Positive discipline — combating defiance with love

Published: Monday, July 30 2012 11:00 p.m. MDT

Jane Nelsen believes that one purpose of positive discipline is to teach children to do what is right when no one is looking and to learn problem-solving skills so they can be responsible from the inside out. Nelsen is a licensed marriage, family and child therapist in South Jordan and author of the Positive Discipline series, a series of books that have been integrated in parenting education classes taught across the country. She warns parents against punishment that increases power struggles, revenge cycles or blind obedience driven by fear.

"Punishment works in the moment. If all you are interested in is stopping the behavior right now, physical discipline will do it. But most parents do not consider the long term, about what it is teaching their child and what kind of skills they are learning in the future."

Children often don't listen or obey because they are hearing too many commands and being told what they should do, Nelsen said. Instead of lecturing, ask questions. This allows children to find solutions: What do I do to make sure my teeth are clean? What is my plan for catching the bus? What will I do with my toys when I'm done?

"It's brain science," Nelsen said. "When someone makes a command, the body stiffens and you go into resistance. When a child is respectfully asked a question, a message goes to the brain that triggers a search for an answer."

Learning how to search for solutions allows children to develop a belief in their own capability and develop problem-solving skills that will be pivotal as they grow up.

Connection first

Parents cannot teach children until they create a connection with them, Nelsen said. "It is a brain (and heart) thing." Connection creates a sense of openness, safety and encouragement that allows the brain to open up to learning.

Brown found that when she stopped using physical discipline as a means of discipline and instead let her son know he was loved and deserving of her respect, his conduct changed. "I think that when a child misbehaves, it's a sign that they need you more," Brown said. They need you to talk them through things and help them deal with the complex emotions they are feeling, instead of being dismissed. "They need love, not abandonment."

Often, asking your child for a hug can soothe a temper tantrum, Nelsen said. It allows them that connection. "When children feel a connection, they feel belonging and significance," Nelsen said. "Often that is enough for misbehavior to stop."

Active vs. reactive

"Parents often react to short-term frustration in a way that blocks their long-term goals," Joan Durrant, a psychologist and professor of family social sciences at the University of Manitoba, told the Deseret News. "Yelling and hitting will only teach your child the opposite of what you want her to learn in the long run. Every time you react this way, you lose an opportunity to show your child a better way."

Durrant co-authored "Positive Discipline," a book that is available free online for parents looking for ways to discipline positively.

This resource gives parents a framework that can help them think through the moment before they react and that sets long-term goals.


Instead of spanking, the AAP recommends timeouts, which allow children to ruminate upon their emotions and think about what they did wrong. Self-soothing is a very important life skill, Nelsen said. She suggests "positive timeout," in which the child helps create a place that will help him cool down when he is upset. The child chooses what his soothing place will look like and what it will be called.

Instead of sending children to timeout, Nelsen said, ask them if it would help them to go to their feel-good place. If they decline, tell them you will go to yours. "You're modeling for them a way to handle frustrating situations."

"Positive discipline is anything but passive, permissive or easy, for that matter. You're in a constant state of trying to educate your child, and it can be exhausting at times," Brown said. "But nobody ever said parenting was easy. You're responsible for raising a child. If you want to raise a child who will become a free thinking, creative, compassionate individual, using positive discipline is a great way to make that happen."

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