How to Break Those Bad Discipline Habits
By Bob Taibbi, LCSW
You've read the latest books, magazine articles, maybe even taken the classes. You know how to set structure and limits, and you do lots of things every day to let your kids know that you love them. All in all, you do a pretty good job as a parent.
But sometimes you feel like you're yelling all day or nagging your daughter to death about her room, or you threaten to ground your son from television for the rest of his life. You hear yourself sounding just like your mother or father, and that scares the heck out of you.
We all do it as parents - fall into those bad discipline habits - whether it's from a hard day or a seemingly hard life. Sure, you know better, but knowing better just makes you feel guilty and doesn't help you break the habit. But you can break the habit! Here's a list of some of the most common bad discipline habits, their likely results, and keys to putting them to rest:
Problem: Yelling. It might come in waves, or it might seem to be a steady noise, but you find yourself snapping about big things, little things - not picking up toys, making too much noise in the car, dragging their heels when you're in a hurry. As a result, you feel like a witch or a drill sergeant. Your kids will either learn to tune you out or start snapping back. You're tense and exhausted.
Solution: What is the real problem behind your yelling? Are you stressed out and irritable? Worried about something else? Tired? Do you get aggravated by a problem that perpetually comes up but is never solved? When you hear yourself yelling too much, stop and try to figure out what is really going on. Don't focus on your kids, focus on your emotion. Breathe deeply, go off and try to relax for ten minutes, make yourself a cup of chamomile tea. Once you're calmer, come up with some solutions to the problem and talk to your kids.
Problem: Nagging. This is a variation on the above, but minus the volume. Rather than booming like a Doberman, you're yapping like a Chihuahua. As with yelling, the kids will learn to tune you out. You feel frustrated all the time.
Solution: Nagging, too, can be a sign of stress; de-stressing becomes the goal. But unlike yelling, which is usually driven by anger, nagging is usually driven by anxiety. You're always anxious that the kids will forget, not do something right, take too long. If you're on a tight schedule or just generally worry about time, set clear deadlines at the start or negotiate them with your child: "I need you to pick up your toys before dinner." If you're nagging just to keep your kids on their routine, give simple warnings before issuing deadlines: "Guys, you're going to have to turn off the TV in ten minutes when that show is over," and decide in advance what the consequences will be if they don't comply. For example, state that dinner will be delayed until toys are picked up, turn off the TV, or cancel bedtime reading because they run out of time. Be sure to follow through on what you said you'd do.
Problem: Inconsistency. A rule is a rule - sort of. You tend to change rules or routines or not enforce them. Consequently, your kids are confused. They'll constantly test the limits, partly because they've learned that it works and partly to get you to be clear.
Solution: Decide on clear rules and routines. Take the time to sort out what really is important enough to be a rule. If you have too many of them, you'll have a hard time tracking and enforcing them all. Map out routines that make sense for your family life and are easy enough for you to supervise. Set consequences for violations in advance. If your rules and routines are clear and appropriate, then the problem is that you're sometimes wavering. See if you can identify the triggers - maybe you're tired and stressed, or perhaps you get embarrassed if your child gets angry and argues back or acts up in public. Come up with a plan to fix the source.
Problem: Over-reacting. This is where you ground your son for life, threaten to sell the TV or get rid of the dog, tell your daughter to not come out of her room until next Wednesday. But if your reaction always tends to be arbitrary or extreme, your kids won't learn what's really important and what's not. They'll miss the point and principle of the issue and become hypersensitive to your rage.
Solution: Like yelling, the problem in the room is your anger and frustration. You need to manage it first and separate it from the problem you're trying to solve. Take the time to settle down, then decide the consequences.
Problem: One size fits all. You're essentially treating your children of different ages the same, with the same bedtimes, responsibilities, and privileges. In response, the older kids are going to feel like it's unfair, see your decisions as arbitrary rather than considered, and complain loudly and often or be openly angry. It doesn't reward your children for their growing maturity or challenge them to be more responsible.
Solution: While one rule or routine can make your life a bit simpler, good parenting requires flexibility. You need to change as your children do. Take the time to rethink your limits and routines; get advice from friends, mates, professionals.
Problem: Overtalking. You go on and on trying to help your child understand why you're doing what you're doing, what the lesson is, how this is important for her to learn now and you don't feel like you're getting through. The danger is that your child will glaze over and tune you out. She probably can't comprehend what you are saying; she might be drowning in the flood of words. If the child is a teen, it opens the door to endless lawyering about how your thinking makes no sense.
Solution: Research suggests that due to biology and socialization, women are more susceptible to this than men (though I remember my dad doing his share of lecturing). Sometimes it is driven by your desire for your child to understand the larger issue; unfortunately, anything more than a few sentences fades on a child under 14 or 15 simply because of limited ability to think abstractly or far into the future. Sometimes it's driven by your need for the child to be on your side, to keep her from getting angry, to get her to understand your good intentions. A natural instinct, perhaps, but your kids aren't going to like everything you ask them to do no matter how hard you try - they actually expect you to take charge and set limits even when they grumble. Finally, sometimes this overtalking just represents your talking style, a stream-of-consciousness thinking aloud process. While this may be fine with other adults, it's overwhelming for kids. Do your thinking in your head and simply get to the punch line with a one- or two-sentence explanation.
Problem: Perfectionism. You have high standards for your own behavior and your children's. You often let them know that they're not doing enough or not doing it well enough. As a result, your kids will either feel anxious and stressed all the time from trying to meet your standards or realize that it's never good enough, give up, and begin to suffer from low self-esteem. Teens will feel the stress but also get angry and argue.
Solution: Perfectionism is often inherited, so your parents may have been the same way. If that is the case, see if you can remember how you emotionally felt living in that situation - chances are you weren't happy and have rationalized over time that what your parents did was good for you. Perfectionism also tends to be fueled by ongoing anxiety. If that is true for you, find ways to lower yours. Finally, some parents who seem perfectionistic are actually setting unrealistic standards for their children given their age and ability. If your children are struggling all the time to meet your standards, those standards may be too high and your children's self-esteem will suffer. Rethink what is possible and appropriate for them.
Problem: Dueling parents. You and your partner disagree on parenting and undermine each other often. The outcome is that not only will your kids be confused about the rules, they will quickly learn who is easy and who is tough. Instinctively they'll wind up playing one parent against the other in an attempt to slip between the crack in your relationship. As parents you can easily become polarized, with one becoming increasingly tougher to offset the ever more lenient parent.
Solution: You need to get on the same page. Sometimes the problem is that the two of you were raised differently, and each of you is trying to replicate what your own parents did that worked or trying to do the opposite because it didn't. The problem with the latter is that you have no model for doing the opposite and can easily swing too far in the other direction. Other times the differences reflect larger marital problems; disagreements about parenting may actually be part of a larger power struggle that is never resolved, or even honestly addressed. If you feel that might be the case, take the risk of talking with your partner about these other problems instead. See if you can separate your couple issues from what's best for the children and agree on a plan that meets their needs.
While these are the most common bad habits, you may find that you have your own subtle variation or combination. What is true for each of these problems is that your emotional reaction (anger, frustration, worry) is overriding what you know and intend. The key to breaking the habit is to slow down and step back - to identify the emotion itself, to understand its source, to focus in the moment upon calming and controlling your emotion, rather than thinking you need to control your kids in order to manage your emotion. Rather than pressuring yourself to do it all, focus instead upon simply breaking the pattern. Once you emotionally regroup, you can go back and clarify with your children what you want. They really will understand and wait for you to get yourself together.
Because habits are habits, it's often helpful to have some support. If you are one of those people who emotionally zooms from 0 to 60 in a nanosecond, ask your partner to help you identify the earliest signs of a growing emotional wave. If you have trouble stepping back once you're cranked up, ask your partner to give you some prearranged non-verbal signal to let you know you've fallen back into your pattern and it's time to take a short break and regroup. If you struggle with ongoing stress, find ways that help you de-stress (a walk, a hot bath, exercise) and build them into your daily routine. And if you are feeling overwhelmed with parenting or marital problems, get help - check out some books, take a class, talk with a friend, or seek some professional help. Even a short stint of counseling may help you figure out what is going on and give you the support you need.
You're no doubt already doing a great job. Don't get discouraged! You only need to fine-tune what you already know. With persistence, patience, and plenty of pats on the back, you'll find those bad habits quickly fading into the past.
Bob, a licensed clinical social worker, is a regular contributor to AlbemarleFamily. He is the author of several books on family therapy and has published more than 130 magazine and journal articles on parenting and family life.