A Blueprint for Child Discipline in Tough Times

How to respond to challenging behavior in tough times.

In our last post, we talked about how important connection is when your child acts out. 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 12-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 6-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 day-long 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 always 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.)

Connection is key to addressing your child’s challenging behavior. Once connection has been made and you’ve set your limits calmly, you can work on addressing the source of the acting out. We will talk about how to effectively address your child’s needs and engage in preventative maintenance in our next, and final, post in this series.