Aha! Parenting Blog

Practical solutions for real parenting problems

Your Blueprint for Discipline During Tough Times

"Dr. Laura....I never used to scream at my kids. But now with three children still at home doing remote schooling at least part of the time since they have hybrid schedules, while I'm trying to work and get them to do their schoolwork, how do I get them to listen? I feel like I've lost so much ground during this pandemic and I'm just worn out. I spend my day threatening them with loss of screen time, early bedtime, and anything else I can think of, until I'm forced to start shouting."

If your children are difficult, demanding, defiant, and screen-addicted right now -- regressed and bored -- you're not alone. This has been a hard year for everyone, and kids who are not yet back to school full-time are likely to be having a hard time, and therefore driving you crazy.

Many schools and teachers have been heroic about trying to engage kids in remote learning, but focusing on zoom all day is hard for anyone, and it's certainly not an age-appropriate way for kids to learn. Most kids are just plain tired of remote learning.

And if you're trying to work at home while keeping your child focused on school? It's easy to find yourself shouting -- sorry, repeating -- instructions over and over, ending up with reprimands and threats.

But if you don't address the source of your child's challenging behavior, it doesn't go away. You spend your day in escalating drama, only to explode eventually.

And if you have a teen, you already know that they're under even more pressure than younger kids because of the social isolation and schoolwork demands, and many are struggling with depression and anxiety. You may be fed up with their behavior, but yelling just makes things worse.

There's a better way. And no, it doesn't require your child to be back at school in person. You can start this now, and you'll see immediate results that will last long after regular school schedules resume.

Here's your secret weapon: Connection.

Connection may seem tame, but it's the most powerful tool you have. And it's the only way you have any influence with your child (or anyone else). 

What does that look like in practice? Start by seeing the situation from your child's perspective. Wouldn't it be wonderful if your child could tell you how things feel to them right now?

"Hey, Mom, Dad? I know this is a bad time for everyone, but I'm just a kid. You yell a lot more than you used to. I hate school online; I really can't stand another day of it. You make me do schoolwork but you don't explain it very well and you're so impatient; I end up feeling like I must be dumb. You're driving me crazy, and my sister and brother are driving me crazy, too. I can't stand feeling so cooped up.  I can't get a break.  I hate that I can't see my friends. Some of the kids are pretty mean online. It's not fair that there aren't any games or birthday parties or sleepovers any more. The only thing that's fun is getting to the next level of my game and you're always making me turn it off! Nobody seems to care what I want or how I feel. And people are still dying. I worry all the time. What if Grandma gets sick? What if she dies? What if you die?"

You may be thinking, what's wonderful for a parent about hearing all that?

But when children can't articulate something, they "act it out." And since your child can't explain all these big feelings to you, those feelings are driving your child to act badly. So they....

  • Push their sibling out of your lap.
  • Fall apart when you ask them to start their schoolwork.
  • Purposely interrupt your work call when you told them not to.
  • Scream at you when you tell them it's time to turn off the screen.
  • Tease their siblings to the point of tears, just because they're bored.
  • Sneak off to play Minecraft with their friends.

Then, when you reprimand them, they yell "I hate you, I want a new Mommy (or Daddy)!"

How should you respond?

Should you ignore the infraction since you know your child is having a hard time right now, given all the disappointments and tensions of the moment? NO, not unless you want your child's misbehavior to escalate. You child is trying to tell you something, and their "misbehavior" will get louder if they don't feel heard. Understanding WHY your child is acting out doesn't mean that you don't set limits.

Should you crack down, so your child understands that your limits still hold? Well, you definitely want your child to listen to your limits. But your child is "acting out" big emotions they can't express. They need your help to manage those emotions, if you want them to follow your limits. So cracking down on the behavior with threats and punishment won't keep the behavior from happening; it will only increase the drama.

The only way to put a stop to "misbehavior" is to address the needs and feelings that are driving the behavior. That's about much more than the immediate limit. But of course you still need to set limits on behavior in the moment. Here's your blueprint.

1. Calm yourself first.

Remind yourself that your child is having a hard time and needs your help. Yes, even if your twelve year old just lied to you about spending the last three hours playing Fortnite with his friends instead of doing his homework. What's done is done; you want a different result tomorrow. More drama won't help.

2. Consider how much this particular limit matters.

In the big picture of a global pandemic, it might not matter whether your six year old draws a picture for school, even though it does matter that she practices her reading and enjoys it. It might not matter that your kids have much more screen time than usual, but it does matter that they don't torment each other. It doesn't actually matter if your child says "I hate you!" What matters is that you use that moment to create enough safety so that your child will open up about why they need to say the worst thing they can think of to show you how unhappy they are.

3. Consider what kind of intervention will be most effective.

Whether your intervention will be effective depends partly on how calm you're able to stay at this moment. If you're not, your intervention will usually backfire. One mom told me that she got into a daylong power struggle with her son because he wouldn't make his bed. Another dad told me that he was irritated to find himself cleaning up the house while his son loafed on his ipad, so the dad started a fight that ended up with the kid throwing things at him, and him sitting on his son. There's nothing wrong with insisting that your kids help clean up, but don't provoke a fight because you're out of sorts.

Instead, shift yourself back into an emotionally generous mood. Then have a family meeting about the schedule, be sure that clean-up is part of the routine, and do it with your kids, with a sense of humor. You get the result you want, and a closer relationship with your kids, so you have more influence when you need to set the next limit -- as opposed to more tension and less influence, which is the result you'll get from screaming and power struggles. 

So, for instance, you'll always set a limit when one of your children is mean to the other, but you'll also need a more systemic solution (more on this below). In fact, most limits, like turning off screens or keeping kids from interrupting your work calls, are best solved with systemic intervention instead of crisis management.

4. Start by connecting and empathizing before you correct or redirect:

  • "It looks like you want my lap all to yourself. Sometimes it's hard to share your Mommy/Daddy, isn't it?"
  • "It just seems like too much to have to do schoolwork right now, huh?"
  • "You really like playing that game online with your friends. It's hard to turn it off, I know."
  • "So you felt like you REALLY needed me right then, and it was enough of an emergency that you had to interrupt? It's hard when I'm on zoom calls so much. I wonder if you want to make sure I'm still here to help when you need me?"

5. Set your limit.

Set the limit clearly, calmly, firmly. If possible, tell your child what they CAN do. 

  • "No pushing. Pushing hurts. I love both of you SO much, and there's always room for both of you when I'm reading to you."
  • "We do need to get your school assignment done this morning. I can see you feel overwhelmed right now. Let's take a break for a few minutes for some roughhousing. I think some laughter will help us both feel more ready to tackle that schoolwork."
  • "It's time to turn off the screen now. I see it's too hard for you to do it, so I'll do it for you. We have an agreement, remember, about how to make it easier to turn off the screen when it's time. Your choice -- run around the house three times or do five push-ups?"
  • "When I'm on the phone and you need me, you need to stay very quiet, but you can write me a note about what you need and put it in front of me. I will aways read it and try to help." (What if your child is too young to write even a simple note? Then they're too young to manage by themselves for long while you're working, so you need another plan.)

6. Address the needs behind repeated misbehavior.

If your child is teasing their sibling, you do need to set a limit in that moment: "Those are words that could hurt. Our family rule is Be Kind, and that means no teasing." You probably also want to coach the child being teased to stand up for himself: "You can tell your sibling: I don't like it when you call me a baby!"

But if you really want the behavior to stop, you'll need to address the source. Maybe your child is trying to get your attention, which means you need to step up your Empathy and Special Time.  Maybe there's some long-standing Sibling Rivalry that you need to address. 

Or maybe your child is just bored or having a hard time with their own unhappy emotions, in which case your best bet is to scoop them up and say "Hey, are you out of hugs again?! Let's see what we can do about that!"

7. Use daily Preventive Maintenance to keep your kid out of the breakdown lane.

Your "discipline" -- or guidance -- in the moment will be a lot more effective if you use Preventive Maintenance daily to stay connected and help your child with big emotions.

Your child may not be able to articulate it, but they're feeling some of the tension of this long-haul pandemic. How could they not be? Most kids are vocal about their disappointments (No playdates! No playoffs for their team!) but not about their scarier fears (What if mom or dad dies?)

So the best discipline strategy of all is prevention. Here are some best practices. 

  • Train yourself to respond to everything your child says or does with empathy, even if you then need to set a limit.

  • Roughhouse daily with lots of laughter to reduce the stress hormones circulating in the body, and increase the bonding hormones.

  • Use Routines, which help kids know what to expect so they feel safer and less anxious, and give you regular connection opportunities.

  • Welcome all emotions. Remember that behind anger you will usually find fear or sadness, so if your child is angry, resist taking the bait. Breathe deeply, stay calm, and invite your child to show you all that upset: "You must be so upset to speak to me like this...  Tell me more, Sweetheart....  I'm listening." The more safety you can create with your tone, the more likely that your child will move past the anger to the tears and fears beneath. (Does your child gets stuck in anger but can't cry?)

  • Before you sit down to work, be sure to "fill your child's cup" so they can do without you for a bit. If you're trying to get work done at home on a regular basis with your kids there, remember that kids don't feel safe when you're there but distracted -- they need to know that you're there for them if they need you -- and be sure to read this.

  • Make it a priority to spend one-on-one time with each child to strengthen your relationship with them and help them open up to you.

  • Talk to your child about their feelings -- about remote school,  the pandemic, how much you're yelling lately -- everything. Expressing fears, even unreasonable ones, to a caring witness (you!) has a way of making them more manageable. And when we allow ourselves to feel and acknowledge our big emotions, we start to gain conscious control over them, so their power begins to dissipate.

  • Teach kids to manage their worries, with skills like Stop, Drop Breathe, Focusing on what they CAN control, rather than what they can't, and Noticing how upsetting thoughts lead to upsetting feelings. (For more on Helping Your Child Feel Safe & Learn to Manage Anxiety.)

  • Keep reminding yourself that kids pick up on what we're feeling. If you're a nervous wreck, or fighting with your partner, your children will feel the stress. Take responsibility for the mood you're radiating to everyone around you. That means developing a repertoire of practices to manage your own stress.

  • Turn off the news. Research shows that it increases everyone's anxiety. You can listen to the news on earbuds, or read the paper online. And you can have family discussions at the table. But there's no reason for kids to listen.

  • Start a family mindfulness practice, like listening to a guided meditation together every day (see #9 at this link for resources: 10 Solutions To Save Your Sanity During the Coronavirus Pandemic School Closures) or a gratitude practice at dinner every night.

This has been a hard year for kids as well as parents. That means that you can expect your child to act out anything they can't express in words. So this is the perfect opportunity to increase your child's resilience by connecting more. It also means that you'll need to take your parenting game up a notch if you want to be a good role-model for your child about how to manage anger, work out conflict and exhibit grace under pressure.

That means that your most important discipline strategy is actually for yourself: Do whatever you need to do every single day to replenish yourself, so you can stay emotionally generous with your child, yourself, and everyone else. That's the kind of discipline that will help you get through tough times in a way that makes your whole family stronger: With love.



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