06 August, 2015

Parenting: The impact of discipline on emotional health

While summer time offers an opportunity for parents and children to spend more time together doing enjoyable activities, it can also be a stressful time for parents.

The greatest source of this stress can be discipline issues which often arise more during the summer, because of children’s less structured life style and increased contact between parents and children.

Unburdened by school work and pressures, children often feel more free, have more energy, and are sometimes looking for activities to alleviate boredom. Some will test the boundaries, while, for others, their more carefree behaviour will seem to be a challenge to parental authority. For older children summer is the time they are most vulnerable to starting to engage in risk-taking behaviour such as alcohol and drug usage.

For parents, there is a danger of ignoring the risks resulting in a child starting to engage in really problematic behaviour or of becoming overly protective and cautious.

This is the time for parents to remember the key principles of good, effective disciplinary techniques.

1. Praising and rewarding good behaviour and ignoring poor behaviour

Praising behaviour we want to encourage will result in our child engaging in this behaviour. Ignored behaviour usually disappears over time.

For example, ignore common problematic behaviour such as:

  • talking too much
  • getting upset at bedtime
  • fighting about having to come home at a particular time.

Praise constructive behaviour, such as:

2. Having reasonable expectations about what requires discipline

Our child will want to behave well and receive our praise and attention. Having reasonable expectations about what to expect from our child is important.

We need to give our child leeway where possible and only focus on the most important discipline issues. A child is only beginning to develop a sense of right or wrong, but it is very much based on not wanting to get into trouble or displease parents, important adults, teachers and so on. Their understanding of the impact of their behaviour on others is only emerging and problematic behaviour usually arises from frustration and anger.

For instance, don’t expect your child to sit in the coffee shop quietly while you chat with friends. Their attention-seeking behaviour is normal. Bring another child, books, crayons or other distractions or tailor your coffee to the limits of their tolerance. This will change as they grow older.

3. Teaching our child about actions and consequences

All actions have natural consequences and our child needs to learn this. Experiencing these consequences is an important part of learning to be disciplined.

Children will have an appreciation of our emotions if we express them clearly and in an age-appropriate way. Telling our child how something makes us feel in a way they can understand helps them understand the consequences of their actions, such as "when you screamed at me, it made me feel sad".

4. Being a positive role model

Teaching in itself is not enough. We must practise what we preach and demonstrate self-discipline to our child ourselves. Modelling constructive ways of dealing with our frustration will help our child learn constructive ways of dealing with their frustration, such as going into another room and distracting ourselves when we are angry.

To feel good about themselves, children need to learn how to obey rules and to control their own behaviour. This involves learning to

  • respect others
  • give and take
  • make the right decisions when confronted with moral and ethical decisions.

Teaching our child discipline, and particularly self-discipline, is a core function of helping them to feel good about themselves. A well-disciplined child will be more secure and more confident. Disciplining our child teaches them about right and wrong, enables them to contribute to society in a constructive way and helps them be more secure, happy people.

Some parents associate discipline with punishment - such as slapping - usually because they were taught discipline through punishment themselves. Others resort to punishment because they find their child’s behaviour extremely difficult to handle or feel under pressure from family, friends or other parents. However, simply put, punishment-based discipline does not work, creates difficulties in the parent/child relationship and, in many cases, fosters the opposite of positive self-discipline. In addition, for most of us, punishing our child just doesn’t feel right.

It can be useful to ask ourselves the following questions about our child...

  • Which of their behaviours do I praise the most?
  • Which of their behaviours do I ignore the most?
  • What one of their behaviours positively surprises me most?
  • What do they do that particularly pleases me?
  • What have they done recently that I feel has taught them something positive about being disciplined?
  • What have they done recently that I feel has taught them something negative about being disciplined?

...and to ask these questions of ourselves as well.

  • What do I do to model positive discipline for my child?
  • What is my most positive self-discipline strength?
  • What one good thing did my own parents teach me about discipline?