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No-Drama Discipline

Daniel Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson

(London Times)

If discipline to you means a spell of time out, an earnest lecture, plus the odd screaming match in the face of serious provocation (or when you’ve tried and failed with everything else) then you have something in common with 90 per cent of parents. But one leading US psychiatrist says it’s time we realised we’ve got it all wrong: not only could we be damaging our children but we’re not even teaching them the lessons we are desperate for them to learn.

“People have taken the term discipline, which in Latin means to teach, and equated it with punishment — to inflict social or emotional pain on the child to somehow ‘teach them a lesson’,” says Professor Daniel Siegel, whose latest book No-Drama Discipline was published in the UK this week. “Not only do these ‘consequences’ not work, they can be counter-productive.”

But before children get too excited about their potential new freedom, Siegel, clinical professor of psychiatry at University of California, Los Angeles, and his co-author, paediatric psychotherapist Tina Payne Bryson, reassure us that they are absolutely not a soft touch. Siegel points out that science proves that children do need clear boundaries; permissive parenting is bad for development.

But he believes parents can be very harsh in meting out “discipline” without pausing to think why the child is misbehaving — and it’s usually because they don’t yet have the capacity to regulate themselves in the way we expect, whether they are toddlers or teenagers.

“The truth is that a huge percentage of misbehaviour is more about can’t than won’t,” he says.

So we shout at a five-year-old who has destroyed her sister’s game and send her to her room to “think about what you’ve done”. But there are two problems. One is that we don’t realise how terrifying we can be to a child when we are screaming and shouting (which research shows can be as damaging as smacking, if prolonged, frequent and severe). As an experiment with parents at his clinic, he says “No!” loudly and fiercely seven times with a short pause in between, followed by seven soft “Yeses”. The experiment lasts 30 seconds and at the end parents are asked how they feel. “They are all horrified by the physiological reaction — their heart beats faster and they feel panicked as the brain goes into a reactive state ready to flee, freeze or fight. Afterwards they say to me, ‘I’m horrified that I say “no” in that tone all the time to my child’.”

The second problem is we haven’t understood why the child has destroyed the game — because her sister had a friend round and they excluded her — and she couldn’t contain her disappointment and frustration. Siegel says a hug is a more appropriate first response. “That’s when people say to me, ‘ Oh my God, you’re hugging a child who threw toys? Surely you are validating the throwing?’ No, you’re engaging in a connection with them. You explain how their behaviour has upset their sister. Later, when they’ve calmed down, you’ll take them to apologise and to help clear up the mess. That’s the consequence. You can also talk about how they might deal with their disappointment next time.” He says the end result of the whole exchange is that the child feels understood by the parent, she’s learnt what she did was wrong, apologised and learnt a new way of dealing with it next time.

It’s building this internal resilience that’s the key to bringing up successful adults, he stresses, and traditional punishments miss the opportunity to teach it. “For many people, gaining immediate co-operation is the only goal — that’s why we hear parents using phrases like ‘Stop it now!’ But really, we want more than co-operation don’t we? We want them to develop the skills to handle challenging situations. These are the internal skills that can be used later, helping them develop self-control and giving them a moral compass so that when authority figures aren’t around they are thoughtful and conscientious.”

Building up the child’s “higher” brain — the cerebral cortex responsible for sophisticated thinking which isn’t fully developed until the early twenties — is the key. He believes his approach strengthens the neural connections between the higher and the lower, primitive, parts of the brain. “That way the higher parts of the brain can override a child’s primitive impulses more and more often.”

It sounds good in theory, but as parents at his clinic often point out, who has the time for all this? Wouldn’t a simple, “Stop whining!” be quicker? “With any new thing, it takes both energy and effort at the beginning,” he says. “But ironically the small extra bit of time you put in shortens how many times you have to make an intervention because you are teaching your child self-monitoring. So after the first few days you get a big return on your time.”

The book was published in America in the autumn, causing a minor storm with his declaration that “time out” — the US parent’s discipline of choice and increasingly popular here — was ineffective. Since then he says he has had emails from parents reporting that their children’s behaviour changed within days of using the techniques. “In a way, it’s no surprise, as all we’ve done is translate thousands of scientific articles and research and present it for parents. It’s not magic but science.”

There’s no point trying to discipline a screaming, shouting upset child

Siegel likens it to trying to teach a fighting dog to sit. It’s not going to happen. This is the moment they need you to connect with them and understand why they did what they did. This means getting down below their eye level — kneel down or sit on the floor, and assume a relaxed posture. A loving touch — squeezing a hand or hugging — has huge power to defuse a heated situation and alter brain chemistry. Attune to their emotion by saying something like, “I understand why you did that, I get you. If I were in your shoes at your age I might feel the same.” Connection is not the same as letting them off the hook: you wouldn’t say “you seem upset” to a child hurling an action figure at something breakable. A better response would be to hold him and say something like, “I can see you’re upset and are having a hard time stopping your body. I will help you,” possibly picking him up or guiding him away, staying with him until he’s calm. Then you can discuss what happened. Always validate their emotion rather than dismiss it. So rather than saying, “I know your brother tore your picture but that’s no reason to hit him — you can always draw another one,” say, “That made you cross when your brother tore your picture. I hate it when my stuff gets messed with too. I don’t blame you for being furious.” You’re not letting them off — consequences will come once you’ve connected and they’ve calmed down enough to listen.

Sending them to their room doesn’t work

Sending children to their room or to sit on the stairs doesn’t often work, especially if done in anger. You want them to calm down and reflect but time out will usually make children angrier. What they’re mainly reflecting on while in isolation is how mean their parents are to put them there. There are two main problems with time outs: one is that misbehaviour in younger children is because they are hungry, tired or can’t regulate their emotions so this need for connection comes out in aggression or disrespect. It’s a time they most need our calm presence and forcing them to go off and sit by themselves can feel like abandonment. The second is that time outs aren’t logically linked to a particular behaviour, so their capacity to teach a lesson is limited. If they made a toilet paper mountain, they need to help you clean up, not have time out while you do it. You’re missing an opportunity to build their skills. Instead of time out for being cheeky, get the child to try again and say something in a more respectful way. (“I’m sure if you tried you could think of a better way to say that.”)

Screaming can be as damaging as smacking

Avoid any discipline that is aggressive, inflicts pain or creates fear or terror. There are plenty of non-spanking approaches that can be just as damaging in the long term, such as isolating children for long periods, humiliating them or terrifying them by screaming threats. These activate the defensive circuits of the primitive lower brain and the stress hormone cortisol is released which is toxic to the brain and can lead to long-lasting changes such as the death of neural connections. It’s also counter-productive as the child’s attention shifts from his own behaviour and any emerging feelings of guilt or remorse to the unfairness of the parent’s response. And in order to avoid the pain and fright a child will simply get better at concealing and lying about their behaviour.

Ask yourself, ‘Why did my child do that?’

In younger children it’s often tiredness, hunger or feeling overwhelmed by emotions that’s at the root of the behaviour. With older children and teens, give them the benefit of the doubt until you have found out the facts. If you have allowed your 11-year-old to go home from school with a friend, and he’s told you the friend’s parents will be at home, but you later find out the boys have been alone for three hours, don’t immediately launch into him in the car on the way home even if you suspect deception. Start with, “I’m glad you and Harry had a great time together but I have a question. You know how important trust is to us. What happened here?” That way, he doesn’t feel accused, there’s no drama, and your curiosity puts the responsibility of accounting for himself on his shoulders. If he explains he hadn’t realised both parents would be out and that he should have texted you as soon as he knew, you can follow up with, “I’m glad you’re clear you should have told me. Why didn’t that happen, do you think?” This helps him understand his actions have made a little dent in your trust.

Don’t rant

It’s easy to go overboard when we bring in wider worries. So if your 12-year-old comes home with a low mark in maths you might say, “You seem disappointed — let’s think what we can do.” But if she’s had problems in the past or her older brother is struggling and has a bad attitude, it’s easy to think, “Oh, here we go again,” and start ranting about consequences and cutting back on after-school activities. Before you know it you’re lecturing about getting into good universities and missing life’s opportunities. Only deal with the behaviour/situation in front of you at that moment.

How to get them to apologise and empathise

Now is the time to “teach them a lesson” but without lecturing or laying down the law. Don’t overtalk here or they will tune out. You want three outcomes: insight into their behaviour and empathy for others followed by a repair. First ask questions so they can gain insight into their behaviour. Describe rather than criticise. So don’t say, “How dare you speak to your brother like that,” but try, “Those sound like pretty mean words. What’s happening?” (“What’s going on?”, “Can you help me understand?” and “I can’t figure this out,” are useful neutral phrases here so they don’t feel accused.)

Help them develop empathy by asking questions (“Do you see Julia is crying? Can you imagine how she’s feeling?”) Then appeal to their higher brain by asking how they can repair the situation. (“What can you do to make it right?” or “What do you think needs to happen now?”) With young children it’s fine for the adult to deliver the apology once you’ve agreed the words between you. You may have to wait a few minutes or even hours until your child is in the right frame of mind; not much good comes from forcing an inauthentic apology. With older children, involve them by asking for their help with a solution. That way the child doesn’t feel accused, you’ve encouraged good decision-making and also enforced boundaries. After the repair, move on quickly to another topic entirely. Don’t dwell.

How to deal with homework battles

Most of us talk too much when we discipline: droning on turns children off, especially older ones, and all they hear is, “Schoolwork . . . good habits . . . blah, blah . . .” In homework battles, it’s tempting to embark on the, “If you had started earlier, when I asked you to, you’d be done by now,” lecture. But how many children will reply, “You’re right, dad. I really should have started when you asked. I’ve learnt my lesson. Thanks for enlightening me on this”? Instead, try to understand why they’ve collapsed in tears about the homework (too difficult, they’re just come in from hockey and are tired or too busy?). Offer empathy (“I know it’s a lot tonight and you’re tired. I’ll sit with you while you knock it out”). Then next day when things are calmer, discuss whether they feel over-scheduled, or are having trouble understanding that subject. Say, “The homework situation isn’t working well, is it? I bet we can find a better way. What do you think might work?”

Don’t be completely inflexible

Consistency is crucial but some parents place such a high priority on being consistent — with bedtimes, junk food, homework or TV — that it becomes rigidity, an unswerving devotion to the rules we’ve set up without having thought them through or changing them as our children develop. We are afraid that if we give in and allow a fizzy drink at one meal or allow a six-yearold to get into our bed after a nightmare, it creates a slippery slope. Yes, there should be non-negotiatables (holding a toddler’s hand on the road, swimming with supervision) but offer consistency (a reliable philosophy) with flexibility, so children know what to expect from you, but they also know that at times you will thoughtfully consider all the factors and make an exception.

If you’re going to make threats, follow through

How many times do you hear parents say, “If you do that one more time, we’re leaving the park,” then the child carries on being rough and preventing other children using the slide and the parent responds with, “OK, we’re going,” but takes no action? Instead, it would be better to go over to the child, get down to his level, and say something like, “The children don’t like how you’re blocking the slide. Do you have any ideas about how we can share it?” If that doesn’t work, you might say, “If it’s too hard to share the slide, then we’ll need to do something different, like throwing the Frisbee.” That way you’re attuning to his emotional state while still enforcing boundaries. But if he still refuses to comply, you have to follow through and leave the park.

What if you lose it?

No one can be the perfect parent all the time. The good news is that these messy, human responses are valuable too as they teach children how to deal with difficult situations. They understand you’re not perfect so they won’t expect themselves to be either. But it’s vital to repair a rupture by apologising (“I’m sorry I didn’t handle that well”) and reconnecting with a hug or chat, so we send the message that the relationship matters more than whatever caused the conflict.

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