The most adaptive parent-child relationships provide children with three conditions over time--an abiding message of being accepted emotionally, a sense that certain behaviors (e.g., hurting others) will not be tolerated, and values-based leadership from parents' example and guidance. Many parents I work with have children who are behaving in defiant and disruptive ways. Like most parents, they want their children to become good, law-abiding citizens but they can't seem to find a disciplinary plan that will work with a child who is hard to like and hard to manage.
Research on parental discipline supports use of a three-step approach, and many parents are familiar with these three steps: instruct, warn, and sanction (or punish). Using these three steps, children learn about your expectations for specific behaviors, they're told the consequences if expectations are not met, and they're sanctioned if they fail to meet those expectations. Below are definitions and examples of each step.
State the expectation in a clear, firm, specific, and direct manner. Change your facial expression, your posture, and your voice so your child knows that you're now in containment mode--focused but not emotional.
e.g., "Sally, we can't drive off till you put your seat belt on."
If your child fails to follow the instruction, repeat it with a warning that lets your child know of the ensuing sanction.
e.g., "Sally, if you don't buckle your seat belt, I'll have to leave you here with Grandma."
If your child fails to heed the warning, impose the sanction.
e.g., "Sally, you're going to stay here with Grandma."
In my work with parents, I usually add a 4th step, one that is less familiar. I call it reconnecting because it refers to an of interaction in which parents remain firm on the reasons for imposing a sanction while reminding children they are valued members of the family.
It's important for children to know that a parent is capable of restricting their behavior when necessary, even if it means a sometimes unattractive, negative conflict. But it's also important that discipline doesn't lead children to shut down emotionally or withdraw psychologically from parents and family.
Parents can usually sense when a difficult child is starting to grow distant from the rest of the family but they might not appreciate the risks associated with that mounting distance. I sometimes assign parents the task of reading Rudyard Kipling's short story, "Baa Baa Blacksheep" to show how a child's sense of alienation can lead to even more negative behavior.
To prevent this from happening in your family, take time after a disciplinary encounter to reconnect with your children. It's an opportunity to clarify the message behind unpleasant sanctions and to correct any misinterpretations your children might have. More importantly, post-punishment reconnecting serves to repair any emotional damage to the parent-child relationship. To reconnect is to bring your children back into the fold after they've been disciplined and after everyone has calmed down.
To help you get a picture of what it means to reconnect let's consider the example of Tony and his mom.
Tony is a young boy playing at home with his friend Cedric. Before too long the boys have an argument and Tony pushes Cedric down. Mom sees this and appropriately puts Tony in time-out. Now imagine what Mom does when Tony is done with time-out.
She can look for a chance to visit with him--a time when he's not busy watching TV or still angry. When the time comes, she can reconnect using a 3-part message. First, she can let Tony know that she understands and accepts that he was mad at Cedric. Second, she can state that she's committed to taking a firm stand when he is aggressive toward others. Third, she can remind Tony that aggression is not in keeping with the values and beliefs of their family. Here's an example of how that might sound:
Tony, I know you didn't like having to go to time-out. I could tell it made you mad. I don't like it much either. I love you and you're important to me and to this family. But I'm not going to let you hurt other children. Each time you push or hit, I'll put you right back in time-out. In our family, we don't hurt other people.
In this simple message, Tony's mother touches on all three core conditions of a healthy parent-child relationship--accepting, containing, and leading.
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