How can we get our children to behave, without resorting to time outs, reward charts or harsh punishments?
These days, most parents no longer use spanking and other types of physical punishment on their children. For many parents, time outs have become the most accepted method of teaching their kids right from wrong.
However, according to the author of a new book on what brain science tells us about disciplining our kids, even time outs can hurt your child’s physiological and emotional growth.
Now, some prominent American psychologists are arguing that a child’s neurological development is best encouraged by techniques that “focus on connection, not separation” between a child and his or her parent.
One psychologist has written that “The classic approach to discipline, which presents difficult behavior as something that must be stopped, simply does not work,”
So, if even time outs are potentially hurtful to our children’s health, what should a parent do? We spoke with a doctor of psychology about a more scientific approach to discipline.
Why do experts advise parents not to spank?
Now that we know better, we must do better. Thanks to recent scientific findings, we now understand that parenting through fear, withholding love, and using physical isolation does not benefit children’s development.
What do these current findings tell us?
As parents, we often attempt to teach children about the realities of the adult world, and we expect them to keep control over themselves. But the truth is, kids simply don’t have self-control because their frontal and prefrontal cortexes are immature. We now understand that the brain develops from the bottom up. In other words, the core of the brain is the first to really take root, followed by the rest of the brain layering up on that core foundation.
When scientists look into that core of the brain, we find much of the neural circuitry that relates to emotion and, therefore, to emotional control. Recently there has been a lot of research done to look more closely at what causes that part of the brain or its related systems to act up and become disregulated, or, alternatively, at what might cause those particular parts of the brain to be calmed and relaxed.
In cases where kids are stressed by the use of a relational disconnection, including punishments that rely on fear or time outs that place a child in isolation, these techniques can cause a disregulation in the developing brain. When parents say, “I’ll teach them a real lesson and I’ll make sure they really know,” unfortunately, you can try to teach that lesson over and over till the cows come home, but the truth is that if the child’s brain isn’t mature enough to learn it, they aren’t going to learn.
You argue that discipline isn’t actually about stopping a negative behavior. What is discipline, then?
When it comes down to it, discipline is really about connecting with your children in their time of need. We can give children the support they need through our connection with them, which calms them and steadies and regulates their responses. Only then can we try to teach them about making good behavior choices. And we realize that it may take a few tries for a child to learn what is expected of them.
But as kids grow, and their ability to control themselves increases, and our relationship with them is healthy, they’ll actually want to please us. Neuroplasticity, which allows the brain to change, reinforces connections that encourage that sort of regulated brain. Over time, the child’s capacity for self-regulation and self control increases.
Many parents use positive techniques such as reward charts and the taking of privileges instead of spanking, but you’ve stated that these strategies can also hurt a child’s development.
These styles all use either fear or external validation. Since children are so desperate to have their parental connection restored, they will obey, but it’s an artificial control. They’re still unsettled and disregulated inside. Long term, this can leave your child more susceptible to issues like anxiety and depression.
So, what is the underlying concept of your own discipline strategy?
Scientists understand with certainty that children need connections with their caregivers to thrive. Children literally need those connections for a healthy development. Most of the familiar discipline tactics involve some form of disconnection. We have to accept that idea of connection, and accept that a strong parent child relationship is the foundation of a child’s health and growth, so we should filter all of our discipline through this lens of connection. When parents do that, children grow brains that are really good at self regulating.
What should parents do instead of spanking or time outs?
Take all of the above into account and read three specific steps to effectively responding in the moment. The fact is that effective discipline isn’t as much about what you do, it’s more about how you are & how you do it. If you want to be effective at parenting, this is a key indicator for you to use. Did I give my child a chance to learn something today?
The best thing to do is to try out our recommendations. Especially if they feel strange or foreign to you. Give it a shot. It doesn’t hurt to try a new way of effectively communicating with your child & focusing on achieving the intended outcome.
Tips for Effective Parenting
1. Tip: Stay firm but be kind.
Example: “No, you can’t have that toy [child starts complaining]. I hear that you’re disappointed, and I imagine if I were you I would be too.”
2. Tip: Misbehavior is a sign the child is struggling.
Example: “Oh no, it sounds like you’re really struggling with this. Why don’t you take a break for a minute and come with me. I think we should get a drink of water and we can figure this out together.”
3. Tip: Focus on your relationship as the foundation of any discipline.
Example: “Wow! What an look amazing Lego creation! I really love how you used so many colors together. You can finish up for five more minutes, then you’ll need to go wash your hands and head to the table so we can sit down to dinner.”