Parenting is hard work. Even when everything is going well. Parenting when it isn't, can sometimes feel impossible. Parents who have committed to following a more mindful, gentle style of parenting can often be hit with 'discipline burn-out'. Or as I call them the "I can't take any bloody more" moments. You know the moments - where you wonder why you ever had kids, the ones where you think about dropping everything and running away to join the circus, child-free and the ones where you wonder why in the hell you ever thought you would be a good parent. These are the moments where parents chuck in the gentle towel and resort to yelling, punishing, shaming and everything else they swore they wouldn't do and feel bad for when they do. For anyone reading who is just about at that level, or already there, here are three points to read and keep in mind, to keep yourself on the gentle path.
Over Estimating Children
Sometimes the most common reason why kids misbehave and discipline doesn't seem to be working, is because the behaviour expected is just not in-line with what is appropriate for a child of a certain age. It's just not reasonable to expect toddlers to not tantrum, a three year old to not lose their temper and hit, kick or bite a baby sibling, a four year old to share all the time, a seven year old to keep their room tidy and a teenager to never yell, sulk or slam doors. If you expect any of these you're doomed to fail from the off. That doesn't meant these behaviours are OK, or acceptable. They aren't. But kids aren't adults and actually adults aren't that great either. All adults have off days, days when they're rude, days when they lack impulse control, days where they say something unkind, days when they sulk, days when they can't be bothered to tidy. It's just not realistic to expect kids to never have off days. It's even more unrealistic to expect to be able to make them behave in the same way an adult behaves. Because they don't have the same level of brain development as an adult. Lower the bar a little. Understand that your kid isn't misbehaving deliberately, they're just doing the best that they can with the level of neurological development that is appropriate to their age.
The Fix It Mentality
Understandably parents want to solve behaviour concerns. They want to be able to stop their baby throwing food from their highchair and their toddler from touching the expensive ornaments on the fireplace. They search for ways to stop their three year old from throwing objects in the house, stop their four and six year old siblings fighting and stop their teen from sulking. Any failure to extinguish these behaviours is seen as an ineffective discipline method. We need to move away from the 'fix it' desire. Sometimes, in fact a lot of times, behaviour can't be fixed. It's not like diagnosing an electrical fault, changing a fuse - and bingo, problem solved. We're talking mini people here, not wiring. Human behaviour, especially that of the little kind, is grey - not black and white. It would be nice to tidy up everything and fix behaviours, shutting them away in a locked drawer forever but real life doesn't work like that - it's complicated and messy. Change the narrative, don't think "how can I fix this?", but "Am I being realistic expecting this to stop right now? Can I use my adult brain and divert it, rather than fix it?".
Shifting from a 'fix it' to a 'divert it and use my adult brain' mentality makes you look at things differently. The baby throwing food from the highchair can't be fixed, a better solution would be to ditch the highchair and sit them on a mess mat on the floor. The toddler touching precious ornaments can't be fixed. A better solution is to put the ornaments out of reach or in a locked cupboard until the child is older, with developed impulse control. Switch from fixing to diverting and using your adult brain to bypass the situation, when discipline just doesn't seem to be working.
Taking Supposed Failures Personally
Let's clear this one up right now. There is no such thing as a perfect parent. Everybody messes up. Nobody is naturally calm at all times. Nobody has endless levels of patience. We all mess up. Stop taking everything so personally. Most of the time, this isn't about you. It's not about how you act, or how you've raised your child, or which method of discipline you choose. It just is. Most of the time, it's the luck of the draw, with a bit of biology thrown in.
It doesn't matter if you're an authoritarian parent, hot on punishment and reward, or a gentle parent, focused on connection and empathy. Your kid is going to misbehave. Because that's what they do, because, see point one. You're in this for the long haul. What you're doing now, in honesty, won't have a huge impact on how your kid behaves today, or tomorrow, or next week. You're parenting for results you'll see in the next twenty to thirty years. While that lack of instant gratification sucks, it doesn't mean that your effort is in vain and it doesn't mean that what you're doing isn't working.
The other problem here, aside from feeling demoralised and ready to throw your gentle parenting manual in the fire, is that this self-blame is poisonous. It eats away at you, gnawing at your confidence with the jaws of self-doubt and blame. When you allow these feelings to grow, you treat yourself badly and when you treat yourself badly your temper and tolerance get shorter. The result? You become the parent you're not proud of and that's what your kids will copy. For the best discipline results you must work on your confidence and well-being, because in those years of delayed results, they are key.
How do you dig yourself out of a discipline rut? My favourite solution is to take a parenting break. I don't mean getting away from my kids (though if you can do it and you want to, then go for it!), I mean I try to stop thinking about it. Switch the parenting books for chick lit, thriller, drama, or whatever floats your boat. Take a social media break, or at least a break from parenting related social media (and especially avoid any 'perfect parent' pages or Instagram streams, you know the ones that make you feel inadequate. Stop analysing what you're doing and saying around your kids for a few days, let things slide a little, ignore the behaviour that's really bugging you and try to just have fun again as a family. Then return to everything when you feel more relaxed and recharged, but remember: lower the bar, stop trying to fix everything and stop taking it all so personally!
by Sarah Ockwell-Smith
If you liked this article, check out my new Gentle Discipline book; for more on changing the way you, as well as your child, behave (hint, it's all about understanding and shaping, rather than fixing and instantly changing!)