Connected discipline

I hesitated to call this post Connected Discipline, because I actually don’t believe in disciplining children (especially toddlers!). What I’m going to talk about really has nothing to do with discipline in the traditional sense of the word, but since most people assume that a certain amount of discipline is necessary when it comes to raising children (a concept I don’t agree with), I’ve gone ahead and used that word in the title.

Now, I am not implying that all toddler behaviour is ok. It isn’t, so this isn’t a post advocating for permissive parenting. It is absolutely our responsibility as parents to set limits and boundaries with our children; in fact, this is a necessary act of love that they thrive on. But the problem with most approaches to “fixing” unwanted toddler behaviour – time outs, redirection, taking belongings away, taking privileges away, yelling, shaming- is that they are, at best, ineffective and at worst, damaging to the child’s connection to you and worth they feel as a person.

When children cross our limits and boundaries – which they will, because that is part of their healthy development – we can reinforce our expectations in a way that is respectful to their emotions and maintains the loving connection we have with them (something I believe we all value above all else).

The problem with most conventional approaches to discipline is that they look at the toddler from a purely behavioural perspective. They ask, “What is the behaviour that I want to change?”, rather than getting to the root of the problem and asking, “What is the need my child is trying to express with this behaviour?”. Digging deeper allows us to support our child in a more holistic way, while  maintaining the boundaries and limits we have in place.

Let me give you a few examples to illustrate my point.

A young child hits another child. Mainstream parenting approaches might include giving the child a time out, telling her “hitting is not nice”, forcing her to apologize, or threatening to take something the child likes away, let’s say, a toy or a treat.

None of these approaches consider why the child hit in the first place. All behaviour is rooted in emotion, so by understanding what was happening beneath the surface, we can better understand, and work to solve, the problem. Was the child frustrated and couldn’t articulate him or herself? Or did the child try to articulate themselves, maybe with whining or crying, but no one was listening? Did the child need some alone time, away from other children? Or perhaps the child wanted to participate in a game, but didn’t really know how to incorporate themselves? How are the child’s basic needs-is it time to break for a snack or a drink of water? (As an aside, I don’t think it’s good practice to offer food as a way to help a child stop crying or distract them from a situation. However, being on top of food and water breaks is definitely helpful in preventing outbursts.) Do they need a bathroom break? Are they too warm and need to take a layer of clothing off?

The second issue I take with mainstream parenting practices is that they often isolate, and/or shame the child. Time outs, walking away from the child, telling the child to “look at how sad the other child is” or “think about what you have done”, are tactics we’ve all seen employed many times. The irony being that this approach never makes the child think about anyone other them themselves! It has the exact opposite effect that we want it to have. Empathy begets empathy, but making a child feel ashamed or alone is only going to make them focus on how bad they feel, on how misunderstood they are, on how mean everyone else is. I’m sure many of us can relate to being punished as children; the only effect it had was to make us angry at the person who punished us, rather than remorseful for our actions. These approaches never help the child think about how someone else if feeling. They only serve to further entrench them in their own experience. We need to try to understand, and validate, their experience before we even think about trying to make them understand someone else’s.

Here is another example. You come home from work and your young child runs to the door to greet you. They immediately start whining and asking to be picked up, looking for the connection and closeness they missed all day. You, of course, just want a minute to wind down, maybe put your bag away and change out of your work clothes before going into mom mode. You put your child down and ask them to wait a minute while you get dressed, which sparks an onslaught of tears and crying. They follow you to your bedroom, where their behaviour escalates into a full-on meltdown, complete with throwing and slamming things. You tell your child to “Stop right now!” and threaten to send them to their room if they don’t. Of course, the fear of being separated from you only makes them sob and scream even louder, so you pick them up and carry them to their room, close the door and leave. “That will teach them this behaviour won’t be tolerated” you think to yourself.

Your child’s behaviour was rooted in a need for connection. By denying it and then threatening even more disconnection (sending them to their room, away from you), you simply fueled an even stronger need to connect to you. By understanding where the whining and then crying was coming from (a desire for closeness after a long day apart from the person they love the most in the world!), you could have ignored the behaviour that manifested and gone straight to the root of the problem- connection. A hug, a cuddle on the couch first, or carrying them with you to the bedroom would have helped meet their need and avoided the “misbehaviour” completely.

Now, as I mentioned, connected parenting is not permissive parenting. When we see our children doing things that we simply cannot allow, like hurting themselves or someone else, or damaging property, it is our job to step in. If we go back to the example of hitting, the best course of action would be to insert ourselves before the hit takes place and gently catch our child’s fist in our hands. Then, in a kind voice, we calmly say, “I can’t let you hit.” Our goal isn’t to shame or belittle the child, who is simply acting on impulse. We don’t want to push them away from us or make them feel like we are punishing them, we are simply helping them maintain a boundary. We continue to catch their hits calmly until they have calmed down, at which point tears may replace the frustration. Now is a great time to connect through cuddles, hugs, and understanding language. 

Of course, it’s not always possible to stop the behaviour before it happens. At this point,  it’s important to step in and find out what the need behind the behaviour was. But before offering suggestions for a more appropriate way to get that need met, it is crucial to validate their feelings. You cannot reason with the unreasonable, which is why you need to make sure they feel calm and understood so that they are ready to listen to alternatives. “I understand how frustrating it is when _________” or, “I see how upset that made you.” It might feel like we are allowing such behaviour to take place, but it is crucial to remember that only a child who is shown empathy and understanding can, in turn, be empathetic and understanding of others. The truth is, you have not allowed that behaviour at all, you simply tried to understand what caused it. When the child is calm (or, if necessary, at a later time) you can than discuss other options for getting that need met in the future. 

At times, it might be necessary to role model making amends with someone your child has hurt. I say role model rather than force, because forcing a child to do anything doesn’t make it authentic and therefore, valuable. The embarrassment and vulnerability that come with having to apologize is one of the biggest barriers children (and adults!) face when having to do it. But by normalizing checking on people who have been hurt, even if you aren’t the one that caused the hurt, you plant the seeds of compassion in your child. You might even be surprised with your child’s innovative ways to help make things better. I suggest going to the other child and saying things like, “I’m so sorry you got hurt. Are you ok? How can I help you? Can I bring you a _________?”. Trust that role modeling this behaviour is more powerful than forcing your child to do it themselves. 

Now, I know from experience how hard it can be to resist forcing your child to apologize when other parents are watching. Unfortunately, this style of parenting isn’t the norm yet. It’s crucial to ask yourself what is more important: the opinions of strangers at the park (or friends and family, who really, should just respect your parenting style!), or the example you are setting for your child and the relationship with him you are maintaining in the process? 

This technique can be used as a response to many different behaviours. A child who repeatedly touches, takes, or throws something you don’t want them to: simply get yourself into the situation, make eye contact, and calmly say, “I can’t let you….”. It is so important to stay calm, because the second your child sees that this behaviour bothers you, they may begin to repeat it simply because of the reaction it provides. If you find yourself getting frustrated, moving the object, or moving the child (gently and lovingly!), might need to be your next step. Again, there is no shame or anger involved. You simply state, calmly and matter of factly, “I see it’s really hard not to __________. I’m going to move it away.”

When a child refuses to do something, like get dressed or brush their teeth, it is important to connect with them before you make demands on them. If they are busy playing with or working on something, get down to their level and take an interest in what they are doing. Spend a minute immersing yourself in their world. Once you have re-established a connection with them, your requests are more likely to be accommodated. We all want to maintain a close, harmonious relationship with people we feel close to. Children are no different.

Of course, from time to time they really won’t want to stop what they are doing to meet your timetable. Validate their feelings. “I see you really don’t want to get out of the bath” or, “I know, getting dressed isn’t the most fun part of our day, is it?” If you are pressed for time or you feel yourself reaching your tipping point, you can confidently announce that now it is time to do _________. Your tone should be kind, but your language to the point. “I understand you don’t want to leave the park. I’m going to gently pick you up and carry you to the car now” or, “I hear you. You don’t want to wear shoes. Since we have to leave now, I’m using my hands to put them on you.”

When a child takes a toy, the best is if you can intervene before it has happened by blocking the child with your arm and saying, “I won’t let you take that.” Of course, it’s often too late. Taking the toy away from that child would simply be role modeling the exact behaviour you are trying to discourage. And forcing the child to give it back doesn’t help the child feel understood. I would try to understand the need, “I see. You needed all the cars for your highway.” You may try to reason with them, “I hear you. You really need all the cars right now. But I don’t think ____ was finished with that one. Would you mind giving it back?” You may find yourself in the awkward situation of having your child refuse to give the toy back. Let it go. It is not worth damaging the relationship or shaming the child over something so minor. Children take toys away from each other when adults aren’t watching alllllll the time, and the children generally cope just fine. Sometimes the ‘victimized’ child will stand up for themselves, and this, barring anything physical, is the best case scenario. Stand back and observe the children learn the intricacies of social negotiation– this is an important life skill! Of course, you need to step it if someone is at risk of getting hurt, or if someone isn’t coping anymore. It’s a good idea to go to the child who had the toy taken away, and empathize with them. “I see ______took that away from you. How are you feeling? Would you like to ask for it back? Or search for something else?” 

This may, at the onset, seem like a permissive approach to parenting. It isn’t. You don’t allow for such behaviour, but if they happen before you can stop them, it is important to acknowledge the futility in trying to “un-do” what happened. The connection needs to stay at the forefront because this is foundation for everything else. A child who feels connected to you will naturally want to please you, because you are more important to them than any toy or game or screen (if you aren’t, then you have an attachment problem, not a behaviour problem!). By maintaining the relationship you make parenting infinitely easier- the ‘problems’ will mostly go away on their own because the child has so much love for you. But if you erode the relationship, what motivation is there to listen to you? Threats, punishments and bribes will loose their effectiveness (if they were long-term solutions we wouldn’t find toddlers as challenging as we do!).

At this point, it is crucial that I make something clear. Focussing on the connection between you and your child does not mean you try to prevent crying or getting upset. Crying is ok! Tears are great! A child who feels comfortable displaying their emotions is a sign of a well-adjusted child who feels secure showing all their sides around you (click here to read more on that). When/if those big emotions come, weather the storm with them. This is a wonderful opportunity for connection. Stay next to them, sympathize with them, offer hugs. Crying is the best, and fastest way, to truly come to terms with and release hard feelings.

Before I leave you, I want to finish by saying, parenting is a long term game. We all know the damaging effects that shaming or yelling at children has. Things like time-outs or taking away privileges are short term answers that also do more harm than good. As one of my favourite quotes goes: Either we spend time meeting children’s emotional needs or we spend time dealing with behaviours caused from their unmet needs. Either way, we spend the time (Pam Leo). Put the work and effort in now, so that things will go more smoothly later.

If you’d like more tips on how to manoeuvre toddler situations this way, I highly recommend the “Unruffled” podcast by Janet Lansbury. Full of real-examples from parents and word for word ways you can handle them.