3 - 32 min read

Discipline Your Child's Behavior, Not Their Emotions

Rather than trying to force our children to not feel certain emotions (especially the ones that are inconvenient for us), we can teach them how to deal with emotions. Here are four ways to do this.

I sat on a park bench and saw it unfold. 

The mom said it was time to leave and the young girl had differing plans. She wanted to stay. 

This escalated into the mother’s anger and the girl’s tears. 

Who was right?

As a teen at the time, I had opinions based on being a fifteen-year-old with wants and desires of her own. Whose wants and desires were sometimes met with, “No.” 

My brain connected more closely with the toddler than the mom, ironically. Both of us moved from our emotions, and our logic often showed up late in the game. 

So, my initial vote went to the girl. Of course, she wanted to stay! The sun was out, the breeze was light, and there were slides, climbing frames, and friends. 

But then again, maybe it was the mom who was right. She probably had errands to run and dinner to cook. Moms have a way of seeing the bigger picture like that. 

I sat there playing out this scenario from both views long after they had actually left. The only conclusion I had come up with is that I was glad I didn’t have to deal with that tricky parenting stuff. I was never having kids. 

Becoming A Mother

That was until I did. 

Jump to the present day and here I am the mom at the park telling her son it's time to leave. As my frustration escalated to anger, and my son’s determination became tears of defeat, I happened to look over at an empty park bench. I remembered being the girl who watched a similar shakedown years ago. It stopped me in my tracks.

Who was right? 

Neither of us. 

Both of us. 

My yelling and sharp tone weren’t my best version, and his hitting and throwing a rock at me was not his. 

Was I a bad mom? Was he a bad kid?

No, and here’s why.

Becoming Aware

There is a difference between what our children do and how they feel just as there is space between how we behave and our emotions, too. 

Frustration was the feeling at the park. My yelling and my son’s hitting were the behaviors. 

The feeling isn’t wrong, bad, or broken. We were both valid in what we felt. 

I wanted to leave because I had an agenda of getting dinner on the table, baths, and snuggles in before bed. He wanted to stay because the park is a fun place to be. 

What is clear through our behaviors is that neither of us knew what to do with those feelings. 

Emotions Tell A Story

Sometimes we tend to shut down feelings, especially if we grew up in a home where expressing emotions wasn’t a safe thing to do. We tend to think that in order to teach the lesson or set the boundary, we must squash the feeling beneath it. 

What I have learned is that our feelings have a purpose. They are data. For example, most times when I feel frustrated, it is because 1) I have either set an expectation in my mind and whatever is unfolding isn’t meeting that expectation or 2) I am more invested in an outcome than my child. Most times when I feel resentful, it is because I have not set a firm enough emotional or physical boundary around something. I could go on, but you get the point. 

Same thing for our children. Their emotions tell a story, too. 

They are hungry, off-routine, tired, or have some other unmet need. They have some lagging skills like poor impulse control or emotional regulation. They want something and someone stands in their way (as in wanting to stay at the park and being told it was in fact time to leave). Thwarted desire is one of the hardest human experiences so it makes sense our children struggle with it. 

If our emotions are so dang useful, then we don’t want to deny or suppress them. We also can’t be passive parents. So how do we set boundaries and teach lessons to raise kind, well-meaning humans without dampening their emotional experience and gaslighting our own? 

Emotions Flow, Some Behaviors Are A No

The answer is we discipline. Discipline means "to teach."

Emotions flow, some behaviors are a no.  

So for that park scenario, it may have looked like this: I see you crying. You really want to stay at the park, don’t you? It is so hard to leave. 

You may insert a silly game to leave such as saying bye-bye to slide and swing as you walk to the car, or maybe you race to the tree towards the exit or play Eye Spy as you go. Or maybe you announce the transition by saying, “Do your one last thing and then it is time to head home.”

And what happens if your child still doesn’t want to go? Then you set an empathetic boundary. I see you want to stay. I know this feels hard. It is time to go. Would you like to hold my hand or for me to hold you on our walk to the car? 

4 Ways To Teach About Emotions 

Rather than trying to force our children to not feel certain emotions (especially the ones that are inconvenient for us), we can teach them how to deal with emotions. Here are four ways to do this. 

1. Take a Time-In

With the help of feeling posters from the Time-In ToolKit, we adults learn how to notice, label, and channel our emotions, especially the unpleasant ones. As we learn these skills, we can share them with our children. In creating quick, simple, and daily rituals in the Time-In space, we reinforce the circuits between our feelings and regulating them. In other words, from feelings to behaviors. One of my favorite rituals is our bedtime routine in which we all snuggle in our space and revisit, “When did I feel happy, sad, calm, and mad today?” 

2. Snuggle a plush

SnuggleBuddies plush toys are a playful way for children to notice how they feel inside the moment and share it with another, even when verbal communication feels tricky (or isn’t developmentally available to them). In addition, the sensory input kids receive from hugging, touching, and exploring the emojis highlights and coordinates different parts of the brain. 

3. Play cards

My Feelings Card Set + “What Can I Do?” Activity Mat walks children through challenging moments and regulate their emotions with these prompts: 

  • I feel __
  • I can __
  • Now I feel __
  • Do I feel better? Yes, no, or a little?

4. Practice a mantra

PeaceMakers mantra cards help children and adults connect in daily, playful ways around the things that matter most: our ideas and our feelings. Each card delivers a unique, affirming message designed to nurture emotional intelligence including self-love, social skills, a growth mindset, confidence, and more.

Understanding emotions and responding appropriately is an important part of your child's cognitive development. Just as profound, the ability for you and your child to share this together, nourishes your relationship with one another. 

Emotions aren’t just an us or them thing. It is a we thing. 

And WE are in this together. 

Teach children about their emotions in playful ways!

The Time-In ToolKit® playfully teaches kids 2-9+ how to navigate big emotions through social-emotional skill-building games. Created by child-development experts, your ToolKit includes everything you need to create your own Calming Corner and start taking Time-Ins instead of Time-Outs with your little ones.

The Time-In ToolKit®

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The Time-In ToolKit®

The Time-In ToolKit® playfully teaches kids 2-9+ how to navigate big emotions through social emotional skill-building games. Created by child-development experts, your ToolKit includes everything you need to create your own Calming Corner and start taking Time-Ins instead of Time-Outs with your little ones.

Ashley Patek is the Content Director for Generation Mindful. Ashley is an occupational therapist, certified lifestyle/parenting coach, and mama to four children; two boys and two daughters born to Heaven. She believes that parenting starts with us as parents and focuses on the whole-parent, whole-child, and whole-family dynamic.