By John Hoffman
This is the second in a series of blogs where I’m looking at influential parenting ideas through my own personal Self-Reg lens.
Most experts, and parents, would agree that good discipline is important in child-rearing. However, it depends what you mean by discipline. Our centuries-old self-control orientation constantly pushes us towards the mindset that discipline is primarily about enforcing behavioural rules and reacting to bad behaviour with punishment or consequences. Usually there is little or no consideration of the role that excess stress plays in a lot of the behaviour parents seek to address with discipline. One of the core Self-Reg ideas is that much of the behaviour that gets labelled misbehaviour is actually “stress behaviour”. So clearly there’s an incompatibility between rigid discipline approaches and Self-Reg.
I would never say children don’t need reasonable limits or that parents should not address dangerous or hurtful behaviour. And, obviously, kids need to learn how to behave and be safe in the world helped by the care, guidance and teaching of their parents, caregivers and teachers. However, I’ve seen too many situations where discipline devolves into such a dogged focus on reacting to or fixing “bad” behaviour that the very behaviours parents were trying to fix become entrenched, and parent-child relationships are harmed.
One of the reasons discipline can backfire is that, when we’re dealing with a stress behaviour—which is often the case—the child is, by definition, stressed, i.e. on high threat alert. a) a parent’s raised voice, punishment or attempts to control the child add to the sense of threat the child already feels. That makes them more likely to respond with fight or flight behaviours, which further fuel the already volatile situation
b) when a child is in that (red brain) state, they are not going to learn any discipline lessons. They're just going to focus on protecting themselves. Relationships can suffer too, because the parents often feel they have to push harder and harder. So the child pushes back harder too. If these kinds of battles become a pattern, troublesome behaviours (and poor relationships) can become entrenched.
How Self-Reg Helps
If parents tune into and reduce kids’ (and their own), stress the sense of threat and tension gets dialed down. Parents will start to see their children differently. They will understand them better, develop better relationships, and spend more time helping their kids and less time fighting with them. That opens up new (and positive) ways to respond to behaviour. This is likely to be most important in families dealing with the most behaviour problems.
Make no mistake, parents are going to discipline their kids. They’re told, over and over, that they need to do it. And, sometimes kids do need to be stopped. Sometimes they do need consequences. But a Self-Reg “look for the stressors first” approach is the best tool I’ve seen for helping parents do less of the negative, coercive kinds of discipline that can become problematic for both parents and kids.