Discipline is tough. With the number of times kids need correction every day, it’s understandable that parents develop habits that aren’t always thought through. In a flood of snap judgments, chaos management and a desire to regain control of a difficult situation, ineffective and problematic authoritarian discipline techniques can spring up. Not only don’t they work, they can make kids confused and anxious. Nobody wins.
“As parents, we have to ask ourselves questions about what outcomes we want when we discipline our kids,” says anxiety therapist Chad Brandt, Ph.D. “The best scenario is that they come to understand why what they did was wrong so they can learn and practice alternatives.”
Brandt sees several common discipline mistakes from parents, but luckily he has simple tools for reflection and change to help parents get their kids mentally and emotionally engaged. Then, rather than kids walking on eggshells while focusing on not getting caught, they can maximize their growth potential from challenging situations.
Ineffective Parenting Style Habit #1: Physical Discipline
Research continues to demonstrate that spanking and other forms of physical discipline associated with authoritarian-style parenting are unhealthy for kids. There’s evidence that physical discipline may change the structure of a child’s brain and that spanking isn’t an effective method for positive behavior change.
Physical discipline can also contribute to a cycle of misbehavior by modeling actions that are likely to land kids in additional trouble if they emulate them. “You’re solving one discipline problem with a solution that you would tell them not to use in any other instance,” Brandt says. In other words, you don’t want your kid to hit their peers when they do something wrong.
And although kids aren’t likely to find any type of discipline fun or pleasant, the anxiety that physical discipline elicits can exacerbate behavioral issues by driving kids to be even more secretive. “When kids experience the physical reaction to pain, they’ll start to hide their behavior from you. Or they’ll lie or cover things up because they don’t want a spanking,” he says. “You’re not teaching them how to change the behavior. Instead, you’re teaching them how to avoid you.”
Successful discipline teaches kids how to understand why what they did was wrong and appropriate responses for the next time they’re in a similar situation. An engaged child will grow in self-awareness and emotional attunement. But an anxious child will become avoidant.
Want to really help your child engage during the discipline process? Brandt suggests parents show their kids empathy. Walk them through ways they can more appropriately handle similar situations in the future to add layers of positive reinforcement.
“If your child lashes out at a sibling for taking their toy, you can ask what emotion they felt when that happened,” Brandt says. “Then let them know that the next time they feel that emotion, they can either politely ask for the toy back or come get you for help. Then you and your child can practice one or both of those solutions together.”
Ineffective Parenting Style Habit #2: Overly Harsh Discipline
Even parents who don’t ascribe to physical discipline can be overly harsh with their children. When a kid gets put in time-out, for example, it can be tempting to keep them there just a little too long, for any number of reasons. But if the timeout stretches too long, it can become counterproductive.
“Usually, we would say about a minute per year or life with a max of like 10 minutes before it stops being a useful tool,” Brandt says. “There’s a limit to how long kids can process information. And for younger kids, that limit is pretty short. So they might have a timeout and learn for a minute, and then play in their room or sit on the chair and daydream. And that’s something that you don’t want. That defeats the purpose.”
It may be helpful to combine a brief timeout with another appropriate disciplinary action to help kids process their misbehavior. But again, the emphasis is on suitability. Authoritarian-style parents who are too extreme push the experience past being a learning opportunity which makes it anxiety-producing. Your child ate candy without asking? They don’t get dessert that night. But don’t take away dessert for the whole week.
Ineffective Parenting Behavior #3: Inconsistent Discipline
“The most important aspect of discipline is being consistent with rules and consequences. In fact, consistency is going to be more important than the specific consequence, especially when kids are younger,” Brandt says.
When rules and expectations are constantly in flux — as often happens with authoritarian and permissive parenting styles — kids can get anxious even when they’re behaving appropriately. “Parents will put off disciplining their child because of how the child might respond. So the child has free rein to do whatever, until the parent snaps and gets angry,” Brandt says. “For the child, it’s confusing when they get to do whatever they want, until all of the sudden they get yelled at.”
That combination of confusion and fear is a breeding ground for anxiety. In contrast, clarity, closure, and positivity create an environment where kids can learn it’s safe to acknowledge their mistakes and grow from them.
Brandt encourages families to end any disciplinary interaction with a note of optimism as a way for everyone to move on. “We don’t want to stay stuck in that difficult moment where the kid is angry because they feel misunderstood and like they’re labeled as a bad kid,” he says. “So I’d just end the interaction with, ‘Now we understand what happened, and how we can keep it from happening again in the future. I can’t wait to see you handle that better the next time. You’ll do great.’”
And, hey, don’t be afraid to use some of that positivity and optimism on yourself. Habits can be hard to break. In chaotic parenting moments, it’s easy to slip back into anxiety-provoking discipline methods in an attempt to regain control of the situation. But reflecting on why you reverted to the undesired habit and what you can do differently in the future gives you a chance to handle the chaos better next time. You’ll do great.
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