Monday, August 25, 2008

How to Discipline an "Angry" Child

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I was asked just recently what to do about a child who has begun to act out aggressively when he experiences frustration. Here are my thoughts:

First - a child needs to be taught, and reminded, that feeling angry is OK. Anger is an emotion and should not be judged as "bad" or "wrong". If we as parents do this - we are teaching the child that it is "wrong" to feel.

Second - separate the emotion from the behaviour. Validate and respect the emotion - identify the behaviour and explain why it is not acceptable. My policy with my children has always been to acknowledge that they are feeling angry, and that is fine - however, I describe the behaviour they are using to express that anger, and let them know that it is inappropriate.

Third - give alternatives to the unacceptable behaviour. It's like this - when my twin boys were little and they got frustrated they would hit me. This is not acceptable behaviour. And while I do not have a problem with spanking as discipline (in certain situations only), I realize that spanking a child in this scenario, only teaches them that hitting is ok - but only if you are big and the other person is little. So, I provided an alternative so that my little ones could release the negative energy of their anger. "Here - hit this pillow because it is not ok to hit Mommy. When you are not feeling so angry, we can talk about the problem." They would smash those pillows, and give me dirty looks the whole time, and I would smile back and ask, "Are you feeling better yet?" Eventually, the intensity of emotion would wear off, and they would come sit on my lap and we would talk about what they wanted, why Mommy said "no", and what we can do instead. We also talked about why hitting one's mom is not ok - event when you're feeling really angry. This taught my kids several things: 1) they know that they can tell me when they're upset with me, and that I won't judge them for their feelings, 2) they have respect for their parents, authority figures, and for their peers, which to me is most important, and 3) they understand that while they might feel angry sometimes, that aggression is not an appropriate way to resolve their issues. They don't always make the best choices despite this - but, their choices are more informed, and they get better outcomes because they think before they act.

Next - offer choices. Many years ago, my husband and I decided that we would allow our children to choose their form of discipline for the really BIG stuff that they got in trouble for. When they were younger, most times it would be the choice of a spanking (a temporary stinger) vs. losing a privilege like TV or the computer. Sometimes they would choose the spanking - sometimes they would give up a privilege. If they defaced a piece of furniture or broke something valuable, they could work for the money needed to replace it, or work with their dad to repair it. If they made a mess, they could clean it up themselves or they could lose out somewhere else. Sometimes, we just asked, "What do you think is an appropriate punishment for what you have done?" They never copped out and said, "nothing at all..." They always chose something that was fitting, and we always walked away feeling really proud of our kids. What did we teach them through this process? 1) That every choice you make has a consequence - sometimes positive, sometimes negative, but those consequences are a direct result of YOUR choices - it isn't anyone else's fault. 2) They learned how to take responsibility for their mistakes. Too often, people want to pass the buck and lay blame elsewhere - taking responsibility is almost a lost art now - but a value that is desperately needed if we hope to raise socially responsible, contributing members of society.

When in doubt, always ask yourself, "What do I want my child to learn through this experience?" If your answer sounds like you want them to know who is in charge, or that they can't get away with _________ (you fill in the blanks), or that they should know their place - chances are that your motivation is control and dominance vs. teaching your child to be responsible. When your objectives are to ensure that your child learns from his/her mistakes, makes good choices, and learns how to take ownership for his/her behaviour, your choices for discipline will move towards effecting those positive outcomes.

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