Inside: Imagine having fewer power-struggles with your child, what is the secret? Positive Discipline. Instead of micromanaging or controlling, positive discipline focuses on the parent-child connection. Positive discipline separates feelings from behavior so that you can acknowledge how your child feels while still setting limits. This quick 3 step guide is all you need to get started using positive discipline today.
I fed the puppy. She had gone to her first “puppy class” that day and was extra hungry. Literally dancing for her food. At the exact moment that I put down her bowl, my son came racing into the room with his loudest truck, straight towards the puppy, scaring her and making her gulp her food.
Even when he saw this reaction, he continued. I asked him to stop. I asked him again and again. Then, in a moment I’m not proud of, I walked right up to him and said STOP very loudly and close to his ear.
It worked. He stopped. But he was also upset, surprised, and hurt. “Why did you yell in my ear, Mama?” he said through tears. I felt awful. Why did I do that, I asked myself? I’ll tell you why — because I was tired, stressed, making dinner, hungry, — you name it — and my fuse was short.
Guess what even me, a child-development psychologist, is far from the perfect parent. No-one can be a perfect parent. And being perfect isn’t the goal — but I wanted to do better.
Why? Because I know that positive parenting is not only effective parenting but also predictive of future well-being and kids. And also because I don’t like how I feel when I yell. I don’t like the tone I set or the way my son’s face looked when I yell at him, that hurt.
I needed one end all, be all go-to strategy that incorporated the positive discipline methods that I knew had worked with my son and that science supports. Something easy to remember, something that could become a habit, something I could easily relay to my husband so our discipline could be consistent, caring, and effective.
Note: This post was shared in this Slate.com article on how to respond to children’s negative emotions, by Melinda Moyer.
3-Step Guide to Positive Discipline: A.C.T. (Acknowledge, Connect, Teach) instead of REact
Step One: Acknowledge Your Child’s Feelings
The first step in changing your child’s behavior is to be empathetic with what they are going through. To do that in a concrete way, we first Acknowledge what they are feeling.
Acknowledgment of emotion a keystone of positive parenting.
How to Do it: Acknowledging Feelings
Get eye-level with your child and ask them how they are feeling. With younger children, you can name the emotion for them. At first, ignore the behavior or expression of the emotion — simply help your child identify the core feeling.
“I see you are trying to get a reaction from the puppy with your truck. Are you wanting to play with her?”
“I see you are being rough with your friend on the playground. Are you feeling really frustrated?”
“I see you are upset that it is time to go. Are you feeling sad about leaving?”
Listen to their response and then empathize with them. You can say things like, “that is hard”, “that is upsetting”, “that is sad” or “I’ve felt like that before too.”
Acknowledging children’s emotions helps them understand emotion and leads to better empathy and prosocial behaviors, especially in boys. Talking about emotions is also associated with more sharing and helping behaviors in toddlers.
When you start this conversation about emotions you are listening to their hearts. In response, they will feel like it is safe to express those emotions to you. Coaching your child through their emotions will help them build the foundation for emotional intelligence and regulation.
Step Two: Physically Connect To Help Diffuse Your Child’s Emotions
After you Acknowledge their feelings, it is time to physically connect with your child, which helps give their emotions a place to go.
Connecting with your children first, before correcting the behavior or asking them to change the behavior, will make it much more likely they will cooperate.
The key is to show your child that you accept them, even when they have big emotions. You do not need to accept their behavior, but you accept who they are and how they feel. This acceptance is a key component of positive parenting.
How to Do it: Connecting With Your Child
While rubbing your child’s back: “It is hard to wait. I think it is hard to wait sometimes too.” (Here you are empathizing, normalizing the emotion, and physically connecting– “I’m here with you”).
“You are really frustrated. Would you like to stomp like a dinosaur? How about a hug?” (Here you are offering a physical way to release frustration and a physical connection).
“You are upset that we have to go, would you like a hug?” (Here you are diffusing their emotion through a stress-relieving hug).
This strategy amazed me when my son was younger and had tantrums. I honestly didn’t expect it to work. But, more often than not after offering a hug, his tension and anger would melt away to tears in my arms. And then the tantrum was over.
Acknowledge and Connect are often happening at the same time. As you acknowledge your child, you also give them an outlet for that emotion through you. You help them channel that emotion. This is also laying the foundation for emotional intelligence.
By naming your child’s emotions and connecting with them you are teaching them healthy ways to handle their emotions — not to bottle up their emotions or to act our on their emotions, but to express them and to share them.
Connection sometimes becomes harder as kids grow up. I cover this topic of staying connected in my post about positive parenting and teens.
Step Three: Teach Your Child Positive Behavior and Healthy Ways to Express Emotion
Now that your child has been acknowledged and is feeling connected to you, this is the time that you can teach them what they can do next time.
This is why this method of positive discipline is so effective — you give your child the tools to know what to do next time.
The original meaning of the word discipline comes from the Latin disciplina, meaning “teaching, learning” and is related to the word disciple.
As parents then we are teachers. To get your child to change their behavior is all about presenting it in a way that empowers your child to want to change — this is positive discipline.
When children feel empowered they will be internally motivated to change their behavior instead of you externally controlling their behavior through threats and fear (which, spoiler alert, doesn’t work).
Additionally, when your child is in a reactive state themselves, lecturing won’t help either. Negotiating and reasoning are the top two effective discipline strategies for most situations, according to research.
How children act out changes with age. From about the age of 18 months to 5 years, direct defiance decreases, but simple refusal and negotiation increase with age. 5-year-olds who used negotiation more often, as opposed to defiance or refusal, were less likely to develop psychological behavior problems, like externalizing disorder.
The strategies used in positive parenting: negotiation, reasoning, giving choices, compromising within limits are all effective in the here and now and help build the foundation for your child’s ability to solve problems long-term.
How to Do it: Teach through Negotiation
“We need to go, we had so much fun! Choose one last thing to do and we’ll go. Let’s stay longer next time. Next time I’ll give you an extra warning so you know it’s time to leave and I’ll make sure we get there a little early so you have more time to play. What will you do next time when it is time to leave? What is our new good habit? We will choose one last thing to do!”
How to Do it: Teach through Reasoning
“What do you think would happen if we were always really loud around the puppy when she was eating? What if someone scared you when you were eating?” My son “Maybe she would stop eating.” “Yes, and then she would get sick, right?” My son “Yes, I don’t want her to get sick.” “No you don’t, I know you don’t, but now we know what to do when she’s eating don’t we? And you’ll remember that next time. You will be the person to make sure everything is calm when she eats. That can be your job!”
How to Do it: Teach through Taking a Break
“We cannot push and shove on the playground, even when we are frustrated. What can we do with our frustration? Can we stomp our feet? Wave our arms? Throw away our angry ball? Let’s take a break together over here until we feel better.”
How It All Works Together: An Example Using Positive Discipline
Sometimes Acknowledge, Connect, and Teach will happen almost simultaneously.
Imagine that your child is hitting another child on the playground. You walk over and firmly grab their hands, stopping the behavior (Connect) while at the same time you say “I can see you are angry,” (Acknowledge) followed by Teach, “It is okay to be angry and stomp like a dinosaur, but it is not okay to hit. Let’s take a break on the bench together.”
Then go on to the next thing and hard as it might be as a parent, let go of that interaction. Recenter, find your breath and let it go.
Kids are good at letting go and moving on, we are not. We linger on difficult interactions. For me, I think I linger because I question how I handled it.
With A.C.T., you’ll have more confidence in your actions and that will help you stay calm yourself and cool that inner critic.
When you think about discipline proactively you’ll find that these moments become the foundation for the social and emotional tools your child will use for life.
When you ACT instead of REacting to your child you are helping learn how to solve problems. You are teaching them that they can change their behavior.