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Instead of Grounding Your Kid: 12 Steps To Teach a Lesson

"Dr. Laura --  Could you write about transitioning to positive discipline for parents of older kids? If I start Empathic Parenting now with my kids 12 and 9, will it still help? How do I all of a sudden "remove" punishment? My 9 year old always says 'Oh now I guess I am grounded.' How do I change his thinking?"

This should be easy, right? You just stop punishing, and your children are so grateful, they begin to act like perfect angels.

I wish. Transitioning to positive parenting can be challenging. Your child has already come to understand the world through a certain lens. He thinks the only reason to "behave" is that otherwise he'll be punished by losing a privilege or being grounded.

So the first thing to know about transitioning to peaceful parenting is that you don't just "remove punishment." You start by strengthening your relationship with your child, so your child respects you and WANTS to follow your rules.

What's the "bank balance" in your "relationship account" with your child? You need at least five positive interactions to every negative interaction to maintain an account that isn't in the red. You need a surplus if you want your child to follow your lead and be open to your influence. (You don't build a positive balance in your relationship by buying your child things or letting him stay up late. You build it by listening and understanding.)

Then, consider how to teach the lessons you want your child to learn. Grounding your child, removing privileges, or punishing with extra chores -- all of these approaches are meant to "teach a lesson."  

But research (and common sense) tells us that kids get preoccupied with the unfairness of the punishment, instead of feeling remorse for what they did wrong and making a plan for change. There's a better way to teach the lessons you want your child to remember.

The lessons you want to teach, I assume, are:

  • His actions have an impact on the world.
  • He can always choose his own actions and he is responsible for them.
  • Everyone makes mistakes. When we make a mistake, it is our job to repair things.  Cleaning up messes is usually harder than making a more responsible choice to begin with. Some things we can't undo; we can only try to make amends.
  • When we reflect on our actions and their impact on the world, it helps us make a better choice next time.
  • It takes courage to do the right thing. But when we make responsible, considerate choices, we become the kind of person we admire, and we feel good about ourselves.

Right? Here's how.

1. First move yourself from anger into empathy. Once your child knows you're on his side, he feels safe to engage with you. Without that sense of safety, your child's heart is hardened to you -- because he expects judgment and punishment -- and you have no influence at all. So just tell him you need some time to think, and get calm before you talk about what happened.  (For more on managing your own anger.)

2. Start the conversation with a warm connection. Children of any age, including teenagers, respond to that connection by being more open to your guidance. If your child is worried about you getting upset at her, she'll move into "fight, flight or freeze" and learning will shut down.  She's also more likely to lie. The only way to actually "teach a lesson" is to create a safe conversation. To do that, remember that your child has a reason for what she did. You may not consider it a good reason, but to her it's a reason. If you don't find out her reason, you can't prevent a recurrence.

3. Tell your child you want to hear his thoughts about what happened.  Then let him talk. Reflect to clarify (and demonstrate) your understanding:

"I see...so the guys really wanted you to play basketball, and it was at the same time as the study session for the test? That's a hard choice."

"So you and your sister were really furious at each other... you were so hurt when she....I would have been mad too, if someone said that to me......and you really wanted to get back at her, huh?"

4. Keep your focus on connecting with your child and seeing the situation from his point of view. This helps you, and him, understand what motivated him. This gives him an opportunity to work through the feeling or the need that drove his behavior. Kids always know what the right choice was, but something got in their way. What was it? How can he learn to listen to his own better judgment?

For instance, let's say he played basketball with his friends instead of going to the study session, and then failed his test. You might find as you talk with him that he has a lot of anxiety about being accepted by the guys and felt he had to play basketball to be one of the gang. This social anxiety may be something he actually needs your help to sort out and problem-solve about, and once he does he'll be a lot more ready to focus on schoolwork.

But by simply punishing him, you would never have even known about it. You would have lost the opportunity to help him address his problem and find a good solution for next time. In fact, since punishment doesn't help him resolve his conflict, he might very well do the same thing next time, but invent some story to cover himself.

5. Ask open-ended questions instead of lecturing. Keep the conversation as safe and as light as possible. If you can share a laugh, you'll defuse the tension and strengthen your bond, so remind yourself that this is a growth experience for both of you, and summon up your sense of humor.

  • Was she aware of making a choice? 
  • What led her to that choice? 
  • What does she think about it now? ("How did that work out for you?")
  • What were the good things about that choice?
  • What were the bad things about that choice?
  • Was it worth it?
  • Did some part of her know that choice was a bad idea? If so, what kept her from listening to that voice?
  • Would she do it again? 
  • Why or why not? 
  • How could she support herself to choose differently next time?
  • What support would she like from you, so she can choose differently next time?

6. Empower your child to repair what he's "broken." Explore and learn with your child, rather than assuming that you know what should happen now. Once he isn't being controlled by that unmet need or upsetting feeling, and he sees the result of his action (failed test, hurt sister, broken window, whatever), he feels regretful.  This is only after the feelings or needs have been processed, of course.  But once they aren't driving him, his "goodness" is free to come through.  He naturally wants to make things better.

So you ask him:

  • What can you do now to make things better with your sister (or with your teacher)?
  • Did this incident show you anything in your life that you want to change, that's bigger than this one incident?
  • How can I support you? 

7. Resist the urge to jump in with punishments. Instead, be quiet and listen.  This is not about her being punished and losing privileges and being told what bad things are now going to happen to her. It's about her realizing that what she does has an impact, and taking responsibility to have a positive rather than a negative impact. If you can avoid playing the heavy, your child can actually take responsibility, because she isn't on the defensive.

In the example of the failed test, maybe she makes a written chart about schoolwork, and sits with you to do it every night, and asks the teacher for extra credit work to do. Is that punishment? No, not if this is the plan that she brainstorms with you. In fact, if you help her actually follow through and partner with her so that she can achieve her goals, then it's completely empowering and could transform her ability to achieve in school.  Of course, she might not know that this is what he needs to be successful. Sometimes, you'll make the choice to give her this support, not as a punishment, but because your job as a parent is to provide the structure to help her succeed.

If the bad choice was hurting her sister, then the reparations would be to the sister. All children have mixed emotions about siblings, but that means there is affection and comradeship in there somewhere, and even protectiveness. "How can you help your sister feel safe with you again?"

8. What if he says no repair work is necessary; that he doesn't care if he failed the test and his sister deserved what she got?  He's still on the defensive.  Say "Oh, Sweetie....I understand why this happened and why you made this choice....but that doesn't mean your choice worked out well...you must still be very upset to say that....I know that when you aren't so upset you would feel differently....Let's give this a break and talk more later." Give him a chance to calm down.  

When you start talking again, start with empathy. That's what helps him heal those feelings. And model taking responsibility, maybe by saying "I think some of this is my fault...I didn't realize you were falling behind in class, or I would have helped you address it before now."  Set a clear expectation that he needs to come up with a repair, that you know he will figure out the perfect thing, and that you can't wait to see what it is.


9. Step into your own power. You as the grown-up have more power than you know in this situation. Your child is depending on your leadership, even if she seems to be resisting it. If she hurt her sister, it gives you an opportunity to address the obvious sibling rivalry. If she failed her test, it gives you an opportunity to consider your family's overall prioritization of schoolwork, and how YOU can support your child to manage it. When we give our children sufficient support, they usually rise to the level of our expectations.  Some kids just need more support than others. Consider what kind of support would help.

10. Set limits as necessary. If your child has broken a family rule, then you'll need to reinforce that rule.

  • "Homework always comes first, before play." 
  • "I expect you to use your words to tell your sister when you're upset. No hurting each other's bodies."

11. Don't rescue. Sometimes your child's infraction goes beyond the family. He was caught cheating at school, or drinking with his buddies, or he was in a car accident. Resist the temptation to rescue him from the consequences of his actions. If you do, he will learn nothing from this incident. That's a set-up for him to repeat the behavior that led to this result. Instead, listen, empathize, and love him unconditionally. But be very clear that he has to pay the price for his behavior. If that means failing the course at school, or working to repair the car and not being allowed to drive it, that's the natural consequence of his behavior. Much better for him to suffer the pain now and learn something, while he's a minor.

12. Expect an adjustment period. Like any transition, a change in your parenting from punitive to empathic parenting will include both of you learning the new territory. No blame.  We all do the best we can as parents. But if you've been punishing, your child was obeying out of fear. Once you stop punishing, she stops obeying. So you need to make it your highest priority to do some repair work on your connection, FIRST, so she WANTS to cooperate with you, and doesn't want to disappoint you. Otherwise, she'll just flaunt your rules.

But what if she just can't regulate herself to stop fighting with her sister or do her homework?  This is where you pay the piper for your previous punishing -- it's likely she has some big upsets stored up that are driving her behavior. The key is to stay empathic and not take it personally. Remind her that you speak with respect to her, and that you expect civility in return: "You must be so upset to speak to me that way...What's going on, Sweetie?"  Stay compassionate.  Welcome her upset feelings. The more safety you can provide, the sooner your child will be willing to cry and share what's really bothering her. Once she empties her emotional backpack of all those uncomfortable feelings she's been lugging around, she'll be much more open to connecting. And because you've stayed compassionate, she'll know you're on her side, and she'll WANT to cooperate, whether she's three or thirteen. She'll even start thanking you for your patience!

As you can see, you don't need to announce that you've "stopped punishing." Instead, you naturally transition to teaching kids to repair. If they ask, you can simply say "It seems to me that you'll learn a lot more from this. What do you think?"

The hard part is changing your own habits, but luckily you'll see positive changes very quickly so you'll have incentive to keep going. Don't worry about changing your child's thinking. If you change, they change.

Read this article in Spanish.

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