An Open Letter to Parents Struggling With Discipline

The hardest lesson l learned as a therapist counseling families.
01/08/2017 12:06 pm ET Updated Jan 19, 2017
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As a psychotherapist working with surly teens and their frustrated, stressed-out parents, it hurts me to write this.

Every week I get calls with the question at the top of every parent’s mind:

“How do I get my kid to follow my rules?”

But it’s the wrong question.

And trust me, discovering the correct answer was the hardest lesson l learned as a rookie therapist when counseling families.

Early on I noticed a trend with the discipline delinquents. After a few sessions, a large percentage of adults still couldn’t get their kids to change no matter how hard they tried.

And the worst part:

It wasn’t entirely their fault.

They came to therapy, they read the books, the blogs, and all the Parenting Dos and Donts in-between.

“What am I missing here?” I’d worry. Maybe I needed to work harder, re-read my text books…

Despite my increased efforts, little progress was made with rule compliance — worse, parents grew more frustrated after each weary session. Who could blame them?

The saving grace was getting trained in the Back to Basics Parenting model.

It changed everything.

Turns out the key to unlocking change involved asking a set of questions around the parents’ own childhood.

The Brutal Truth About Being a Good Parent

Nobody is going to raise your child, but you. And that’s how it should be.

My clinical supervisor used to say if she had to choose between working with the child or working with the parent, she’d choose the parent.

“But how is that going to help Sara quit smoking weed on the weekends?” I wondered.

Alas, after one too many frustrating sessions, the light bulb went off.

The following mindset shifts are game changers whether you’re a newly minted family therapist, or a parent at the end of your rope.

Three Critical Parenting Steps to Establishing Effective and Consistent Rules

1. The parent must be willing to change their behavior first. A common pitfall is confusing discipline with punishment.

“Discipline is the structure that helps the child fit into the real world happily and effectively. It is the foundation for the development of the child’s own self-discipline. Effective and positive discipline is about teaching and guiding children, not just forcing them to obey.”

Studies show that children tend to be better behaved if their parents combine warmth with clear and consistent rules and boundaries. For some, this means recognizing that empty threats may have worked when Sara was nine, but no longer work at thirteen.

“If you warn your child that you’re going to discipline him but then don’t follow through, you’ll have no credibility,” says author Rex Forehand, Ph.D. “You might as well wear a big sign that reads, ‘Don’t listen to anything I say!’”

For others, addressing childhood trauma is warranted, especially if the goal was to raise their child in the opposite manner in which they were raised. Regardless of the motives, all-or-nothing parenting results in kids having too much power, or too little wiggle room to learn from their mistakes.

2. The parent is encouraged to examine their own childhood and how their early experiences impact their parenting style.

Most adults know it makes perfect to set boundaries around unruly behavior. However, the advice doesn’t stick if parents don’t understand why saying no, disappointing their child, or being disliked is hard for them in the first place.

The following questions adapted from Back to Basics Parenting helps parents connect the dots:

  • Did you want to raise your children differently from how you were raised?
  • How was anger expressed in your household?
  • What happened when you got angry growing up?
  • What coping mechanisms did you learn to handle stress as a child?
  • Are you currently using any of these coping skills now as a parent?
  • What do you most fear will happen if you get angry at your child?
  • What reaction do you most fear in your child when s/he gets angry with you?

Anger is a strong, and often scary emotion. Growing up in a household with a ranting and raging parent may have meant walking on eggshells to avoid punishment. Or, screaming and bullying your parents may have resulted in feelings of empowerment because you ultimately got what you wanted.

Getting in touch with anger, as well as addressing your greatest fears regarding what would happen if you did lay down the law are critical pieces of the parenting puzzle. Practicing calm in the eye of the storm (a Herculean task, if ever there was one) is also essential.

3. The parent honestly examines why they don’t want to change their parenting style (or why the desired change runs secondary to what they are able to avoid by not enforcing rules). This is a highly unconscious process, by the way. A skilled therapist is the bet for gaining insight and support for being comfortable with conflict, and addressing other problem areas in the home. For example:

Being overly consumed with my kid’s problems means I don’t have to face the fact that I no longer want to be in my marriage.

I can continue to blame my partner when our son gets caught fighting at school. After all, if she didn’t work so much, she would have more energy to help raise our kids.

Parents may not be aware of the ulterior gains of not setting rules. Reinforcing how ambivalence is a normal part of life, coupled with empathic support for the challenges of parenting, goes a long way. Once parents understand the connection between what they learned from their own parents growing up, and how these coping skills no longer serve them, motivation toward change increases.

Learning to discipline with a calm, loving and firm hand does not happen overnight. However, the payoff is raising well-behaved, emotionally stable, and autonomous kids.

And children have one shot at childhood.

*****

A version of this article appeared on PsychologyToday.

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