Last week was one of those weeks. My husband was out of town, I was sick and overwhelmed by work deadlines, the dog rolled in something that smelled awful, and my living room looked like an episode from a show about hoarders. It was my day to drive carpool, and all of the kids were going to meet at our house after their day-camp. On the way out of the house in the morning one of my kids (I’m trying to protect their identity) said in a judgemental tone, “Mom, do you think you could get this place cleaned up before everyone gets here?”
My blood began to boil. You can imagine all of the things I wanted to say and do to this unappreciative, spoiled, entitled little person.
You may know the feeling. Your kid is “on your last nerve,” most likely because he is doing something you don’t want him to—or NOT doing something you want him to. You’re quickly losing your cool. What to do?
You’re faced with a discipline situation. The instinctive response is to lose it. To let your child know he’s done something wrong and that there are consequences. But the delivery seldom comes without a lot of emotion.
I’m not a big fan of immediate consequences during a heated discussion for one big reason:
In order for a child to learn from a mistake, their prefrontal cortex must be active because this is the part of the brain where learning occurs. When a child is upset or emotionally charged, the amygdala (fight, flight or freeze) is triggered instead, and the prefrontal cortex basically shuts down.
If you respond to your child’s behavior with an explosive response or a harsh consequence, she won’t be able to learn from the situation because her amygdala will be triggered. (Even if you ask her, “Do you understand?” and she replies, “Yes,” the brain is not capable of processing the lesson as you intend.
Instead, give yourself permission for a time-out. This does not mean that misbehavior does not warrant consequences, it simply means that if we want our kids to learn from their behaviors their prefrontal cortex needs to be online. And so does our own.
Next time you find yourself about to lose your cool, take a time-out instead. The purpose of discipline is for your kids to learn self-discipline, and it starts with you. Here are a few tips to help you get back to the smart part of your brain so that you can teach your child, and your child can properly learn from his mistake.
Recognize Your Triggers
If you know that when your child starts whining continuously, you’re more likely to yell to quiet her down, take notice at the first sign of whining. Or if your son leaves his dirty socks by the front door EVERY day and it ticks you off, pay attention to the next time you spot those wretched socks.
As soon as you notice your trigger, step away rather than move in. Instead of an immediate reaction, step back, turn around, leave the room or simply pause for a moment. (And if you’re REALLY upset, feel free to lock yourself in the bathroom. We’ve all been there.) This will give both you and your child a chance to calm down and get your prefrontal cortex back online.
Take at least one deep breath. Inhale to a count of three and exhale to a count of six. When your exhalation is longer than your inhalation, your nervous systems gets a signal of relaxation. If you have time for a few breaths, take them. This simple yet powerful practice can change everything.
Respond with Intention
Once you’ve had a chance to breathe and calm down, you will be more ready to respond to your child with intention. “Honey, what you just said is really upsetting to me. I don’t want to get into this right before we head out the door, but can you give some thought to why it would be upsetting to me and we will talk about it this afternoon?”
Your response takes on a different energy when spoken from reason—the prefrontal cortex—rather than from anger—the amygdala.
So next time you feel yourself getting heated, take a time-out. The more you do this, the easier it gets. (And like everything, it takes practice. Don’t beat yourself up if you don’t do it “perfectly.”)
From one parent in time-out to another.