How can I raise a self-disciplined child?
Peaceful parent. Traditional parent. Helicopter parent. Permissive parent. Elephant parent. Tiger parent. Which one are you?
If you’re a new parent, then all these terms – with the judgment and condemnation that come with them – must be quite confusing and frankly, sometimes, downright scary.
You never had a child before and now you do. You’re suddenly 100% responsible for the survival of this tiny human who needs to be taught how to navigate this weirdly wonderful world we live in.
You look for advice because you don’t want to screw it all up and realise that everybody is saying so many different things. And they all claim to be experts! Heck, what do you do?
For many parents, the traditional answer that you’re given is that you need to strive for blind obedience – make sure that your child will do exactly as you say when you say it. When they’re doing what you say, praise and reward them.
When they’re not doing what you say, then you do whatever it takes to get them to comply: create consequences in the form of time out, removal of privileges, yelling, shaming, spanking, or even withdrawal of love and attention.
But if you’re reading this post, then you know that there is a better way to bribing your child with external tokens of affection or punishing them using force.
You know in your heart of hearts that using those things will only erode your relationship with your child, rendering them ineffective in the long run.
You know that your child is not the enemy and doesn’t deserve to be treated as if he is.
You want to be a loving and nurturing parent without raising entitled children.
You want to forge a deep connection with your child that reflects just how much you love him so that when he grows up, he can think for himself, instead of bowing down to external pressure.
You want to raise a self-disciplined child, who makes the right choices because they are right and not because she could get caught.
Fortunately, studies have shown time and again that this approach – Dr. Laura Markham’s peaceful parenting approach – will help you achieve these kinds of parenting goals.
It’s especially effective the earlier you start and in fact, responsive relationships help babies grow into securely attached toddlers that want to cooperate with their parents rather than defy them.
In other words, peaceful parenting for toddlers usually translates to a parent-child relationship where you both enjoy each other’s company.
Based on personal experience, I can barely remember those times when our child deliberately defied us or refused to cooperate. He’s a strong-willed child and knows what he wants but he also usually wants to cooperate.
And those times when he doesn’t?
Those are usually the times when we haven’t been as connected as usual and he was rebelling against the distance.
So, the question now is, what do you do when you started out using punishment and reward and then discovered that it’s not the kind of parent you wish to be?
What to expect
Just like with any kind of change, shifting your parenting approach takes a lot of time and patience. Expect resistance and wariness from everyone in the family as you all adjust to the changing dynamics. Your children, especially if they were used to being in the receiving end of punishment, will most likely be a little confused and will start testing boundaries – appearing to act up worse than they did before.
You’ll then probably start worrying that you’re making things worse but actually, what’s really happening is that your child is beginning to show you repressed feelings from the past. All the pain that they’ve suffered – along with the loneliness and sense of powerlessness that came with it – when they were yelled at or punished will come pushing to the fore.
The negative feelings won’t always be coming from your children. Many, if not most, of the feelings that you need to work on, will come from you and all primary caregivers. Many parents who are moving from more traditional forms of parenting begin to experience guilt for how they parented before they discovered peaceful parenting.
You will all need to be more compassionate and empathetic, not only to other members of the family but most importantly, to yourselves.
Ditch the guilt.
Know better do better, remember?
Now you know better and can make a completely different parenting choice. If you feel that you need to make amends to repair your relationship with your children, then start by helping them heal those hurts so you can all move on.
Remember that feeling bad doesn’t help anyone act “good”. That’s true for your child and for you too.
Ready and looking forward to moving towards a more peaceful relationship with your child?
Let’s take a look at the tips below.
1. Practice self-awareness.
According to Dr. Laura Markham, “the “peace” in peaceful parenting comes from you and your ability to regulate your own emotions.
In other words, you choose to be at peace with yourself and with others – especially your children.
To succeed at this, you need to practice self-awareness.
This Aha Parenting mindfulness requires you to study yourself and find out exactly what triggers your negative emotions. And why.
What exactly do you feel when your 2-year old says no? Some parents feel enraged and some don’t. What do you feel and do you know why you feel that way?
Whenever you are upset (or angry or helpless or any other negative emotion), you need to stop, take a step back from your rioting emotions and breathe as deeply as you can for as long as you can before speaking or taking action.
Notice the feelings in your body.
Deep breathing will slow your racing heart and help you get a grip on any strong emotions you may be feeling.
This, in turn, helps you be more present, become more fully aware of the reasons for your feelings and the possible consequences of your actions.
Most importantly, it removes you from the grip of the flight or fight response.
This is really the essence of peaceful parenting, of the Aha Parenting mindfulness.
Do not let yourself get hijacked by the feelings of urgency that a particular situation is triggering.
Delay taking action until you feel calmer – unless of course, safety issues demand otherwise.
This takes a lot of practice, especially if you have never learned how to manage your emotions before (trust me, I know).
As you become more aware of your own thoughts and emotions, your own triggers and trauma, you’ll begin to realise exactly why you react in a certain way to what your children do. Often, this has nothing to do with their actions per se but more to do with your own emotions and your own ability (or inability) to regulate them effectively.
Cultivating self-awareness is extremely hard. It requires your willingness to examine your every feeling and every thought, to acknowledge that you need to work on yourself more than you need to work on your child and to admit that you need to develop better impulse control if you want to be more peaceful.
Without connection, peaceful parenting is impossible.
Actually, without connection, effective parenting isn’t possible.
That’s why you need to start building up your bond before you make any changes. Spend more focused time with your child.
Start small: spend at least 15 minutes of one-on-one activity with each child daily.
Follow his lead. If he wants to play with you, then play whatever game he chooses. If he wants to read a book, let him choose which one and read together. If he wants to go outside, ask him if he wants to walk or go on his bike.
Shower him with your love. Tell him you missed him. Ask him about his day. How did it go? What did he like most about it?
Make daily deposits in your child’s bank account of love. You’ll be surprised at the difference this alone makes.
Keep in mind that if you don’t foster connection, you’ll most likely stop punishing (which is a good thing, yes) but then your child still won’t feel motivated to listen to you. She’ll feel lost and will most likely end up testing your boundaries to discover how far she can go before you start reverting to your old tactics of punishing.
Hold a family meeting and include everyone in the plan. This is especially important when you have older children who can give and receive input.
If you’ve been yelling and spanking for the past 15 years and then suddenly stop and start telling your teenager how much you love him, he will be (understandably) suspicious of your motivations.
Talk about what you’ve been trying to do. Say something along the lines of, “You know how I used to (insert punishment here) when you (insert wrongdoing here)? Have you noticed that I’ve not done that in a while? I’m so sorry that I’ve gotten into the bad habit of treating you that way. I hope you know that I love you so much and I thought I was doing the right thing. But you don’t deserve to be treated that way, no matter what.”
For many parents, this is a difficult enough task. We’re not supposed to apologise to our kids because it makes us look weak. It seems as if we don’t know what we’re doing.
But actually, this is a great learning experience for our children. You are modelling a great way to repair a damaged relationship – a skill that will be useful the older they get.
In this meeting, you can also talk about the household rules that are important to you as a family. Perhaps you might even consider creating a family manifesto that includes all of your ideas.
If you realise you still believe in the same rules that you all thought important before, then this is your chance to emphasise that whilst the rules are the same, there will be no punishment – only the chance to repair the damage that comes from breaking the rules.
Promise that you will do your best to abide by the rules you created. If it’s important for you to that your child talks to you respectfully, you need to model that behaviour. Talk to your child respectfully too instead of yelling at him.
At the same time, expect the same behaviour from your child. Talk about what this means for both you and him.
Of course, this will all be new to you so make space for mistakes. Your child will lose control sometimes. So will you.
Above all, be compassionate and empathetic towards yourself and every other member of the family.
Transitioning to peaceful parenting can have a steep learning curve.
4. Go for the win.
Do what you can to avoid taking sides.
We all know how that goes.
You come in to see your children engaged in a full-blown sibling war, both screaming, crying and pointing fingers.
Child 1: She hit me!
Child 2: She started it!
Child 1: No, I didn’t. You did.
Child 2: No, you did.
And so on.
If you’re already exhausted beyond belief, this could be the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back.
Resist the impulse to take the younger sibling’s side (most of us automatically do this because we expect the older to know better). Remember how that felt like when you were younger? Didn’t it reek of unfairness and favouritism?
Yeah, that hasn’t changed at all.
Or what about the legendary, “I don’t care who started it, I’m ending it!” It never really works but it does make you feel much better, doesn’t it?
So, what can you do?
Well, instead of taking sides or ignoring both sides, see if you can find a way to make it a win-win for everyone.
Find out what happened before jumping in.
Listen to what both children have to say.
Acknowledge their feelings and empathise with them. Say something like, “Oh, I can imagine how annoying that must have been.”
Then problem-solve and involve both children in looking for solutions (if they’re both verbal), “what can we do to avoid this problem?”
5. Set firm limits.
As you begin to see things from your child’s perspective, you’ll notice that you become a lot more flexible and more forgiving.
When you understand that your child splashing water from the bath is just her being a toddler and not her deliberately making your life hellish, you won’t get mad so quickly.
That said, you still have to set firm limits.
You’re parenting peacefully after all, not permissively.
What you need to do though is to set the limit before you lose your temper. Don’t wait until your about to explode before trying to stop unwanted behaviour. Based on my personal experience, that’s a recipe for disaster.
Whilst your sense of humour is still intact and you can still respond with grace and empathy, set a firm limit and ensure compliance.
“Oh darling, I can see how happy you were with splashing water everywhere. I wish I could let you just splash to your heart’s content. The problem is, it makes it so hard for me to clean the bathroom afterwards so I’d really prefer if you didn’t splash water out of the bath and onto the floor.”
“Oh, you seem to be having such a hard time stopping the splashing. It’s so much fun, isn’t it? Come on, bath time is over. We’ll try again tomorrow.”
There. Limit set and enforced with no shaming involved.
6. Repair not punish.
You’ve been punishing for every rule that your child breaks and now you’ve decided that you’re not going to, so what’s your alternative?
What do you do when your child breaks a rule?
Teach him to repair the damage.
But not whilst in the moment.
When you’re in the thick of it all and emotions are running high, it’s difficult to think straight. That’s true for you and for your child, too.
Wait until everyone has calmed down and then, have a private discussion with your child about what happened.
Remember that this is a discussion. You’re not there to lecture or berate your child.
Empathise – “I saw how mad you got when he did that…It’s not easy living with a baby.”
Wait until after your child has expressed the emotions that caused him to act up before showing him the damage that his actions have caused. It’s imperative that you don’t shame or blame him. Instead, look for ways to repair the damage, “When you yelled at your sister, it really scared her and hurt her feelings. What can we do to make it better?”
Help your child see that he can repair his mistakes and problem-solve together. “Why don’t you ask your sister if doing (child’s idea) would help?”
This is far more effective in the long run than punishing (which makes them defiant) or forcing an apology (which leads to resentment).
What if he says no?
If he’s still experiencing pain, then he won’t be able to move forward to wanting to repair his relationship.
Make sure you aren’t lecturing or appearing to take sides or judging him. Ensure that you’re really seeing his perspective. Listen and empathise. And ask him what can be done to repair the damage he is feeling.
7. Expect big emotions.
Humans, no matter what the age, will always have big emotions. That’s normal.
Don’t shy away from it. Or worse, make your child feel bad for experiencing them.
Children, especially very young children, don’t have the required brain structure to handle big emotions in any other way except throwing a glorious tantrum.
Punishing them for that is punishing them for being young.
Worse, when children are punished, they learn that those big emotions will get them into trouble. And that if they don’t want to be in trouble, they need to pretend that they don’t experience these emotions.
Does that work?
No. Not with adults and certainly not with children.
The jealousy, frustration, fear, anger, need and every single terrifyingly negative emotions are still there, just waiting for the slightest trigger. Punishing your child scares them into keeping emotions under wraps, which means once you stop punishing, those emotions will come rushing out to be healed.
Don’t take it personally.
Your child acting out doesn’t mean that you’re a bad parent or that they’re deliberately insulting you or flouting your authority or being disrespectful or any other lie we tell ourselves.
When your child misbehaves, he does so because she has feelings that she doesn’t have words for. She doesn’t have the capacity to say, “You said that you’d leave me at the mall and I was so scared that you would. I couldn’t help myself. I was so exhausted and I just wanted a cuddle from you. But instead, you yelled at me. I acted like I didn’t care, but I was terrified inside. I’m still so scared, it’s awful. So I lash out to keep those feelings down.”
No child – actually, no person – could or would tell you that. Hence, the misbehaving.
“Every attack is a cry for help,” writes Marianne Williamson in A Return To Love.
That’s especially true for children.
What you need to remember is that, as the adult, it is your responsibility to help your child work through her negative feelings so that they no longer feel compelled to “misbehave”.
8. Create safety.
To get to the root of the matter, your child needs to know that he can safely allow the explosion of his emotions without losing his parents’ love.
When he’s in the middle of a meltdown, remember to stay calm.
Don’t take it personally.
When you can feel yourself getting swept away along with your child’s emotions, try reminding yourself that your child isn’t giving you a hard time – he’s having a hard time.
The more compassionate and accepting you are, the more your child will feel safe enough to show you the pain driving his anger. Once he’s expressed them with you through laughter, tears or sometimes (though rarely) words, those upsetting feelings will dissipate.
9. Expect setbacks.
You’re human, so you’re not perfect. Neither is your child.
The secret to parenting peacefully is having compassion – for yourself and for your child.
You’ll make mistakes.
Some days will still be a struggle.
If you find yourself struggling with loving your child because you can’t love yourself, then I highly recommend making Lisa Nichols Discover Your Worthiness Meditation a part of your daily life. Listen to it as often as you need. From personal experience, this has been especially effective when trying to work on feelings of guilt and shame. I believe this will help you too.
Finally, remember that parenting is hard. And if you’re just transitioning from a different type of parenting, then the first few days will be especially hard.
But it does get easier, as you and your child begin to strengthen your connection with each other.
Eventually, you’ll notice that there are much less drama and a lot more love.
Yes, as a parent, you’re extremely busy.
You really need something that works and you need it to work now.
I’ll have to disappoint you on this one. Parenting is a long-term game. Any shortcuts you take now will have repercussions far into the future.
So, expect that this will take time, that there are no shortcuts and that you’ll need to commit to your goal every single day.
Of course, your goal is a happier, more peaceful family and you’re already on the right path. Does it matter if it takes two months or two years? You’ll still get to you where you want to go.
Here are three daily commitments that you can practice:
1. Commit to not yelling.
2. Commit to staying calm.
3. Commit to choosing love.
If you want more information about peaceful parenting, I personally recommend the following books:
Are you a peaceful parent? Or have you tried transitioning to peaceful parenting? Let us know what your experiences have been by commenting below. We’d love to hear from you!