“No-Drama Discipline” breaks down discipline from a holistic perspective rather than from an attitude of strict punishment. Based in neuroscience, Daniel J. Siegal, a clinical psychologist and UCLA professor, and Tina Payne Bryson, a psychotherapist and founder of “The Center for Connection,” examine the healthiest ways to discipline children, so they can grow into mature adults.
Whenever a child misbehaves, we need to learn about why that child is misbehaving. Rather than blaming the child, we can look at what caused their actions and how they reacted. It is easy to become frustrated and angry, taking a child’s behavior personally. Rather than acting from our own punitive habits, however, we should pause and reflect.
(1) What made the child feel that way?
(2) What are the reasons for his or her actions?
(3) What lesson can we give based on what happened?
The goal of discipline is not to punish or give a consequence to bad behavior. As caregivers and teachers and parents, we want to teach a lesson. We want our children to be caring, loving, responsible, self-controlled, and compassionate human beings.
Whenever a child does something we do not like, that is a chance for us to teach them a specific message — about honesty, caring, responsibility, bravery, and so on. But how can we best communicate our lesson in an effective way?
To be effective, we need to understand our child’s age and developmental stage. We cannot expect children to act like little adults. Not even adults will be perfect all the time. We must also understand that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to discipline. Children are unique and may not respond to a specific technique. Even the same child may react differently based on their mood and the given circumstances.
Children generally don’t act out because they are cruel, sadistic, or want to aggravate us. They usually misbehave because they haven’t learned how to properly regulate their emotions and desires and impulses.
We can guide a child through their struggles, helping them connect their feelings to their behavior. Instead of reacting with a harsh punishment, it is important for us to attune to the child’s needs, to see the situation from their eyes, to listen with compassion, and to look for deeper causes. What is the meaning behind the thrown object, the meltdown in the grocery store, the teasing on the playground?
“It’s easy to forget that our children are just that — children — and to expect behavior beyond their developmental capacity.”
As caregivers, parents, and teachers, we need to be a calm presence in our children’s lives. Rather than sending a child into isolation (time-out) for a long period of time, which abandons the child when he or she is already out of control, it is necessary to guide a child back from their strong emotions, teaching them to regulate themselves.
We need to set boundaries. We need to let the child know — with calmness and consistency — what is acceptable and what is not. Even a well-regulated child will test our rules. Trying to lecture, or explain, such boundaries is not ideal when a child is distraught.
“We need to help develop our children’s upstairs brain — along with all of the skills it makes possible — and while doing so, we may need to act as an external upstairs brain along the way, working with them and helping them make decisions they’re not quite capable yet of making for themselves.”
What we do repeatedly shapes our children’s brains. Our responses to them, whether we yell when they break a toy or embrace them when they are sad, builds their internal architecture.
How they feel about themselves, how they communicate with their peers, how they handle challenges later in life, develops through our interactions with them, when they behave and misbehave. We are training them from our engagement, from our attitude toward their actions, from our language, day after day after day.
“When we discipline with threats — whether explicitly through our words or implicitly through scary nonverbals like our tone, posture, and facial expressions — we activate the defensive circuits of our child’s reactive reptilian downstairs brain. We call this ‘poking the lizard,’ and we don’t recommend it because it almost always leads to escalating emotions, for both parent and child.”
We can engage a child’s higher brain, helping them to calm down and to be more reflective about who they are. Through connecting with them when they’re sad, upset, and not listening, we can establish a nurturing presence. Even when we help children label their emotions, their higher brain activates and their lower brain is soothed.
Children are not computers who will follow our commands all the time. They are constantly changing, developing people. We can consistently communicate with them that we care, that we will support them even when they make mistakes, that we are there for them. When they are distressed, we don’t need to react harshly and punish them. We can establish that we are always there for them, despite their actions, leading them toward integration.
We want our children’s upstairs brains to grow.
“One way to think about it is that we’re helping our kids develop the ability to shift between the different aspects of what’s called the autonomic nervous system. One part of the autonomic nervous system is the sympathetic branch, which you can think of as the ‘accelerator’ of the system. Like a gas pedal, it causes us to react with gusto to impulses and situations, as it primes the body for action. The other part is the parasympathetic branch, which serves as the ‘brakes’ of the system and allows us to stop and regulate ourselves and our impulses. Keeping the accelerator and the brakes in balance is key for emotional regulation, so when we help children develop the capacity to control themselves even when they’re upset, we’re helping them learn to balance these two branches of the autonomic nervous system.”
“Purely in terms of brain functioning, sometimes an activated accelerator (which might result in a child’s inappropriate and impulsive action) followed by the sudden application of brakes (in the form of parental limit setting) leads to a nervous system response that may cause the child to stop and feel a sense of shame. When this happens, the physiologic manifestation might result in avoiding eye contact, feeling a heaviness in her chest, and possibly experiencing a sinking feeling in her stomach. Parents might describe this by saying she ‘feels bad about what she’s done.’ This initial awareness of having crossed a line is extremely healthy, and it’s evidence of a child’s developing upstairs brain. Some scientists suggest that limit setting that creates a ‘healthy sense of shame’ leads to an internal compass to guide future behavior. It means she’s beginning to acquire a conscience, or an inner voice, along with an understanding of morality and self-control. Over time, as her parents repeatedly help her recognize the moments when she needs to put on the brakes, her behavior begins to change. It’s more than simply learning that a particular action is bad, or that her parents don’t like what she’s done, so she’d better avoid that action or she’ll get in trouble. More occurs within this child than just learning the rules of good vs. bad or acceptable vs. unacceptable. Rather, her brain actually changes, and her nervous system gets wired to tell her what ‘feels right,’ which modifies her future behavior. New experiences wire new connections among her neurons, and the changes in the circuitry of her brain fundamentally and positively alter the way she interacts with her world. The way her parents help this process along is by lovingly and empathically teaching her which behaviors are acceptable and which aren’t. That’s why it’s essential that we set limits and that our children internalize ‘no’ when necessary, particularly in the early years, when the regulatory circuits of the brain are wiring up. By helping them understand the rules and limits in their respective environments, we help build their conscience.”
We don’t need to embarrass children or scream at them. That message teaches children to be reactive, to be scared of those who are supposed to care for them, confusing their need for a secure attachment with a threat. Whenever a child is misbehaving, that is an opportunity for a child to learn a lesson. Their behavior shows where they are developmentally, what they need to work on, and what specific skills they should practice.
When a child misbehaves but isn’t attuned to, their emotions may escalate. We can connect with the child, and redirect them, before their behavior becomes destructive.
“Through connection, we can soothe their internal storm, help them calm down, and assist them in making better decisions. When they feel our love and acceptance, when they ‘feel felt’ by us, even when they know we don’t like their actions (or they don’t like ours), they can begin to regain control and allow their upstairs brains to engage again.”
“Imagine the last time you felt really sad or angry or upset. How would it have felt if someone you love told you, ‘You need to calm down,’ or ‘It’s not that big a deal?’ Or what if you were told to ‘go be by yourself until you’re calm and ready to be nice and happy?’ These responses would feel awful, wouldn’t they? Yet these are the kinds of things we tell our kids all the time. When we do, we actually increase their internal distress, leading to more acting out, not less. These responses accomplish the opposite of connection, effectively amplifying negative states.
Connection, on the other hand, calms, allowing children to begin to regain control of their emotions and bodies. It allows them to ‘feel felt,’ and this empathy soothes the sense of isolation or being misunderstood that arises with the reactivity of their downstairs brain and the whole nervous system: heart pounding, lungs rapidly breathing, muscles tightening, and intestines churning. Those reactive states are uncomfortable, and they can become intensified with further demands and disconnection. With connection, however, kids can make more thoughtful choices and handle themselves better. What connection does, essentially, is to integrate the brain. Here’s how it works. The brain, as we’ve said, is complex. (That’s the third Brain C.) It’s made up of many parts, all of which have different jobs to do. The upstairs brain, the downstairs brain. The left side and the right side. There are memory centers and pain regions. Along with all the systems and circuitry of the brain, these parts of our brain have their own responsibilities, their own jobs to do. When they work together as a coordinated whole, the brain becomes integrated. Its many parts can perform as a team, accomplishing more and being more effective than they could working on their own.
So that’s what connection does. It moves children away from the banks and back into the flow, where they experience an internal sense of balance and feel happier and more stable. Then they can hear what we need to tell them, and they can make better decisions. When we connect with a child who feels overwhelmed and chaotic, we help move her away from that bank and into the center of the river, where she can feel more balanced and in control. When we connect with a child who’s stuck in a rigid frame of mind, unable to consider alternative perspectives, we help him integrate so that he can loosen his unyielding grip on a situation and become more flexible and adaptive. In both cases, connection creates an integrated state of mind, and the opportunity for learning.”
When a child is so overwhelmed that they cannot listen, it is not time to teach them a lesson. It is only time to connect, to be there with them, to care, to be empathetic and loving. Only after they have calmed down can they be taught.
At the same time, we should never spoil a child. There must be clear expectations and boundaries to follow. A child’s every fleeting desire should not be satisfied indiscriminately. Connection with children is about giving them what they need, not what they desire. Indulging children, lavishing them with rewards, protecting them from all their struggles and pains, teaches them to be entitled overtime. What a child needs is love and attention. They need to learn to be happy with what they have, to grapple with difficult challenges, and to master themselves.
“Ultimately, then, kids need us to set boundaries and communicate our expectations. But the key here is that all discipline should begin by nurturing our children and attuning to their internal world, allowing them to know that they are seen, heard, and loved by their parents — even when they’ve done something wrong. When children feel seen, safe, and soothed, they feel secure and they thrive. This is how we can value our children’s minds while helping to shape and structure their behavior. We can help guide a behavioral change, teach a new skill, and impart an important way of approaching a problem, all while valuing a child’s mind beneath the behavior. This is how we discipline, how we teach, while nurturing a child’s sense of self and sense of connection to us. Then they’ll interact with the world around them based on these beliefs and with these social and emotional skills, because their brains will be wired to expect that their needs will be met and that they are unconditionally loved.”
Children’s feelings need to be validated. When their feelings are not accepted, when they are minimized, belittled, and criticized, they will become reactive instead of reflective.
When we tell children to stop feeling upset or else (“don’t talk to me until you’ve calmed down”), children are really being told that they are not loved until they act in a specific way. If they don’t act in the approved way, then they will see themselves as unworthy.
We can acknowledge a child’s storm of emotions without approving of their misbehavior. We can help the child identify what they are feeling, guiding them away from their reactivity. Firstly, though, we must be there for the child, letting them know that their misbehavior isn’t necessarily a judgement of their worth.
When a child is having a tantrum, they will not listen to an adult lecture about what they did wrong. They will feel attacked. Their cortisol will rise, their heart will beat faster, and adrenaline will flood their bodies. They will learn to tune the adult out. Even when the adult is explaining the rules logically, a child will not emotionally be able to listen. They’ll feel hurt, angry, disappointed, and so on, reacting through their lower brains. An upset child is on sensory overload. They need us to listen deeply to them rather than argue, scold, or lecture. We must give children enough time and space, so they can feel comfortable enough to express how they feel.
Then we can reflect back what the child told us. This shows children that they are understood and helps to defuse a charged situation. When a child feels listened to, validated for how they feel, even if their behavior is not accepted, they will respond more openly.
Once children feel receptive, they can then learn the appropriate ways to deal with their emotions. Helping children through their difficult periods — whether from nodding and listening to their struggles, to identifying what they feel and why and what they can do to change — engages their higher thinking functions and deactivates their reactive brains.
We can be more adaptive with how we engage our children, approaching our discipline from an open, compassionate perspective, rather than a punitive one.
Children need a lot of help to grow. Their brains are changing, developing, at different stages. They are highly vulnerable to their environments and need consistent boundaries. They need love and acceptance. They need to not be judged for who they are, but rather, feel they can come to us for safety and security and guidance.
Discipline is not a lecture, a punishment, or a consequence.
It is an opportunity for us to learn, connect, and communicate together.