The Art and Science of Discipline -- “I’m not in the mood for effective parenting!”

With knowledge comes responsibility. And guilt. As two trained and experienced child psychologists, my husband and I sometimes have the added meta-awareness that what we are doing is wrong. I can literally be thinking “this is not helping the situation” as I am impatient and possibly raising my voice with my young child. I am aware that my behavior results from my own frustration and need to release it rather than being guided by what is best for my child.

It is both heartbreaking and somewhat comical when our 2-year-old son says, “I don’t like when you scream at me. It cries makes me.” His brain is still learning how to put sentences together, but he sure understands enough about his emotional experience to let us know how our impatience affects him. One night when I was pregnant and our 2-year-old and 4-year-old were running around the house screaming, completely ignoring our repeated instructions to come to the table, my husband summed up our experience quite concisely, yelling: “I’m not in the mood for effective parenting!” A huge caveat to this section is that knowing what is effective discipline is much easier than actually executing it, because it is hard and we are already exhausted and depleted.

 Back to behaviorism, disciplining our children should be relatively straightforward. We encourage desired behaviors with reinforcement (eg, attention, praise, tangible reward) and we discourage undesired behaviors with punishment (eg, ignoring, time-outs, consequences). But age and development matter quite a bit when it comes to figuring out how to implement this approach to shaping our children’s behaviors. In fact, it seems that our pint-sized people can turn into dictators and become better at shaping OUR behaviors than we are at shaping theirs. You don’t want that epic meltdown in the middle of the store? Just give me that cheap $1 toy and we can move along with our pleasant shopping trip. I can’t tell you how often we have had one of our kids in the toddler stage persist right past our limit-setting until we finally give in because they wear us down (“Pick me up!” “Not right now” “Pick me UP!” “I’m busy cooking dinner.” “PICK ME UP!!!!” (Loud crying) “Fine.”) Toddlers present the special challenge of having no reasoning abilities – you can’t talk them into what makes sense. So they tantrum. A lot.

The Anatomy of the Tantrum:

Tantrums are less exciting than first words or first steps, but still a critically important developmental milestone. These outbursts provide opportunities for our little people to learn about their emotions and how to regulate those emotions. We parents have a really important role in this because we are the ones regulating and soothing until our children develop the capacity to do it themselves.

Research dating back to 1931 has broken down tantrums into stages of anger and sadness, as expressed through different types of vocalizations (eg, screaming versus whining). A study from 2011 built on this research by using updated technology to more closely analyze how the frequency and intensity of types of vocalizations represent the emotional states during a tantrum. The researchers actually wired devices to toddlers to track intensity and quality of different types of sounds: yelling, screaming, crying, fussing, and whining. (Listening to that audio: Worst job ever.) They found that the yelling and screaming occurred together and signified anger peaks, and the crying, fussing, and whining clustered together to express sadness. According to this recent research, the toddler tantrum typically consists of simultaneous feelings of anger and sadness rather than the anger and sadness occurring in discrete phases, as previously understood, but that there is typically a “rhythm,” including a peak of anger in the middle and sadness at the end.

So how does this science actually help make our lives easier? In a radio interview, the authors explained how we can use these cues to actually be more effective. If we pay attention to the sounds of the tantrum, we can feel an increased sense of control over how to respond. In the peak of the emotions (represented by yelling and screaming), talking or trying to verbally respond to the trigger (especially because they are often completely irrational) can serve to prolong the tantrum because this verbal intervention adds to the child’s frustration. As difficult as this can be, ignoring the child in the peak of the anger can help them get through it more quickly, until they descend into the phase of wanting comfort (fussing, whining, crying). As the intensity wanes, the child is more likely to respond to comfort, which can then help end the tantrum.

As noted repeatedly on this website, however, each child is different and unique. Tantrums may generally occur for many children as studied in the research, but there are some children whose tantrums unfold differently and may need a different type of intervention. There is evidence that tantrums with higher intensity and longer duration in early years predict emotional and behavioral problems later, which makes sense considering many psychiatric diagnoses relate to difficulty with emotion regulation or impulse control (eg, ADHD, bipolar disorder). 

Isn’t That Bribery?

Beyond the toddler stage, as kids’ brains mature into understanding cause and effect, and the construct of time past the immediate moment, they do have the capacity to respond to rewards and consequences. Even toddlers can respond if the rewards are immediate and consistently given.

There are two pillars to effective discipline: limits and consistency. This is when the idea of tough love begins – it is our job to put limits around our kids’ primal impulses for their own health and safety. They cannot eat as much ice cream as they want because it will make them sick. They must be wrestled into that car seat no matter how much they want to crawl into the front seat. The benefits of setting limits with children goes beyond these obvious examples, though, as we are providing them the environment to develop their own internal sense of how to set limits, which will hopefully serve them well when they are no longer under our watchful eyes 24/7. 

In young children especially, consistency is everything. This relates to that common example of the slot machine type of reinforcement – we actually increase a certain behavior if it gets us a reward intermittently. My husband and I try tirelessly to teach our children to WAIT to talk to us until we have finished talking to each other (or another adult), but what do we do at least half the time? We answer their question, or give a mindless, “oh that’s great” response to quickly return to the grown-up conversation. Consistency takes an incredible amount of discipline and energy (will these children EVER learn to put dirty clothes in the hamper instead of their floor??), and cannot humanly be at 100%, but doing your best will pay off.

Consistency plays an especially important role in implementing behavior plans (at times referred to as “bribery” by skeptics). Admittedly, this area draws more on my psychology training than probably any other area of parenting, so I will do my best not to sound too out of touch with reality. First, my friends as well as families I have worked with have expressed great doubts about giving rewards for what should be easy, expected behaviors. However, the reason we are even talking about the behavior is because it’s a problem, so something is not working. It can sound straightforward – we use tangible incentives to motivate a desired behavior (eg, a sticker for brushing teeth), but there are many nuances that can sabotage your attempts, leaving you with, “see it doesn’t work!” In some special cases, you are right and these strategies do not work for certain types of kids. For a majority of kids, however, behaviorism wrapped within discipline does work well enough if done carefully and creatively.

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The first trick is figuring out what reward is more motivating than the behavior, which is why sticker charts are often not effective. Just how exciting is a sticker? One of the first times the sentiment, “I’ll never do that as a parent,” came back to haunt me was using candy to help my middle child potty train. We tried stickers but she could care less; as soon as that candy-coated chocolate was an option, she was on that itty bitty potty, dry undies at her ankles. I’m not suggesting using chocolate and in fact there is a lot of professional advice to not link food as a reward, but this was our one departure (and see--just do your best! We all have to break rules sometimes). The point is don’t give up too fast – sometimes you just need to find the right reward.

In line with this, however, is trying to match the degree of the reward with the behavior. A 4-year-old should not get a new Lego set for getting dressed on his own. Maybe he can earn a certain number of stickers for that eventual reward – but that requires a 4-year-old with great patience, which leads me to the next point. The younger the child, the more immediate the reward needs to be for them to associate the desired behavior with the reward. If they get their little dollar store toy before bedtime after successfully getting out the door on time in the morning, they won’t realize they go together. Our oldest daughter loves stuff, no matter how much we try to model and teach anti-materialism. She had a pretty nightmarish bedtime phase – crying and yelling for us, demanding multiple visits, taking up way too much of our evening time to relax. We came up with a “treasure box;” we bought a few cheap toys and put them in a box. If she had a calm, cooperative bedtime, she picked from the treasure box the next morning. Yes, we wish our young children would just go to bed without all the hoopla because they SHOULD, but they often don’t.

The secret with this reward strategy, however, is that it is shaping a desired behavior, and over time the child is doing the behavior without the reward. This is how rewards differ from bribery. In bribery, you are giving them a desired object in order to get them to do a behavior (“I’ll give you this piece of cake if you clean up your toys”). Using rewards is much more strategic and sneaky on the part of the parents, and we are finally outsmarting those little dictators who are changing their behaviors without even realizing it!

The Ultimate Art of Discipline: Natural Consequences

My absolute favorite form of discipline that lasts into adolescence is natural consequences. I love it because it removes the power struggle and takes much less energy from us parents. Instead of arguing about putting on a jacket, I say “you go outside and feel the temperature. If you leave the house without a jacket, you will be cold and you hate being cold. Up to you.” Yes, I sneak a back-up jacket into the car, but when they make their poor decision and complain about how cold they are, for a moment they live their bad decision. Not every behavior has a natural consequence (eg, the kids don’t care if their room is a disaster, so living with the mess is more appealing than cleaning it up), but it’s worth figuring out ones that do.

Again, all of these strategies require a finely tuned understanding of how your child operates. Our oldest daughter shudders at the thought of her teacher knowing she did not do her homework, so when she is complaining about doing her homework, I just say “then don’t do it.” It works every time. (Until second grade . . . kids are complicated; see this blog post.)