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How to Discipline Your Kids without Damaging Your Relationship

Temper tantrums. Backtalk. Sibling bickering. Defiance. Disobedience. Connecting with our kids would be a whole lot easier if they didn’t display these negative behaviours. Yet connecting with our kids helps prevent these behaviours (and others). Focusing on our connection with our kids, even in their misbehaviour, can also help you discipline your kids without damaging your relationship.

How to discipline your kids without damaging your relationship.

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Right now, I’m enjoying Gordon Neufeld’s perspective on parenting and discipline. I mentioned Hold On to Your Kids in my first post in this series. I’ve been slowly reading this book for quite a while (it’s a heavy, thought-provoking read) and it was the inspiration for this series. I highly recommend it, especially chapter 16, “Discipline that Does Not Damage.”

Based on Neufeld’s advice and my own ponderings about this topic, here are my tips for how to discipline your kids without damaging your relationship. (I am by no means an expert on this topic—more like a work in progress, but I hope my thoughts might help you in your parenting journey.)

1. Connect with Your Kids

Looking back over my years of parenting, I can see that the times I’ve struggled with discipline are also times I’ve felt disconnected from my kids. When our children are connected to us, they are more likely to want to do what we ask them to do. When we lose that sense of connection, we also lose their goodwill, their desire to please and obey us.

When I started my “Kid of the Day” system last year, I was amazed at the girls’ responses. I thought they would see the chore I was giving them and grumble about it. But pairing chores with a reward they craved made them excited about it. (And honestly, don’t we all need some motivation to get the housework done?)

If emptying the dishwasher gave them one-on-one time with Mommy, they were happy to do it!

This system helped establish the idea that “we’re in this together.” We help each other. If I help you with something, then you can help me with something. It fosters a spirit of happy connection, rather than demands and nagging.

Connecting with our kids is also important because, when they do act up or make mistakes, they need to know that their behaviour is the problem, not them. We want them to know that we love them, no matter what they do.

Whether they do the chores or go sulk in their room, we still love them (even if we go after them to say the chores still gotta be done). Connecting with our kids can prevent bad behaviour, but also reassures them of our love when bad behaviour does happen.

2. Prevent Bad Behaviour

When I’m stressed out about something, running late, depressed and exhausted, or more focused on my to-do list than my kids, the discipline issues come up. I bark orders at them and get angry when they don’t comply immediately. Then I bewail my disobedient kids, when the problem often starts with me.

As parents, we can plan ahead to avoid situations where bad behaviour is guaranteed to happen. I can give us more time to get ready before music lessons or Mass, so that I’m not stressed about being late. I can let them know that we’re going to change activities soon—that they need to finish reading a chapter or doing an activity before dinner in a few minutes.

We also have some activities that are “nap time” only activities, because I know if we try to do them while the baby is awake, there will be a ruckus. Getting out the puzzles or pattern blocks while Joey is up just means he’ll make a mess of them and the girls will yell at him for wrecking their work and everyone will be upset.

Neufeld also talks about soliciting a kid’s good intentions. For example, if supper is almost ready and one of the girls is sitting in the living room reading, I’ll often ask them to come set the table. I could just say loudly, “Lily, come set the table please!” and expect her to obey immediately.

However, I’ll get a better response if I walk over to her, touch her shoulder, and wait for her to look up before I ask, “Hey, when you’re done your page or chapter, can you please set the table?” I know I don’t like it when they interrupt me in the middle of something. So if I’d like them to let me finish my thought, I should also let them finish theirs.

We can also solicit our child’s good intentions before situations such as shopping or Mass. For example, I could ask my older girls, “Can I count on you two to sit quietly and provide good examples for your siblings during Mass?” Or I could ask my three-year-old, “Can I count on you to leave your brother alone during Mass so he doesn’t start yelling?”

3. Discipline Yourself First

Despite our best efforts at connecting with our kids or preventing bad behaviour, it’s still going to happen occasionally. (Hopefully the first two steps can help it happen less frequently!) That’s when we need to discipline our kids—and ourselves.

Hold On to Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More Than PeersDiscipline is typically thought of as punishment. On closer look, however, we see that discipline is actually a rich word with a number of related meanings… When it comes to children, we use the word discipline not in the narrow sense of punishment but in its deeper meanings of training, bringing under control, imposing order on.  ~ Neufeld

Training. Bringing under control. That really is our work as moms, isn’t it? Training our kids and bringing them under control (or helping them develop self-control). The hard part about this is that it needs to start with us.

Our ability to manage a child effectively is very much an outcome of our capacity to manage ourselves. We need to find the same compassion for ourselves that we wish to extend to our child.~ Neufeld

I can’t tell my kids not to yell at each other when I yell at them. I can’t tell them not to “freak out” when something doesn’t go their way if they see me lose my cool over traffic delays or spilled milk. I can’t expect them to obey me instantly when they have to ask me three times for help before I  hear their request.

We need to model the behaviours that we want to see in them. It’s hard to discipline our kids when we aren’t disciplining ourselves.

Sometimes, that might mean Mom needs to take a time-out. It’s okay to go fold the laundry or  to tell the kids, “Mommy needs a five minute break right now, okay? I’ll be back in a minute.” Have a piece of chocolate. Say a decade of the rosary. Scream into your pillow. And come back again to talk to them.

In some situations, if it’s possible to do so without being negligent, we may have to put ourselves on hold as parents until loving impulses once more come to the surface. For example, we may hand the parenting duty to our partner or other trusted adult while we take a time-out—not to punish the child but, amid our own mixed feelings, to find the accepting and nurturing ones toward our child. ~ Neufeld

4. Ask Why

Another thing that helps with disciplining your kids without damaging your relationship is to find out your child’s “why.” Behaviour is complicated. I can certainly recognize that many things affect my mood and behaviour, including how much sleep I’ve gotten the night before, how much stress I’m under because of deadlines, whether I exercised that morning, whether I did my Bible reading, etc.

Similarly, our kids are also experiencing a variety of things that affect their emotions and actions. Tweens are already dealing with hormones. It’s easy to recognize that a baby or toddler hasn’t gotten enough sleep, but we may overlook how much sleep our older kids need.

Often, when they misbehave, I focus on the behaviour and overlook the why. Of course, hitting a sibling is wrong, no matter why. But talking about why (after they’ve calmed down) can help you understand your child. You can also discuss a strategy for next time:

“Okay, I know you were frustrated that he knocked down your blocks, but hitting him isn’t okay. Next time can you ask me to help get him out of the way, or can you build your tower in another place where he can’t knock it over?”

This discussion should build connections with our children. It shouldn’t be a lecture about their poor behaviour. Nor should this discussion happen in the heat of the moment. When everyone is upset because of something spilled or broken, it’s not a good time to ask “why did you do that?” or “what’s going on?”

Calm down and come back to it later. Neufeld says that “addressing problems requires thoughtful preparation.” Make sure your kids are in a good mood. Sit down with them by themselves, give them a hug, and ask if you can talk.

This doesn’t mean there aren’t any consequences for what happened. In fact, this can give you time to think of a reasonable, appropriate consequence, instead of throwing out something in the spur of the moment and regretting it later when you realize the consequence is too hard.

Your and your child can talk or walk through a “do over,” repeating the scenario but doing it “right” this time instead of getting angry or doing it wrong.


For more about how to discipline your kids without damaging your relationship with them, check out Gordon Neufeld’s blog and Dr. Deborah McNamara’s blog (she works closely with him).

What tips would you share for how to discipline your kids without damaging your relationship?

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