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Healthy discipline, confident parenting

Disciplining a child, no matter what age, is hard work. It’s emotional work and intellectual work, and sometime it’s even physical work. Disciplining a child can leave you depleted, angry, and unsure whether or not to just throw up your hands in defeat, and give up.

It’s certainly not news that children need discipline. Remove healthy discipline from a child’s life and watch the behavioral problems develop. But discipline is important not just because it can teach a child to pickup his toys after his play date or to use “please” and “thank you.” Discipline is important because it provides a child with the security of knowing there is an adult with wisdom and experience in charge. Simply put, healthy discipline leads to a secure child, which leads to a confident child.

In this way, providing healthy discipline can also be empowering and confidence-building for parents. It can be an experience which helps solidify one’s view of oneself as a mature adult and as a good parent. To see oneself as the “anchor” as the “island in a storm,” as the “beacon in the night,” or as the “rock of Gibraltar”—these are positive images of oneself as a parent and especially helpful when one is being pushed to the absolute limit by an unruly child.

But how do you prevent discipline from turning into a power struggle? How do you guard against using discipline for punitive purposes? How do you keep discipline where it belongs—as an expression of commitment to another’s well being?

Here are some guidelines:

1. Mutual respect builds relationships. Listen carefully to your child’s concerns. Avoid ridicule and sarcasm. Misbehavior is caused by a variety of reasons. Look for underlying needs and underlying feelings. Encourage your child to express anger; discourage acting it out. Model appropriate behavior. Communicate expectations clearly, and when appropriate, negotiate. Include your child in decision-making.

2. Set limits and stick to them but choose your battles. Help your child comply with rules by offering to “do it together.” Ask for your child’s help in finding solutions and share your own feelings and your own needs. Mutually agreed upon rules create a greater

sense of responsibility.

3. Build self-discipline by showing your child what she has done wrong and what is appropriate next time. Be sure to leave her dignity intact. Express confidence in her ability to do better next time. Don’t over-rescue your child. Use natural and logical consequences to help teach lessons. Children who experience consequences learn they have some control over their lives.

4. Teach and apply problem-solving skills. Ask for your child’s understanding of “what happened,” and “why.” Ask what could be done next time to ensure a better outcome. Assure your child that he can always “ask an adult for help.” Explore other options and their consequences. The long term goal of discipline is self-discipline and to help children take responsibility for their own behavior.

5. Take a parental time-out. Leave the room, and do whatever is needed to regain your sense of composure and good judgment. Don’t be afraid to “start all over.” Don’t hesitate to apologize when appropriate. Memory records the affective quality of an interaction more accurately than the actual content. A sharp word spoken, and left unacknowledged, will be recorded in memory as just that, and might fester. But a sharp word followed by a genuine apology will be recorded in memory according to the effective quality of the apology. Instead of a festering hurt, the apology transforms the memory into a moment of human fallibility and closeness.

Obviously, there are no magic formulas. A famous British pediatrician and psychoanalyst, D.W. Winnicott, noted that there was no such thing as perfect parenting, only good enough parenting. Good enough parenting can accommodate a full range of parenting styles. Good enough parenting can accommodate mistakes. Most importantly, good enough parents take pride in their ability to administer healthy discipline because it is an expression of their commitment to their child’s well-being.

Lisa Lempel-Sander is a practicing psychotherapist in Douglas Manor. She can be reached at 225-0552.

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