Compassionate Discipline: Further Explained

Johanna Kalkreuth | October 26, 2020

Discipline is one of the most central and most debated topics in parenting. It has changed significantly over time, and there continue to be a myriad of often contradictory messages to parents. Looking at how the approach to discipline has changed, we can see a move from the pre-1930s where children’s discipline was based on work and their role in the family, to a complete relaxation of boundaries in the parenting of the 1970s, where the word ‘no’ was seen as lowering a child’s self-esteem. Around the late 1970s and early 1980s there was a move toward behaviour modification, the shaping of behaviours through praise and punishment, and removal or gaining of privileges. This approach still very much continues today, with the addition of so-called behaviour management and, finally, behaviour affirmation. These final two approaches to discipline involve lots of choices and exploration of choices (behaviour management) and the use of praise to affirm positive behaviours (behaviour affirmation). Present day parenting, as seen in the majority of parenting literature, tends to resemble a combination of behaviour modification, behaviour management and behaviour affirmation.

The behavioural approach in general focuses on the ‘tip of the iceberg’ – the behaviour itself. The idea is that through reward and consequence, giving choices and the use of affirmation we can shape a child’s behaviour in desirable ways. However, there are some significant drawbacks to this type of discipline when it is overused, including:

  1. It is often developmentally not appropriate, asking a child to have skills beyond their developmental capacity;
  2. It can teach a child to do what is advantageous rather than what is right;
  3. It can tempt children to develop immunity to consequences, becoming sneaky, bargaining, manipulating the system, etc.;
  4. It can actually give too much power to the child, thus creating insecurity in the child and undermining parental authority;
  5. It can create an over reliance on praise/external affirmation and thus get in the way of internal motivation/pleasure; 
  6. It can overlook the emotional need underlying the behaviour.

In contrast to all of this, compassionate and relationship based discipline looks to the underlying and root causes of behaviours, the context in which they arise, and addresses these behaviours in a more holistic way. It upholds clear boundaries and authority in parenting, but upholds this authority through relationship and through the inherent authority of the parent, rather than through the promise of reward or threat of consequence. It actually empowers the parent to parent through the very relationship itself.

So what does compassionate discipline look like? First, it requires an inner discipline on the part of the parent. Children’s nervous systems are designed to regulate to the nervous system of the parent and thus how boundaries are set, where the parent is at in the own system during difficult conversations, etc., changes how the child responds, how the message ‘lands.’ Loving limits feel very different to a child than frustrated reactive ones.

Second, true discipline works out of the context of relationship. Children are wired to attach to their adult caregivers and follow the direction of the caregiver by the very fact that they are connected to that caregiver. In this way, what a parent says matters when that connection is strong. Like the goslings following their goose, there is no question who is in the lead when rightful attachment relationship is strong.

Third, compassionate discipline requires developmental rightness. When behavioural parenting strategies are beyond the skill set of a child at a given developmental stage, it fuels frustration and insecurity within the child, often leading to greater undesirable behavioural manifestations. Looking to what is actually needed most for a child at each developmental stage allows discipline to make sense for a child, and strengthens relationship by the very fact that they are being given what they need.

And, lastly, compassionate discipline works with the nervous system responses and emotional life of a child such that these responses, which are naturally big in a child, are given an avenue for expression such that behaviour is not being driven by them. For example, if a given event sends a child into an amygdala hijack (fight/flight/freeze survival brain), this alarm response needs to be processed and resolved within the nervous system before a child can return to their most functional brain. Or, when frustration or underlying upset is churning within a child’s emotional being, that emotion needs expression in the context of safe relationship in order for a child to process whatever learning can come from a given situation.

Compassionate, relationship based discipline as outlined above allows a child to grow into their next developmental phase in a healthy way, held by strong boundaries, loving connection, and a sense of security. It allows the greatest potential and highest functioning of the child to grow and flourish.  


Johanna Marie Kalkreuth, M.C., Registered Psychologist
Speaker for the 2020 November Online Children’s Mental Health Conference


Join us for our upcoming annual Children’s Mental Health Conference via online format airing November 20-22, 2020!

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