Most parents have the notion that a consequence needs to be given immediately following a child’s misbehavior so that the child understands that what she’s done is unacceptable.
Do you find yourself threatening to take away screen time for months as soon as you catch your daughter hiding under the covers with her iPad? Or grounding your older son for weeks right when he returns home an hour late without letting you know? If this sounds like you, you’re not alone.
But immediate consequences don’t always work, and often they do more harm than good. Kids can’t learn from their mistakes when their brains aren’t ready, and we often give consequences when our own brains aren’t ready.
MYTH: Kids need immediate consequences following misbehavior.
Simply put, there are two main parts of our brain relevant to discipline.
- The prefrontal cortex, located behind the forehead, is what I refer to as the smart part of our brain. It helps us pay attention, solve problems, make good decisions, and learn efficiently.
- The limbic system, located deep within the center of the brain, is what I call the alarm part of our brain. It’s responsible for the fight, flight or freeze response that happens when we’re under stress.
Self-Discipline is Processed in the Smart Part of the Brain
Discipline means “to teach” appropriate behavior. The goal of discipline is to promote the development of self-discipline. Ultimately, what we want is for our children to develop control over their own behavior.
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for self-discipline, which is how your child regulates his body, emotions, and fear, and how he controls impulses, thinks in advance, empathizes, and communicates in attunement. It’s where his moral and ethical behaviors are born.
When your child makes a mistake or a bad choice, or when she is in a power struggle, the alarm part of her brain is active. And when the alarm part of her brain is active, the learning part of discipline cannot occur.
When the alarm part of her brain is active, your child cannot effectively learn how to self-discipline.
If it seems as though you are disciplining the same behaviors over and over again, it may be because of the immediate consequences you give. A simple change to your approach could make a big difference in your child’s ability to learn how to regulate their behavior.
Create Space to Decompress
Your child needs time to decrease activity in the alarm part of his brain before he’ll be able to learn from his behavior. That doesn’t mean you should ignore his bad behavior, but instead of engaging in a heated discussion (or worse), let him know that you understand he’s having a hard time, and that you’ll talk about it when you both calm down. When your child feels understood rather than attacked, he’ll be able to calm the alarm part of his brain and his prefrontal cortex will come back online.
Here are five ways your child can decompress to re-engage his prefrontal cortex so he’ll be ready to learn from his behavior:
- First, empathize. Let your child know that you’re on his side. Tell him that you can see that he is upset and you want to give him some time to cool off.
- Try a three-breath hug. Offer a hug, and take three deep breaths together while embracing. Even if your child is too upset to breathe with you, over time they will start to learn how to use their breath to calm themselves. (And it makes you feel calmer too.)
- Send your child outside to “shake it off.” Even ten minutes of physical activity can bring your child’s brain back into a balanced state.
- Give your child a creative activity to refocus her attention. Pull out a puzzle, some art supplies or a book for your child to busy herself with. The smart part of her brain will quickly come back into action.
- If your child is already familiar with taking deep breaths, now is a great time to encourage him to slow down for a few minutes and breathe deeply. This will help calm the overactivity of the alarm part of his brain.
THEN, discuss the issue or behavior when you can tell that your child is open and can learn from the discussion. Think of is as the hair on a dog’s back. If the hair is raised and the dog’s teeth are showing, it’s best not to approach. When the hair goes down and the dog’s tail is wagging, some great teaching and learning can occur.
The time your child spends shifting his brain activity from the limbic system to the prefrontal cortex is also the time for you to do the same. When you can both come back to the discussion using the smart parts of your brains, your child will be better able to learn self-discipline, and you’ll be better able to discipline appropriately.