Closeup Rachel Wigglesworth

Rachel Wigglesworth, once a wildlife biologist, turned her research skills toward another passion: childhood development and parenting.

In my last column I talked about the simplicity of being present with our kids. Simple, yet not so simple.

Simple when there is ease in the situation and our interaction. Simple when we are having fun together, sharing an activity or cooperating on responsibilities.

Not so simple when there is a power struggle, whining, talking back, not doing what we ask, dilly-dallying, or any other hair-raising behavior from our child. So what do we do in those times when it is not so simple?

Many of the problems we have in our parenting lives involve what we might call “discipline issues,” in which we feel we need to correct or change our children’s “bad” or challenging behavior. When I ask parents in my classes what they think of when we talk about discipline, the two most popular responses are timeouts and punishment, but the root of the word means to teach.

When we are triggered we often pull out discipline strategies like threatening, bribing, yelling, lecturing, nagging, scolding, taking away privileges or timeouts — all strategies that Jane Nelsen, psychologist and founder of positive discipline, can cause a child to feel blame, shame or pain.

How did you feel when you were punished as a child? Often the thoughts go something like this: anger toward the person who punished you, mulling on how to not get caught the next time, thoughts on how to get even or feeling badly about yourself.

Those thoughts and feelings neither teach the child a skill nor maintain the relationship. As Nelsen said, punishment is the idea that “in order to make children do better, first we need to make them feel worse. The truth is, children do better when they feel better.”

When we are threatened we go into a state of fear. The fight-or-flight part of our brain becomes activated. Think of yourself in a threatened state. We tend to either lash out and fight back or retreat. Our children are the same.

A threatened child may fight back with various levels of aggression, creating a prime opportunity for a major power struggle. A threatened child may do what you ask, but out of fear, not because it is the right thing to do. A threatened child might retreat. Additionally, if threatened by physical force, yelling, having a toy taken away or losing a privilege, our children can go into a state in which no learning is possible.

I wonder if we can reframe our approach to discipline so that we don’t have to respond with a punishment. Rather, the behavior becomes a signal that our kids are, as psychologist Ross Greene says, lacking skills that we need to teach.

“Discipline” comes from the Latin root for “pupil.” So, yes, many of the issues we have in our parenting lives are discipline issues: situations in which our children lack skills and need to be taught.

How well are we teaching our kids skills when we punish them? Are they learning how to regulate their emotions, manage their impulses, treat others with respect or take care of responsibilities when we give them a timeout or take away a privilege? Using that framework of discipline we might be teaching our children what not to do, but we are not teaching them the skills for what to do instead.

Just like our kids need to be taught life skills and skills for positive behavior, we parents could use some skills. Knowing what to do instead of resorting to punishment and other typical “discipline” strategies can be a game changer in our parenting worlds. I think about raising children this way: First, what do kids need for their overall well-being? Second, what do we parents need so we can give our kids what they need?

So when our children are being utterly unreasonable and defiant, how do we get them to do what we are asking? “Children do well when they can,” Greene said, and if they can’t we need to uncover why and problem-solve collaboratively with the child.

I want to acknowledge that we all love our children and want the best for them. We are all doing our best to raise our kids to grow into their best possible selves. How that looks is going to be different within our individual families.

I also want to acknowledge that we are human. We are going to do or say things that we might later regret. It’s OK. What’s important is that we go back and repair. Acknowledge our part in the power struggle and our emotions. In time, after watching us consistently repair any fractures in the relationship, our kids will begin to do the same.

While it’s hard to be present with our children when we are triggered, what they actually need is our presence — a challenging double-edged sword. Through a framework developed on the works of professor Dr. Dan Siegel, parent educator Vicki Hoefle and psychologist Laura Markham, I’ve learned you can be present in challenging situations when these skills are practiced.

It is important to note that I am not espousing being permissive with our kids, and there is a time and a place for consequences. I will continue this discussion in my next column.

Until then, take out your binoculars and begin observing yourself and your interactions with your child. Write down your observations; you might gain some insights.

Rachel Wigglesworth has an M.Ed. in Parent and Family Education. She provides guidance to parents and caregivers through classes, workshops, and individual sessions at www.GrowingGreatFamilies.org. You can email her at GrowingGreatFamilies@gmail.com or find her on Facebook.

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