I just finished reading Jane Nelsen’s new book (written with Steven Foster and Arlene Raphael) called, “Positive Discipline for Children with Special Needs.” It’s another wonderful addition to her Positive Discipline series, with particular emphasis on how to apply positive discipline strategies to your high need or special need child.
This book reminded me once again why traditional “time-outs” don’t teach children how to “behave.” My favorite quote from Jane’s work is, “Where did we get the crazy idea that in order to help children do better, we must first make them feel worse?” Positive discipline teaches that “children do better when they feel better.” This makes sense to me. If a child feels loved, respected, and understood in a moment of high emotion, she will be much more likely to learn how to express herself in more productive ways (rather than hit, push, bite, scream, or whatever other behavior “earned” them the current time out).
This is not an easy issue. It is extremely hard to connect with a child who has retreated into “fight or flight” mode. Once entrenched in a power struggle, your child is simply not capable of having a productive interaction with you. Sometimes the child (and/or the parent!) needs to cool off, before strategizing possible solutions to the original problem. When you want to teach your child a new social skill (such as not grabbing a toy from another child, or saying ‘excuse me’ to get mommy’s attention instead of hitting), it’s important for your child to first feel loved, valued and capable of learning a new skill.
Of course, we will still hold our child accountable (in an age-appropriate way) for his behavior. We just need to make sure that he is connected to us first, so he is willing to accept help.
One strategy I like to promote is validating the child’s struggle. This validation is best heard by the child either as he becomes more and more agitated (on the way to a tantrum), or on the other side of the tantrum when he (and his parent) have cooled off. This validation can be as simple as reflecting the emotion of the child: “You look frustrated/mad/upset,” “You’re having a hard afternoon,” or “You’re worried/embarassed/sad.”
This is an extremely important step which will help you connect with your child in a moment of high emotion. Think of a time you were upset and your favorite person said, “You look really sad,” or “It looks like you’re having a really hard day.” Your friend doesn’t try to solve the problem for you right away. They simply reflect what you’re feeling inside. And you may feel better, knowing that someone is trying to understand your struggle.
If your child feels that you understand their emotional state, the power struggle between you may dissipate, giving you at least another moment to think about next steps and eliminating the need for a punitive time out.