Gaining your child's cooperation can be challenging, to say the least. It's no wonder that parents try to control their children's behavior using rewards, threats, and punishments. But while these strategies may seem to work in the short term, they're not the most effective way to teach your child the values and rules of your home and your community. In this episode, Dr. Nanika Coor gives you 10 alternatives to punitive discipline.
In the face of your child’s challenging behavior and resistance, it’s hard not to demand immediate obedience from your child. You’re more likely to expect obedience if you’ve been raised with a “power-over” hierarchical familial structure where adult needs trump child needs, and where the biggest person with the most power—the adult—“wins.”
Now that you're the one with more power, it can be difficult to imagine sharing that power with your child. It’s so triggering when they don’t comply—no one shared power with you growing up! It’s your turn to call the shots!
But using punitive tactics like yelling, threatening, shaming, time outs, and imposed "consequences" to get your way doesn’t teach them to identify and express their feelings and needs. They also don't learn the alternative behaviors they could use. Instead, it teaches them to use their size, strength, and power to get what they want. Bribing them or using rewards to coerce your child into compliance is also tricky; they will often coerce you in return, refusing to comply unless given the reward.
So how do you respond when your child breaks rules or flat out refuses to do what you’ve asked?
Well, you’re not going to make your child behave better by making them feel worse. They can’t behave better externally until they feel better internally. Using respectful discipline takes the focus off of the behaviors themselves and puts the focus on the internal struggle causing them. You preserve your child’s dignity, humanity, and self-worth even as you stand firm on your boundaries. Respectful discipline is about letting go of what you can’t control (your child) and holding onto what you can control (yourself!).
Here are 10 ways to gain your child’s cooperation without using punishments:
1. Trade control for influence
You won’t always be the bigger one with more power. That’s why a strongly-connected relationship with your child is a more sustainable parenting tool. Your child will almost always resist your control, but if you have a deep and close connection with them, and they trust you, they’re less likely to resist your influence. You’ll have an easier time helping them get safely to adulthood. A child open to your influence takes your values, opinions, experiences, and concerns into consideration as they make independent decisions.
2. Your child can’t cooperate when their “cup” is empty
Throughout each day, your child’s metaphorical "cup" is being emptied by normal frustrations they encounter as they explore and learn more about their world. When a child’s emotional-relational cup is full, they are in the “green zone.” They’re more flexible, more cooperative, and more capable of logic and reason because their needs for safety are met.
Being sad, ill, or terrified can land them in the “blue zone”—the “freeze” state of survival mode. Other cup-draining events are ruptures in their relationship with you or having unmet needs for more or less stimulation, food, sleep, or autonomy. A draining cup can also push your child into the fight or flight “red zone” where they have a low tolerance for frustration and can become angry, anxious, or aggressive.
A child gets their refills through repair and reconnection with you. Refilling their cup looks like tuning into and meeting their unmet needs. Refills are the validation of their upset at having to go without a need being met and making plans with them about meeting that need in the future. Top up your refills by giving them a totally clean slate following a conflict. Repair your relationship by taking accountability, apologizing, and conveying with your words or actions that the bond between you and your child is unshakeable, even when they (or you) “mess up.”
An empty cup means that your child’s felt sense of safety and security is depleted. If their brain cannot detect safety, it decides there must be danger, and their fight/flight/freeze mechanisms leap into action. This can look like refusal, resistance, emotional outbursts, rule-breaking, or defiance. It can seem counterintuitive, but a child in this state needs a cup refill in the form of a confident and compassionate connection, even if limits must be set.
A child with a just-filled cup has renewed feelings of being safe, secure, and connected and decreased feelings of agitation and resistance. Cooperation becomes more realistic. This goes for you too!
3. Examine your expectations
The problem may lie in your directive or request itself. Are your expectations reasonable and realistic for your child’s developmental stage or their unique needs and capabilities? Have you communicated your age-appropriate limits, boundaries, and expectations clearly enough (with words and actions) that your child understands exactly what they are? Are you offering choices when there actually isn’t a choice? Insisting upon unrealistic expectations is a recipe for frustration and resistance all around.
4. Set physical limits without reactivity and offer acceptable alternatives for meeting their needs
For example, if your child throws a toy truck at you, block your child from throwing again. “Ouch, that hurts! You threw a truck and it hit me. Throwing the truck is not okay. If you need to throw… (we can throw the ball outside, you can throw this soft toy at your pillow, etc.)."
With the limit stated, let them try again with this new information. If they throw the truck again, you might say, without anger, “Oops—it looks like it’s too hard to keep the truck on the ground. I’ll put it away for now and we can try again later.” If there are big feelings in response to this limit, let your child express them. Validate their frustration and offer a hug if they’d like one. Move forward with a clean slate.
5. Dial up the ridiculousness
Think of creative ways to make less-desired activities more fun and silly. Can the toothbrush have a personality and tell jokes? Can you sing a silly song while they brush? Can you or their favorite stuffed toy “help” them get dressed or hang up their coat or tidy up the playroom in a hilarious way? Being silly can reset the tone of your interactions, and refill both of your cups. Playfulness reminds you both that you’re on the same team and feel positive about each other.
If you were your child right now, what might help you feel seen?
6. Be a parent your child can fully trust
Your child is more likely to follow your lead when they trust that you’ll accept them no matter what. They need to know that you won’t give up your parental authority or wield it in retaliatory ways even when they make big mistakes, express themselves in hurtful ways, push limits, and resist you. When your child doesn’t fear your anger or being punished or rejected by you, there’s no need to hide things from you or shut you out of their inner lives.
Instead of using punitive measures, choose curiosity and compassion. Verbally or nonverbally express: “I see you’re struggling, buddy. What’s going on? How can I help?” For example, if your child has lied about something, reflect on how you might have contributed to the situation. What have you been unintentionally doing or not doing that may have led to this failure of trust? What might you change that could make it easier for your child to trust you enough to tell you the truth?
7. Take your child’s perspective
Learn who your child is as an individual, unique, and sovereign being. It’s easy to make assumptions about your child’s motivations and then act on those assumptions. Instead, make a habit of understanding their struggles and their strengths not just from your point of view, but from theirs: What do they see as their challenges? What do they feel are their strengths? What does a conflict you are in with them feel like to them? How do you think your child experiences you during neutral interactions and when you’re upset? If you were using the same frustrating-to-you-in-this-moment behaviors as your child, why might you be doing that? What need of yours might you be trying to meet? Autonomy? Acknowledgment? Space? If you were your child right now, what might help you feel seen, heard, valued, and safe?
8. De-escalation starts with you
Unless someone is in immediate life-threatening danger—even when your child is "misbehaving"—you’ve got time to pause, breathe, assess what you and your child might be feeling and needing, and respond accordingly. Because you might be triggered by your child’s unwanted behavior into the red or blue zone yourself, anything you can do for yourself that brings you back into the green zone is what you need to do first. Dysregulated bodies cannot co-regulate another dysregulated body. Only calm bodies can do that.
Decisions you make from a place of fight/flight/freeze will necessarily be impulsive and not well thought out, escalating an already heightened situation. Bring the thinking regions of your brain back online by intentionally directing your attention to your own breath. Inhale for 4 counts, hold for 7 counts, and exhale for 8 counts. Continue this until you can respond from a place of calm—it might take a few minutes!
9. Believe and convey: “I got this.”
Show your child that no matter how they are behaving—whether you’re sharing a moment of affection or they’re resisting you with the energy of a thousand suns—that you can handle it. You will set limits if necessary and offer limited choices if possible, but you’ll also accept without judgment any emotions they express. Their big feelings, resistance, and opposition are not “too much” for you to deal with. Believe that they are doing the best they can in this moment to get their needs met. Believe that you can do hard things. Believe that meeting their needs rather than their demands will help them struggle less. Believe that being present, not catastrophizing, and meeting their chaos with your deliberate calm will bring you both back into the green zone and an internal feeling of safety.
When kids are most in need of acceptance, love, and empathy, they tend to express that need in ways that trigger us to do the opposite.
10. Sidestep power struggles
It’s easy to dig in your own heels when your child digs in theirs. Sometimes you feel so resistant to their resistance you can start having thoughts like: “I’m going to make them do this thing if it’s the last thing I ever do!”
The more you insist they do it, the more they insist that they won’t. Disengage from moments like this—you’ll both only become angrier and angrier. Instead, pause, breathe, and completely drop your agenda. Radically accept that this thing you want just isn’t going to happen smoothly at this moment. You might say something like: “Wow. You really don’t want to get dressed right now. Ok, I’m going to take a break and go do X. Let me know when you’re ready.” Take a break from the situation. Go have a glass of cold water. Busy yourself with something else. Allow space and time for you both to calm down. Either your child will voluntarily decide to cooperate or you can try again later when you might have more success revisiting your request from a calmer, warmer, more connected, or playful stance.
For the next 30-90 days, choose one or two of these strategies to practice during interactions with your child. Notice any emotional or behavioral changes in you and in your child. Do you experience challenging interactions any differently? Let me know how it goes!
When kids are most in need of acceptance, love, and empathy, they tend to express that need in ways that trigger us to do the opposite. Keep your own cup full so that you have the bandwidth to model what it looks like to meet challenging interactions with a calm, kind, and firm boundary setting. Your child might not be your equal, but they are equally entitled to respect, even when they’re at their worst. It’s unnecessary to make a child suffer because they’ve made a mistake or they’ve behaved in frustrating ways.
Obviously, you can compel your child to obey you in the moment by using fear, threats, yelling, and shaming. However, that’s also the way they will try to get you to do what they want. They will threaten, yell, and even sometimes be aggressive or say hurtful things. These kinds of interactions damage your relationship with your child. Punitive strategies also don’t teach your child about their underlying needs or what alternative behaviors might be. And finally, punishment induces feelings of shame, humiliation, and angry revenge in your child—all of which actually increase challenging behaviors.
So, if long-term results are what you’re after, consider focusing less on in-the-moment compliance. Model for them what it looks like to stay calm and connected co-regulating during interpersonal conflicts. Most importantly, focus on using your relationship to inspire cooperation, and teach the skills your child needs to successfully navigate their world as they develop.