By Kelly Bartlett, author of Encouraging Words For Kids, certified positive discipline educator and Attachment Parenting International Leader (API of Portland, Oregon, USA), www.kellybartlett.net
In the Eight Principles of Parenting, Attachment Parenting International reminds us of the importance of consistent and loving care for children. When children receive this kind of care, they learn that they can trust their caregivers. They develop a healthy attachment to those who are always there and who meet their needs with love and respect.
As my kids grew from infants to toddlers to young children, I wondered how I could apply that same principle to my discipline style. After all, when my kids were babies, I made sure I met their needs with consistency and love. How could I continue to do so when their needs became more complex and less physical but more emotional?
Learning a few positive discipline tools helped. I found positive discipline to be such a natural extension of the loving care I had so consistently given in my kids’ infancies. But I also found it took a lot more effort as everyone’s emotions became much more prevalent in our relationships.
One night, my husband and I were talking in the kitchen, and five-year-old Elia and three-year-old JJ were in the living room. We heard Elia suddenly shriek, scream and start crying. Those sounds were instantly followed by a “SOR-RY!” shouted from JJ. When we looked, Elia was getting up from the floor, holding her neck and crying, and JJ had hidden himself between the ottoman and the couch, his face buried in the floor. Elia sobbed that JJ had kicked her.
My husband comforted Elia, and I picked up JJ and carried him into a different room, intending to “deal with him.” Oh, doesn’t that sound nice? Where was my consistent and loving care then? In the face of strong emotions, I had lost control of my rational brain. It was no longer communicating effectively with my middle brain, where the onslaught of emotions was taking place.
Once in the other room, JJ flopped to the floor crying, and I shouted, “You hurt her!” I had been intending to continue yelling and berating, but I quickly realized that I had flipped my lid. Before I yelled anything more, I took a short walk across the foyer into our home office and stood there, 20 feet away and still in visible range of my crying son. The computer was right in front of me, so I did what I always do when I’m in front of the computer: I checked Facebook. It took all of about 30 seconds before I felt my heart pound with a little less intensity, and I walked back into the room where JJ was still crying on the floor.
I sat on the couch, not knowing if I felt calm enough to say anything yet. But when I sat down, he crawled right up next to me and laid his head down on my lap. He stopped crying and sucked his thumb, and I rested my hand on his shoulder. After several minutes, when I was sure we both were calm, our conversation went like this:
Kelly: Why were you mad?
JJ: I don’t know.
Kelly: Were you mad?
Kelly: Were you frustrated?
Kelly: Were you sad?
Kelly: You were feeling sad about something?
JJ: Yes, because Elia was making scary faces, and I didn’t like that, and I told her to stop and she didn’t!
Kelly: Ohhhh…..you were sad that she was ignoring you. You didn’t like the scary faces, and when you told her to stop and she didn’t stop, that hurt you; your feelings were hurt.
Kelly: Oh, OK. You know, Elia got hurt too. When you kicked her, that hurt her neck.
Kelly: Right now she needs help feeling better. What could you do to help her feel better?
JJ: Give her a hug. But I don’t want to do that.
Kelly: OK. What else could you do?
JJ: I don’t know.
Kelly: I think you could either tell her that you’re sorry, or you could do something nice for her, like color her a picture or do something else she would like.
JJ: Yeah, I could color her a picture. Will you help me?
Now, coloring is something JJ rarely does. He never asks for me to get the crayons out, and even when all our supplies are out and Elia is making art, he wanders away and does something else. He’s just not interested in coloring. So I knew that by volunteering to color a picture, JJ was thinking only of Elia and what would help her feel better.
I got out the crayons and paper and helped him get situated at the counter. JJ decided to draw a fairy for Elia and kept asking how to draw it “right.” He carefully crafted a head, body and wings, and then decidedly colored it “pretty” colors like pink and yellow, as opposed to his preferred favorites of red and orange. He was clearly thinking of his sister the whole time.
JJ gave his picture to Elia, and I was nervous that she would say something about how it didn’t really look like a fairy, but she didn’t. I asked her if that helped her feel better, and she said honestly, “Yes, a little bit.” I gave JJ a hug and heartfelt thanks for helping Elia feel better.
Well, then Elia sat right down at the counter and used the crayons to color a picture that JJ would like: an army tank. I think she realized that she, too, had played a part in the situation. It was true that JJ had committed the outburst, but she was the one who had been doing the “poking” all along. Elia presented a pleasantly surprised JJ with her picture, and he said thanks, that he felt better, too.
Throughout the ordeal, three positive discipline tools helped me remain consistent and loving with my kids, even in the face of strong emotions. First, I took a positive time-out for myself, ensuring that my brain returned to rational functioning and that my communication would be calm. Next, I listened for understanding: I asked questions to uncover the feelings behind JJ’s behavior, and I showed empathy and understanding by echoing his feelings back to him. I also did not force him to give an uncaring apology but found another way to help him learn how to make amends and help a hurt person feel better.
I felt proud of my kids that night and pleased with the effectiveness of a few positive discipline tools. But I was also proud to be able to discipline with the same consistency that had nurtured my kids when they were infants. It gets harder as they get older; behaviors become more complex and emotionally driven. But just as in the early years, I believe that consistent and loving discipline during the childhood years will work to preserve our respectful relationship and secure attachment.