In today’s society, parenting styles vary widely. Some parents are very strict (authoritarian parents), while others are permissive and allow children to make their own choices.
The Big D – Discipline is hot in discussions, posts, and DM’s for parenting. Because it’s such a tricky topic, and parents want to get it right for their kids. In this article, I will discuss parental discipline based on emotional and social development knowledge. I will also discuss discipline based on the latest neuroscience and brain development research. Emotional Social Parenting (ESP) brings together these two areas. ESP lets you curb your child’s unwanted behavior while still safeguarding his self-worth and self-esteem.
Before we dive into this tricky topic, please remind yourself:
- I am a good parent, and my child is a good child.
- Disciplining my child is challenging. It may be confusing at times with so many different ideas on discipline.
- Kids behave like kids. They don’t misbehave and do things to be bad. They behave like kids, and the things they do are usually age-appropriate.
- I have what I need within me. I may need a little help and a reframe of how I view “discipline.”
What is the Difference Between Discipline and Punishment?
Discipline: is to train and teach your child how to act under the rules. Said another way to discipline is to set limits and teach your child how to follow those limits.
Punishment: is to inflict a penalty. Punishment enforces discipline by inflicting harsh punishment, physical pain or emotional pain, withholding or taking something of value from your child. Punishment-based discipline will often work at the moment. The root of punishment is Fear. Fear activates the part of our brains that control Fight, Flight, Freeze, or Faint. Your toddler will freeze in the moment and stop the behavior. But once the punishment is over, the kid will go back to repeating the behavior.
What is the Emotional Social Parenting (ESP) approach to discipline?
These ESP ways to discipline are based on what neuroscience tells us about the developing brain. I will discuss each idea in more detail.
- Stay and don’t walk away.
- Give them a redo.
- Know what behavior is age-appropriate.
- Set boundaries around safety and undesirable behavior and allow all emotions.
- Help your child name their big emotions.
- It’s ok to let them cry.
- Be a super sleuth and H-A-L-T.
- Use boundaries instead of punishment.
- Be ready to do it all over again tomorrow.
How can Emotional Social Parenting Help me Stay and Not Walk Away When I’m Upset?
I will give you one example of how we can discipline the child’s behavior and not their emotions. When your child is on the floor screaming like a banshee, some days you want to walk away. If you walk away or ignore your child, you threaten their emotional connection to you. You are sending them the message that they are “bad” and don’t deserve your presence and love. They likely made a mistake, acted out, or reacted unwisely. As parents, we do it all the time. Think about how would you might feel if your partner walked out of the room in anger because you forgot to pick up milk on the way home. These are the times our kids need us most of all.
Time-outs are not a part of my ESP discipline plan. When a child’s unwanted behavior results in a time out, they are left to sit alone with their feelings. The child may feel bad and doesn’t deserve a parent’s love and attention even if the time-out is administered in a loving and connected way. Time-outs send the message that a child having a hard time controlling their emotions will be forced to sit alone. The aloneness may leave the child feeling abandoned emotionally. Time-outs are usually ineffective, may lead to more bad behavior, and may prevent your child from developing healthy coping skills. I am aware that some research says that time-outs used correctly are effective. However, time-outs are not part of my ESP discipline plan. To help you stay and not walk away. (survive the unregulated emotional moment of your child)
- Put your right hand on your heart and your left arm across your belly.
- Take a deep breath and blow it out slowly. This deep breath activates the calm-down circuits in your brain. See my blog on Hot Cocoa Breath for more on why this works.
- Say to your child, “mommy’s here; you are safe.” Your child may be too unregulated to hear the words. But they are taking in your calm tone and loving presence.
- Repeat to yourself. I am a good parent. I can stay and not walk away.
- When your child calms down, this may seem like forever for some kids. Offer some snuggles and a hug.
How Can a Redo Help my Child?
When your child makes a mistake, acts out, or reacts unwisely, help them calm down, and once they are calm enough, talk about what they could do instead next time. Practicing strategies will help prevent the next meltdown. Your child learns more effective ways to handle their big emotions. Remember that young children’s brains may need to develop more. Their big feelings will overpower them until their brain develops emotional regulation circuits. They need you to help them with co-regulation. New skills and habits take lots of practice, so be patient.
Why is it Important to Understand Child Developmental Stages Before I Discipline Them?
Some things your child will do because it is appropriate for their age and developmental stages. For example, it is normal for a young child to throw things. It may frustrate you, but they can’t help it because they don’t have the brain development to control it. When a young child gets frustrated, angry, or engages in aggressive behavior, big feelings often come out by throwing an item. This doesn’t mean you don’t set boundaries for safety around throwing. A boundary sounds like this, “I won’t let you throw the blocks, but you can be as angry and frustrated as you want.” You then stop your child from throwing the blocks and let them cry, scream, yell as much as they want.
Knowing what is appropriate for child development helps you stay calm and make positive interactions. Your calm will infuse their dysregulation with a feeling of safety. When a child feels safe, they will calm down and regulate their emotions. Your calm helps them develop brain connections for emotional regulation. Remember, all feelings are ok.
How can I Set Boundaries for Safety While Allowing Big Feelings?
As your child’s caregiver, you won’t let your child do something unsafe. When your child is dysregulated, their big feelings often come out as a hit/bite/kick. If you don’t stop the behavior, it is terrifying to your child. Your child feels that his emotions are so big that not even the adults can stop him. Let your child know you understand his big emotions. Separate the feelings from the behavior. Say, “it is my job to keep everyone safe in this family. I won’t let you bite/hit/kick your sister. But, you can be as mad/frustrated/angry/upset as you want.”
How do I Help my Child Name their Big Emotions
This one is from Tracy Crutchlow, author of Zero to Five (amazon affiliate). “Naming what our kid wants, thinks, or feels – without judgment – is the most powerful step in positive parenting,” she says.
“You want ice cream; you want ice cream right now. You want vanilla with sprinkles?! And I said we must eat dinner instead. That is making you feel really sad. Aww, sweetie. It feels sooooo disappointing.”
We must see our role as helping our kids have their emotions.
When Should I let my child Cry?
I am triggered by my young grandchildren’s sudden and unexpected tears as a grandmother. It somehow feels worse than when I was a parent. When a child has big emotions of sadness, anger, and frustration, it comes out as a flood of tears. It’s hard to remain calm when your child is full of rage and dissolves in a flood of tears. But, children can’t turn off their emotions. They need you to keep them safe while they “feel their feelings” Wait it out and help them calm down. Take some deep breaths with them. Tell them, “I’m here with you.” Ride it out with them, and don’t yell or lecture. You can talk about it later after they are calm.
Be a Super Sleuth and Think H-A-L-T:
Remember, all behavior is communication. So, what is your child trying to tell you? Take a minute and think HALT, are they:
- Angry because they are disappointed or jealous.
- Lonely or bored
- Tired and overstimulated
Identifying and meeting these essential needs should be your priority. Does your little one need a snack, a snuggle, or a nap? Only by identifying the problem can you help your toddler fix it. A clear and consistent routine around meal and nap time may prevent a meltdown in the first place.
Use Boundaries Instead of Punishment.
Imagine the following scenario for a minute:
Your son is busy building a block tower when your daughter goes over and tries to help build the tower. Your son doesn’t want help and hits his sister on the head with a block. You yell, “Don’t hit your sister.” When his sister again tries to help with the tower, he shoves her, this time knocking her over. You send your son to time out and tell him he can’t have a story before bed. That evening when it’s bedtime, you tell him he can’t have a story. He dissolves into an epic meltdown. You say, “there is no storytime because you hit and pushed your sister earlier. He continues to wail, “I want my stooooryeeeee over and over.
Why is your son having an epic meltdown? Two reasons:
It is difficult for a child to recall events that happened hours earlier. Toddlers’ brains are still under construction. The connections for understanding time don’t get fully wired until the early grade school years. That’s also why your toddler can’t remember that bedtime comes after bath time, even though it happens every single night.
There is no connection between the behavior and the punishment. There is literally no connection in a toddler’s brain (that part is also still under construction). They are unable to connect no story with hitting brother hours ago.
Instead of punishing, set boundaries around undesired behavior:
In the above scenario:
Your son hits your daughter on the head with a block (undesired behavior). You step in, and say to your son, “I WON’T let you hit your sister. To your daughter say, Wow, that hurt. I know. That was NOT ok.” To your son: “I know you’re upset about something. I care about that. We have to find other ways to express it.”
We want our children to be motivated to change their behavior by helping them feel good about themselves, by helping them regulate their emotions, and by teaching them compassion, empathy, intrinsic motivation, and resilience. We can’t punish a child into emotional regulation, good decision making, showing empathy, and learning how to have healthy relationships. Punishment inhibits these critical developments because it makes kids feel like they are “bad kids”. It teaches them to self-blame, dysregulate, and believe that a loving relationship requires power, aloneness, fear, and control.
Parents, be ready to do it all Over Again Tomorrow.
With ESP there is no need to control and there are no “bad kids.” There is no fear of abandonment. Our kids feel safe because we establish boundaries. They know we see them as good kids. ESP sets the stage for emotional regulation and skill-building.
Emotional Social Parenting (ESP) discipline takes lots of love, patience, and practice to reframe our views. Each child is different, and we often parent the way we were parented. So if you’ve used time-outs or spanking in the past or you’ve completely lost it with your kids. Give yourself some grace and a redo. Tomorrow is a new day to try out some new tools to help you parent the ESP way.
To learn more about Emotional Social Parenting, ESP.