Aha! Parenting Blog

Practical solutions for real parenting problems

What about those times when your kid deserves what he's got coming?

"Dr. Laura, I appreciate all the posts about how to stay calm. They really help.  But what about those times when my kid does something really awful -- and deserves what's coming to him?! Won't he misinterpret it if I stay calm then? How do I teach him a lesson?" -- Claudine

Because we're better parents when we’re calm, my daily inspiration emails lately have focused on mindfulness -- noticing our own moods and emotions, so we have a choice about whether to act on them.

Here's the thing to remember about that choice.  We have to Choose to calm ourselves.  Just like our child has to choose to "act right" when everything in him wants to act "wrong." And it's just as hard.

Claudine is describing how tough it is to choose to give our child what he needs, over giving him what we think he "deserves." But if we're honest, that "giving him what he's got coming" smacks of revenge, not teaching.

Unfortunately, when we think we're right, and the other person is wrong, it's human nature to want to let the other person know that. If they blew it, did something awful, don’t they deserve what’s coming?  And if it’s our kid, isn't it our job to teach them? Shouldn’t we be showing them how upset we are? How else will they learn their lesson?  

How indeed?  Maybe we should start by thinking about how people learn lessons. What happens when you really blow it?  Let’s say you get a parking ticket. Or somehow lose your credit card as I did recently.  Or eat that whole pint of ice cream. Or forget something really important at work, that endangers your job. Does it help if your spouse or boss yells at you?

If you've been looking for just the right "consequence" to teach your child a lesson, you'll be interested to know that kids don't behave better when they're punished or yelled at, according to every study done on the subject.  Like the rest of us, kids who feel threatened go into "fight" or "flight" mode. Learning shuts off. Eventually, if it becomes a regular occurrence, they develop new negative behaviors -- lying, sneakiness, tuning us out, disrespect, defiance. They resent us and stop trying to please us. So when we yell at or punish kids, we don't prevent a recurrence of the behavior.  In fact, we lose influence with our child.

I'm not suggesting you just let your child continue acting "awful."  I'm suggesting you adopt a strategy that will actually change her behavior.  I know it isn't as satisfying in the short term as yelling or punishing when you're angry.  But long term, it's a lot more gratifying, because your child not only acts better now, she acts better in the future.  She feels better. And so do you.

So, (you guessed it!) start by calming yourself down.  Then:

1. Consider your child's perspective.  Your kid is not a "bad" person, even if he's hitting the baby, peeing on the rug, or ripping up his textbook. All of his "misbehavior" comes from his clumsy, misguided attempts to meet legitimate needs. To stop the behavior, ask yourself: What's causing him to act out this way?

2. Connect before you correct.  Your child's deepest need, second only to food, water and air, is her connection with you.  Your child actually depends on you to regulate her mood.  And when kids feel connected, they WANT to "act right." Often, all kids need to get back on track is a warm, playful hug to reconnect and "reset" their limbic system from anxious to calm. If you're punishing -- even with timeouts and consequences -- then you're undermining your bond, which is your child's only motivation to "be good." 

3. Schedule a melt-down.  If your bond is close, but your child is still acting out, that signals a temporary disconnection, caused by an emotional backpack bulging with unhappy feelings.  She's "acting out" feelings she can't tell you about, because she doesn't understand them herself.  Step up your Special Time so she feels safe enough to cry out those tears and fears, and hopefully next time you set a firm, kind limit she'll use the opportunity to let those feelings out.

Of course you want to be firm and clear about unacceptable behavior.  You need to move in physically close and say "I won't let you throw that" or "Okay, Sweetie, now it's time to turn it off."  Of course you don't "give" on that necessary limit when your child cries or rages.  But it's never necessary to be less than kind.  And you never need to resort to "revenge" to teach your child.

After all, the "lesson" you want to model isn't how to have a tantrum, but how to regulate your emotions to "do the right thing" even when it's hard. Rather than taking revenge against our child for his awful behavior, we take responsibility as the grown up to understand the source of his acting out and help him prevent it in the future. That's how we give our child what he needs.  And that’s the kind of parenting all kids deserve.



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