Discipline – are time-outs the best option?
If you want to teach a child a high level of emotional intelligence your best bet is to develop that in yourself and model it.
Using time outs, spanking, shouting or any other method of discipline in a fit of rage that terrifies the child and disconnects your relationship with them triggers what Daniel Goleman calls an ‘amygdala hijacking‘ – the child switches into survival mode and you’ve lost any chance of them learning the finer points of life, like emotional intelligence.
When we are in survival mode we learn quickly and deeply but we only learn one thing: how do I survive this situation?
Survival means staying alive physically or emotionally. Just that. It does not mean seeing things from another perspective, finding the best outcome for everyone or making good long-term decisions. To retain the use of those executive functions you need your child to remain in renewal mode where the prefrontal cortex is still whirring away and the primitive amygdala is not firing warning shots all around the brain.
Life can be tough and lots of things cause kids to go into survival mode. Our job is to help our kids learn how to handle those times.
Our job is also not to be the cause of those stressful times. I don’t care what method of discipline you use, if you are sending your kids into survival mode you’re doing parenting the hard way.
Here’s the thing: I only ever cause a survival response in my child when I am in survival mode myself.
When I’m in top form and one of my children is struggling I can take a moment to connect with my child, find out what is really going on for them, let them know that I get that, give them whatever I can of what they are needing right then, which is likely to be different to what they are upset about, and explain clearly what steps we need to take so that we can get to a time and place where they can have their needs met properly.
This sequence gets way more effective the older the child gets and the more you practice it.
But when I’m struggling myself things don’t go so smoothly. I have some predictable trigger times. I do not like getting the kids to tidy up or go to bed. I resent having to herd and cajole and push. We have routines that work for most days, but on days that we’re running late, I’m tired, hungry, feeling particularly un-listened to or any number of other factors, I’m much more likely to tip into overwhelm and become Shouty Mum. Which sometimes gets things done faster but mostly just makes things worse.
Sometimes I forget that just because I can’t stand picking my way around ankle-deep debris layering the floor that doesn’t translate to a child as ‘I should stop this fascinating thing I’m doing and waste my time picking up stuff I don’t care about at this moment’. I have to make explicit why I think tidying up is part of a functioning home, and why I believe I should not be the cleaning servant. All this negotiation and chit chat is best done when everyone is relaxed and even then it doesn’t make for happily compliant children but it is a reasonable place to start.
Establishing mutually acceptable rules for engagement makes the home feel much safer for your children, which helps keep them out of survival mode, which means you have more chance of dealing with reasonable little people, not the ones that make you wonder what ever possessed you to become a parent in the first place.
And so here are my top four tips for all parents to create our very own game changing discipline policy to raise emotionally intelligent children, and parents.
1. Make sure we get sufficient renewal time so that we are less likely to experience an amygdala hijacking of our own.
2. Practice mindfulness habits that give us a little extra space between the moment of overwhelm and our reaction.
3. Teach our child what is, and is not, within their control. Our reactions are NOT. No matter how they behave, our children are not responsible for us or in control of how we feel or behave, or what we say.
4. Make sure our children get enough renewal and connection time so that they are less likely to experience overwhelm, more likely to feel they have their needs met and less likely to seem unreasonable.
And an extra bonus tip:
5. Repeat the following mantra – It’s just a phase.
The great thing about kids is that they grow. Really fast. Don’t stress about trying to get your parenting perfect because before you reach that uncharted destination your child will have grown out of this stage and be in another one, one that challenges you in entirely different ways.
If we keep our eye on our own development, being the best people we can be, learning as we go and offering our genuine connection and presence to our children, our children can be our greatest allies in this journey. And our wisest, and funniest, teachers.
And yes, I will talk about specific renewal activities soon. I keep getting distracted.
You can now pick up Wise Child, Happy Child on Kindle – a super practical activity book to get children started on their emotional intelligence journey, and help you understand the foundations so you can teach it more effectively.