Written by: Sabrina Ragan, Executive Contributor
Executive Contributors at Brainz Magazine are handpicked and invited to contribute because of their knowledge and valuable insight within their area of expertise.
One of the most common beliefs about discipline is that consequences should happen immediately after a child's misbehaviour. Many parents believe that if they don't address bad behaviour right away, their child will not learn the lesson and that they are allowing their child to get away with bad behavior. Contrary to popular belief, punishing your child right after misbehavior can do more harm than good, can actually hinder the learning process, and it can be a challenge for parents to come up with a good consequence on the spot. Timing is crucial when it comes to effective discipline. It is just not what you would expect. So, let's discuss why timing is key when it comes to discipline and how it can be used as a powerful parenting strategy.
What is Effective Discipline?
Discipline, in its essence, is about raising your child to know the difference between right and wrong. It is meant to not only encourage good behaviour, but actually change your child's behaviour. Parenting involves helping your child develop into a responsible, empathetic, and disciplined person. This includes teaching them how to make wise decisions, consider the feelings of others, to handle their strong emotions, and make the right choices even when you are not there. Effective discipline is setting appropriate limits, maintaining high standards for your child's behaviour, holding them responsible for their actions, and simultaneously deepening and strengthening your relationship with them. By disciplining in the right way, you can achieve all of these goals. What matters most is that your child learns from the discipline and internalizes the lesson, but this is not possible when you address misbehaviour too soon.
Why is Disciplining a Child Immediately After Misbehavior the Least Effective Time?
So, when is the actual best time to discipline your child? The answer lies in understanding what is happening in your child's brain. To understand why addressing a misbehavior immediately is least effective, we need to delve into some quick brain science. The brain can be divided into two main parts: the lower brain (survival brain) and the upper brain (thinking brain).
Our lower brain is responsible for some of our most important and basic functions. It controls our breathing, heart rate, and even our digestion – things we often take for granted, but without which we would not survive. It is also responsible for our innate responses in times of danger, causing us to either fight, flee, freeze, or faint. While it prioritizes our survival over learning, it also produces strong emotions like anger and fear, which can be useful in dangerous situations, but not so useful when you are trying to discipline your child.
The problem with the commonly held belief that you need to immediately discipline misbehaviour in your child is that they are likely to be in a heightened state of emotion, operating on instinct rather than reason. In these moments, their lower brain has taken over. This is the part of the brain responsible for our fight or flight response can make your child reactive, aggressive, or even just shut down completely. When they're in this heightened emotional state, it can be hard for them to understand or even hear the lesson you're trying to teach. They're focused on protecting themselves from perceived harm, and not listening or learning from you.
It's important to recognize that your child is not intentionally being difficult, but rather, they are reactive and in a self-defence mode because their lower brain has taken over. No amount of discipline, no matter how creative, will shift or change your child's behaviour when your child is in this part of their brain. You are putting energy into teaching with little to no effect.
When is The Best Time to Apply Discipline?
The best time to discipline is when your child is operating from their upper brain or their thinking brain. The upper brain is responsible for higher order thinking, planning, and problem-solving. When your child is using this part of their brain, they're better able to understand consequences, think before acting, and regulate their emotions.
The ultimate goal in disciplining our children is to help them understand what they did wrong and why we are giving them a consequence. We want to teach them right from wrong and help them make better choices in the future. When you wait until your child has had a chance to relax and settle down before disciplining them, they will be able to listen more intently, process the lesson you are trying to teach them and internalize it. Not only is this going to lead to better learning in the short-term but it will also create long-term behavior change. This goal can only be achieved when you help your child move from their lower brain, which is focused on survival and reactive behavior, to their upper brain, which is where they can process information and make rational decisions.
That's why it's important to approach these situations with patience and understanding, so that you can help your child move past their emotional state and into a more receptive state where they can learn and grow. By helping your child move past their emotional state and into their upper brain, you are promoting a more effective learning experience, ultimately setting your child up for success. You won't be wasting your time trying to punish behavior that simply isn't going to change. When you use this approach, your child will begin to understand the purpose of rules and why it's important to follow them. They will also develop the self-discipline to make better choices and will be more likely to follow those rules in the future.
Six Steps for Effective Child Discipline
1. Take a deep breath and give yourself time to calm down before addressing your child. You need to make sure you are also in your thinking brain before addressing behaviour.
2. Take the time to listen to your child's side of the story. Listening to their version of events will help you understand how they're feeling and give you a better opportunity to address the issue effectively.
3. Reflect their emotions back to them. This helps organize your child's emotions for them, reinforces that you understand how they feel, and helps build a connection through empathy.
4. Nurture your child until they are calm and receptive to direction. You are your child's co-regulator, especially when your child is emotionally overwhelmed.
Repeat the first 4 steps until your child is calm and feels connected to you.
5. Explain that there needs to be consequences for their behaviour and what those consequences will be. Be clear about what will happen if they repeat the behaviour in the future.
6. Problem-solve. Help your child come up with better alternatives for the next time a similar situation arises. This helps them develop problem-solving skills and promotes self-discipline rather than relying on you to enforce it.
Timing is everything when it comes to effective discipline. There is power in knowing where your child is in their brain and how to move them around to different spots for better listening, regulation, and optimal learning. Immediately responding to your child's behaviour when they are in the midst of an emotional storm is not optimal. It has only two effects: it makes us feel good as parents that we did something, but it also fuels the fire of an already unmanageable situation. By responding to misbehavior when your child is in their upper brain, you can help them learn and internalize the message more effectively. You will also be able to teach them important skills such as problem-solving and decision making which will lead to lasting behavior change over time. And when you follow the process outlined above you also strengthen and deepen your attachment relationship with your child. With patience and understanding, you can make sure discipline leads to positive results and helps your child grow into the best version of themselves.
Sabrina Ragan, Executive Contributor Brainz Magazine
Sabrina Ragan is an experienced and dedicated psychologist and play therapist who works with children and families facing challenging situations. She combines attachment theory, neuropsychology, and solution-focused techniques to build strong relationships and achieve positive results in counselling sessions. Sabrina's own experience of motherhood without family support led her to create the Empowered Mom's Membership Community, which offers a supportive space for like-minded individuals to connect. Sabrina's main focus is to improve the lives of children and families, and this commitment drives everything she does at Keystone Child and Family Therapy and in the Empowered Mom's Membership Community.