How to discipline a child using the No-Drama method? (Dan Siegel)
The pioneering expert behind The Whole-Brain Child, Daniel J. Siegel, explores the ultimate child-raising challenge: discipline. Highlighting the fascinating link between a child’s neurological development and the way a parent reacts to misbehavior, No-Drama Discipline provides an effective, compassionate road map for dealing with tantrums, tensions, and tears—without causing a scene. Learn how to discipline a child using the No-Drama approach.
What is discipline?
The word “discipline” comes from the Latin word disciplina, which means teaching, learning and giving instruction. These may be the roots of the word, but most parents’ today associate discipline with metering out punishment, rewards, or consequences. The goal with most discipline techniques is to induce immediate cooperation (e.g. – toddler gets into the car for school), to stop kids from doing something they shouldn’t be doing (e.g. – older brother stop teasing their younger brother), or to begin doing something they should be doing (e.g. – teen getting homework done). Despite these most common notions of discipline and our role as parents, the book “No-Drama Discipline: The Whole-Brain way to calm the chaos and nurture your Child’s Developing Mind” offers a different perspective of our job as parents.
What is a parent’s job?
In the book “No-Drama Discipline”, co-author Daniel J. Siegel recommends a parenting model that is more akin to the original Latin roots of the word discipline. The parent’s role is that of a teacher. The child’s role is that of a disciple, pupil or learner.
As teachers, our curriculum involves lessons on how or children can manage impulses, calm down big angry feelings, and be aware of how their behavior impacts others. The end product of these lessons is a child that can graduate into life as adults who know how to cooperate, be thoughtful, and can have meaningful relationships.
Another role parents have is to nurture our children’s growth, both physical and mental. During the adolescent years, our children’s brains are wiring and making connections to what Siegel calls the upstairs brain and the downstairs brain. The upstairs brain is responsible for sophisticated and complex thinking, planning, and imagining. The downstairs brain is responsible for our instincts, emotions, and basic bodily functions, such as breathing, sleeping, and digestion. As parents, we can help facilitate the wiring of the upstairs and downstairs brain using Siegel’s technique.
Choosing Discipline Techniques
Parenting techniques are becoming like diet fads, changing every few years. When my kids were younger, I recall there being charts and stickers on parenting for effective discipline. Fifteen years ago when my children were newborns there were raging debates on attachment parenting and whether it was beneficial to let your child “cry it out” and let them suffer when they were upset, or to come to their rescue. When my parents raised me, spanking was the main discipline technique. Now-a-days both of these techniques would be considered a mild form of child abuse.
It’s very common to resist new fangled parenting techniques and throw your hands up in the air. Often times, there is the prevailing attitude that if it worked for me, it will work for my kids. Often trying these new parenting techniques feel foreign and we doubt their efficacy. In some cases, we may harbor guilt that we are betraying our parents by now paying homage to the way our parents raised us. Nevertheless, it’s important to ask if these “tried and true” techniques really benefit our kids?
My kids are now in their teens, so part of me wonders if it’s worth training an old dog like me new tricks. However, as Siegel says, “it’s never too late to make a positive change”. So, in adopting this attitude, I decided to try Siegel’s ideas since it convinced both my rational mind and intuitive sense that it was worth a try. While initially resistant to change, I was shocked at how well it truly delivered on the promised benefits of developing a more calm connection with my teens and presenting an opportunity to teach.
So, what are the prevailing old and new parenting techniques and what do we need to know about the science that backs it up?
Spanking and the Brain
Any aggressive disciplinary technique, like spanking, that is designed to inflict pain or create fear, whether done by parent or caregiver, often negatively affects the child neurologically rather than foster long-term behavioral changes. Today, fewer parents use spanking. However, the substitutes to spanking such as a “time out” which involves isolating a child for long periods of time, humiliating them, terrifying them with screaming threats or using other forms of verbal and psychological aggression are viewed as logical consequences. Siegel suggests that this sanctioned form of discipline can be equally harmful to a child’s mind.
The authors of “No-Drama Discipline” listed the following reasons for being strongly against spanking and other strong-arm techniques:
- Spanking is counterproductive in creating and building respectful loving relationships.
- Spanking has both physiological and neurological effects. Spanking creates two opposing responses. On one hand, the child expects to go toward caregivers for protection when they are afraid or hurt. However, what happens when the caregivers are also the source of pain and fear? This dual role is very confusing for a child’s brain.
- Spanking role models to a child that the only way to resolve a problem is by inflicting bodily pain or punishing someone else.
- While in the short-term children will cooperate, longer-term children just learn how to be better at concealing and hiding from their parents.
- Spanking triggers our reptilian brain, which forces our child to go into “fight, fight, or freeze” mode and we miss an opportunity to activate the parts of the brain used for making good decisions.
As described by the authors, a tantrum is an instance where the downstairs brain hijacks the upstairs brain leaving your child feeling out of control. During these times, it’s common for your child to be rigid and demanding about his or her needs and unable to control their emotions. Siegel describes this scenario as “blocked integration”, where the upper, lower, right and left parts of the brain are not working as a coordinated whole. Thus, the authors don’t recommend ignoring tantrums as they are often a plea for help. A child most requires empathy and compassion when these fits occur, which is something parents can do by simply connecting with their child (see below for details). The authors suggest that a calmed child is more able to listen to their parent’s expectations and requests given (see boundary setting) when this integration happens.
“Connection isn’t about rescuing kids from adversity. Connection is about walking through the hard times with our children and being there for them when they’re emotionally suffering, just like we would if they scraped their knee and were physically suffering.” P92
Time Out’s – Problems
Time-out, also known as social exclusion, is a very popular technique that parents use to discipline their kids. Created by Arthur Staats in 1958, a time-out is a form of behavioral modification that temporarily separates a child from an environment where the unwanted behavior occurred. The goal is to weaken the offending behavior so that it occurs less frequently, or completely disappears. However, the authors of “No-Drama Discipline” aren’t fans of this strategy.
- Here are the reasons why: A time-out is usually accompanied by a lot of anger that may trigger a child’s lower brain into fear.
- A time-out is essentially isolating a child when they behave in ways you don’t like. For instance, it leaves the message that we’re only there for you when you behave, but you’re on your own if you don’t behave to our expectations.
- Parents hope that a time-out is a moment to reflect and be more contemplative, but instead they result in a child feeling more resentful or angry.
- More often than not, time-outs are not related to a consequence at all.
- A time-out sends a message to your child that you only want to be with them when they behave, but you will withhold your love and affection when they are not, and sends a message of conditional love.
A better tactic is to give your child some space and ability to calm down rather than punish and banish them due to misbehavior.
What about Boundary Setting?
If time-outs aren’t advisable, then how do we establish boundaries and discipline our children when they misbehave?
The principle of “No-Drama Discipline” isn’t about enabling permissive and unruly behavior. Neither does the approach negate the need to have structure and high expectations of your child. As children learn to navigate the world, setting boundaries or guardrails are critical in helping children determine right from wrong, safe from dangerous, etc. The boundaries we create changes over the course of a child’s growth and will vary based on their temperament, stage of development, and the context of the situation. Additionally, the authors emphasize that clear and consistent boundaries serve a critical role in helping children control themselves, think about others, regulate their emotions, and make good choices as they transition into adulthood.
“Kids need us to set boundaries and communicate our expectations. But the key here is that all disciplines 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” p97.
TIps to Disciplining your Children
The authors suggest the following strategies and tips for disciplining your children using the no-drama approach outlined below.
Develop a clear set of principles and strategies.
A disciplinary plan should include the situations that may be encountered and a set of principles you want to enforce. For example, my husband and I had a few key phrases that we relay our family values and principles (Protect the Planet, Respect Others, and Manners Matter). Our strategy when our kids were younger was to repeat these three principles over and over again so that they became engrained. These three expressions were broad enough that they could be used for just about anything worthy of disciplinary action. For example, if our children didn’t recycle or turn off the lights, we would say “Honey, we want to protect the planet. So, please do your part by throwing the milk carton in the recycle bin”.
Put yourself in your child’s shoes:
Before responding to misbehavior, consider putting yourself in your child’s shoes. Siegel suggests asking these simple questions:
- Why did my child act this way? The authors clarify that this question doesn’t literally mean ask your child why. Starting a sentence off with “why” will put anyone in a defensive state. Instead, use the “why” as a way to start your own self-reflection and contemplation of what is causing the behavior you see.
- What lesson do I want to teach in this moment?
- How can I best teach this lesson? Remember the old adage, it’s not what you say, but how you say it. The manner in which something is said affects how our children will feel about us and themselves. Children cooperate more when we engage them in a respectful, calm, pleasant and playful exchange with their parents.
Case study: My child exceeds their set time limits for playing video games
How to initiate a dialogue – excerpt from “No-Drama Discipline” (p187):
Here’s what a typical one-directional, top-down discipline approach looks like:
You storm into a room and declare, “You are spending way too much time on video games these days! You are going over your limits! From now on, we are restricting your game time to no more than 30 minutes a day”.
- Why did my child act this way? Did they forget the limits? Did they forget to turn on the timer? Are they bored? Do they need to have some other activities that are more interesting than gaming? Is this there way of connecting with their friends? Do they just need to unwind and have some fun after school? Does gaming satisfy a basic need that they have?
- What lesson do I want to teach in this moment? A rich, full life is about having a variety of experiences versus focusing on just one (video games). Prioritize your time. Here’s some sample verbiage, “I noticed that you’ve been playing video games a lot lately, but it’s not working very well. It puts off homework, but more importantly, I want to make sure you are spending time on other activities as well” (See section on Mindsight). “I get how playing games is fun and can be a bit addictive. Do you feel that too? What do you think may happen to your relationships with others if you fall into the negative aspects of these games?”
- How can I best teach this lesson? Here are some things you could say to work collaboratively: “We need to come up with a new plan. What do you think? Have any ideas”? “Any thoughts on how you can have fun and honor your responsibilities and priorities”? “Let’s discuss some other activities that may help develop a more well-rounded life experience”. “I know that you’ve been playing games after dinner, but that’s not working well, so we need a new plan. What ideas can you come up with to change things around”? “What positive steps can we take to balance fun without falling prey to the negative possibilities like getting addicted to these games”? “Any ideas on how we can build trust that you will manage these types of distractions going forward”?
Be Realistic in Your Expectations
Before talking to your child, it’s important that you think carefully in both the big and small details about what is happening in your child’s life.
- What is my child’s developmental capacity? It may sound crazy, but you aren’t going to explain to your 6 month old why it’s not safe to put the electrical plug in their mouth.
- What is the particular temperament of your kid? My youngest is intense and gets distracted when we are too long winded. The other sons are pretty laid back and are likely to withdraw from conflict, but can listen for long periods of time.
- What is the emotional style of your kid? My eldest son is very rational and logical and wants to understand why we want him to do something. My youngest is emotional and sensitive and wants us to be kind and gentle with how we say something to him.
- What is the situational context? Both of my sons hates being reprimanded in public. Who doesn’t?
“If we recognize them for still-developing young people they are, with changing, changeable, complex young brains, then when they struggle or do something we don’t like, we’ll be better able to be receptive” p110.
It’s not just about what you say, but how you say it. As a parent, if you’re in a distressed place, then it’s very likely that your agitated state will put your child in a defensive position. If you are frustrated or stressed out, take a step back and gain perspective of the full situation. It’s likely that many of your fears and imagined worst-case scenarios are just that, your imagination. If you engage at a heightened state of agitation, then you are likely responding reactively versus receptively. The authors refer to this as shark music playing in the background of your mind.
Before speaking to your child, make sure you have a balanced perspective where you assumed the best of your child’s intentions and considered the “Why” before making a snap judgment. The authors suggest to “make sure you have let go of any fears, expectations, and bigger-than-necessary reactivity that keep you from looking at the situation for what it really is” It may be helpful to have a plan that considers the lesson you want to teach and how you can best teach that lesson. Perhaps, it’s best to either postpone the talk until you are in a calm centered place or find your happy place before talking to your child.
“Once you recognize that shark music is blaring your mind, you can shift your state of mind and stop parenting based on fear and on past experiences that don’t apply to the current scenario you face. Instead, you can connect with your child, who might be feeling discouraged. You can give her what she needs in this moment: a parent who is fully present, parenting only her based only on the actual facts of this particular situation- not on past expectations or future fears”. P106
How to Connect with your child
“When children feel furious, dejected, shamed, embarrassed, overwhelmed, or out of control in any other way, that’s when we need to be there for them. Through connection, we can sooth their internal storm, help them calm down, and assist them in making better decisions.” P73
Siegel uses the metaphor of a child floating down a river of well-being. One side of the river bank is CHAOS and the other is RIGIDITY. Connection allows a child to experience a greater sense of balance, stability, and happiness. You can connect with your child through a loving touch (hand on arm, rub back, or hold hand), a nod of the head, embrace, or just by reminding them that you are there if needed. The overall goal is to communicate comfort, safety and support through your body language, tone of voice, and eye contact.
If a child or an adult is in this fear-based state of rigidity and chaos, it will be hard to have a rational conversation where both parties are listening and able to make better decisions. If your child is in this heightened state, then the best thing to do is to connect to them.
In neurological terms, connection strengthens the link between the prefrontal cortex responsible for executive functions such as self-regulation, balancing our emotions, focusing our attention, controlling impulses, and being empathetic to others. It can also override the lower, more primitive impulses. The longer-term effects of these neural linkages help the growth of integrative fibers that literally change the brain and help our children make decisions, participate in relationships, and interact with the world.
does connecting after bad behavior send the wrong message?
My initial concern with the No-Drama Discipline approach was rewarding a child after they have a tantrum or misbehaved. Perhaps this would be reinforcing their bad behavior, indulging a child, or spoiling them. However, the authors clarify that “spoiling is not about how much love and time and attention you give your kids. You can’t spoil your child by giving them too much of yourself”. Instead, provide a consistent experience of love and nurturance, as it will demonstrate to your child an entitlement to love. The end result is a child who is securely attached, resourceful, resilient, and capable of relating to others.
Here’s how the authors describe indulging:
“ Giving them (kids) more stuff and more stuff, sheltering them from struggles and sadness, instead of lavishly offering what kids really need, and what really matters- their love and connection and attention and time” p90
True spoiling results in a child losing the opportunity to build resilience and learn important life lessons about delaying gratification, learning to work hard for something they want, and how to deal with life’s disappointments. In the end you produce a spoiled child that is unhappy when the world doesn’t respond to their every whim. The authors say, “True confidence and competence come not from succeeding at getting what we want, but from our actual accomplishments and achieving master of something on our own”p91.
Bad behavior is an adaptive response
It’s very easy to judge our child as “bad” or even see their behavior as “bad”. The authors warn that the “bad” behavior you see is really an adaptive response to something that’s too challenging for your child to manage. Think about the last time you ate a pint of ice cream, watched too much TV, or went on a shopping spree to avoid feeling your pain. Though this may not have been your ideal strategy, it was a way for you to adapt to the situation. Your child is no different. Whether it’s our child or our selves, the key is getting to the base of what caused the pain and getting into your child’s inner reality.
Wait until your child is Ready
It’s very common for parents to address a disciplinary action right away so the child can easily relate to why they are being disciplined. The authors, however, suggest that we rethink this approach. It’s best to talk when both parties are ready to have a calm conversation and are ready to listen, learn, and understand. This doesn’t mean to wait a few weeks after the incident occurred, but rather wait until both you and your child are in a good place to talk. The authors suggest that when there’s a problem, say something along the lines of “I’d like to wait until we’re really able to talk and listen to each other”. “We’ll come back and talk about it in a while” or “I’m too angry to have a helpful conversation right now, so I’m going to take some time to calm down, and then we’ll talk in a bit”.
Be consistent but not Stubborn
As parents, we can sometimes be a bit too fixated and dogmatic on being true to our word. While it’s important to operate from a coherent philosophy so that our kids know what we expect from them and what they can expect from us, it’s equally important that we don’t become too rigid or stubborn. Rigidity happens when we become unswerving to the rules we’ve set up, not changing them as our children change (see realistic expectations section above), or enforcing them even when the rules no longer make sense. It’s a fallacy to think that giving in is the same as creating a slippery slope. Of course, the only exception is if your child is endangering their physical safety.
Another great tip that the authors suggest is the “do-over” which is saying to your child, “I bet if you tried again, you could come up with a more respectful way to do that”.
In the video, Daniel Sigel talks about Mindsight which is helping the child move from “me”, “you” and “we”. This process helps the child develop awareness of self and others, and helps them become more mindful of their actions.
- Personal insight: Whenever a child gets specific and discusses their own emotional experience, they gain a better self-understanding. For more see: Sharon Salzberg’s work on anger http://www.fireitupwithcj.com/anger-management-buddhist-style/ or http://www.fireitupwithcj.com/mindfulness-getting-peace-mind-joseph-goldstein/
- Empathy: This is about developing a sense of how our emotions may affect others around us, which helps build a foundation for morality and gain insight on how to repair a situation.
- Integration: This step is about appealing to a child’s upstairs brain (See what is parent’s job section) so they can repair the situation and make things right.
Watch video for a demonstration on how to teach your children about Mindsight.
Create a dialogue versus a monologue
As a child, our parents likely engaged in a one directional monologue. To be effective, truly engage your child in the problem solving process and create the linkages described above (See what’s a parent’s job), then initiate a collaborative, reciprocal, and bidirectional dialogue.
Case study: Your child blows up in anger and breaks something. The authors illustrate what language to consider.
“ You got so mad that you broke your video remote. What was going on? I noticed that you then came up and were verbally abusive to your brother.”
“We all get mad. It’s natural to get angry. But what could you do the next time you are mad that doesn’t involve destroying something or hurting others?”
VIDEO: Learn how to say “I’m sorry”
Despite our best efforts and regardless of how many books we read on parenting, we won’t always execute on these ideas flawlessly. When you say “I’m sorry” to your child, you are role modeling how to repair a relationship.
Check out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pa6NvDgK7Dc and http://www.fireitupwithcj.com/fix-relationship-problemsjonathan-robinson/ on effective ways to apologize.
4 Tips: How to Connect with your Child
Here are the top 3 tips offered by the authors on how to CONNECT with your child when they misbehave. These tips help reassure your child that you will be there no matter how they behave:
According to UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian, about 7% of what you are communicating when trying to motivate others is words. The remaining 93% is inferred by other factors (38% is based on the tone of your voice and 55% body language). – See more at: http://www.fireitupwithcj.com/confident-body-language-work-mark-bowden/
It’s important to ensure that you don’t trigger a child with your body language (See above section: Connect with your child” for tips on ideas). In addition to these ideas, you may want to open your body, hold your hands with palms open, and in a loving way, look into your child’s eyes.
VALIDATE: Acknowledge and name your child’s feelings
The authors stress the importance of attuning and validating our child’s inner subjective experiences. Shift your focus to their point of view. The goal is to have your child feel as if they are understood, meaning you acknowledge that you see, feel and understand where they are coming from. We as parents commonly react without validating our child’s feelings. Instead, we fail to show compassion by saying something along the lines of “You are just tired”, “Calm down”, or “You are overreacting”, which is essentially minimizing or blaming our child for their feelings. All of these statements convey that we don’t want to interact when they are having negative emotions. It also implies disinterest and comes across as “I will not accept that you feel how you feel” or ‘I’m not interested in how you experience the world. You should just stuff those feelings right on down“. As a result, the child feels invisible, unseen, and disconnected allowing their emotional life to constrict.
A simple way of validating a child is to offer what you think they may be feeling (e.g- That really made you sad, didn’t it”). By identifying the emotion, you are not only offering your child the vocabulary to name their emotions, but you’re also allowing them to become aware of how their sensations are linked to an emotional response. Another benefit is that it helps calm your child by making them feel emotionally understood.
The next step is disarming the chaos and rigidity by stepping into your child’s world and saying “I get it. I understand. I see why you feel this way”.
MORE RESOURCES on Emotions, empathy, and Validation
In the end, you want your child to feel confident about their ability to accurately observe and comprehend what’s going on inside of them. Emotional intelligence is aiding your child in feeling more comfortable and connected to their emotions. For more information about emotions, check out this VIDEO on the art of Empathy (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CknetFY8CMk) and emotions (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HUat8fprF-A).
To learn more, check out advice from therapist Jonathan Robinson who suggests that we all want to feel acknowledged, accepted, and appreciated.
Get tips on specific scripts you can use to address what you are feeling and how to acknowledge someone: http://www.fireitupwithcj.com/fix-relationship-problemsjonathan-robinson/
LISTEN: lecture Less, Listen more
The Gary Larson cartoon below conveys it all. If you want to turn off your kids, then keep on blabbing. I admit that this is my worst offense. Making a point over and over will turn your kids off in a heartbeat. In fact, “Please stop talking!” is the most common expression teens make about their parents when they’ve done something wrong or feel misunderstood. Other tendencies parents have is preaching, sending their child on a guilt trip, or criticizing their child for their actions.
The authors suggest “No matter how strong your desire, avoid the temptation to argue with your child, lecture her, defend yourself, or tell her to stop feeling that way. Now’s not the time to teach or explain. Now is the time to listen, just sitting with your child and giving him time to express himself”. It’s much better to just state clearly what you think you are observing versus yelling, saying disparaging remarks or nitpicking. All of which will only put your child on the defense.
Based on my experience, I would call this an example of not having your child identify with these feelings. One tip I used while meditating is to diffuse judgmental words. If a child says, “Jenny is a liar and I hate her guts”, you could neutralize these feelings by saying “You sense that Jenny may not be telling the truth and you are not happy with her right now”.
REFLECT what you hear
Reflecting is when you communicate back to your child what they communicated to you. For example, “ I hear what you’re saying; you really hated it when I told you we had to leave the party. No wonder that made you mad a few minutes ago; I’d feel angry too”. The authors caution that you don’t want your child to take these emotions and make them into something bigger or permanent.