Children sometimes will respond with negative reactions to limit setting, verbal corrections and consequences. This can be a difficult behavior to understand, and can be misleading. Although they may respond with wildness, denial, arguments, laughter or ignoring, these behaviors generally represent children's efforts to manage the uncomfortable feelings that arise within them as a response to being disciplined. Despite appearances, such behaviors rarely result from children's lack of concern or caring. We will discuss some reasons children are uncomfortable with discipline, how they cope with discomfort and how parents can provide effective discipline and support the parent-child relationship.
Children want to please their parents and feel proud of themselves. Children over the age of 3 are as disturbed as their parents by their misbehavior. When confronted, they feel guilty or ashamed about their actions. They may be anxious about being unable to curb their desires and impulses. They also may be frightened about real consequences, such as a withdrawal of privileges, or imagined punishments, such as their parents loving them less or even abandoning them.
Managing Painful Feelings: Children have difficulty tolerating painful feelings. Sometimes their minds make it seem as if painful feelings have magically disappeared. We call such illusions "defense mechanisms." Defense mechanisms enable children to minimize or eliminate painful feelings by creating a make-believe world into which they can enter.
Children create self-protective illusions in a variety of ways. Sometimes they create an alternate version of reality, which is supported if they convince their parent of the revised history. Other times, they create a different version of their feelings by acting as if they don't care, substituting a new feeling, such as giddiness, or zoning out from feelings by avoidance of parents, withdrawal or distractibility. They might even repeat the misbehavior with a surface attitude of defiance. Although this may seem as if the child is trying to "show you who's boss," this defiance is more usefully understood as the child's attempt to convince himself that he isn't upset about his own behavior.
Children are fully aware of many of their protective behaviors. They know that they have held their ears or have run away. However, defense mechanisms are controlled by parts of the mind outside of awareness. Children don't understand that their behavior is designed to reduce discomfort; in fact, if their self-protective behaviors are successful, they may never feel any discomfort.
Helping Children with Their Reactions to Discipline: Children generally grow to become like the internal images and expectations that their parents have of them. Therefore, it's important that parents believe their children will grow to accept responsibility for their words and actions. Parents should project confidence that their children will not become liars or manipulators even though, at this vulnerable time, children may cope with potentially overwhelming emotions with stories or evasions. Parental modeling of appropriate attitudes and behavior will also have a strong impact upon children. Parents should be truthful in all situations and always take responsibility for their actions, including mistakes and misbehavior.
We recommend that parents show their disapproval about their children's inappropriate responses to their discipline, but that parents don't add consequences for these behaviors unless they are outrageous. Children's reactions are emergency responses and may not be under their full control; strong consequences should be reserved for behaviors that are more clearly a matter of choice.
We also recommend that parents adopt a collaborative approach and talk with their children about their behavioral reactions to discipline. This often works best after things have calmed down. Parents might gently say to their 7-year-old, "I know that it is hard for you to listen to me when I am upset about your behavior. I remember that you covered your ears and yelled when I talked to you about throwing your toy at your sister. It's really not OK for you to yell when I am talking to you, so let's figure out what you can do that would be OK." In such a statement, parents are helping their son by tactfully stating the reasons for his behavior along with their expectation that he find responses that both provide him some protection and are socially acceptable. Parents may take a similar approach with their 4-year-old, being especially gentle and tactful. They should use simpler words, speak slowly, smile and, perhaps, hold and comfort their 4-year-old in other ways as they talk. A 4-year-old child will have a difficult time even allowing parents to get their words out because she may experience her parent’s words to be a repetition of the discipline.
We don't suggest that parents ask their children to explain why they act disruptively when their parents attempt to discipline. They are likely to respond to such a question with avoidance or by making up some answer because they are not aware of the reasons for their behavior. Children may experience questions that are beyond their ability to engage as shaming admonishments.
The most important goal of discipline is to help children develop the capacity to manage their internal emotional life and to develop the capacity for meaningful and respectful relationships. We want to build inside character and capacity as we guide a child toward socially desirable behavior. Parents should view their children's reactions to discipline as opportunities to teach them how to work through painful moments in a relationship in a constructive way. Parents can demonstrate to their children an ability to simultaneously understand their emotional situation and assist them to achieve respectful behavior. A parental ability to guide children into a relationship with their parents that is so complex, subtle and respectful will help them develop the capacity for deep and successful adult relationships — the true goal of discipline!
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