Parents frequently feel angry at their kids – especially when those kids engage in behavior that is destructive, dangerous, mean, foolish, messy, illegal, immoral, thoughtless, selfish and otherwise… childish. But given that unrestrained displays of anger can traumatize children, parents have to learn how to discipline without rage, upset or even irritation. While anger is an emotion, it is NOT a parenting tool. Discipline is a parenting tool and it has nothing to do with anger. In fact, discipline is related to the word “disciple” – student. When the parent offers discipline to the child, it is nothing more than a form of teaching. As such, it should have nothing to do with emotions like anger or behaviors like yelling. A good disciplinarian is simply a good teacher.
The following are some tips on how parents can keep the big A in check during discipline:
Don’t Discipline “In the Moment”
There is no reason to discipline the moment some inappropriate behavior occurs. Both you and your child must be in a calm frame of mind in order for discipline to be effective. Therefore, step back and allow YOURSELF to calm down (this also gives your child time to re-boot!). Start thinking about what the child did incorrectly and what you want him or her to do instead in the future. Do some research, if necessary” talk about your child’s behavior to your spouse, a friend or a professional counselor. Take the time to think things through and make a plan to prevent misbehavior in the future. Check out parenting resources on the internet and in books in order to see how others have dealt with similar situations. Taking the time to do your homework will pay off in the long term. Instead of quickly releasing destructive anger, you’ll be able to develop a constructive, effective intervention.
The Teaching Moment
Since discipline is nothing more than teaching, it is important to choose an appropriate time and place for any lesson that you wish to impart. This is called “the teaching moment.” A teaching moment is usually fairly private (never in front of guests). It is a moment in which the child is calm. It is also a moment in which the parent is calm. If these conditions are not met, the parent should wait before attempting to discipline. We have about 20 years to raise a child – there is no “emergency” (unless the child is standing in traffic). In general, wait until you are both calm and you have an appropriate location in which you can speak. If either of you is upset, just wait longer. Hours, days, or in very rare cases – even longer – are fine.
Most of what goes wrong during discipline happens because the parent did not choose a “teaching moment.” Instead, the parent felt upset and punished the child while still angry. This causes the parent to use emotion instead of appropriate negative consequences, to try to teach the lesson. Since the parent is upset, his or her ability to choose an appropriate negative consequence is severely compromised. In anger, the parent might choose something too harsh, too long or otherwise too unreasonable. Moreover, the chances of the parent being able to explain what he or she wants and doesn’t want from the child are fairly slim, due to the parent’s intense upset. Instead of communicating in such a way that the child would be able to hear or want to hear, the parent communicates in a way that infuriates the child or shuts him down. The parent may use escalatory language and say hurtful things. This, of course, makes the child very upset and he may then lash out in kind or more so. When the parent “loses it” the child is much more inclined to lose it as well. Now we have a shouting match instead of “discipline.”
Follow a Structure for Discipline
No matter how rude, wild or out-of-control the child is, the parent must stay calm, collected and adult throughout any communication. The parent can use the Two Times Rule – 2X Rule – to carry out discipline (see details in Raise Your Kids without Raising Your Voice, by Sarah Chana Radcliffe). The parent says something once, says it again with a warning of a consequence, and then gives the consequence if necessary. The parent stays calm and quiet throughout. The consequence has been chosen earlier, when the parent was thinking about the child’s behavioral lapses. If the child argues, a similar structure of communication is used to stop it: the parent follows the “I-Do-Not-Argue-With-You” rule as described in the book.
Speak Softly and Slowly
A simple way to reduce anger during discipline is to force ourselves to speak in a low, quiet, even tone. Use non-inflammatory language: talk about the behavior but NOT about your child’s character traits! Refrain from using any negative label, even if the label fits perfectly (i.e. don’t call your child a “liar” even if he clearly is one!). Instead, just talk about the fact that he sometimes lies. If speaking in a normal tone of voice is too difficult at the moment, then it’s time to take a break. Rule of thumb: it’s better to say nothing at all than to say something hurtful.
Provide a Model of Self-Control
When children see that their parents can actually stay perfectly calm, respectful, caring and reasonable during moments of intense stress, they will use the model as one of the valuable tools they’ll have for learning how it is done. Moreover, parents can use discipline itself to help teach children that it is fine to feel anger, but it is not fine to just express it any old way, without regard to people’s feelings. The Relationship Rule is a step-by-step process for teaching kids how to express themselves politely, even when feeling upset (like in a moment of discipline!). The consistent parental model is very, very important in making lessons stick!
Take Specific Steps to Calm Yourself Down
If you notice that you are feeling very angry at any point in the discipline process, take specific steps to calm down your nervous system. For instance, take a break – tell the child that you are feeling too upset to continue and that you’re going to go calm yourself down. The child will have a chance to SEE how a person is supposed to manage angry feelings. Take some space. SIT DOWN and DRINK WATER SLOWLY. Or, like Grandma said, take 10 slow, deep breaths. This will help you turn off adrenaline. Learn EFT – Emotional Freedom Technique – a form of acupressure that can turn your anger off in a couple of minutes. Try Rescue Remedy (a Bach Flower Remedy used to help turn off adrenaline, panic and rage – available online and at health food stores everywhere) – put a few drops in water or drop it straight on your pulse points.
Discipline YOURSELF for Losing Control
Wanting to not use anger is a good beginning, but not enough. Follow up your good intentions with actual negative consequences for “losing it.” For instance, if you express anger, send a certain amount of money to charity (make it large enough to discourage future blow-ups). Or, discipline yourself by having to write out an essay after an explosion, outlining the extremely destructive effects of parental rage. Or, make yourself do a large number of push-ups or other physically taxing exercise. Ask a family member to video you in the midst of your rage and then sit down and watch it over and over again – you’re not going to like what you see. If these measures don’t completely cure your tendency to express anger in the home after a three month period, get professional help. Your children deserve it. Plus, you’ll be happier as well!
Use Stress Management Tools Regularly
Parenting is hard and frustrating work. Most parents experience plenty of stress, anger and rage along the way. However, when parents have a good support system, a stress-reduction routine, a balanced lifestyle and a terrific sense of humor, they survive it all in good health. Do what you can to stress-proof your life. Be nice to yourself every single day. Try to get the right amount of sleep, exercise, quality nutrition, fun and other mood-boosters that can help you take parenting in stride. Consider giving yourself little breaks throughout the day.
Use Anger-Management Strategies
If you’re a person who is prone to anger, whether at home or at work, perhaps it’s best to look inwards first. Your children aren’t the cause of your anger; they simply trigger the anger that is always close to the surface. Use self-help and/or professional help to reduce your own build up of stress and anger. Techniques and interventions like psychotherapy, EFT (emotional freedom technique), Bach Flower Remedies, anger management courses, psychotropic (antidepressant) medication and bi-lateral stimulation tapes are all effective ways to help reduce chronic irritability, negativity and rage.