Picture your kid misbehaving. Maybe they’re jumping on the sofa, or having a meltdown, or throwing toys at their siblings. As a parent — what do you do? Send them to their room, make them skip dinner … or offer them a reward if they cut it out, perhaps?
You might want to rethink your methods, according to a new book from Vancouver-based psychologist Vanessa Lapointe. In Discipline Without Damage: How to Get Your Kids to Behave Without Messing Them Up, the mother of two puts parenting strategies in perspective — and debunks some popular ways to discipline your kids. The Toronto Star chatted with Lapointe about why certain forms of discipline can affect kids’ development — and what parents should do instead.
What sparked your interest in how parents discipline their kids?
I do a lot of public speaking and workshops, and I started to notice that’s the most frequently requested topic. And, as a psychologist, probably 90 per cent of parents are coming in because of behavioural challenges in their children. When you look at how that’s been playing out in their homes or a school environment, you can see the sources of disregulation of the child. Often, the primary source of disregulation for the child is how they’ve been disciplined.
What does “disregulation” in children mean?
The core of the brain is where our regulatory system lives. When you become emotionally active, those networks are fired up, and when you’re settled, they’re doing the opposite — bringing those systems down to calm. When a child is disregulated, they’re in a state where they’re not thinking with the outer, cognitive layers of the brain, but instead they’re reactive, and that often comes out in the form of challenging behaviours. Co-regulation occurs when the person they’re with — such as a parent or teacher — comes alongside them and starts to settle them. The more frequently that dynamic plays out, the more likely over time that the child is actually able to hang on to themselves in moments of frustration, and you’ll start to see the moments of acting out diminish.
In the book, you talk about common ways parents handle those moments of acting out — things like timeouts, grounding kids, and offering rewards. What’s wrong with these approaches?
First of all, we have to land at why those approaches have become so popular. It’s because they afford instant gratification. When you give a child a time out, you’re going to have an immediate reaction — the child stopping their behaviour. Yes, you’ve got the behaviour to stop, but you’ve managed to stop it at a cost — it’s out of fear. It’s like going to the carnival and you play the whack-a-mole game; you’ve whacked it down, but it’s going to pop up in another way, like another behaviour or frustration, because the child continues to have this unmet need for the parent to come alongside them. Frustration often morphs into aggression, either outwardly or inwardly directed, which could mean self-loathing or self-harm.
So what’s the better way to discipline kids, then?
The thing is, children are going to be children, based on how their brains are growing. Behaviours we look at as challenging are just a natural part of being a child. We need to come alongside and connect with them. The key to discipline without damage is to be disciplining through a relational connection with your child that meets them in their natural state.
You give one example of a mom calming down her daughter Sophia by taking her aside and explaining a situation to her calmly. It seems great, but how do parents achieve that in moments of stress and frustration?
Parents need to be in a regulated state to come alongside their children and be the regulator in that relationship. When you’re looking in on a child who’s engaged in some kind of challenging behaviour, you might see that behaviour as that of a child who needs to be schooled and put into place. Instead of seeing your child as a brat, see them as someone who is having a hard time while their brain is really fired up. When you see them through those kinds of eyes, it invites a whole new kind of emotion. If you lived in my house, I’m not a rock star, and I’m not doing this perfectly all the time. There are days when I’m a hot mess! But no one says you need to be perfect — you just need to do this enough times so your child’s neural circuitry holds onto enough over time.
The notion of mindfulness is woven throughout the book. How is that helpful for parents?
We’re living in a very, very fast-paced culture where everyone’s levels of stress are much higher than they probably should be. When you take a mindful approach to parenting, you’re able to climb into your own head and invite some more awareness about what’s actually happening, instead of being so reactive. It’s like when you get on an airplane and they’re telling you about the emergency procedures. You’re meant to put your own mask on first before you help the children or dependants with you, because you’re no good to them if you’re on the floor gasping for air.