What Can I Do When My Child Needs Discipline?

We know that children with a trauma history do not respond well to traditional parenting methods, especially when it comes to discipline. How then do you discipline and set boundaries with them when it’s necessary?

The truth is, your child is going to make mistakes, they are going to become dysregulated, they will need discipline, and they are going to require you to to set boundaries. This is a crucial part of parenting, regardless of your specific situation. Even though connection and trust-building are at the top of the list when you’re parenting children with a history of trauma, boundaries are a must.

Children, regardless the age, the history, or the personal struggles, need discipline. They need boundaries. However, your discipline, and boundaries, are going to look very different from those of traditional parents. As I already mentioned, traditional parenting methods (which most of us were raised with) simply do not work with children who have come from a past of neglect, abuse, drug and alcohol exposure, domestic violence exposure, or bounced from one home to another through foster care (to name a few). 

So then, what does work? What can you do when your child is melting down and you’re not able to reason with them? What about those moments when they’re completely disrespectful or defiant? 

Here are some simple, yet proven, steps:

    1. Listen. Sometimes we are so busy trying to get our point across, or make sure our children understand, or trying to put out fires, that we fail to listen to what is actually being said by our child, or what is actually going on. Listening first can give you an entirely new perspective on a situation with your child that is quickly escalating. And as you listen, quietly ask yourself what is really going on with your child. A key question that I often ask myself (especially when the heat is on and we’re on the brink of full-blown meltdown) is “Do you want to be right, or do you want to be connected?” I’ve found that this question changes my attitude, and opens up my ears to really understand what my child is saying.

    2. Set limits. We need to establish boundaries with our children. In fact, they thrive when they live within boundaries. Really, all of us do. Anytime there is chaos, we’re in chaos. This is exponentially greater when our children have a history of trauma. Limitations and boundaries can only exists within the confines of structure. And let me add this as we’re talking about limitations and boundaries: disrespect is never to be tolerated. Now, you must keep your cool, and you must remain calm but firm. So, if there’s disrespect, you calmly and firmly need to respond with, “I would be happy to discuss this with you, when you stop calling me names.” Or, “I understand that you would like to watch TV. That will happen once you’ve stopped screaming at me.” You get the idea. 
    3. Re-direct. When we’re talking about children who have experienced significant trauma in their past, often times they are operating out of their survival brain. And because of this, their brains can often fixate on one particular scenario, or one particular ideal. When this happens, meltdowns and extreme behavior can result if they’re not recieving the answer they’re looking for. For instance, “When is dinner I’m hungry, When is dinner  I’m hungry, I’m not getting enough food, There’s no food, I’m starving, I’M STARVING!” That may sound ridiculous to read but that’s the speed at which a child who experienced food insecurities as an infant, or a toddler, can progress. But re-direction can change this significantly. And it’s simple: When your child asks (for example), “When is dinner, I’m hungry?” You recognize that they are feeling hungry and are about to be triggered by survival instincts. Your response is, “I can see you’re feeling hungry. I want you to know, it’s okay. Dinner is about to be ready at 5. It’s 4:30 now. Just a little bit longer. Would you like an apple as a snack?” Or, “We’re getting close to dinner time but I need some help with a few things. Could you cut up this fruit? You can even have a few pieces if you want.” Redirection. It works wonders in changing the course of our children’s brains.   
    4. Connection Before Correction. If we could sum up connected parenting through one simple phrase, it would be this phrase. For so long our traditional parenting instincts, and the influence of our parents growing up, would prompt us to immediately jump to correction when one of our children would act out, or show disrespect. But when we’re talking about parenting children with a history of trauma, their misbehavior and disrespect has a reason. There’s something fueling their attitude and emotions. Therefore, it’s critical that we take on a connection approach before we jump to correction. A couple of years ago my (then) 8 year old son was completely out of sorts. He was angry. He stomped into his room, which happened to be my home office at the time, climbed up to his loft bed, and began pounding his fists on the mattress and screaming. I was trying to work on something. I was focused, and he was disrupting all of that. My own emotions began to escalate because I just wanted him to stop. But on that day, something clicked with me. I looked up at him and could tell he was highly upset. So, instead of jumping directly to, “What’s wrong with you, can’t you just stop?” I instead asked, “It looks like you’re upset, how can I help you?” The latter built a bridge to his heart, and he moved to a place of trust, whereas the former would have forged a canyon between us that would have put him on defense against me. As far as it depends on you, connect before you correct.
    5. Safety First. This really should be the first on the list, but we’ve found that most of the time, immediate safety is not in question. Not always, but often. Safety always comes first. So, if your child is up on the roof tedering toward the edge, listening, redirecting, or connection before correction has to come in at a distant second from making sure the child is safe. Calmly invite them down off of the roof (or go get them) and then focus on connection. Enough said about this one.
    6. Stay calm and remain firm. Your reaction, your tone, your emotions have the power to heighten a child’s emotions and behavior, or de-escalate a child’s emotions and behavior. In fact, I’ll just say it: you and I can often become a trigger for our children if we don’t keep ourselves under control. If you’re out of control, he or she will certainly be out of control. If you’re calm, but firm with expectations and boundaries, he or she will de-escalate and move to a place of calm much quicker.  
    7. Pay attention to timing. Sometimes a consequence needs to be right away, but sometimes it needs to be later. And you must hold space for conversation (especially when your child is older, in the teen years). Timing runs in close proximity to tone and reaction. In fact, they are extremely closely related to one another. Often times, we jump the gun on timing because we’ve allowed our emotions to get the best of us. If we’re not careful, we end up reacting or overreacting too early. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t act swiftly in enacting a consequence, or reiterating boundaries. For instance, if your child is destroying things in your home in a temper tantrum, they need to clean up what they’ve destroyed immediately after the tantrum is finished and they’ve calmed down. But if they are having a standoff over their homework and are screaming at you asking for your help, it’s crucial that you remain calm and firm, calmly communicate that “You would be happy to help them when they ask the right way,” and wait until they choose the right behavior. 
    8. Allow Natural Consequences. Unfortunately, our children may face natural consequences for behaviors. While we should never hope for this to happen, they live in a real world, and may wind up facing consequences for choices from authorities we have no control over. Natural consequences may look like: missing the bus, detention, shoes are now wet because they were left out by the trampoline in the rain (not using a personal example or anything…:-)), in trouble with the police department, feeling sick because they keep eating junk, and the list goes on. An important and powerful parenting tool that needs to be in your tool belt is a question. That’s right, a question you need to ask yourself when your child is doing something, or saying something that you have zero power to stop: “I can’t control what he or she is doing, but what can I control in this situation?” You must step back and recognize that you can’t, in fact, control what your child says, does, or the ways he or she behaves. It’s futile to attempt to. But there are certain elements you can control. For instance, you can’t stop them from eating foods that are unhealthy when they are not under your supervision. But you can control the type of groceries that you buy and stock your pantry with. You may not be able to force them to leave the house and get to school on time, but you do have the power to shut down the internet, or remove remotes for the television, and password protect the home computer, so no entertainment is accessible. The list goes on and on. Determining what you can control saves you from futile battles with your child. Oftentimes, you don’t have to say a word when it comes to this powerful principle. 

This list is not exhaustive, but it is extremely helpful when it comes to your approach to your child, and instituting discipline and boundaries.

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