One day, when my son was three-years-old, he sat in a small plastic green chair in my hallway, tears streaming down his cheeks. He was in time-out again.
I don’t remember exactly why he was “in trouble,” but time-out was my go-to consequence at the time, and my son hated it. You may be thinking, Yea, but consequences aren’t supposed to be pleasant. It’s good that he hated it!
But I don’t mean that it frustrated him to have to sit there. I mean it broke his heart to do so. This sad but simple realization caused me to change my whole approach to discipline and to see my son’s behavior in a new light. I was determined to repair his broken heart while I learned a new way, and so I began my journey into positive parenting. I can’t believe that was more than a decade ago.
What I came to understand was that all behavior is a form of communication. It tells us what a person is experiencing and how they are processing that experience. When children misbehave, it’s because they are having difficulty. As education speaker and author Annette Breaux so wisely stated, “Nine times out of ten, the story behind the misbehavior won’t make you angry. It will break your heart.” Once I saw misbehavior as a cry for love and connection, it no longer made sense to me to answer with “You’re in big trouble.” Rather, my response became, “I’m here to help.”
Through years of trial and error with many positive parenting tools, I’ve discovered three foolproof ways to stop misbehavior. They work because, unlike punishments, these three solutions address the root cause of the behavior - the difficulty that veered your child off track in the first place. These three solutions give your child the tools they need to regulate their own emotions and behavior, and that is what true discipline is.
Three Ways To Stop Misbehavior
Every human being is born with the need for connection. Dr. Brene Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston and has spent her career studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. In her bestselling book, Daring Greatly, she says, “Connection is why we’re here. We are hardwired to connect with others. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering.”
Now, you may be thinking, I already do connect with my child. What I’m referring to when I say connection is a secure emotional bond between the parent and child. In attachment theory, this is called secure attachment. It occurs when the child believes that the parent is reliable, consistent, attuned, and loving. This secure attachment helps the child feel loved and safe. The strength of this attachment allows for optimal growth, and it is attained by positive, warm, loving interactions with your child. Affectionate touching, talking, singing, playing, smiling, and listening all build connection along with reliable comfort during times of upset.
You may have heard of the “magic ratio.” Renowned relationship psychologist Dr. John Gottman discovered that for every one negative interaction, five positive ones are needed to maintain a healthy relationship. This finding was in regard to marriage, but I believe this is a good rule for all human relationships. Negative interactions take their toll on connection, and I believe this is how we get into a deficit with our kids that causes unpleasant feelings and, therefore, unpleasant behavior. Negative interactions like threatening, scolding, yelling, punishing, scowling, etc. erode our connection, so it’s prudent to take a look at your ratio. How many negative interactions are you having on a daily basis versus positive ones? If you consciously work toward building a stronger connection with your child, I’m confident you’ll see misbehavior dissipate, and you’ll have a happier, more cooperative child. In addition, your improved relationship with your child will cause your positive feelings to flourish as well.
2. Focus on solutions.
Do you know the phrase, “When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail”? When parents get stuck using the same ol’ consequence over and over, we miss information and opportunities. When I used time-out for every misdeed, I didn’t have to think about what was causing the problem or how to help my child learn real solutions. Because of this, I missed my child’s pain and difficulty. I didn’t stop to think about what he was experiencing that caused his acting out. And of course, the time-outs were so recurring because they didn’t solve anything! When I began to focus on solutions, everything improved dramatically.
The first step to finding a solution is to understand the problem, so get curious about why your child is behaving that way. A good place to start is thinking about your connection and that magic ratio. Also consider if there is a change in the child’s life such as a new sibling, new schedule, different school, the loss of a loved one, etc. Is her behavior simply the result of an underdeveloped brain? In other words, are your expectations age-appropriate? Is there a skill that needs to be learned for her to be able to do better?
If you can determine the cause of the problem, a solution will likely present itself. Sometimes though, it’s quite difficult to discern. Include your child in problem-solving by asking questions such as, “What were you feeling when you did that?,” and, “How do you think you can fix this?” Solution-oriented discipline takes more time, but the outcome is so much better because, in the end, your child is learning self-discipline.
3. Offer positive feedback and affirmations.
It’s so easy to point out and criticize what kids do wrong. “You didn’t put your coat away again.” “How many times do I have to tell you to clean your room?” “Why do you wait until the last minute to start your homework?”
How often do you point out what your child is doing right? Most of us don’t think about it much. We expect them to do their chores and be kind and make good decisions so we tend to let those things go unnoticed. We give much more attention to their negative behaviors than we do the positive behaviors, and this is a problem because what we focus on grows. When we water problems, we usually see more problems. A great way to stop misbehavior is to stop focusing so much on it and instead to direct your attention on what you would like to cultivate.
This doesn’t mean that you ignore it entirely, but don’t put so much focus on it. Even in your correction, you can put a positive spin and offer an affirmation. Instead of saying, “I’m so tired of telling you to clean your room every day,” you might say, “I noticed that your clothes were put away. I appreciate that. I’d like you to make the bed and pick up your art supplies please.”
Likewise, state your positive observations and notice when she is being kind to a sibling or has brought up a grade. Make the praise specific and genuine, such as, “You worked hard to bring up that math grade and it paid off” rather than, “Good job.” And don’t forget to give positive affirmations that aren’t tied to any behavior at all so that your child knows your love and adoration are not dependent upon her actions. For example, you might say, “You’re wonderful just the way you are,” and “I adore you for you.” When we see the best in others, we help them to see it, too.
True discipline is not what we do to a child but what we help the child do for himself. It’s really about learning how to understand and regulate one’s emotions and behavior. Because children cannot learn when in emotional distress, a secure attachment sets the foundation that allows positive growth.
Problem-solving helps your child take responsibility not only for her actions but also for repair and for change moving forward, and those are critical steps that punishment misses entirely. Finally, by offering positive feedback and affirming your child’s true and loving self, you help him develop a positive self-concept which means he will seek to align his behavior with this positive view of himself. The result is a happier, capable, self-disciplined child and a stronger bond to last a lifetime.
** Rebecca Eanes is the bestselling author of Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide, The Gift of a Happy Mother, The Positive Parenting Workbook, and The Newbie’s Guide to Positive Parenting.