The world as we know it has cultivated a “disposable” way of thinking. Things are made cheaply and available at the click of a button. If something breaks, it’s cheaper and easier to get a new one than to fix it. And hey, even if it doesn’t break, we can get a newer model in a few months anyway.
Most of us live busy lives, overflowing with to-do lists and problems to solve. Insert a screaming child into the mix and you have an instant recipe for disaster. In these moments, all we want is a quick fix. We want the tantrum to stop. We want the child to calm down. We want them to be more respectful! We may even be wondering, “how do I fix my child’s behaviour?”
But here’s the important thing:
The child isn’t broken.
Behaviour such as screaming, crying, back chat, whining, hitting, biting, and everything in between is not a fault, a weakness, or even misbehaviour. All behaviour has one goal; to send a message. If we can decode this message and identify the need behind it, we can be better prepared to respond.
Children do not need fixing. Children need understanding.
When we learn about behaviour and development, and as our understanding deepens, we can see the messages with clarity, which clears the debris from our parenting journey and allows for smoother sailing.
We all know that we have unconditional love for our children. The thing we don’t necessarily consider is that although our children love us back, it’s not the same. They will only truly understand the love a parent has for their child when they become parents themselves.
So how do we let our children know that we will love them no matter what? One way is to tell them on a regular basis and check in if they truly understand what it means to be loved to the maximum.
The script could go something like this:
“No matter what you do, I will love you to the MAXIMUM. This means that you can hurt others, you can lie, cheat, steal, and I will still love you. It would be better if you didn’t do those things because your life will be negatively impacted by these choices, but no matter what, I will still love you the MAXIMUM. I am your parent, so there is nothing that you can do that will make me love you LESS.”
Parents seem quite familiar with that concept. But what about the flip side of the coin?
“No matter what you do, I will not love you MORE. I will NOT love you more if you get good marks at school, or do well in your chosen sport. I will not love you more if you are generous and kind. I will not love you more if you choose the same career as I did, or earn a better salary than your peers. I love you the MAXIMUM already, so I cannot love you more."
This is very important. This teaches children that they are already worthy. Children do not need to “earn” a parent’s love. It is already present, at full capacity, and always will be.
This is the definition of unconditional love.
This beautiful song, “No Matter What”, by Calum Scott captures this idea perfectly. You can watch the video here: https://youtu.be/kBIhqNT5gsE
Most of us grew up being told and believing that actions need to be followed by consequences in order to “learn a lesson”. And so when a child is “misbehaving” an unpleasant consequence, such as a time out or a hiding, needs to be imposed in order to stop that behaviour from happening again. While this makes sense at face value, it disregards the core function of child behaviour; communication.
All child behaviour is communication in some form, and if we look a little deeper, we see what the child is really searching for; connection.
In his book “The Whole-Brain Child”, Dr Daniel Siegel explains that when a child is “misbehaving”, they are often feeling discouraged and disconnected. The right hemisphere of the brain is active at this point. Often what we do as parents is to try to reason with the child, appealing to their left hemisphere. The trouble is that when the child is overwhelmed by right-brain activity, they will actively reject logic and reason. Which means that, in this moment, imposed consequences will never have the desired effect! What the child really needs is connection. This will help them to integrate the two hemispheres and 1) be more receptive to reasoning and solutions, as well as 2) become better at emotional regulation overall.
In order to connect with a child, we have to suppress the urge to correct the behaviour or fix the problem. This sounds very simple but is extremely hard in practice! Here are two tools that can be helpful when faced with an emotional meltdown:
Once your child feels connected, they will be more receptive to logic, solutions and, above all, they will be developing true emotional intelligence.
Ask any parent and they will not hesitate to agree that all children need discipline. And yet, we can’t seem to agree on what actually defines “discipline”.
Originally, to discipline meant to teach a principle, to guide towards truth. Nowadays, people tend to use the word discipline when they actually mean “punishment”, which, in practice, is something entirely different.
By definition, punishment stops or suppresses behaviour by means of adding an unpleasant consequence, usually in the form of blame, shame, fear, or pain. Punishment is effective in the short term, which is why it’s so popular. But what is going on under the surface? Punishment disregards a child’s rights and underlying emotional development. Discipline, on the other hand, enforced with kindness and understanding, meets a child exactly where they are developmentally, without permissiveness or disrespect.
The concern is obviously that without punishment, the child will never learn what not to do. This is a legitimate concern, so let’s explore what happens when we punish a child; what are they really learning?
If I say to you, “No! Don’t do that!” Do you know exactly what I’m telling you not to do? How are you feeling about me? Do you feel understood? Do you feel that you are learning right from wrong?
Or let’s say I was more specific. “Stop screaming like a baby! You’re going to time out.” Do you feel heard? Did you feel respected or that you gained respect for me? Are you thinking, “Wow, I’ve learnt an important lesson about screaming, I’m so grateful!”? Are you planning to cooperate with me in the future?
Imagine this scenario instead: I sit down with you and have a conversation. I tell you that I’m about to go into a meeting so I need quiet. I give you pencils and paper to keep you busy and we agree that if you start to scream, I will put my hand on your shoulder for a few seconds so that you know I see you, then close the door and continue working until you have quietened down.
You start to draw, and one of the pencils breaks. You start to scream. I calmly get up from my desk, gently put my hand on your shoulder, close the door and continue to work.
Do you feel heard? Respected? Challenged?
When one enforces discipline that is both kind and firm at the same time, the child will learn to abide by and benefit from the proposed structure while simultaneously learning long term life skills, including self-regulation, and responsibility. This is ultimately what parents are trying to instil by using punishment!
In the words of Jane Nelsen, the founder of Positive Discipline, "Where did we ever get the crazy idea that in order to make children DO better, first, we have to make them FEEL worse?” We now know that “Children DO Better When They FEEL Better”, so it’s time to start moving away from punishment and towards real discipline!