Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Positive Discipline For Anxious (and Non-Anxious) Kids

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Positive Discipline for Anxious (And Non-Anxious) Kids

By their very nature, anxious kids tend to be sensitive and perfectionistic. They want to be the best they can be and they want you to be happy with them. Because of this, discipline for anxious kids comes with its own challenges. Done positively though, it can build your anxious (or non-anxious) child and cement your relationship. Here’s how to make sure of that:

  1. Discipline, not punishment.

    Discipline. As in ‘disciple’. As in, ‘to teach’. Kids are going to get it wrong. So will we. Hope so, because it’s how we learn. We’re looking for long term results. The more they take on the lessons when they’re little, the easier the run you’ll have when they’re adolescents. 

    Discipline is different to punishment. It’s more important, more productive and focusses on teaching a lesson rather than modifying a behaviour. Punishment will teach a behaviour because of fear of consequences, discipline will teach a behaviour because that behaviour comes to makes sense.

    That doesn’t mean there won’t be consequences – all of our choices have consequences and that’s an important lesson, but with positive discipline, the consequences make sense: ‘When you lie to me it damages my trust. I know we can get it back because I know that’s not the person you want to be, but until we have that trust back between us I don’t want you going anywhere after school. I need to know that you’re safe and that I can trust you to be where you say you’re going to be and at the moment I can’t,’ … which is very different to, ‘You lied to me so you’re grounded.’

    Kids will see the world a little differently to grown-ups – how can they not. Teach them about your world with love and respect. Like any teaching, it will take time to learn the lesson – but they will learn it and when they do, they’ll own it. Taking on a behaviour because that behaviour makes sense is vastly different to taking on a behaviour in order to avoid the consequences. One leads them, one forces them. Which way would you be most responsive to?

  2. Let the value be the driver. 

    Focus on the value to be taught, rather than the ‘wrongness of the behaviour. Respect? Kindness? Integrity? Honesty? Whatever it is, let this shape your response.

    For every rule, be clear about the value behind it. Have the conversation and let them know why it’s important.

    For example, if you’ve just found out that you’ve been lied to about homework, work out the value this violates. The biggest problem isn’t the homework, but the lie – it violates the value of respect, honesty and it violates trust. Explain this and explain why the lie is worse than the behavior it’s covering. When you have them on board with the values, they’ll write the rules themselves.

  3. Relationship. Relationship. Relationship. 

    Okay, maybe not so eloquent when you say it three times, but the point is that the better your relationship with your child, the more effective your discipline will be. They want to make you happy, even if it doesn’t always work out that way. Preserve the relationship by focusing on their behaviour, not on them.

    This is important for all kids, especially anxious ones. Anxious kids tend to be perfectionistic and they need to know that even if you’re not keen on their behavior, you still think they’re amazing and that you love them no matter what. They’ll be quick to see their wrongdoing and you’ll want to minimise the potential for shame. They’ll be ready to feel it because they often hold themselves to such high standards. A little bit of shame is fine – it’s the thing that measures behaviour and keeps us on track, but too much will fall them.

    Anxious kids will be very quick to interpret a stern word from you as evidence that they aren’t good enough. Reassure them. Hold them or touch them while you talk to them about their misbehaviour. 

  4. Don’t even try to be ‘perfect’. It’s bad for them and it’s bad for you. 

    Let them know when you get it wrong so they can see that it’s not the end of the world and that everyone gets it wrong sometimes. When you do make a mistake – whether it’s getting them to school late, saying the wrong thing, taking a wrong turn or taking out your bad mood on them – let them see you acknowledge the mistake and be kind to yourself in response. ‘Oh no. I’ve taken a wrong turn. Not to worry – we can sort this out easy peasy,’ or, ‘I’ve been a bit grumpy today and I’m sorry if I feel like I’ve been grumpy at you. I’m not. You’re wonderful. I’m just a bit tired so tonight I’m going to have a good sleep so I don’t feel cranky tomorrow.’

    Modelling your imperfections and your acceptance of those imperfections will help your child to feel less pressure to be perfect. You might yell when you shouldn’t, say the wrong thing, land a slap-together dinner on the table at 9pm or forget to pick them up the day school ends early (once … it was once!). There will be times you stuff up monumentally on the parent front. It’s going to happen. Which is good, great actually, because there’s your opportunity to teach them a lesson that will build them for life: Everybody gets it wrong sometimes and that’s okay – it’s how we learn to do it better next time.

  5. Separate emotions from behavior.

    Validate the feeling. Reject the behaviour. Kids feel what they feel because they feel it. It’s just that simple. What they’re feeling might not make sense to you, but to them, it makes perfect sense. The emotion is valid. The way they’re expressing it might not be. Kids are no different to us – they need to feel heard. If they don’t, nothing you say will go in because they’ll be too busy trying to figure out how to make you ‘get it’. 

    Empathise with the feeling, reject the behavior. ‘I know you’re upset that she knocked down your building – I really get that – but you can’t throw things at her.’ Make them accountable for their behavior, but let them know that you understand how they’re feeling. Kids start to learn empathy from 14 months and they’ll do this by watching you. 

    It’s an important lesson for them moving forward that just because they feel something, doesn’t always mean that the right thing to do is to act on it. At the heart of emotional intelligence is being able to identify and respond appropriately to emotions in the self and others. 

  6. Deal with emotion first.

    As with any of us, times of high emotion are not the time for wisdom, lectures, explanations or problem-solving. Don’t try to make your point then – it’s just not going to happen and it will make things worse. During high emotion, the part of the brain that can hear rationality or logic is ‘offline’, so they physically don’t have the capacity to receive or engage in a rational conversation. It’s the way it is for all of us.

    Instead, they need to know you that you’re there, that you see them, and that you get it (their distress). That doesn’t mean you agree with them, or that you’re supporting the way they are behaving, but that you can support them when they’re fragile. Think of it as being the scaffold between their high emotion, and the calm you want them to reach. To do this, acknowledge the emotion, ‘I know you’re angry/sad/confused’ right now,’ then wait until things settle down. Let them feel you as a strong, steady presence. When kids are out of control, they are quite literally, ‘out of control of their brains’. They aren’t doing it to be naughty or manipulative. They’re doing it because there is something that they need they aren’t getting. It’s likely they don’t even know what that is – they just know there’s something. It might be attention, security, comfort, a sleep – whatever it is it will be valid, even if their way of going about it is a long way off ‘adorable’. 

    If the calm doesn’t come, let them have space to settle down, but let them know that you’re there when they’re ready. This isn’t time out in the traditional sense where kids are separated, but more like space to calm down. Let them see you and let them know you’re there. It’s not a punishment – it’s space to settle. When they’ve settled, give them a cuddle and then talk about the issue. By then, they’ll be more ready to hear you. If there needs to be a consequence, let it be for what they did while they were upset (such as hurting someone or breaking something), not that they were upset. Let them know all feelings are okay, but not all behaviours are.

  7. Don’t get emotional. (Or should I say, don’t let on that you’re emotional.)

    When you’re setting or protecting a boundary, communicate your message as matter-of-factly as you can. This can take the strength of a gladiator to pull off but it’s important. Stay with the message and don’t bring in irrelevant details, (‘Grandma would be very disappointed’), old details, (‘Yesterday you painted your sister and today you’re putting her for-special dress on the dog – what’s going on with you?’). Don’t lecture, rant, or threaten to cancel Christmas (unless you actually are going to cancel Christmas – but that might be overkill for a for-special dress that now smells like dog.)

  8. Don’t jolt them out of the fun stuff. 

    Give a warning that the end of an activity, or the beginning of another is coming. ‘Another 5 minutes and then it’s time to pack up,’ or, ‘bedtime in 10’.  You get the idea.

  9. Have a routine – for everything.

    They might not always thank you for it – and you might not always thank yourself – but routines provide security and predictability, and that’s a little bit of wonderful for everyone. There’ll be plenty of times you’ll feel like straying away from the routine (or is that just me?), but it’s so important and will make their world safe and structured. If there’s turmoil going on inside of them, at least they know what to expect in the world outside of themselves.

  10. Your priorities will become theirs. Set them wisely.

    Nothing matters more to your kids than you do. They want to keep you happy so they’ll shape their behaviour around your responses. If you make more of a big deal of messy rooms than you do about them being brave, they will inevitably move towards tidiness being the most important value. Of course, tidiness is an important one but there are others that are more so.

    We can’t do everything. Neither can they. Some things you just need to let go of. This will give them permission to let go of having to be perfect too. There will be plenty of things that deserve high emotion – doing well at school, being kind, being helpful, being brave – save your high emotion for that and let the smaller things go. Spilling food on the floor never did anyone any harm.

  11. Choices.

    Allow for choices within your routine. Give your kids the opportunity to have some control within the safety of the boundaries you’ve set. ‘Do you want to get dressed first or have breakfast first?’ Make sure there’s enough fun happening though – you don’t want life to become one chore after another – story with bedtime, cuddle and a chat before breakfast, tv after a bath – whatever works for you.

  12. Be consistent.

    Few things will stoke anxiety more in an anxious child than unpredictability. One of the ways anxious people relieve their anxiety is through control. This isn’t done to be insensitive or ‘bossy’, even though it might come out that way. It’s done because of their great and very understandable need for predictability and safety. 

    The truth is that anxious kids don’t need to control everything in order to feel safe but they do need someone to take the lead and you’re perfect for the job. They need to understand that they can trust you to be in control of their lives. To show them, be predictable and clear with boundaries and have confidence in protecting those boundaries. Predictibility will increase their sense of safety and will help to minimise the likelihood of an anxious response.

    Without limits kids have nothing to guide their behaviour. The options become vast and overwhelming. They need to feel like you’ve got them, that you’ve set a safety zone and that within that, they’re fine. Of course they’ll push up against the edges and sometimes they’ll move well outside them – that’s all part of growing up and stretching their wings but even then, the boundaries will offer some sort of guide. In time, children without limits wil become controlling and demanding – and that just doesn’t end well for anyone.

  13. And your expectations?

    It’s likely that your anxious child already expects a lot of themselves. Be alive to the possibility that you may be expecting too much or too little. If you overestimate their abilities you’ll add to their stress. They’ll want to make you happy and they’ll push themselves to get there. Underestimate their capacity and you’ll undermine their confidence. If you believe they can, it will make it easier for them to believe they can. Make sure your expectations are age appropriate and be careful that your own anxiety doesn’t weigh in. (And I know that’s easier said than done!)

You’re only human. Thank heavens. Because living with perfection is no fun for anyone. Perfect people don’t make great humans. It’s hard to be with someone who knows everything and has nothing left to learn. (Or someone who thinks they are, anyway.) Be grateful for the mistakes you make along the way. The world doesn’t want anything but real humans who make real mistakes raising our next generation of world shakers.   

You might also like …

‘Hey Warrior’ is the book I’ve written for children to help them understand anxiety and to find their ‘brave’. It explains why anxiety feels the way it does, and it will teach them how they can ‘be the boss of their brains’ during anxiety, to feel calm. It’s not always enough to tell kids what to do – they need to understand why it works. Hey Warrior does this, giving explanations in a fun, simple, way that helps things make sense in a, ‘Oh so that’s how that works!’ kind of way, alongside gorgeous illustrations.

 

 


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44 Comments

Aruna

Good write up. Always model the behavior you want your child to show. It also helps to respond to bad behavior than REACT. Play it cool. 🙂

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Robin

This is the second article I’ve read on kids with anxiety and I find it very helpful and can apply to adults who suffer from chronic anxiety like myself so thank you for the valuable counsel and keep writing 🙂 I’m going to post this article on FB also.

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Michelle

This article was VERY helpful. We are seeing major anxiety and mood swings with our 10 year old since my father passed away. She has always been a perfectionist and anxious and now it is doubled. I am a type A perfectionist and I have had to really dial it down around her. My husband saw a post of yours about children with anxiety. We found it helpful and so I liked your FB page. I am so glad that I did because then you posted this article! Thank you!

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heysigmund

You’re so welcome. I’m so pleased the information has found its way to you. I’m sorry to hear that your daughter is having a difficult time. It sounds as though between you and your husband she’s in wonderful hands. I hope she’s able to find some comfort. Thank you for taking the time to make contact.

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Eve

Thank you for another spot on article about child anxiety, I can take so many elements on board in parenting my 5 yr old daughter who is anxious, emotional and sensitive, but bright loving, fun and caring. I’ve come to realise that a ‘one fix for all’ parenting approach does not work with her, and a calm but consistent approach with lots of love and reassurance works better. I enjoy reading your articles as I have so much to learn and I want to understand how to help her grow into a confident and happy young girl. Thank you.

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heysigmund

You’re so welcome. What a beautiful bundle you have there with your daughter. It’s one of the hardest things about parenting, isn’t it, that lack of a one-size-fits-all formula! It’s sounds like over the five years of loving your daughter you’ve figured out what works best. She’ll keep teaching you amazing things – it’s great that you’re open to it. Thank you for taking the time to make contact (and I love that you’re enjoying the articles!).

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Rob

The tools you offer are very helpful. As a grandparent I feel at times I’m expected to know all the right answers to child raising when as a grandparent I see the things I did right and wrong by how my children raise theirs. At times when I see something that mirrors my inadequate parenting I mention it as a point of note is all. When I see the good things I just smile.

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Kiersten

I’m a recent subscriber to your newsletter and am finding it to provide incredible insight and invaluable information, thank you! We have a son, 12, diagnosed with GAD and it proves to be so challenging at times. Through help provided by his therapist and reading books and articles like the ones you provide, I’m finding it easier to understand his needs and how better to parent him. He’s an amazing kid who is working through his anxiety and his dad and I are committed to helping him get there….

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heysigmund

You’re very welcome. Your son will develop great insights and wisdom from his experience that will hold him well as he moves into adulthood. You and his dad sound like a wonderful support for him. Keep doing what you’re doing. Thank you for taking the time to make contact.

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Bob Brandt

I don’t have kids, but I’m interested, so I read what seems to be intelligent that I come across about kids. As I was reading your article, I found myself thinking about some favorite married couples who, unfortunately, tend to react to one another like kids rather than treating one another as if the other were a kid. The article translates easily to be a piece for anybody wanting to show and develop love — to anyone. Nice work!

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heysigmund

Yes! That’s so insightful. I hadn’t thought of it like that but that makes so much sense. Whether kids or adults – at the end of the day we’re all human and we want the same things – to be heard, loved, respected and to feel connected to the people who are important to us. Thank you for taking the time to share this!

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Anna

Thank you. I have just started receiving your mail and it is very helpful. My five year old daughter is a beautiful bundle of sensitive nervousness and love. She is pushing her boundaries at the moment, a little, but I have to be so carefull with discipline. She can be very easy to upset. But I have to admit to finding it very difficult treading the line of sensitivity and knowing when to step back so that she can find that confidence. This information really helps, thanks 🙂

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heysigmund

You’re so welcome. I’m pleased the information has found its way to you. The sensitivity you have to what you daughter needs comes through loud and clear. It’s wonderful. You’ll be a great team.

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Karen King

Your advice is spot on. Sharing it with my daughter – and with the parents I work with as a school psychologist!

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Wendy Haymes

Excellent Article. My daughter is 16 and displaying anger & very controlling/physical behaviour to her friends & family. From reading this I realise I have to go back to basics with her in an age appropriate way. I understand ‘why’ but I do struggle with the ‘how’. Thank you for posting this.

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heysigmund

You’re very welcome. 16 can be a confusing age isn’t it – not quite an adult, not quite a child – frustrating for them and difficult for us as parents to know what to do with that frustration. Here is an article specific to teens, which might help http://www.heysigmund.com/parenting-adolescent-11-insights-will-make-difference/ . I’m sure that during adolescence they need to know more than ever how much we love them, even if they work hard to convince us otherwise! Your daughter is lucky to have you.

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Judith

I have a 4-year-old highly sensitive child, and anxiety is a HUGE part of that. This post really rang true for me – thank you for sharing. Dealing with her emotion first has been a difficult but important lesson – because nothing can be achieved when emotions are high. And trying to be calm (I tell myself, I’m the adult, I can control my emotions better than she can) when she is not also has been a huge key for us.

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Erin

Thank you for this! It has been very helpful for me as I prepare for our upcoming school IEP meeting. Our 7 y/o son’s anxiety at school when not supported in the ways you have outlined is often misinterpreted as willful and “naughty” behavior. This has really harmed his self confidence and peer interactions at school. I hope to find more articles here on anxiety and how to best advocate at school for young anxious children if possible.

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heysigmund

You’re welcome! I’m pleased the information has found its way to you at the right time. You’re right – anxiety in young kids can be misinterpreted. It’s great that you’re giving your son a voice. Parents are awesome. All the best for you IEP meeting.

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Annie

Thanks for your wonderful and helpful article! Bravo! I have one addition: It is very helpful if parents practice mindfulness meditation every day too because one of the most powerful ways to support a child who is anxious is to be as grounded as you can possibly be. And that is hard to fake!

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Shelley

This ia an awesome article, actually all of them that I have read thus far have been great, I work for a school board and Im a full time foster parents , working with inner city and hard to serve youth so each article has helped tremendously. I would love to have some pamphlets to give to our parents if at all possible as well, could you recommend any place or sources I could gather some together. Thank you for taking the time to help us with our younger generation. Much appreciated.

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heysigmund

I’m so pleased you’ve enjoyed the articles. As for the pamphlets, I can’t tell where you’re from but I would first try the national anxiety organisation (if it’s anxiety info you’re after) in your country. Most countries have one. Otherwise, if you want to print out the articles on the website, the green button on the pop-up at the side of the article is a print button and it prints the article in the right format and set out. Thank you for taking the time to make contact. It’s such important work you’re doing. The kids are lucky to have you.

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Vancat

Thanks for this great article, though I do have to say you lost me in the use of time outs – perhaps you didn’t mean to frame it in a punitive way (leave my presence until you calm yourself down, and do this all alone), but it seems very inconsistent with your overall relationship-safe, developmental approach to helping children process and work through their feelings with the help of caring adults. I’m just curious if you could extrapolate on your recommendation for sending children away to have a time out, to deal with their big feelings alone (and in the process, face them into separation, a source of even more deep alarm?)

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Hey Sigmund

Thanks for raising the issue – it’s an important one. I think time out is often framed as punishment and I don’t believe it should be. The words in the article are, ‘If the calm doesn’t come, move your child to time out and let him or her know that you’re there when they’re ready to settle down.’ It’s not about ‘sending them away’ or punishing them. The language is around getting back control, calming down, ‘take some time and I’m here when you’re ready’. It’s not said angrily or disapprovingly. Time out here is something done lovingly and firmly – not as punishment or with any shame attached. Use a firm, loving tone and firm, loving language – ‘I know you’re upset right now and I want to help you but I can’t do that until you’ve calmed down. Take some time and I’m here when you’re ready.’

You’re giving them the ability to control the consequences. You’re not keeping them in time out indefinitely, you’re not even keeping them there for a fixed time. As soon as they’re calm, they can come out. They have control. You’re still letting them know that you’re there, you’re available, you want to talk about it, you still love them, but nothing can happen until they calm down – because that’s the truth of it. One of our jobs as parents is to provide the opportunities for our kids to learn important skills or lessons. This is one of them. Otherwise, what happens when they get angry or upset at kindy or pre-school when you’re not there, if they haven’t been given the opportunity to learn to calm themselves down, at least to a point where they’re not completely out of control?

Of course, the first few times you do this, they’ll likely chase you. Just keep putting them gently back to where they need to be with the same message that you can’t help them until they’ve calmed down. Eventually they get there.

It’s such an important skill for kids to learn to calm themselves. We’re all going to get angry and want to scream at the world, but we can’t do that. The idea of self control is getting the self under control – not having someone else getting you under control. It’s important that kids are given the opportunities to learn and practice this. An out of control toddler is manageable – an out of control teen isn’t.

We’re not talking about time out for being sad, cranky, mad. Time out as discussed here is for when they are out of control – so out of control that there’s just nothing you can do. They’re not listening, they’re not responding. If you give them the idea that out of control tantruming, screaming, yelling is appropriate and that you’ll stay during that and support them through it, you’re giving them the idea that the world will do the same. The world won’t. The world will walk away, and often not come back.

With time out, it’s about space. You don’t have to take them far away. You don’t even have to take them somewhere they can’t see you. Sometimes it’s just you walking to the other side of the room. You’re just giving them space to settle with the message that they have to do something about this. The other lesson of course is that of respect. If they want people to listen and be there to talk about things and hear their point of view, the best way to make that happen is to act in such a way that makes that possible.

I hope this helps. I understand this can be a confusing issue. Keep in mind the main teaching. In this case it’s self control and it’s important to create opportunities to learn and practice this – but there is no reason this needs to be done angrily or with any shaming attached.

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Vancat

Thank you for your well-written and lengthy response, in which you added new information that I don’t believe was evident in the original article (I know that you have to be succinct when writing). I think you have a MUCH more nuanced understanding of ‘time outs’ than many parents who indeed do use it punitively…even if not originally…it eventually morphs into a way to punish or control children, because for many, it ‘works’…for a while (and at a larger cost I would add).
I wonder if, for starters, using another phrase rather than ‘time out’ would make it clear that you are not using it in the most commonly understood sense, perhaps something about ‘taking a break’, ‘breathing space’, going to your ‘feelings space’ where there can be things prepared for the child such as squishy toys, paper to rip to channel frustrations, water play, paints, ways to express their upset etc…
I am a mother of two young children and a child therapist, and one thing I caution parents about is that children do not feel our intentions, they feel our behaviour. So although we may have the best motivations to help our child become able to find rest and become more ‘fit for society’ (e.g. learn to calm themselves), what our child perceives (i.e. through the CHILD’S eyes) is that when they have become too much to handle mommy or daddy sends me away, and I am not invited into their presence anymore.
From what I have read and understood from recent research and neuroscience (e.g. Daniel Siegel, Gordon Neufeld, others), when a child is flooded with overwhelming emotions that he cannot manage, it is exactly when he most needs a regulating presence, that is, a close physical presence with a trusted, in-tuned, connected attachment figure. That is, what a struggling child (or ‘out of control’ child if you prefer) MOST needs is a time-in with an adult who can help them regulate themselves, rather than having to do it on their own when their pre-frontal is completely unplugged. In the example in this article, the message the child is receiving is: when I feel really upset or overwhelmed I am on my own. You may say I’m right in the next room or whatever, but just the act of making the child be alone and away from you, and be completely and solely responsible to calm themselves down (which implies they are under their own control after all if they can do this, yet this seems inconsistent with being ‘out of control’…?)

In my experience with young children with still developing untempered brains and little to no capacity to self-regulate when emotions are high (a lack of integrative functioning, which is completely natural), when we threaten separation with a highly frustrated (or deeply anxious child, as is the topic of this article), it actually only serves to exacerbate their frustration or alarm…eventually leading to “I don’t care, whatever, I’d rather be alone then around you anyways.” Etc… as we all know this ‘remove yourself until you are calm’ is a very short-term solution and won’t ‘work’ as well as the child gets older.
It is one thing is the parent is becoming highly disregulated and can’t be present and help move the child through the emotion (ideally even to deep tears, and eventually hugs), and by removing the child for a time being they can get their OWN perspective and maturity back. And this is certainly important if there is a risk of physical or emotional harm coming to the child; of course a child should be separated to prevent harm (actually this was the original purpose of time-outs created by pediatricians, as a way to keep children safe from parents who might loose it).
I guess I will stop there (phew! Ha – these are probably supposed to be short comments that you are graciously inviting.) I do very much value this website and draw from it in my work with families, and I do hope that you continue your thoughtful contributions. Thank you for being open to other points of view.

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Hey Sigmund

As I previously stated, time-out should never be a punitive measure. It is also not about banishing, separating or confining a child but about communicating the message that they need to settle down and giving them the opportunity to do that. There is also no suggestion that the child has to be alone. I agree that time-out in the traditional sense has been wrongly used in the past however I think it is important to take context into account.

High emotion from anxiety, as in a physiological response to threat or fear is one thing an in this instance a child should never be left to deal with this alone and should always be fully supported through their experience.

A tantrum on the other hand, in response to not getting one’s way, is another. In this case, the message being communicated for the child is not, ‘When I feel really upset or overwhelmed I’m on my own,’ but rather, ‘when I act disrespectfully or aggressively, I’m on my own,’ – which is why it’s important to make it clear about the behaviour that’s unacceptable: ‘I can’t talk to you when you’re yelling/ screaming/ throwing things/ behaving like this – take some space and I’m here when you’re ready.’ Boundaries in this instance are important and should still be done with love and without shaming. The difference is communicated through dialogue, ‘When you do this …’ and also because these times will engender a different parental response to the times that are more about the child feeling overwhelmed and upset but without the tantrum behaviour. There will be other opportunities to support the child when they are overwhelmed and upset (without the ‘antisocial’ behaviour) to let them know they aren’t alone. There are two different situations here and it is problematic to group them together. One is a tantrum. The other is feeling overwhelmed/scared/sad).

Support the child – not the pathology, which in the case of a tantrum, is aggression, disrespect etc. A tantrum involves more than feeling ‘overwhelmed or upset’. A tantrum involves antisocial behaviour that requires boundaries. It’s so important that we provide our kids with the information about what’s acceptable and what’s not and the opportunity to self-regulate. I have two children. My son was a tantrum thrower and my daughter has never thrown a tantrum in her life. This isn’t about parenting – they have very different personalities. My son is nearly 18 and towers over me. Now, more than ever, I can see the importance of the opportunities I have provided him since he was little to self control. He was never separated in time out but was regularly told that he needed to take space to calm down – not when because he was ‘overwhelmed or upset’ but because he was screaming/ yelling/ being disrespectful/ aggressive etc. The message has always been, as I described previously, ‘I want to talk about his with you but I can’t while you’re doing this. Take some time to calm down and I’m here when you’re ready.’ Now, as an almost adult, I know he gets upset with some of the boundaries we (his dad or I) put in place or with decisions we make or with things that happen as a part of life. Of course he gets upset with me sometimes but when When it’s me he’s upset with, all I say is what I’ve always said, which is ‘I want to talk to you about this but I can’t while you’re talking to me like that.’ He quickly resets himself, comes back with ‘OK mum, I’m calm. Can we talk?’ and we proceed to have the discussion. I see him pull himself together – it’s visible – he knows what to do because he’s been doing it since he was little. We are then able to talk really openly about what he’s feeling or thinking and what he needs, and he is also able to listen to me. More importantly, I see him find self-control on the sports field, behind the wheel of the car, all independently of me. The implications of kids being able to find self control are so much bigger when they are older – when they’re driving, at parties. I’ve heard stories about things that have gone wrong with other kids and so much of it comes down to a lack of self control – especially with boys. We aren’t always going to be beside them support them through high emotion. My son is successful, brave, popular and kind and I can assure you there are no ill-effects of the messages and the opportunities he has been given around learning self control. In fact, I’m now seeing more than ever how important this has been.

We are living in a time where our kids are the victims of coward punches and violent relationships – all symptomatic of a fallen capacity to self regulate. At what point do you suggest we provide the message that self control is SELF control and that tantrums and aggressive behaviour are antisocial and WON’T be supported? Again, it’s important to make the distinction between high emotion that’s symptomatic of anxiety, and high emotion that’s symptomatic of a tantrum. Anxiety should always be supported – always. Supporting a tantrum, on the other hand, is supporting a pathology and sending a dangerous message. Context is critical.

Also, kids are very different. Some will have a hair trigger temper and some will be more even keeled. What I believe without a doubt, is that for those who are quick to temper, providing opportunities for them to learn self control when they are younger is critical. I’m seeing this now with my son, who is constantly exposed to situations that require him to self-regulate. I wonder how he would have learnt this if he wasn’t given the messages when he was younger that an aggressive response (as in a tantrum) is inappropriate and won’t be tolerated (but I’m here as soon as you’re ready), as well as the opportunities to experiment with ways to calm himself down (because I won’t always be there to support him through it). I want to make it clear that I’m not talking about an anxious response here, but a tantrum – screaming, yelling, throwing things etc. We have to be so careful that in supporting the child, we are not supporting the pathology.

I completely respect that you have a different view on this. Perhaps our views are a matter of context and definition and aren’t that dissimilar when that is accounted for – I’m not sure – but I’m grateful to you for having the conversation. I think it’s an important one to have. Perhaps it as it is with most things in psychology – the black is grey, the white is grey and the grey is endlessly so. There will always be room, therefore, for open, informed, intelligent dialogue and I appreciate that yours is certainly that. That my opinion is a different one in no way intended to reduce or invalidate yours. You make some valid points and I’m pleased you have brought them here.

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Vancat

Thank you Karen, this is helpful for me to have a better sense of how you have put the pieces together for your article and, most importantly, your theoretical foundations and ideas about behaviour and what children need. I still respectfully disagree as I have a different root theoretical orientation about brain and emotional development, and what children need to mature into their fullest potential (both in those ‘moments’ and over the long term), and because we are coming from such different fundamental core theoretical orientations and lenses on how we interpret behaviour, and in particular how children develop true “self-control” that generalizes (i.e. the tempering system of having the ability to feel two different feelings at once, which requires emotions to be ABLE to be felt and not defended against, in the context of relationship – see. Dr. Gordon Neufeld’s extensive work on aggression, counterwill and the adaptation process for more). Alas, we will likely never converge so probably not worth it for me to break it down, so to speak. But I realize you are probably in a bigger camp than I, at least in North America. 🙂 Thank you again for all your great articles and prolific, sensitive writing.

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Y2chaotic

Thank you for this article. I have an anxious child and am anxious myself, and it is a fairly constant struggle to be the bastion of calm. 🙂

Your point about “letting value be the driver” stopped me in my tracks, in the best possible way. One of our struggles, I realized, is really about Trust. About trusting me to try something when he’s in distress. An outsider might view his behavior when he’s upset as “he’s being stubborn,” but perhaps he’s just protecting himself, and not feeling able to trust me to lead him through a rough patch without losing face. I need to turn inward and figure out how I can be more “safe” to him, to be consistent and loving and steady enough, and clear enough in my love and support….

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Hey Sigmund

You’re welcome. Living with anxiety isn’t easy – whether it’s yours, someone else’s or both. You’re observation in relation to your son is really insightful and it sounds spot on to me. It sounds as though you understand exactly what he needs.

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Jessica

My 10 year old daughter has severe OCD and has difficulty regulating her emotions. She is on medication for both OCD and anger management. She sees a psychiatrist and a psychologist and my husband and I are working with a psychologist as well. Over the past two years our daughter has become incredibly anxious any time my husband or I swallows. We have worked on this a long time in therapy and are still struggling with it. She has escalated to often pinching or attempting to scratch me when she thinks I have swallowed. I am really struggling with what kind of discipline/therapy/consequence to use. What she is doing is not okay and I need something consistent to try. Thank you for your advice.

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Hey Sigmund

Hi Jessica. This sounds awful for you – and for you to know she’s going through it. It sounds as though you are getting the right support for your daughter though. First of all, you’re right – pinching and scratching isn’t acceptable, but it sounds as though there is something that’s really worrying her when you swallow. If it’s been developing over the last two years, it sounds like it’s a real fear for her. For that reason, in my opinion, I don’t think discipline is the answer because it won’t change the underlying reason she’s doing it.

It’s important to be guided by the therapists who are currently working with you and your daughter because they would know her and would have much more of an idea of what’s going on. I expect though, that anything you can do to understand what’s happening for her when you swallow will be valuable. If you push against it, there’s a chance you’ll cause her to push back harder because in her eyes, ‘you just don’t understand’. There’s something that happens for her when you swallow that feels bad. She responds the way she does to control that bad feeling, not to hurt you. Her reaction isn’t right but her feeling is valid, because it’s her true, honest feeling. That’s where you need to meet her on. Let her know that you understand that something happens to her when you swallow and you want to understand more about that. Feed back what you see, ‘I can see that you get upset when I swallow. You want to scratch me.’ By doing this, you’ll be letting her know that you see her and that you want to understand. She has nothing to push back against then.

See if you can get her to tell you as much as she can about what she thinks or feels – in her body, in her head – when you swallow. She might not have the words yet, but keep validating her and giving her space and the opportunity to explore it, without resistance. Explain that although you understand that she feels like this, the way she reacts to it isn’t okay. ‘You want to scratch me when I swallow. Did you know that it hurts me when you do that? What happens to you when I say that?’ Do this in a calm, loving, strong way so she can feel like you’ve ‘got this’.

Your daughter’s response is something she does to ease her anxiety around whatever is happening for her when you swallow. People only do what works. Sometimes it doesn’t work very well or it isn’t the best option, but the key to changing a behaviour lies in understanding the purpose it’s serving, even if it’s not serving that purpose particularly well.

It might be useful to explain that sometimes our brain can have us responding to things as though they’re dangerous, even though they’re not, and explain this in terms of the fight or flight response. The explanation is here http://www.heysigmund.com/anxiety-in-kids/ . Then let her know that brains can change – they do all the time, even in adults.

Again, only do this if it’s in line with what her therapists are already doing. The worst thing would be to cut across a plan that they’re working on. There are many ways to deal with this sort of thing – this is just one idea but the therapists working with your daughter might have other ideas that are as effective or more effective, so it’s important to be guided by them.

This is a difficult issue – for her and for you. There won’t be any quick fix but there will be a way to manage it so it doesn’t get worse and in time can stop getting in her way. You’ve done the right thing with the support you’ve found for her. I hope she (and you!) are able to find some comfort. Much love and strength to you.

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Anna

After reading this article and applying most of the things, i feel helpless
In my situation, i have no support network so my 4 years old has seen me only through out his 4 years old life
He has become so stubburn with everything, starting a day with brushing his teeth, the first thing comes out of this mouth is “no”

Ething is “no” for him

Nothing works to improve his behavior. Now his baby sister has started copying him

I have been looking for boot camp or boarding school for him but not finding one

I think he needs to go away from me in very strict disciplined enviorment

Can u please help?really need it

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Hey Sigmund

Anna I really understand how frustrating it can be when the little people in your care seem to push against everything you ask of them. The most important thing is not to take this personally. Your son’s beahviour is not a sign of bad parenting or bad children. Children don’t want to disconnect from their parents and they don’t want to do the wrong thing. The thing is, their job is to discover who they are and their place in the world and they will go through stages, as your son is now, that they will also have to discover who they are independently of us. This will mean sometimes experimenting with separating themselves from us, which is why your son is saying ‘no’ to everything. He wants to be different from you. He wants to be seen as his own person with his own mind. The more you stop this, the more he will push against you. What he’s doing sounds fairly normal, though I appreciate that their may be other things happening that haven’t been shared in your comment. Saying ‘no’ to everything is pretty standard behaviour for 4 year olds, but one of the things that can happen is the more they feel our frustration or hopelessness or anger, the more they will push against that and possibly become more defiant.

It is still really important to have your boundaries around acceptable behaviour, but you will be more likely to get his co-operation if you first acknowledge that he feels differently to you. ‘I understand you don’t want to brush your teeth. You’d much rather be out playing wouldn’t you. Let’s see how shiny you can make them in two minutes and then you can play/ read a story.’ Then, give him some of the control back by giving him a choice. ‘I can see that your big enough now to make some of your own decisions, so would you like to brush your teeth before you get dressed or straight after?’ or something like that. Here is an article that might help you http://www.heysigmund.com/how-to-avoid-shaming/. At 4 years old, the last thing your son needs is boot camp or boarding school. He needs to be able to explore the world and his part in it and the space to explore and learn with gentle loving boundaries from you. Don’t take it personally if he pushes against your boundaries and disagrees with everything you say – that’s what kids do.

I understand that things can get overwhelming. Every parent has been there. I expect there isn’t a parent on the planet who hasn’t felt completely overwhelmed, exhausted, frustrated and helpless at some point – probably many points. It’s completely okay to need extra support sometimes and guidance for how to do things so things run smoother. None of us were born knowing this stuff. A therapist or a counsellor will be able to help you find healthy boundaries in relation to your son and coach you with how to keep them with your son, but in ways that won’t crush his spirit and that will help you to feel more in control and more empowered. 4 year olds can be tough, but our job as parents is to guide them and preserve their spirit, curiosity and independent minds. Once you knock that out of them, you can’t knock it back in. I would really encourage you to find the support of a counsellor or therapist to support you.

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Tricia Prues

This is beautiful. Thank you for the practical tips. It can be hard to keep relationships first in the craziness of child rearing, but it’s so important.

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