How To Discipline Your Kids Without Hysterics (From Them Or You)

All the key points from the New York Times bestseller, 'No Drama Discipline,' by Brainstorm author Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson.

by Fatherly
Originally Published: 

Shelves of parents everywhere groan under the weight of advice books they’ll never read because they’re too busy trying to keep their kids from trying to climb the shelves. So, use our Crib Notes to get the short, short version of the latest essential reads. Now up to bat, the New York Times bestseller, No Drama Discipline, by Brainstorm author Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson.

1. You Can’t Discipline A Kid Until You Have A Consistent Definition Of Discipline

Discipline has to be proactive, not reactive

Discipline can’t simply be a reaction to misbehavior, it needs to come from predetermined principles and follow a set strategy, kind of like foreign policy. That’s why the book argues persistently against “time outs”; they sacrifice the long game (raising a self-control Jedi) in favor of the shortest game possible (immediately stopping that specific thing your kid’s doing that makes the sister/friend/dog cry).

  • What You Can Do With This: Know how you want to react to misbehavior before misbehavior happens. Know why you want to react that way because you’re going to have to explain yourself. A lot.


One of the book’s two key acronyms, H.A.L.T. stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired — the emotions most likely to drive the acting up you’re trying too … halt.

  • What You Can Do With This: All four H.A.L.T. emotions tend to manifest themselves subtly before breaking into ear-piercing tantrums. If you can identify the signs early, you can (hopefully) deal with the issue before feelings get hurt and toys get smashed.

Principles of Connection

Communicate comfort; validate, validate validate; stop talking and listen; reflect what you hear.

  • What You Can Do With This: The first and third principles are straightforward. The second one means that you don’t minimize or deny whatever it is that’s causing your kid to act like a punk. The fourth one means verbally acknowledging the things you’re validating: “I understand that you’re angry because I took all the rocks you were throwing at that girl out of your hand.”

Upstairs versus downstairs brains

When parents react to misbehavior with immediate consequences and this-then-that sequences, it over-simplifies everything. The authors refer to this as engaging the kid’s instinctive “downstairs brain,” whereas reacting by asking questions engages the rational “upstairs brain.” The metaphor reduces the most complex part of your kid’s biology to a dollhouse, but it’s a whole lot easier to understand than the actual neuroscience.

  • What You Can Do With This: Make conversations, not consequences. Instead of immediately punishing misbehavior (“Go sit in the corner”), start a dialog (“Tell me what happened. What do you think should happen now?”).

2. Once You Have A Consistent Definition Of Discipline, The Act Of Disciplining Should Be Consistent, Too

Why? What? How? — Skip arbitrary consequences like time outs or explicit punishments, and use the situation as an opportunity to engage your kid with leading questions that get them to think about what’s going on.

  • What You Can Do With This: Ask your kid why they acted the way they did; ask yourself what you lesson you want to pull from the moment and how best to teach it. Say your 4-year-old is hitting you while you’re talking to your wife or making dinner. Why is your kid treating you like Foreman treated Ali? Because they want attention. What do you want them to learn? That there are better ways to get attention than hitting. How should you teach this? Have your kid practice saying, “Excuse me” and response attentively every time. Which might get old, but won’t leave bruises.
Stop thinking of your kid as a monster that eats vacationers on northeastern beaches.

Before you punish, connect — After your kid misbehaves, they’re in a vulnerable emotional state that includes (but isn’t limited to!) panic, insecurity, shame and anger. It’s key that, in this moment, they “feel felt,” in order to change their footing from reactive to receptive.

  • What You Can Do With This: Immediately following an incident of misbehavior, make physical contact. Rather than standing over your kid and waving a finger, kneel down to their level, hold their shoulders or rub their back. Physical reassurance disarms them – kids can’t learn if they’re flinching.

Spare the rod and … just spare the rod — Spanking is simply a more extreme version of a “time out” style reaction to misbehavior. There is zero evidence that it does anything beyond stopping a single incident of bad behavior that single time.

  • What You Can Do With This: Um … don’t spank?
There is zero evidence that spanking does anything beyond stopping a single incident of bad behavior that single time.

H.A.L.T. fail — H.A.L.T. is a nice sentiment, but sometimes warning signs aren’t apparent and meltdowns happen. Tantrums are incorrectly defined by many parents as a plea for attention. They are more correctly understood as a kid brain being overwhelmed with stress hormones – that is, they aren’t a plea for attention so much as a plea for help.

  • What You Can Do With This: Don’t command and demand. That ratchets up drama and it’s going to fall on deaf ears. Instead, empathize with them and establish physical contact. Then, ask them a question. For example: “Junior, do you see anyone else screaming at the top of their lungs or kicking their dad in the shins? Why do you think that is?”

Turn down the “shark music” — “Shark music” is how the authors refer to the “here we go again” baggage that parents bring to situations where they’re convinced their kid is about to misbehave. It’s a reflexive focus on the bigger picture as opposed to the current situation.

  • What You Can Do With This: Recognize that not all parenting experiences apply in all situations. Make decisions based on what your kid needs in that moment and not assumptions based on what happened last time. Also, stop thinking of your kid as a monster that eats vacationers on northeastern beaches.

R.E.D.I.R.E.C.T. — This is the book’s acronym to end all acronyms, laying out the overall strategy in 8 simple concepts: Reduce words; embrace emotions; describe don’t preach, involve your child in the discipline, reframe “no” into a conditional yes, emphasize the positive, creatively approach the situation, teach “mindsight tools.”

  • What You Can Do With This: While most of that is pretty self explanatory, “mindsight tools” are specific to Siegel’s ideas about how people have insight about themselves and empathy for others. When it comes to kids, mindsight is all about helping them understand that they aren’t victims of external forces, but are active players in their own situations. If every adult complaining about his boss/ the government/ “society” would practice that technique, the whole world would be a less tantrum-filled place.

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