Thursday, February 23, 2012

Practicing Healthy Discipline

Monika Pis, PHD, CPNP
The emotional health of the whole family depends on understanding, respect, and good relationships among family members. To develop good relationships, parents need to instruct their children (from infancy) how to control their behaviors to assure family harmony. This system of instruction is called discipline. To some people, discipline is the same as punishment but that is not the case. In fact, punishment plays a very small role in discipline. 

Parents must always encourage good behaviors--this should start from infancy. Since newborns are learning to trust and to be loved, always respond to your crying baby. Then, after she turns 2 months old, you need to teach her how to self-soothe. To do so, you must establish a healthy sleep routine. Place your baby in her crib when she is drowsy, but still alert, and let her learn to fall asleep on her own. If you keep a regular routine, you’ll teach your baby how to fit in with the family's existing schedule.

For a mobile infant, safety is the most important discipline matter. You need to set a safe stage for your child’s exploration and learning: put safety plugs in electrical outlets and latches on cabinets, and place chemicals, hazardous substances, and fragile and valuable items out of reach. Set your water heater to less than 120 degrees F to prevent accidental burns. When your child approaches a dangerous situation, such as a hot stove, your job is to remove her from the area right away.

As children mature, their personalities become more complex. They seek independence and control, and constantly test their limits. Parents need to decide what those limits are, and what behaviors are followed by what consequences. If a child clearly understands what is expected of her, she will be less likely to test her limits.

Another very important component of discipline is positive reinforcement--praising your child for acceptable behaviors. Most children do not want to get in trouble with their parents. If they get rewarded with praise and love for certain behaviors, they are more likely to repeat those behaviors again.
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Discipline vs. Punishment
Discipline consists of: 
Positive reinforcement

Punishment is a part of discipline and consists of: 
Natural consequences
Withholding privileges
Time outs

When punishment is appropriate, here are some suggestions for strategies to implement:

Natural consequences
Natural consequences are what a child experiences as a direct result of her actions. For example, if a child sitting in a highchair throws her toy on the floor, she should not get that toy back. The trick is to be consistent and to resist temptation of giving the toy back to her. Before you know it, she will learn not to throw toys on the floor.

Consequences are tightly connected to behaviors. For example, you set a rule that your child must clean her room before watching a movie. If she does not follow the rule, the consequence is that she will not watch the movie.

Withholding privileges
Sometimes it is difficult to come up with a consequence for a behavior. When that happens, you may want to tell your child that if she does not cooperate, she will have to give up something that she likes (i.e. television, going out with friends, bike riding, etc.). Whatever it is that you decide to take away for a period of time, make sure it is never anything essential to your child’s well being (i.e. food, bedding, etc.)

Time out
Time outs work only if they are implemented immediately after an undesired behavior took place. Make sure that the place for time outs offers no distractions, such as a chair in the corner of a room. The purpose of the time out is to remove your child from the activity and persons connected to the unacceptable behavior. When deciding on the length of time outs, use this rule of thumb: one minute for each year of life (i.e. a 3-year-old should spend 3 minutes in a time out). If your child does not want to sit in the time out chair, give her a time out bear hug. After setting a timer, sit in the chair with your child in your lap. Hold her in place gently until the timer goes off and the time out is over. If she tries to get away, tighten the “bear hug,” and tell her that you will only let her go when the timer goes off.

For older children, set the timer for an appropriate amount of time. If she argues or fusses, reset the timer to start the time out again. Do it over and over until she stops protesting. After the time out is over, let your child return to her activity. No comments are necessary after the time out, as she was already punished for the unacceptable behavior.

Effective discipline should be reinforced all the time. Remember that discipline consists of consistency, positive reinforcement, and consequences. Role modeling is also crucial. Show your child how she should behave and she will follow in your footsteps. When your child feels encouraged to behave in an acceptable way, you are more likely to elicit desired behaviors, and your child is more likely to listen to you and learn.

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