For most who practice what is known as "Attachment Parenting," gentle discipline is a given. Eschewing spankings, and for some, avoiding all forms of punitive discipline, means drawing from Saint-like stores of patience, calm, and understanding in the face of typical child-like behavior and tantrums.
I am just such a parent, and I have no such stores. Balancing my parenting style with an emotionally draining career and other responsibilities sometimes leaves my wells a little dry. There are excellent articles out there on how to work toward being a more gentle parent, or how to avoid yelling, or providing alternatives to punitive discipline. Unfortunately, sometimes in the heat of the moment, the tips and tricks in those articles escape me, and I find myself yelling, threatening, and otherwise conducting myself in a manner that is not, by any stretch of the imagination, gentle.
I've chosen to seize these missteps as opportunities to model grace in admitting my mistakes and asking for forgiveness. I am human. My children are human. We share a tendency toward imperfection. My children are going to make mistakes in their lives. They are going to lash out at others in anger or frustration. They are going to say and do things they regret to people they love and respect. By responding appropriately to my own mistakes, I set an example for how to appropriately respond to personal mistakes in general.
So, what's an attached parent to do, following a gentle discipline blunder?
1. Take time to collect yourself. In my case, my daughter is old enough that I can tell her that I need to take some time to calm down, and she will often give me that space. That's not always the case when she's in mid-tantrum and my reaction has escalated it, so if it's safe to do so, I will simply leave the room for a few moments to calm down before proceeding. I take that time to practice deep breathing or a mindfulness exercise, and to repeat affirmations to myself: "I am a gentle parent. I respond to my child with sensitivity and respect, even when it is difficult. I model kindness and grace."
2. Apologize. Apologize for your actions, not for your feelings. Uncomfortable emotions (anger, annoyance, frustration, etc.) are normal and natural, and you shouldn't apologize for being upset with your child. Apologize instead for your behavior. By affirming the feelings that led to your behavior, you do not negate the fact that your child's behavior warranted guidance or correction. Focus on your behavior and what you could have done differently to demonstrate that a big part of this whole discipline thing is learning which behaviors are appropriate and which are not. Example: "I'm sorry I yelled at you. I was upset that you hit your brother, but I shouldn't have yelled. I should have talked to you calmly."
3. Ask forgiveness. Following your apology, simply ask for forgiveness. Your child may follow suit and ask for your forgiveness, too. If he doesn't, model that expectation by saying that you forgive him. "Thank you for forgiving me for yelling at you. I forgive you for hitting your brother."
4. Engage your child in avoiding a repeat. If your child is invested in the problem solving and planning process, he is more likely to follow through with your plans for preventing a repeat blunder. Consider what each of you could have done differently in the situation, and plan specific ways to avoid your problem behaviors in the future. Agree to remind each other if you notice each other engaging in the behavior (yelling, hitting, etc.). One of my favorite tried and true ideas came from this post by Creative with Kids. My 4 year old and I sat down together and cut out a stack of hearts from pink construction paper. I explained that the hearts represent our agreement to treat each other with love and respect, even when we are upset. We agreed to give each other a pink heart if we noticed the other starting to lose our temper. It worked like a dream! My child felt empowered to intervene if I started to lose my cool, and her asking me assertively if I needed a pink heart was always enough to remind me to take some deep breaths and proceed calmly.
5. Explore and affirm your child's emotions. Take the time to process the interaction with your child in an age appropriate way. If you don't have time to do this in the moment, do it as soon as possible. She may have been frightened, confused, startled, or all three! Talking about her feelings accomplishes two things. First, it shows that you care for her feelings and that the feelings she experienced are valid. Second, it helps her name her emotions and gives her an opening to explore appropriate ways to express them.
A gentle discipline blunder can be overwhelming and upsetting to everyone involved, but when handled appropriately, it can open the door to improved communication, emotional intelligence, grace, understanding, and forgiveness.
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