Every parent knows that discipline is one of the hardest parts of parenting. We want our children to grow up knowing right from wrong, but it can often be hard to know the best way to teach children to behave.
Child psychologists are generally in agreement that physical discipline isn’t an effective way to get your point across – both for the wellbeing and development of a child.
Smacking is already illegal in Ireland, yet for most of the UK it is not unlawful for parents and carers to use what’s deemed as ‘reasonable’ physical force to discipline children. Today, Scotland became the latest country to issue a blanket legal ban on physical punishment, after MSPs voted to pass a Member’s Bill at Holyrood.
Sweden became the first country in the world to bring in the ban in 1979, and now there are 58 other countries around the world that support it too.
Many parents might be asking: what can I do instead? We asked experts to share their top strategies and tools for effectively disciplining kids without harm.
1. Use ’emotion coaching’
“You can use emotion coaching techniques to support a child’s behaviour,” says Dr Janet Rose, principal at Norland College (norland.ac.uk), a prestigious nanny-training school whose graduates have worked for members of the royal family including the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
“Research has shown that over time these techniques, repeated over and over, will help your child to calm themselves and regulate their feelings.”
Rose says that next time your toddler has a tantrum, you should soothe them by taking them into a calm space.
“Acknowledge how they might be feeling and empathise: ‘I think you must be feeling fed up and upset that you can’t have (said thing), I’d feel a bit upset too but it’s not OK to scream.’
“Validate their frustration or grumpiness by saying, ‘It’s normal to be grumpy when we can’t have something we really want and we’re feeling tired.'”
Once the child is calmer, Rose says that you can teach them rules about behaviour and strategies for coping next time they misbehave or lose control.
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Never in the history of calming down has anyone actually calmed down by being told to calm down..... ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ It’s so easy for “calm down” to be our default response when our kids go into meltdown/reptilian brain/downstairs brain mode.🙋🏼♀️ #oops ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ Instead, we need to become their upstairs or logical brain *for* them and model how to calm down. Being able to regulate their flight, fight or freeze response is a learnt behaviour. And they’ll learn it from you! #brainscience ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ What are your go to “calm down” replacement phrases?
2. Use the ‘when and then’ philosophy
If you want a child to take their responsibilities seriously, make practising good behaviour enticing by adding a reasonable reward at the end of it – rather than simply shouting at kids to do as they are told.
“When it comes to discipline, we often use too many words,” says clinical psychologist Jerilee Claydon (therapyproject.co.uk).
She believes that parents should utilise the ‘when and then’ technique.
In practice, an example of this could be saying, ‘When you pick up those toys then I’ll read you the story,’ or ‘When you put your shoes on then I’ll get your snacks.’
“Keep it simple with the instruction and keep the thing they desire within the same sentence, so they know it’s coming,” says Claydon. “It avoids having to repeat and shout.
“If there is resistance,” she says, “you repeat the instruction calmly.”
3. Have sanctions
Behaviour expert Richard Daniel Curtis (thekidcalmer.com) says that while the first step for parents is to assess the emotions of a child, he believes that sanctions are really important.
“They’re a part and parcel of life,” says Curtis. “It might be as simple as [the child] saying ‘sorry’, or it could be picking up the items they threw or knocked over.
“For older children, it might be time out in their room or missing out on something that’s happening that day.
A further tip? “Good responsive parenting won’t focus on things that are too far in advance,” says Curtis.
“Delayed rewards are very hard for children under the age of eight to understand.” Instead, he believes that you should focus on rewards that have immediate effect.
3 choices when facing a tantrum: Distraction – direct the child’s attention onto something else; External regulation – the child is emotionally overwhelmed & needs help to calm down; Consequences – the behaviour is chosen, therefore will likely require a sanction of some kind.— The Kid Calmer (@TheKidCalmer) December 30, 2018
4. Pick your battles
It’s not helpful to verbally fly off the handle over mild misbehaviour. Attention can reinforce a child acting out, even if it is negative attention.
“As a parent myself, I’d say it’s always good to pick your battles. Think about what you’re trying to achieve with your parenting, as there are times when you won’t achieve anything,” says Curtis.
“For the parent, it’s important that you recognise that it’s not about winning every battle or being in control of what your child does all the time, because actually that just leads to a dictator-type parenting approach.”
6. Reward good behaviour
A loving ‘well done’ can go a really long way, when children are behaving correctly.
“As adults, adults get rewarded for working hard at work,” says Curtis. “We get paid each month because we turn up and we perform a good task. We also experience pride when we do a good job.
“We learn pride during childhood, when we’re praised for doing something right.
“Rewarding good behaviour all goes back to teaching children how to be responsible adults in the world.”
5. It’s OK for kids to make mistakes
New parents might feel like they’re failing if their kids are going through a tantrum phase, but bad behaviour is an important part of a child’s development.
“In the modern world, we want children to recognise the choices they’ve got and to know that there are times where they make the right decision and times when they don’t,” says Curtis.
“If a child makes the wrong decision, the key thing is that they learn from it, and they learn that they can put it right.
“It’s a learning experience,” he says. “As adults, we learn most from the times we make mistakes – there’s no reason we shouldn’t be teaching our children that too. ”