If you are a parent struggling to know how to best discipline your child, you are not alone. Consider the variety of books on the subject: positive discipline, playful discipline, understanding discipline from the perspective of attachment, and mindful discipline, to name a few. Discipline is a touchy topic for many, especially because it requires so much from parents: persistence, tolerance (in the face of loud, out-of-control feelings), stepping into the unknown (a given), and faith (that discipline will work!).
In response to a child acting out, you might find yourself falling either on the side of permissiveness (leaving you feeling like a pushover) or on the side of a more punitive approach (leaving you feeling anxious and guilty). Wherever you fall on the spectrum, you might notice a harsh inner voice as you respond to difficult moments with your child. This can lead to a downward spiral of disengagement, self-doubt, and self-criticism.
While there are a variety of sensible approaches to discipline, the most effective way to break this negative cycle and find the “sweet spot” is to do the work of understanding how you were disciplined; reconciling the conflicts you have around discipline; and engaging with the question of what discipline means to you. This internal work can help pave the way to choosing an approach that best suits you, your child, your family, and your relationship.
Consider Your Past
As I often preach, working from the inside out is the most sustainable and effective way to growing as a parent. Specifically, being aware of the associations you have with discipline, where those associations originate, and the feelings you might have about those associations can free you from the blocks that arise when your child needs to learn about appropriate boundaries and consequences.
If you are struggling, you may be best served by maintaining an ongoing inquiry regarding your own memories, thoughts, and feelings about discipline.
For instance, if you find that when your child is hitting others you (1) grab the child aggressively and angrily, (2) see your child’s fearful response, and then (3) feel terrible, you can examine your own childhood for clues as to how this series of events came to pass. Perhaps you received a similar response from a parent, and thus associate discipline with punishment along with possible feelings of fear, shame, and anger. If this is the case, you will undoubtedly get tangled up in your past when your own child requires disciplined attention.
Of course, this is but one of the many ways parents may have experienced discipline in childhood that can influence parenting behaviors. If you are struggling, you may be best served by maintaining an ongoing inquiry regarding your own memories, thoughts, and feelings about discipline.
Be an Engaged Parent
Once you get a handle on your inner world related to discipline, you may begin to engage more thoughtfully and deeply with parenting your child. Engagement means bringing an open and curious attention to both thinking about discipline and offering it to your child.
When you do the inner work of parenting, you may notice places you want to avoid or not think about. Discipline is a common place where parents may operate automatically from the ways they were raised, without questioning or wondering if the form of discipline fits well with their values and their children’s needs and temperaments. To be engaged is to have conversations with your partner and other parents about what they have seen be effective and to allow for new ideas to gradually replace unproductive, deeply embedded ones.
Discipline is a form of teaching. What are the lessons you want your child to learn? Do you see discipline as a way of controlling bad behavior? Do you see it as a form of punishment? Do you disagree with discipline altogether?
It is important to recognize that all methods of discipline have an impact on your child—likely a lasting one—and it is helpful to inquire as to what that impact might be. Reflecting on your own childhood experiences and the impact they had on you may help guide you on how best to respond to your child’s problematic behavior and shape it into something you won’t have to fret so much about.
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