“Dr. Laura — Could you write about transitioning to positive discipline for parents of older kids? If I start Peaceful 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. The older your child, the more challenging it can be to transition to peaceful parenting. 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 — for instance, being grounded. It takes time to help your child grow into taking responsibility for their actions.
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.
I know, you think you have a good relationship with your child. That’s because you love them and would do anything for them. But consider the “bank balance” in your “relationship account.” 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.
How do you build up a positive balance in your relationship? Not by buying your child things. Not by letting him stay up late, or have more screen time, or more treats. You build a positive relationship by showing up: listening, being emotionally generous, keeping your sense of humor, and understanding. You do this when things are easy and you do this when things are hard. You even do it while you set, and enforce, your limits.
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 punishment creates resentment and power struggles. Kids get preoccupied with the unfairness of the punishment, instead of feeling remorse for what they did wrong and making a plan for change. Punishment ends up eroding your relationship with your child, which ultimately lessens your influence and makes them LESS likely to want to follow your lead.
There’s a better way to teach the lessons you want your child to remember.
The lessons you want to teach, I assume, are:
- Our actions have an impact on the world.
- We can always choose our own actions and we are 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.
- 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.
Kids don’t learn these lessons by being punished. They learn them when we help them reflect on the result of their actions. What was the cost, to them and to others? We also need to consistently support our children to make repairs when they mess up.
Like most humans, children can’t sincerely acknowledge mistakes and initiate repair when they’re on the defensive. So if we want our kids to make a better choice next time, we need to get better at talking with them — and listening — as well as giving them support so they can meet our expectations.
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 only 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.
That means you need to see the situation from their point of view, so you understand why they acted as they did. You don’t have to agree, you just need to understand. This helps you be more generous, so your child is less defensive, and is more open to acknowledging what she did, what motivated her, and what outcomes resulted from her choices.
This also gives your child 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 make 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. Resist the urge to jump in with punishments.
Instead, help your child come up with a plan to make things better. 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. Empower your child.
Help your child consider not only how to repair what she’s “broken” but also how to address the underlying challenge that led to her problematic behavior. 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 solve whatever problem she had in a more positive way. 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. She might also need to turn off her phone for a certain number of hours during homework time every evening, which she is now motivated to do because she sees that her phone is keeping her from focusing on her studies.
Is this 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 she needs to do so that she can 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?
What if, even after you have done your best to listen and validate emotions, your child maintains that he doesn’t care if he failed the test and his sister deserved what she got? He’s still on the defensive. Say “I understand why this happened and why you made this choice. But that doesn’t mean your choice worked out well. 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. “I can see that you’re feeling fed up with that teacher and that you feel like just giving up in that class.” 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 does need to come up with a repair, and that you’re there to help. Not addressing the problem won’t make it go away, but you have seen him tackle tough problems before and you know he can overcome this one too.
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.”
Setting a limit is not a one-time thing — you need to do it over and over. Parents often get frustrated about this need for repetition and think that punishment will help prevent recurrences. But it’s much more effective to address the root causes of the “misbehavior.” If your child is having a hard time following your limits, consider what support he or she needs to meet your expectations. For instance, when your children hurt each other, insist on repair. But make sure you also address the sibling rivalry, and help them learn to express their needs and wants without attacking each other.
Another kind of “support” so kids can meet your expectations is to manage the child’s environment by setting clear house rules and agreements. So, for instance, don’t get your child a phone until they can manage it. Don’t allow it to be on except during limited hours in the afternoon and evening when it won’t intrude on homework, dinner and winding down before bed. When the child first gets the phone, review daily with your child what texts and calls were made, and how much time the child spent on the phone, to help them develop healthy habits.
If you find yourself needing to back-track and impose rules now, because an issue like homework or screens that has become a problem, be clear with your child that this is not a punishment. You didn’t understand what structure they needed to be successful, but you do see now, and you are going to support them by imposing that structure in your family. They may not like it, and you will listen to their unhappiness and empathize, but that doesn’t mean you will change your limits. Once your child has developed the new habits that will help them meet your expectations, and can demonstrate their ability to be responsible, they can petition you for a change.
11. Resist the urge to rescue.
Sometimes your child’s infraction goes beyond the family. He was caught cheating at school, or drinking with his buddies, or he caused 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 (or worse). 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 peaceful parenting will include both of you learning the new territory. That means you will need to make some changes in how you respond to infractions. You will see that your own ability to self-regulate impacts your child, and that your emotional generosity keeps your child connected. You will realize that your past practices didn’t support your child to be their best self. No shame, no blame. We all do the best we can as parents.
But do expect a transition period. 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.
An important part of connecting is empathy, including when you set limits. Work hard to speak with respect, and be clear that you expect civility in return: “You must be so upset to speak to me that way… What’s going on?” Stay compassionate. Welcome upset feelings. The more safety you can provide, the sooner your child will be willing to share what’s really bothering them. Once your child expresses all those uncomfortable feelings they’ve been lugging around, they’ll be much more open to connecting. And because you’ve stayed compassionate, they’ll know you’re on their side, and they’ll be more likely to honor their agreements with you. They’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 self-regulate. You connect. You start listening, and asking good questions that teach your child to reflect. You set the expectation that your child needs to make repairs. If they ask what happened to your old approach, 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.
Dr. Laura Markham, founder of AhaParenting.com and author of The Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids Workbook, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How To Stop Yelling and Start Connecting and Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings: How to Stop the Fighting and Raise Friends for Life.
Image courtesy of Gustavo Fring.