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  • Writer's pictureAoife Ryan

Connection not Correction (discipline for young children)

At the heart of all parenting lies love, and hopefully unconditional love. This is what we aspire to anyway. Most parents think that they love their children unconditionally, but when we look a little bit more closely we often find that we do in fact, place conditions upon our children, and therefore on the love that we give our children.

One of these conditions/expectations is that of behaving correctly, being good, following the rules etc. From a very young age we expect our children to behave in a particular way, according to particular rules and we often give and withdraw our love according to these rules. For example, “Be a good girl and brush your teeth and then I’ll tuck you into bed and give read you a story and give you a kiss” …. (if you brush your teeth, I'll read a story and give you my love … ) “If you eat all your dinner we can do something nice afterwards” …(if you don't eat it, we won't spend time together) …. The list goes on and on, and I'm sure we can all add many things to it. What the rules say is that to receive my love you must follow my rules. I see you and love you because you are doing what I say. Instead what we want our children to feel, is that they are loved and seen all the time, because they are unique and wonderful human beings, regardless of their behaviour. Of course, society has rules that we have to conform to, and children need to learn boundaries and appropriate ways of behaving. These boundaries can be modeled kindly, compassionately and gently.

At this stage I think it's important to say that our little people are developing neuro developmentally at different stages. Many times we have expectations of them, that they are just not able to fulfill. In short, children's brains are not developed enough between the ages of 2-7 for them to keep a lid on things sometimes. Children express themselves non verbally to start with, emotions developing faster than words. Finding words to express all that is stirred up requires support and groundwork, beginning with reflecting feeling names for emotional experiences. Eg. sad, frustrated, disappointed, ashamed etc.

Kids are impulsive by design. The parts of the brain responsible for self control are still under development in young children. It takes at least the first 6 years of a child's life for their brain to become more integrated and for them to be better able to manage their strong emotions.

Kids can only really focus on one thing at a time. Basically when you are calling them 20 times to come and do something, and they are focused on building the tower with blocks, they just are not capable of listening to you … they don't have a conscience that tells them to listen to mum, or stop what they are doing. They aren't trying to make life difficult for you, their brain just isn't developed in the way you think it is.

Around ages 5-7 they being to be able to mix conflicting thoughts and feelings. This means that they can begin to control impulsive reactions, and also begin to develop empathy and caring. They can consider someone else as well as themselves. Before this age, they simply don't have that ability.

Most of the latest research points to the fact that attachment is what draws our kids heart content out and into the spaces between us where we can connect. Children really do look up to the people they are attached to and want to meet their expectations. Children want to connect with their parents/caregivers, they want relationship. The thing that drives a wedge between you and your child, and causes an interruption in relationship is when we disconnect from our children by jumping in to discipline. Interruptions and disconnection occur when we place conditions on our love.

With this in mind, a few strategies/tips for dealing with young children and discipline are:

Connect before you direct : What I mean here is that if you can connect with them through engaging their attachment instincts you will be able to direct them to what you want them to do. So get down to their level, eye to eye, in a friendly way, and engage their ears, their eyes, noticing and talking to them about what they are engaged in … then you can move them towards what you want them to do … it avoids challenges with not listening and resistance.

Structure, Routine, Consistency and Predicability: Toddlers like and thrive on predictability and consistency. Having predictable routines and an order to the day helps orient younger kids to what is expected of them and what to expect without having to boss them around. Tell them what is happening, and what will happen. Remain consistent in your approach and your responses. Help them know that if they behave in a particular way, you will respond in a particular way, predictably and consistently.

Think ahead: If we work ahead of the potential problems and get a young child on side so to speak, it can prevent dealing with big reactions and upset in the moment. So try and get ahead of things they struggle with.

Avoid timeouts and other forms of separation based discipline: Many parents that I work with, will when their children are young, adopt a discipline model that involves the naughty step/chair/corner. Many use a time out, either sending the kids to their room, out of the room they are in, or into a corner. These models were very popular some years ago, and on the face of it seem pretty reasonable. They certainly give “control” back to the parent.

But separation is the most impactful of all experiences and time out approaches do more harm than good to our relationship with them. We really need to keep the relationship strong, and connection is much more valuable than correction in the long term. When we separate from them and put them on a timeout/in the naughty corner, we are effectively withdrawing our love for them, in the moment when they perhaps need it the most.

Another way of dealing with the bad behaviour is to consider what is really going on for them. To look 'underneath' the behaviour, and view it in a more symbolic way. And to perhaps offer a hug. We can empathise with their big feelings and hold that space for them, allowing them to feel what they are feeling, and know that they are still loved. When the storm passes we can then speak in a gentle, kind loving way, about what might have been a more appropriate way of behaving


Connecting with the language of the heart: One of the ways a young child needs help is in matching their emotions to feeling words.. If we want a young child to express themselves in a civilised way, rather then lashing out, we need to start by giving them the words to use.

One important thing to consider here is how you, the adult, and primary caregiver, respond to your children, especially when they don't “follow the rules” you have set down. What happens inside of you when the children are “acting out” or misbehaving. Because the key here is whether you react or respond. Do you let yourself get to the point where you just blow your lid ? I know that I used to do this. I would keep going, and putting up with things, and keep pushing through, until one of the kids would do something small and I would react, very often losing the head and shouting. Although the kids jumped into line, it was at a cost. The cost was to our relationship. I didn't want my kids doing things because they were afraid not too, or because they “thought they should”. I wanted them to be able to make the right decision themselves and to be able to ask questions and disagree with me. This is what helps them grow into the adults I want to see in the future. I wanted to empower and enable my children. And in order to do that I had to look at my reactions and see what was going on for me. Pause a moment and see what action you can take for yourself in the moment. Your response is about you.

Our children need and want to be loved. They want connection. This is true of children aged 0-100 !! We all want connection. Nothing is worth damaging our relationship with our children for. Kindness, empathy and gentleness will not make little brats. It will make compassionate and loving children, who know inherently how to behave and what is appropriate. Children that are seen, heard and loved for who they are, will automatically behave in a way that will make their parents proud.

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