June3, 2017 | Julie Lemming

Picture this: A three and a five year-old came home from a long Saturday morning grocery shopping trip. This particular trip involved a great deal of whining, bickering, and begging for treats, especially at the checkout lane.

As the flustered mother hurried to put the food away so she could make lunch, she heard an ear-piercing scream followed by sobbing in the next room.

As she rushed in to see what happened, she soon realized her five year-old had snatched her brother’s toy and shoved him down when he tried to take it back. Anger washed over the mother as she grabbed the five year-old by the arm and dragged her to the time out chair.

The ice cream lay melting on the kitchen floor, as the mother yelled at her daughter to sit there and think about what she had done. The mother walked back to the kitchen; both she and her daughter crying tears of frustration.

Sound familiar?
Parenting: Challenging and Rewarding

Any parent knows how challenging it is to raise kids. It’s a given– kids bicker, yell at one another, and sometimes hit at some point in their development. They stretch parents’ patience levels and ask questions that often just don’t have easily-available answers. But kids are also loving, rewarding members of the family. It doesn’t take most parents long to realize they must get acquainted with discipline in order for a sense of family harmony to take place. While no single discipline approach will necessarily work all the time, parents can learn effective, productive ways to connect with their kids in the quest to promote positive behavior.
Discipline vs. Punishment

For many families, discipline and punishment are interchangeable terms. If a child breaks a rule or makes a poor decision, he receives punishment, and the parent might claim that he or she disciplined the child. However, there is a difference between disciplining a child and punishing her.

The word “discipline” comes from the Latin word “disciplina” which means “to teach.” Punishment, on the other hand, is usually associated with consequences. Punishment and consequences work in the short-term to correct behavior. However, experiences that involve teaching encourage intrinsic, or internal, motivation for kids to make good choices and behave.
Setting the Foundation

Most parents find themselves in need of discipline strategies even before their kids can walk. By the time kids are two and have a definite sense of self, many moms and dads further exhaust themselves by responding to little ones who are constantly on the go, exploring the world around them and testing boundaries. However, this is the time that parents can set the foundation for their kids’ future behavior. There are many strategies and choices parents can use to guide their kids, and most parents learn that no one strategy will work all the time, for all kids in the family.
Consequences and Spanking

Spanking is one such punishment that families might use when kids misbehave or make bad decisions. However, this approach only works in the moment, and can create further problems. Some families favor spanking due to religious or cultural reasons, while some parents choose to carry on family traditions– they were spanked as children, after all, and reason that they turned out “just fine.”

Regardless of the reason, spanking children has consequences. Psychiatrist Daniel Siegel, M.D., and Tina Payne Bryson, PhD, authors of No-Drama Discipline, assert the following, “…based on our neuroscientific perspective and review of the research literature, we believe that spanking is likely to be counterproductive when it comes to building respectful relationships with our children, teach kids lessons we want them to learn, and encourage optimal development.”
Spanking’s Impact on Kids’ Brains

From a neurological point of view, kids face a great deal of confusion when they’re spanked. Specifically, a child’s brain is wired to seek comfort from a caregiver when in pain. But the brain is also wired to avoid situations and experiences that result in pain. This is likely the reason some parents choose to spank: “Don’t jump on the furniture, or you will be spanked and it will hurt.” However, confusion occurs when the child’s brain tells him or her to seek safety and comfort from the caregiver while simultaneously flee from the parent who is inflicting the pain. Some parents vehemently claim they spank in a loving way in an attempt to correct behavior. Siegel and Bryson offer this response: “…the research consistently demonstrates that even when parents are warm, loving, and nurturing, not only is spanking children less effective in changing behavior in the long run, it’s associated with negative outcomes in many domains.”
Spanking: Negative Lessons Learned

Another issue involving spanking is that it demonstrates to the child that the parent has no other effective strategy than to deliver pain when the child misbehaves and needs direction. The lesson many kids learn, then, is that physical aggression– hitting, shoving, or pinching, for example– is the way to solve a problem or conflict. Due to the increase in mental health issues surrounding spanking and violence-related office visits, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has taken a stance on this issue. The AAP states, “The American Academy of Pediatrics strongly opposes striking a child for any reason. Whenever a parent strikes a child, it may undermine the relationship of trust that the child needs to thrive.”
What About Time-Out?

Families who choose not to spank their kids often seek alternatives such as the use of time-outs. This approach can be effective– if conducted properly. The purpose of time-outs is to help kids calm down and think about how they can change their behavior; but all too often, a parent sends an unreasonable child to time-out and the time-out ultimately doesn’t work. Not all time-outs are ineffective though. In reference to time-out use, Siegel and Bryson state, “If done properly with loving connection, such as sitting with the child and talking or comforting– what can be called a “time-in”— some time to calm down can be helpful for children.” Unfortunately, many parents view time-out as a punishment and often use it to isolate a child who misbehaves.
The Child’s Brain and Time-Out

Often kids make poor choices or misbehave when their feelings are too overwhelming or they are unable to adequately handle themselves in a given situation. When these big emotions take over, kids are unable to listen to what their parents say. Having some knowledge about the human brain may help in this instance. While the brain is a complicated organ and comprised of different sections or hemispheres, parents can think about it like this: Kids’ brains have an upstairs and downstairs.

The upstairs brain is where higher level, logical, rational thinking takes place, while the downstairs brain is where the fight or flight response and reactive behavior occur. When an angry parent places an out of control child in time-out and tells him or her to think about his or her poor behavior, the downstairs brain swings into full gear and the child learns little from the time out.

Further, when a parent yells at a crying, upset child and tells him or her to “stop crying this instant!” — the downstairs brain becomes engaged and it is difficult for the child to hear the parent’s message. In contrast, if a parent can connect with a child first, then the child is likelier to calm down and receive the important message the parent needs to teach. Children will react in different ways to time-out based on their age. Very young children, for example, can become quite frightened by the time-out experience, especially if the parent leaves the room angry or keeps the child in time-out for more than the recommended two minutes. When the parent isolates the child in this way, some kids feel abandoned and rejected. Some feel angry and confused. Siegel and Bryson echo this concern: “In our experience, time-outs frequently just make children angrier and more dysregulated, leaving them even less able to control themselves or think about what they’ve done.”

Many parents believe that a more serious offense should result in a longer period of time in time-out, but kids who are left in time-out for longer than a few minutes often don’t remember why the parents put them in time-out in the first place and consequently don’t learn a lesson.
Linking Discipline to Behavior

Another concern surrounding the use of time-outs is that this approach doesn’t often mirror the infraction. For example, some parents might put a child in time-out for drawing on the wall with crayon or throwing toys into the toilet– instead of having him or her clean the markings off the wall or help clean up the bathroom.

In order for kids to learn effective lessons and change behavior, the discipline approach parents use must be more directly linked to the poor decision made by the child. If a child fails to put his or her bike away in its proper place and it gets stolen or damaged, the child will have to go without a bike; or the parent might help the child raise funds to pay for a new one.

The key is to help kids to learn to make things right when they make poor choices, and time-outs often fall short in teaching this lesson.
Kids Need Connection

Perhaps the most major concern with the use of time-outs involves a child’s need for connection. Kids misbehave for a variety of reasons– they may feel hungry, tired, or sick. But, often, they make poor choices because they lack the language or communication skills to articulate their needs.

Further, many kids haven’t developed the emotional intelligence skills necessary to face big feelings such as anger or frustration. This difficulty in calmly expressing his or her emotions often comes out looking like aggressive or disrespectful behavior.

More than ever, kids need a caring adult to help them sort out these emotions and teach them how to appropriately channel what they are feeling. But time-out isolates kids when they most need to connect with a loving parent or caregiver. Focusing on a child’s emotional needs is likely the most effective strategy when misbehavior arises. A child who has “lost it” is one who needs his or her parent’s love and support the most.
Alternatives to Time-Out, Yelling, and Spanking

So what can parents do instead when their kids make poor choices and misbehave? Read on for tips and suggestions for improving behavior:

  • Focus on the root of the misbehavior. 
    Parents can ask themselves if the child is hungry, not feeling well, in need of attention, or has lost patience with running errands. These questions will vary with the child’s age, but the goal is to discover what the child needs. Misbehavior is often a message from the child that his or her needs are not being met in some way, or that he or she needs help with building a particular skill.
  • Practice handling a situation differently.
    It can be quite frustrating when kids make poor decisions, especially when they are repeat offenders. But it behooves parents to embrace a calm voice, sit patiently with the child, and discuss ways the child could have made a better choice or decision. This may be the time when the parent helps the child brainstorm other possible choices the child can make in the future. The key here is remain calm since a calm voice and demeanor can set the tone for the lesson the child may learn. Parents who model this behavior are likely to raise children who are calm; likewise, parents who scream excessively are likely to have children who also yell when conflict occurs.
  • Make a connection. 
    Getting down on a child’s level and making eye contact is a good place to start. Many kids are more receptive to what a parent has to say when the parent is not looming over them. In addition, placing a gentle hand on the child’s shoulder is a good way to make an emotional connection. This tells the child the parent will support him or her even when he or she acts terribly. When the child feels as if he or she is being heard and understood, the gateway to communication is likely to open. When a parent makes an emotional connection with a child, the child is much more likely to calm down and become less reactive.
  • Tame a tantrum.
    Tantrums seem to be a rite of passage in parenthood. Most parents who have witnessed their child throw a tantrum undergo a mix of emotions:  anger, embarrassment, and extreme frustration, just to name a possible few. Further, it’s true that some kids decide to throw a tantrum to manipulate his or her parent; but most of the time this is not the case. This is where knowledge about the brain is helpful. When a tantrum occurs, a child’s downstairs brain has overridden the upstairs, logical brain and the child is actually temporarily unable to calm down and think rationally. Again, the child needs his or her parent’s support- not anger and impatience- at a time like this. View tantrums as a plea for help, not as an expression of defiance.
  • What about spoiling?
    First, know that long ago, experts advised parents not to pick up crying infants or hold them too much for fear of spoiling the child. Experts and parents alike have come a long way from this mindset though. Helping your child calm down and responding to her NEEDS will not spoil her; but giving in to her whims and desires might. Siegel and Bryson assert, “Responding to and soothing a child does not spoil her– but not responding to or soothing her creates a child who is insecurely attached and anxious.” Spoiling can occur when parents indulge kids with “stuff,” spend too much money on them when a more reasonable option exists, or say yes too much when the child needs boundaries instead. Accordingly, there is a major difference between emotional and physical needs and a child’s impulsive whims and desires. Parents who are aware of this difference can avoid raising kids who behave in a spoiled manner.
  • Create a calm zone. 
    Parents and kids can decide on a comfortable, cozy spot in the home where the child and parent can go together to calm down. This calm zone might contain soothing books, calming toys, or maybe a favorite stuffed animal. The goal is to help the child calm down while, perhaps, redirecting him or her– depending on the child’s age.

Parenting Approach: Never Too Late

It’s never too late for parents to change the way they approach their children. All parents have strengths in the way they interact with their kids, as well as areas that need improvement. There is no such thing as a perfect parent– all parents make mistakes!

Further, no one discipline strategy will necessarily work all the time, with all kids in a family; but parents who are aware of kids’ emotional and physical needs are more likely to see positive behavior. What is important to remember is that kids need their parents’ support and love in order to help regulate their emotions.

Emotional regulation will set the foundation for how kids behave, interact with others,  and deal with the stress they are sure encounter as they get older.

Originally Posted: November 9, 2014

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