticipate, in terms of recognizing why they are acting this way, parents need to discuss this amongst themselves – before the problem behavior occurs. At the time of the problem behavior when six year old is talking back to you because you asked them to pick up their toys, you can’t have a logical discussion about why they child is engaging in this bad behavior. So, think about it at the time when you are making the rules. You need to make the decisions before the misbehavior occurs, and think it through with the other parent. Our six year old knows how to pick up toys, so if she is refusing to do it, she is being defiant. Think about it when you make the rules, and make the rules at a time of calm when you are discussing certain behavior problems, and not when the bad behavior occurs. Maiken Scott: So should we sit down after a situation when things have calmed down and do a “post-play analysis?” Nathan Blum: yes, parents need to discuss their differences, and come to an agreement as to how to handle the situation, and then find an approach that both of you can use. Brandi Davis: I like to think of it as “it’s easier to prevent fires than to keep putting them out.” So the idea of removing an unwanted behavior and getting on a good path, if there’s a behavior that shows up all the time, you could also ask yourself “why is it that I care about the behavior?” Is this a really awful behavior, or is it just something that sets me off? Do I really care if my toddler puts green beans in their water glass at the table, or could I maybe ignore that. So knowing why it bothers you is often important. If you do want to remove the bad behavior, you must replace it. If you want your child to stop pushing – help them find the words to use, or teach them to walk away. We often say “use your words” but that is not very helpful to children if we don’t teach them alternative behaviors. Tamar Chansky: When we are talking about recurrent bad behavior, in the heat of the moment we are not in a good place because we are rushing, we are stressed, and kids are not in a good place either, and they sense our stress. Having a plan that is posted on the fridge about how you are going to cooperate as a family, for example how to get out the door in he mornings, or whatever the problem is, you should have a plan. Then you can agree as a family to stick to the plan.
Disciplining in public
Audience question: Often a bad behavior occurs in a public place, and you don’t have a plan. How do you achieve the discipline in the moment while still being reasonable? Brandi Davis: It depends on the situation, let’s say you are in the middle of the mall. It’s always a little embarrassing when you are in public, dealing with young children. Take a breath and realize that it’s okay to make a little bit of a scene, and focus on the situation at hand. Take a breath, think about your strategy, and then deal with the situation. But try not to worry about the people around you, focus on yourself and your child. Nathan Blum: Let’s say you are on your way home, but know that you have to stop at the store for dinner. You know your kid is going to hate this, and will get upset. So, now I can start to think that this will be difficult and can come up with an incentive, maybe a snack, so when you can anticipate that something will be difficult, come up with a strategy and an incentive for the child to cooperate. Maiken Scott: What is the value of having to deal with a “tough” situation like having to go to the grocery store for the child – when we always have strategies for easing the problem for the child, do they miss out on an important lesson? Brandi Davis: I always try to find the game and humor and fun, but every once in a while that’s not there. It’s okay for your child to be sad, angry and to cry. Sometimes, let them have at it for ten or so minutes, they will figure out that screaming is not the way to get candy, don’t be afraid, your child can be mad, they need to learn how to be upset and angry and frustrated, so that when they get older they can deal with bigger issues. Tamar Chansky: In the end, it is about survival, and it is often better for our survival if we spend the 20 seconds to empathize with the kid, and sit there for a moment. You can get really stressed too, just thinking about going into the store, try to team build even with a little kid, you can tell them “I don’t want to go either, we will be two grumpy people in the super market.” That won’t work for everybody, but sometimes going in that direction saves us as parents, and it saves us grief and anguish and that is better for us. Audience Question: What’s the best way to discipline during times of change, for example during school changes, or a new home, a new marriage, do you toughen up or loosen up during times of change? Tamar Chansky: I think that empathy is always the beginning answer. When bad behavior occurs during times of change, we can start by telling them that we know that there is a lot of things going on in their world, and that we understand, and then move on and say but what happened tonight can’t continue to happen. They may need a different solution to whatever feeling they may be having that they acted out. I think you get so much further faster when you understand what the other person is going through. Kids need routine, so try to stick to as many of your normal routines as possible. Nathan Blum: change and stress decreases competency – during times of change and stress, none of us are as competent as we usually are, so it will affect what your child can accomplish. So, keep that in mind as you think about parenting during this time. You may soften some rules, but you make that decision ahead of time, and not randomly day to day.
Audience question: What do you do with a young child who is a very verbal child and engages in so much conversation around discipline issues?
Brandi Davis: You want to be concise, and don’t over-talk. Having a discussion is important, but that is different from endless negotiation – talk about the behavior that you didn’t like, and then talk about the behavior you do want to see. Nathan Blum: Extensive discussion at the time of misbehavior is probably not the right thing. If afterwards when you are both calm you want to discuss why the rule was broken, that’s okay. For young kids, the most valuable thing in the world is their parents’ attention. So if you are sitting there talking to them right after they misbehaved, they are getting attention. Misbehavior is a form of communication, and they want your attention. For example, what happens when you are on the phone and you have a young kid? They misbehave. So you say – I have to get of the phone because my kid is misbehaving. When have you ever said – I need to stay on the phone because my kid is misbehaving and I don’t want to reward this behavior! Or when have you ever gotten off the phone because your child is playing nicely?You have to be careful about giving your attention-so that you don’t reward the bad behavior with long conversations and discussions. Audience question: How do you not engage in the dance of discussion when your children are so persistent? Brandi Davis: Someone can ask you to dance, you can always decline. You can say to your child: “You can’t have a cookie, you can have an apple slice.” End of discussion. Here is my clear answer, and that’s it right there. You can calmly say “this discussion is over.” Nathan Blum: You are never obligated to answer a question again that you have already answered! Tamar Chansky: Some kids are more persistent and may not get it that the more you ask, the less they are going to get it. So maybe ask them – “do you think I might change my mind if you are being persistent?” And maybe you do change your mind when they are persistent – so observe yourself. Audience question: How do you deal with whining, for example, my kids are allowed one hour of computer time, and then when I ask them to go outside to play they whine that their friends are not out there etc.? Nathan Blum: You have a clear rule, one hour of computer time, after that, they are going to do something else. If they want to spend their time whining, let them. They are old enough to figure this one out by themselves. If they want to whine, fine, whine. Chances are, they are going to whine and then find something better to do, as long as you don’t engage them in discussions about the whining. Maiken Scott: What about making empty threats? Brandi Davis: The first thing I learned as a teacher was to not ever make a threat you are not going to follow up on. If you are not going to walk across the room and take a toy away, then don’t say you will. If you are not really prepared to cancel your trip to Disney World, then don’t say it. Keep your threats very small. If the word “ever” is coming out of your mouth, think of something else, and make it small. You have to make your measure make sense, and you have to be prepared to follow through, otherwise, you will be ineffective, and your child will know that you are making empty threats. Tamar Chansky: Patience is key! In that moment, maybe you can say “I am not happy with what is going on right now” and see if your child can meet you there. Don’t let the situation spin out of control in your head, and take yourself back to this very moment. Even little children can problem solve and have ideas, so don’t put yourself into a corner about consequences but stay in this moment. Tips: Discipline strategies that have worked for our audience members:
Don’t always feel like you have to intervene. Allow your kids to work through a problem. Let’s say two kids are racing toward the swing, and you immediately tell your child to let the other child have the swing. Allow them to work it out! And maybe you will find that your child will get to the swing first, but still offer it to the other child!
Cut down on the yelling and talking. If your child is not listening anyway, stop talking, stop engaging, say your piece and be done, but don’t go on and on.
Offer positive feedback when good behavior occurs, and offer incentives for positive behavior.
Have a code word when you need a break, when you feel like you are going to say or do something irrational, and let the other parent know that you need a moment. Step away from the room, or step outside for a little while. If you are a single parent, make sure your children are in safe place (like their room) and allow yourself a moment of quiet.
Sometimes best strategy is to ignore a child’s bad behavior. When you do ignore their behavior, be prepared for the kid to amp it up for a little while. When you continue to ignore their behavior, they will stop.