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My pre-kids background is as a therapist, trained in child development and play therapy. This means I have a lot of feelings about . . . feelings.
Having kids, I knew I would want all caregivers to be on the same page about how my husband and I approach discipline and emotions. Thankfully, my husband is a consummate researcher and is down to read many a parenting book that I throw at him. (We love anything by Dan Siegel.) We also have part-time childcare, and I continually have conversations about how to address discipline as our kids develop and change.
My twins are only 15 months old, so setting limits looks slightly different than it would with an elementary-age child and older. However, it is important to me that we set a foundation as a family for healthy and consistent communication. After all, the true root of the word discipline is “to teach,” not to punish.
Name the Feelings
Identifying emotions during moments of distress can have an incredible calming effect (no, not a magic bullet, but this is one step in a multi-faceted approach).
By helping a child name feelings, the child gets the sense that in the midst of chaos, someone knows what’s going on. Even if you get the feeling wrong, older kiddos can take this opportunity to identify their own feeling and correct you.
I want my children to have a wide emotional vocabulary and be in-tune with how they are feeling. Identifying emotions is an early building block to this all-important and life-long skill.
No Feeling Is Silly
We have all seen the memes, “reasons my kid is crying.” And yes, these things are often very silly.
However, the feelings a kiddo is having are very very real. In these instances, belittling or laughing at these feelings can be incredibly invalidating. It tells your child not to trust how he or she feels.
We can validate the emotion, tell the story of what happened, and give appropriate choices, even if the reason seems ridiculous to us. For example, “You’re sad you have to put on pants. We wear pants when we leave the house. Do you want to wear the blue pants or the pink pants?”
My kids are very young, but I already see that they have their own opinions. Heck, they’re identical twins, and they both have different tastes and personalities already! Whenever possible, we give choices to help them feel in control.
Choices also help you child identify wants and needs early on. This can be as simple as giving a choice between two outfits in the morning or two foods at snack time. Practicing early on will help us build this skill as we enter the highly opinionated toddler years.
Choices also allow you to redirect to appropriate coping. Instead of just telling the child what not to do, offer them choices of what they can do.
All Feelings Are Okay, All Behaviors Are Not
When I work with parents as a therapist, the above phrase is one I utter often. Now, just because no feeling is off-limits does not mean it is okay to behave however we want. We can correct the behavior while still validating the feeling.
In fact, this is healthy and helps our kids identify different ways of coping.
This can look like: I see you’re feeling angry. Your sister is not for hitting. If you feel mad, you can yell into your pillow, or we can go get our energy out by running outside.
Connect, Correct, and Redirect
Predictability and consistency has been an important part of my parenting journey. For example, my twins thrive on a schedule and knowing what to expect. I hope discipline and limit setting will be no different.
In order, I try to:
- Connect by getting on their level, validating the emotion or want, and telling the story of what happened.
- Correct by setting the limit.
- Redirect by giving them choices of appropriate alternatives.
In practice this looks like: I know you want to chew on the book. Books are not for chewing. You can chew on the teether or the washcloth. (Can you tell our molars are coming in?)
It doesn’t have to be complicated or wordy. We even have a “one-sheeter” with this verbiage hanging on our refrigerator to help all caregivers remain on the same page.
It Is Not Magic
I say all this with the full understanding that we have not even scratched the surface of the toddler years. None of these methods will magically keep my kids from melting down in a grocery store when they are hangry.
My aim is not to have kids that don’t throw tantrums (although wouldn’t that be nice?). My aim is to raise kids who can identify and sit with their emotions, who can find positive coping skills to deal with feelings that come up (even negative ones), and who can express themselves in emotionally intelligent ways.