Teaching self-control: Guiding your child with disciplineWritten by Catherine Wilson
What's inside this article
At some point in time – and hopefully sooner rather than later – every parent should ask themself these important questions:
Are the discipline strategies I’m using really the best way to teach my child self-control?
Will they help my child to manage their emotions well when interacting with others?
One approach to discipline that comes highly recommended by Focus on the Family Canada’s counselling team was developed by child psychologist Dr. Karyn Purvis and her colleague Dr. David Cross from Texas Christian University’s Institute of Child Development.
For over a decade their Trust-Based Relational Intervention® (TBRI®) method has equipped adoptive and foster parents with new discipline strategies for troubled children. And the results have been life-changing. Children struggling in relationships due to difficult pasts have shown dramatic improvements in behaviour and in their ability to trust their adoptive parents.
A foundational strength of Purvis and Cross’ approach is that it preserves a warm, loving connection between parent and child throughout the discipline process. Rather than pitting parent against child in a "you-did-this-therefore-your-punishment-will-be" scenario, parent and child work together as allies in the struggle to resist sin and master self-control. The focus of this type of discipline is retraining rather than punishment, with an emphasis on modelling of preferred behaviour by the parent and opportunities for the child to practice the parent’s example.
Purvis and Cross took care to model their TBRI method after Scripture and the grace and mercy our loving Father extends to us. Following "years of seeking to understand and apply God’s practical mercies" Dr. Purvis writes, "I believe that this parenting style reflects God’s love for us as His children."1
In this article we’ll look at just a few of the discipline strategies Purvis and Cross recommend. You can gain a much more complete picture of their approach from their book The Connected Child. (Although it’s written specifically for parents of troubled adoptive and foster children, The Connected Child is a compelling read for any parent.)
Checking our perspective
First and foremost, Purvis and Cross urge parents to be fully present when discipline issues arise. Rather than treating discipline as an inconvenient interruption to your task at hand, see it instead as one of your most important tasks in the day. "Shift your mind-set" Purvis and Cross urge, "so that you see misbehaviours not as a headache, but as an opportunity to teach a child new skills."
It’s important, too, that you embrace the role of a compassionate, patient, nurturing guide as you discipline your child. Purvis and Cross encourage parents to ask themself, "Am I shaking my finger at her? Is my jaw set and my hands on my hips in an aggressive posture? What message is my child taking at the primitive level? Is it the child against me – or is it her and me together?"
If you’re prone to losing your temper, shouting or threatening your child when they misbehave, your approach may well be working against all you are trying to achieve. As Purvis and Cross are careful to point out, a child who feels threatened or fearful has difficulty mastering a new skill. Human physiology, rather than a child’s willfulness, is the issue here: stress and fear effectively sabotage learning by triggering a biochemical cascade in the body that reduces our ability to think clearly.
When your child’s behaviour is out of line, Purvis and Cross recommend a strategy that, as a general rule, looks like this:
- interrupt the behaviour immediately and come alongside your child
- get your child’s full attention by kneeling down and making direct eye contact
- simply state what the child did wrong
- help him/her say aloud what he/she needs
- show your child a better way of getting those needs met
- give your child a chance to practice.
For many important details, you can view a video at Empoweredtoconnect.org where Dr. Purvis discusses how to ensure your tone, body language and actions work together to deliver what she calls "the I.D.E.A.L. response." (See Empoweredtoconnect.org/the-ideal-response-for-parents.)
What should you say?
Writing in The Connected Child, Purvis and Cross suggest some simple scripts for parents to follow when they engage with their child about misbehaviour. Here’s one such script a mom might use:
"Jacob, it's not okay for you to hit Sam. I can see you are angry that he took the toy car, but we treat people with respect. Use your words and say what you need."
There’s more strategy behind this script than you might imagine. Let’s deconstruct it and see why a script like this one is so helpful.
Keep it short and simple
Did you notice that the mom used short sentences and simple language? This is related to the earlier point about stress. In the grip of strong emotions – such as anger at a sibling – your child will have trouble following what you are saying if you introduce complex thoughts (i.e. give a lecture). Short, simple phrases are much easier for your child to process and remember.
In the example above, the mom begins with, "It’s not okay to ____". Simply and succinctly, she ensures the child understands exactly what they did wrong. The problem identified is the behaviour, not the child.
Next, the mom helps the child make a connection that is important for building self-control: recognizing the feeling that preceded the wrong behaviour. (For more on growing in self-control through increased self-awareness, see this earlier article in this series.)
In her concluding statement, "Use your words . . .," the mom helps the child internalize another crucial concept for building self-control: To get my needs met, I need to talk about them with others – not take inappropriate action.
Reinforce simple rules
We skipped over one phrase from the example script, but it’s also important. The mom’s statement "we treat people with respect" reflects another key strategy presented in The Connected Child. Purvis and Cross encourage parents to establish some succinct "house rules," repeating them often in the home and unpacking them with more detailed explanations as different situations arise. Here are some rules that Purvis and Cross often use when interacting with children:
- We treat people, and their belongings, with respect.
- People are not for hurting.
- No hurts.
- We treat toys with respect.
- Focus and complete your task.
- Families stick together.
When you have to intervene to discuss misbehaviour, repeating the relevant rule to your child helps him or her recall what "right behaviour" looks like. As a strategy, this may sound simple, yet it is powerful.
Give opportunity for practice
In their book, Purvis and Cross stress the importance, as you discipline, of building in opportunities for your child to practice right behaviour. They write, "Research shows that motor memory can trump cognitive, thought-based memory for very young children. Tapping in to motor memory also enhances comprehension and recall for older children and adults. . . . Speaking, hearing, touching and acting out a new skill are great ways for children to cement learning a new lesson."
Returning to our example script for a moment, a conversation that encourages the child to practice a better way of interacting might unfold like this:
Mom: "Jacob, it's not okay for you to hit Sam. I can see you are angry that he took the toy car, but we treat people with respect. Use your words and say what you need."
Jacob: "I want my car back."
Mom: "How you can say that to Sam with respect?"
Jacob: "Sam, please may I have my car?"
Mom: "Good job, Jacob! That was very respectful."
Another powerful tool Purvis and Cross recommend to parents is the "re-do." When a child is "caught in the act," the parent engages the child in a fun, light-hearted manner with a statement like, "Whoa! Let’s try that again with respect."
Re-dos allow you to "re-wind time" if necessary. For example, you might say, "Okay, I’m going to go back to where I was standing over here. And you were standing just there. Let’s play that scene again." If the child complies, there’s no drama, penalty or escalation of the situation – the parent simply guides the child to more appropriate behaviour, and helps them internalize it through practice.
Although your child should always obey your direct request, there’s huge value in teaching him or her that you are willing to negotiate if circumstances allow. Purvis and Cross call this a "compromise." For example, to a child who is disappointed that it’s time to go to bed, you might say, "Would you like a compromise? You can stay up another ten minutes. But your part of the deal is that you will go to bed quickly later, with no stalling or complaining."
Once your child understands the concept, you can introduce compromising into his or her interactions with others. For example, "Sam wants the car, but Alex wants the car too. Can you both agree on a compromise?"
To learn more about re-dos and compromises, you can listen to Amy and Michael Monroe discussing these and other strategies at Empoweredtoconnect.org/connecting-while-correcting.
Putting first things first
Focusing on discipline and re-training only makes sense if your child is in a fit state to receive it. When a child misbehaves, before you do anything, always ask yourself, What does my child need most right now? Here’s a simple mental checklist worth running through:
- Does my child need me? Special one-on-one time with mom or dad might be a more urgent priority than discipline, since children will often act up if they’ve been feeling a little neglected.
- Could intense "hidden" emotions like anxiety or sadness be prompting this behaviour? If so, empathetic listening might be your best approach. (Empathetic listening is described in an earlier article in this series.)
- Is my child tired, hungry, thirsty or sick?
Postponing discipline to first provide a snack or a rest break doesn’t mean your child is "getting off lightly." You should always be sure to discuss the "incident" later. But a "pause to regroup" is, in and of itself, a great opportunity to teach your child the self-awareness component that precedes mature self-control. For example, consider the power of teaching a child to say to their sibling, "I’m sorry, Sam. I’m too tired to play nicely right now. Can we play again later, after I’ve had a rest?"
This is the third article in a series on teaching children self-control. Read part one here: First steps in self-control: Helping your child identify their emotions. And part two here: Teaching self-control: Coaching your child in constructive reactions.
Catherine Wilson is an associate editor at Focus on the Family Canada.
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