Healthy Discipline: Maintaining Connection

Here’s a challenge for parents exploring what contributes to healthy discipline: how can you maintain a strong and healthy connection during the process? For many of us, our memories of being disciplined are more about being banished or punished, with messages of abandonment or shame connected to the things our parents said or did. Many of us associate being disciplined with being afraid—afraid of being physically hurt and/or emotionally disconnected from our parents.

 Memories of discipline…do they include shame or abandonment?

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Master Trainer, Curricula Development and Writer, Researcher, Mother and Grandmother

Being able to maintain a healthy relational connection during the process of disciplining is an important challenge for parents to accept. Why? Because the rewards are not just in the moment but can deeply impact how a child feels about himself or herself when limits need to be set and consequences need to be imposed.

Just as being compassionate may not seem to fit into a description of effective discipline, maintaining a healthy and safe connection throughout the process has its own set of challenges. We all need to keep in mind that our memories of how we were disciplined (and our loyalties to those processes) can make it especially challenging to promote a sense of connection before, during and after any disciplinary interaction.

In the book No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain Way to Calm and Chaos and Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind by Daniel Siegel, M.D., he dedicates two chapters on the importance of connection when disciplining children. I will share some of his insights in the next blog, especially those that describe the benefits of connection on the developing brain.

Sometimes parents can have unhealthy needs

It can be helpful to appreciate that sometimes parents have unhealthy needs that underlie their disciplining. Typically, these unhealthy needs manifest themselves in one of two ways: a) parents who need either total acceptance from, or b) instant obedience from children. Needing either one of these can cause a strong disconnect between parents and children during moments of disciplining. 

When parents need total acceptance from children they fear displeasing children and/or losing their children’s love.  If parents crave too much love or acceptance, they may: 

  • Be afraid to set limits for fear of losing their children’s love
  • Avoid displeasing their children
  • Feel hurt or angry when children are unhappy with their actions
  • Give children the power to manipulate them.

Because needing total acceptance from children is a one-down position, children can feel disconnected because they aren’t receiving the external control they are yet too immature to have mastered; they can feel out-of-control with no real authorities there to help them. As a result, they can feel disconnected from their parents. 

When parents require instant obedience from their children rather than providing opportunities for children to experiencing calmness, clarity, confidence, compassion and connection, parents tend instead to be harsh, critical, domineering, and rigid.

If parents crave unhealthy degrees of obedience, they may:

  •  Be harsh and controlling
  • Act harsher than necessary
  • Use strong-arm tactics to influence
  • Give children a reason not to learn from them

Needing unhealthy degrees of obedience from children can lead to over-involvement in children’s successes and failures; watching and commenting or even criticizing their every move, making efforts to control every an action.

Parents who discipline in order to create instant obedience are missing the important opportunities healthy connections can provide. 

Another awareness for parents: if they want too much peace and quiet, they might avoid kids—it is normal for children to be active and energetic versus consistently quiet, passive and calm. Parents who avoid their children can be missing opportunities to experience and nurture connections.

Over time, children make decisions, especially when being disciplined, about their value and abilities, the trustworthiness of their parents to be compassionate and interested in maintaining healthy connections even when these connections involve setting limits and imposing healthy consequences.

As we continue exploring the Effective Discipline Report Card, it is important for parents to keep an awareness of the possible long-term impact of disciplining in mind, not just being able to force or coerce a child to behave in a certain way.

Invitation to reflect:

  1. To what extent can you appreciate the importance of maintaining healthy connections when you discipline your children?
  2. Do you see yourself as sometimes either needing total acceptance or instant obedience from your children? Can you now see why these might be unhealthy goals and expectations?
  3. Can you recall the extent to which your own parents or caregivers promoted connection when disciplining you? How might their abilities to do this or their lack of doing this impact how you discipline your own children today?

Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network