8 Positive Alternatives to Punishment
Although the words punishment and discipline were traditionally used hand in hand, today’s parents realize that there are other ways to help children learn from mistakes and correct behavior in the future.
It is important to keep in mind that most behaviors in childhood that might encourage a disciplinary response stem from something other than a child’s desire to actually do something wrong. Behavior changes in response to developmental stages, feelings about events that have nothing to do with what is currently taking place, and feelings of sickness or fatigue. Before we respond to the range of children’s behaviors there are important things to consider.
One of the easiest things to do is to put ourselves in the child’s shoes. When we make a mistake, do we find it helpful when people embarrass us, shame us, or yell at us in response? Of course not. When we are feeling strong emotions, what are we really looking for? Probably some time and space to cool down and think things through as well as some empathy and connection. This all holds true for children too, which is why the following eight suggestions offer helpful and positive alternatives to punishment.
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1. Take a time-out WITH your child
As Elisa Cinelli shares in her San Francisco Moms Blog “Timeout was initially developed to help children work through their emotions in a physically safe space. Today it’s generally used as a tool to embarrass, manipulate, and control children with the misguided understanding that this will help them become better people. Kids in timeout will think about a lot of things—how to get even, how to avoid getting caught, how to keep adults happy—but they won’t think about what they did.’”
By removing both yourself and your child from the instigating situation or place and entering into a new space together, you can allow for emotions to calm and for a space to reconnect.
2. Actively show your child that she is heard
Children often act out when they don’t feel like they have the words or a situation that easily allows them to express their feelings. We all know the feeling of being tongue tied or of looking back on a situation and wishing we had said what we really meant to say. The same thing happens to children. It can be easy to jump to offering a solution to a problem or challenge that your child is facing, but that isn’t always what your child is looking for. Sometimes, she just needs the change to express herself and be heard.
When your child shares how she is feeling, reflect that feeling back to acknowledge it and nothing more. If she says that she feels angry that a playmate took her toy without asking, simply say back to her that you hear that she is angry and that a playmate took her toy without asking. It may seem repetitive to you, but to a child, it is a clear statement that you have truly listened.
3. Ask mundane questions
This is an interesting one because it seems unrelated, but it all comes down to how the brain works. When the amygdala or the part of our brain that feels alarmed is fired up, our bodies will respond in a heightened and intense way. This kind of reaction in your child is about the furthest thing from the calm she needs to be part of dealing with a situation in a healthy way.
If you ask your child easy to answer questions about topics that have nothing to do with the inciting episode, it will force another part of her brain to engage rather than feeding the amygdala reaction. The questions can be as simple as asking about a favorite book or movie or about the weather. Calmly engaging another part of the brain will allow for a calmer environment and a quieter space.
4. Connect with your child
Acting out can be a cry for attention, even if your child denies it. Sometimes a hug or an effort to connect with your child is all that is really needed. It can be particularly effective to show empathy in these situations. You can use an example from your own childhood or your present life, but either way, your child will feel comfort in knowing that she is not alone in her feelings.
5. Provide your child with choices
Children can make bad choices when they feel like they are stuck in a situation without options, just as any of us would feel. Sometimes they just need an opportunity to use their voice and to have some agency. This is not a suggestion to reward negative behavior, but more a way to give options as a solution.
You can say something like, “Emma, I can see that you are angry right now. Would you rather take some quiet time with me in the kitchen or would you rather we worked together to clean up the blocks?” Just being able to choose an action and have a choice can comfort children in many situations.
6. Give YOURSELF a time-out before responding
Sometimes the way our children act triggers feelings and responses within our own selves that have absolutely nothing to do with our kids. We are parents which means that we have a lifetime of triggers and a schedule that causes fatigue. By taking a minute to check ourselves, take a deep breath, or even a quick trip to the bathroom if we need some space before we can calmly react, we can save ourselves from choosing a response that we will probably wind up regretting later.
7. Teach kids to show - not just say - that they are sorry
Once you’ve used one of the above strategies to create a calmer space, it’s important that children learn that they can make a difference and actually repair situations in some way. Whether it’s cleaning up thrown blocks, asking a friend if they can give them a hug, or drawing a picture for someone to bring a smile back to their face, we can help kids understand that they have the power to take a negative situation and make it positive again.
8. Give your child time along with an expectation
Just like we can need a minute or two to adjust to a situation or comply with a request, we can expect the same for children. If a little one is refusing to do something, you can offer a bit of time along with your request. You could try saying something like, “James, let me know when you are ready to share your toy.” This will give him a chance to feel like he’s done this due to his own choice rather than yours.
No matter which strategies you use, you can often give yourself a quick check by asking yourself how you would feel in this situation. Taking a moment to feel empathy rather than anger or frustration can only help us in response to challenging situations.
Still feeling lost when it comes to punishment and discipline? Here is an Age-by-Age Guide to Setting Discipline Consequences for Kids.