How Parents Can Keep Their Cool

By Jill Suttie | June 3, 2014 | 0 comments

Two new books tackle the problem of raising difficult kids, offering solutions that are both more compassionate and successful than harsh discipline.

How many parents never yell at their children? Not many, I’m guessing, and certainly not me.

I’m not proud of that; but sometimes it seems as if my teenagers are hell bent on frustrating me. It was even worse when they were toddlers, fighting me about seemingly innocuous things like clothing, baths, and naptime.

Parenting can be challenging—how many of us have trouble just getting out the door on time with our kids? And depending on your own upbringing, yelling—or at least responding with an angry tone—may seem like the natural response to noncompliance or misbehavior. But is it really effective? And, if it isn’t, what is?

For answers, look no further than two new books that have come out on the topic: Is That Me Yelling?, by parenting expert and radio host, Rona Renner, and Mindful Discipline, by psychologist Shauna Shapiro and pediatrician Chris White. Both books tackle the problem of raising recalcitrant kids, while offering solutions that are both more compassionate and successful than traditional disciplinary tactics.

In Is That Me Yelling?, Renner argues that discipline through yelling does nothing but scare children and make a bad situation worse. Children learn through imitation, and yelling at your kids is bound to encourage their bullying others to get their way. Though yelling might cause a child to comply in the short term, it rarely leads to long-lasting changes in behavior or better self-discipline.

Renner believes that parents often get frustrated because they have behavioral expectations that are too high for their children’s developmental level. Children’s brains—even teens’—are not fully developed, she writes, and they cannot always anticipate the consequences of their actions or plan ahead to avoid future pitfalls. Younger children, in particular, tend to live in the present and not think beyond their immediate situation. So your rush to get your toddler to school on time means little or nothing to her.

Differences in temperament between children and their parents can be causes for friction. A parent who is quiet and slow to warm up to new situations will probably be frustrated by a child who is more rambunctious or who plunges into activities without thinking. This can lead to parents thinking their child is misbehaving when in fact they are merely expressing their difference.

Renner suggests that parents who yell a lot should first keep track of how often and under what circumstances they yell, in order to gain some self-awareness. She also provides strategies—like focused breathing or taking a time out—that parents can use to keep their cool when they feel like yelling. Calming allows parents to better decide what their child needs in the moment and to show empathy before taking disciplinary action.

Ideally, discipline will involve what Renner calls the “four C’s”: using communication which is short and non-blaming, giving your child choices which are real and simple, having consequences for noncompliance that make sense for your child and her developmental level, and fostering connection with your child.

Renner’s book is written in a very empathic way, making it easy to read if you’re a parent. She has good suggestions for parents in special circumstances—such as going through a divorce or having children with disabilities—that may increase a parent’s frustration and propensity to yell. And, though Renner holds parents responsible for their behavior, she also recognizes that parents aren’t perfect and should practice self-compassion.

“As you learn to yell less and be kind to yourself more, it will become easier for you to be respectful toward your child, even when he is doing something to test your patience, “ she writes. “If you keep this in mind you will be more likely to manage and transform your negative reactions in order to be a good role model for your child,”

This message is echoed by Shapiro and White in their book, Mindful Discipline. The authors question typical approaches to discipline—“parent-centered” discipline that aims for total compliance or “child-centered” discipline that puts children in charge, suggesting neither is effective. They claim that a more mindful approach to discipline empowers parents while supporting children in gaining self-discipline.

The practice of mindfulness—learning to pay attention to one’s moment-to-moment feelings, thoughts, and experience without judgment—is particularly helpful in parenting, they argue, because it helps parents to see more clearly what to do in situations where their kids challenge them. Similar to Renner’s view, they believe parents can be better at discipline when they understand their child’s behavior, modulate their own reactions, and nurture the relationship with their child.

They suggest five main things parents need to provide children for healthy discipline: unconditional love, space to be themselves, mentoring that helps them understand how the world works, appropriate boundaries to keep them safe, and opportunities to learn from mistakes. Each of these is key to a positive relationship with your child and encourages them to develop more self-discipline in the long run.

For example, mistakes—which they like to call “mis-takes”—are necessary to learning and should be accepted, not punished. When parents equate discipline with intimidation or punishment only, they miss out on discipline’s root meaning, which is “to teach.”

“Mis-takes—especially when followed up with kindness and humility—are actually very nourishing to your child’s developing psyche,” they write. Mis-takes help children “move beyond rigid idealism” to see things “how they actually are” and to “experience and practice forgiveness” for themselves and others. So, if your child spills his milk at the dinner table, using mindfulness can help you notice your irritation, calm yourself in the moment, realize he didn’t do it on purpose, and suggest he make amends by cleaning up the spill.

Shapiro and White provide specific practices parents can use to develop more mindfulness. And, though Renner’s book feels more directly prescriptive, they outline nicely the philosophy behind mindful discipline, while providing at least some background on the research supporting their approach—though not as much as readers might like.

Reading the books together inspired me to take a step back and really think about how I approach my kids on an everyday basis. It’s so easy to think in the moment that our kids need to do what we want them to do. But, it’s also clear that when we treat our kids’ needs with disrespect and push for compliance only, we push them away emotionally and inhibit their ability to do things for themselves.

When it comes to discipline, we can all do better than yelling.

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About The Author

Jill Suttie, Psy.D., is Greater Good’s book review editor and a frequent contributor to the magazine.


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