Expecting parents are famous for making grandiose vows about what they won’t do as a parent: use an iPad to keep a kid quiet, fight with their partner in front of the kids, yell, curse, bribe – promises differ, but all soon-to-be parents make them. And yet, a great tradition of parenthood is swiftly breaking them. It’s easy to imagine being the perfect parent before the baby arrives, when nobody’s screaming, you’ve had a good night’s sleep, and your feet have yet to be scarred by stray Legos. But in the heat of the moment, rational decision making has a way of going out the door.
Psychologist Becky Bailey, PhD, is all too familiar with this. In one of her most widely viewed talks, the child development expert, author, educator and founder of Conscious Discipline asks an audience of parents to raise their hand if they ever made promises about what they would never do as a parent. Hands shoot up, including Bailey’s own. Then, she asks them how many of them have done what they swore they wouldn’t. Everyone, including Bailey herself, raises their hand again. One of the areas where parents go back on promises to them is discipline. We promise not to yell or be the parent who is anything but calm and understanding. But that can quickly deteriorate. We promise to do better. Eventually, we break that promise again.
To stop the cycle, parents would be wise to reconsider how they look at discipline. That’s Bailey’s point. Her philosophy is that parents punish kids in ways that aren’t productive because the emotions that overtake us during conflict make it hard to find alternatives. Instead, we fall back on methods that were used on us during childhood.
But Bailey’s method, called Conscious Discipline, gives parents tools to push back against these knee-jerk reactions, respond to children intentionally, and keep those promises. It all centers around two main ideas: One, that when kids act out, they don’t need punishment, but rather guidance in calming down and working through their feelings. And two, that parents can’t provide this guidance if they don’t know how to calm down themselves.
What is Conscious Discipline?
Conscious Discipline is a caregiving philosophy that teaches adults to regulate their emotions so that they can help kids to do the same. It gives parents a blueprint for overriding the body’s natural response to stress, so that they can respond to conflict with rational thinking and problem solving. Able to stop themselves from reacting out of impulse or tradition, parents are able to approach a child’s outburst from a more rational place.
Neuroscience, child development, and social emotional learning (SEL) all factor into the rationale behind Conscious Discipline, which uses safety, connection, and problem solving in place of rewards and punishments. What sets it apart from other discipline methods and SEL programs is its focus on the adult. While more traditional forms of discipline might use fear or consequences to control a child’s behavior, Conscious Discipline acknowledges the outsized role that adults and their emotional regulation skills play in how conflict unfolds.
Conscious discipline works to undo the “implicit biases that we’ve had ingrained in us from the beginning that negative behavior deserves punishment, instead of negative behavior is a call for help” says Amy Speidel, a former teacher and Conscious Discipline master instructor.
Conscious Discipline is widely regarded as a leading evidence-based program. A study conducted by researchers at the Harvard graduate school of education named it among the top 25 SEL programs and it was awarded the highest designation from The Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning. The Harvard report noted that Conscious Discipline was one of only two programs that evaluated how adults change their behavior. And a study conducted in a Head Start program found that 6-8 weeks after the completion of a 7-week program, parents were using Conscious Discipline skills even more than they were when the program ended.
How Does Conscious Discipline Work?
Bailey uses three brain states to explain how Conscious Discipline works: the survival state, the emotional state, and the executive state. When children throw tantrums or adults snap, they’re in the survival state. The body thinks it’s in danger and goes into fight or flight, which unleashes a slew of physiological responses that disrupt our ability to communicate, think clearly, and problem solve. Adults might experience a racing heart, tense muscles, dilated pupils, and pale skin. Kids might experience stomach aches, screaming and shouting, hyperactivity, or such reactions as tightening their fists, running around, and saying “no” a lot.
“It’s not that they’re being disrespectful or mean,” says Gayani DeSilva MD, child and adolescent psychiatrist and author of A Psychiatrist’s Guide: Helping Parents Reach Their Depressed Tween. “They’ve got all this adrenaline in their body and they don’t know what to do with it.”
In the emotional state, both kids and adults can become verbally aggressive. Without the ability to think clearly, we don’t have many tools at our disposal. Parents might respond with what’s familiar, falling back on discipline techniques they were subject to as a child even if it’s something they don’t agree with. In the executive state, we’re calm, alert, open to other people’s perspectives, and able to problem solve and learn. Conscious discipline aims to keep you in the executive state.
The goal of Conscious Discipline is to help parents and children move from the survival state to the executive state and stay there. “The only way for us to get into the facts is to soothe the emotional state enough so that it can listen and be thoughtful, and grab a hold of its tools,” says Speidel. It uses a number of self-regulation techniques to do so.
One of the core self-regulation techniques Conscious Discipline teaches is STAR breathing, which stands for smile, take a deep breath, and relax. Deep breaths and smiling help disrupt the fight or flight response and remind the body that we’re safe.
“Slowing your breathing actually slows down the metabolism and the parasympathetic response,” DeSilva says. “It makes it more of a sympathetic response and diverts energy back to your brain so you can actually use your cognition to understand and assess the situation, and then come up with a plan.” Smiling has a similar effect, telling your amygdala, the part of your brain that processes fear, that it doesn’t need to set off alarm bells anymore, Speidel says.
The adult calms themselves so that they can avoid unhelpful responses, like telling a kid to stop crying. Then, they help the child feel safe and calm. When they’re both calm, they work together to figure out how to respond differently going forward.
How Can Parents Implement Conscious Discipline?
Speidel recommends parents who feel themselves getting frustrated step away for a minute, saying to themselves “I am safe, I can handle this. I wish myself and my child well,” look in a mirror, smile, and say “I’ve got this.” Then, she says, “Only leave when you’re ready to be helpful.”
To help kids calm down, parents need to avoid threatening punishment or telling them to stop. Instead, say “you’re safe, breathe with me.” They can guide kids through deep breaths, slowly counting to four as they inhale, and then again as they exhale. Parents can watch a child’s belly to see if they’re breathing deeply since shallow breathing will only move the shoulders.
Of course, becoming this enormously patient parent is easier said than done. It’s helpful to think through how you’d like to react before you face a stressful or upsetting situation. DeSilva recommends thinking of a past reaction that you regret, working through how you wish you reacted and imagining what emotions might prevent you from acting this way. Doing this ahead of time creates a new conditioned pathway, so that the next time the brain is triggered, it knows of a new way to act. Parents can practice this skill in any frustrating situation, from traffic to conflict at work by taking three deep breaths and thinking “I wish that person well.” Here are some more tips for implementing conscious discipline at home.
- Use Visual Reminders and Routines
Maybe it’s a chart in a child’s bedroom that reminds where to put their shoes and dirty clothes. Maybe it’s a calendar that uses pictures to show which days a child has art class or soccer practice. Children, particularly under the age of seven, respond well to pictures, because they’re easier to interpret than words. “Pictures never get tired of explaining, but people do,” Speidel says. “If there’s a routine and pictures, then you’re not having to be the foreman on the job making sure that everybody’s doing what they need to do. The picture tells the story, and it also empowers children to be in charge of their own routines by checking off what they’ve done,” Calendars and schedules can be particularly helpful, as children feel safest with routines.
- Create I Love You Rituals
Conscious Discipline urges parents to come up with what they call “I Love You Rituals,” or activities like singing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star’ and doing hand movements or dancing along to a song together. They all include eye contact, touch, and presence in a playful situation, which Bailey believes are the prerequisites for connection. For kids, these seemingly silly activities are about learning how to express affection and love through shared experience and vulnerability, says DeSilva.
- Remember: It’s a long process
The goals of Conscious Discipline are lofty, and the process is long. Speidel tells parents to start by practicing these new skills just 20 percent of the time. “Eventually the brain starts to gravitate towards the more powerful tools.”
Inevitably, parents will fail and react in ways they later regret. When that happens, Speidel says the best thing to do is acknowledge it. Tell your child that you didn’t react in a way that was calm or helpful, and you’d like to try again. When we do this, “We give our children an opportunity to witness how it is that we make mistakes and recover,” Speidel says.
Conflict and stress set off real, powerful, physical reactions in the body. Overriding them and choosing to use tools to calm down and think rationally, doesn’t come naturally or easily. But when we learn practical ways to retrain ourselves, we gain the ability to, as Speidel says, “be helpful instead of hurtful when somebody else is having a difficult moment.” That’s a promise all parents would like to see through.