Positive Discipline: Connect and Redirect
Episode #7 of the course Parenting skills to raise responsible, mature children by Roger K. Allen, PhD
Our lesson for today is about disciplining our children when they’re behaving in a harmful or unwanted way. It is about first connecting with them and then redirecting their behavior in a more positive direction.
Our children come into the world underdeveloped physically, mentally, socially, and emotionally. Naturally, they’ll make poor choices and act in selfish and immature ways. We sometimes witness their poor choices or become exasperated by their immature behavior and conclude that they’re bad, incapable, or untrustworthy. Unfortunately, this sets us up to punish and interact with them in harmful ways. Instead of helping them learn and grow, we reinforce negative messages that all too easily become part of their identity.
We make it easier for our children to succeed if we believe in them, if we make positive rather than negative assumptions. Positive assumptions allow us to communicate and act from respect and trust, rather than fear and mistrust. They enable our children to build self-worth, grow in confidence, and make good choices.
Consider contrasting assumptions or beliefs:
• “My child is basically good.”
• “My child wants to do what is right.”
• “My child wants to succeed.”
• “My child wants to get along with others.”
• “My child is a capable student.”
• “My child is imperfect and will make plenty of mistakes.”
• “I can help my child learn and grow from their mistakes.”
On the other hand:
• “Children will lie if they can get away with it.”
• “Children are lazy and will do as little as possible.”
• “Children don’t care about others.”
• “My kid is a pain.”
We’ll handle the same situation differently, depending on our assumptions. Even when things go wrong, we’ll be more successful as we make positive assumptions: Johnny is noisy, not because he’s bad, but because he doesn’t know how to channel his energy; Billy hits their brother because he is jealous; Suzie stayed out past curfew because she has not yet figured out how to say “no” to friends.
This principle is not about denying real problems. It is about seeing beneath the behavior to the heart, which may be covered over with layers of inadequacy and self-protection, so we can connect with their goodness and channel their behavior in positive ways.
Let’s apply this to a real example. Five-year-old Carlos hits their three-year-old brother with a toy car. His mother saw what happened, and her immediate reaction is to yell at Carlos, perhaps give him a swat on the rear, and even send him to his room.
But then she pauses. She wants to teach rather than simply punish Carlos. Of course, she may need to calm a crying baby first, but then she turns their attention to Carlos and goes through the following process:
1. She asks herself three questions:
• Why did Carlos behave this way? (He is jealous.)
• What do I want him to learn? (Feelings are okay, but it is not okay to hit; he has choices when he’s upset.)
• How can I best teach him? (By connecting, listening, asking him questions, teaching him about his feelings, and helping him think about better choices.)
These questions allow Mother to respond rather than simply react, to gain a better perspective about what is happening, to understand what is going on inside Carlos, and to use this moment as an opportunity to help him learn better ways of handling his emotions. Now Mother is helping Carlos learn and grow.
2. She connects with Carlos in a soft way. It is when our kids are upset that they need us most. Carlos doesn’t want to feel jealous or frustrated, but he doesn’t understand or know what to do with his feelings. It isn’t that he won’t behave in a better way, he simply can’t. He lacks emotional maturity. Through connection, Mother can soothe his feelings and help him calm down and make better choices.
Mom walks over to Carlos, kneels down, and opens her arms. “Come here, buddy. You’re really upset right now.” She may hold him for a moment. She may listen to him express his feelings. She may help him name those feelings. Once she has a connection, she moves to step three.
3. She redirects Carlos’s attention into problem-solving. Mom can ask Carlos what he thinks he can do next time he’s jealous or upset. She can offer suggestions and teach him ways to handle his emotions. She can let him know what she expects. They can work together to come up with a plan.
Of course, it takes practice to master these steps. But they are an alternative to the parenting traps from Lesson 2.
So, your assignment today or in the next few days is to find an opportunity to use this skill. Instead of punishing your child when they misbehave, pause. Take a moment to think through the questions. Connect in a soft way. Then redirect your child by helping them come up with better ways of solving their problem.
Next, we’ll talk about setting expectations.
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