It’s one of the trickiest issues for many parents – how to discipline a child in a way that quickly brings calm and understanding on both sides.
But help is at hand thanks to a three-step strategy outlined in Now Say This, a new book written by psychotherapists Heather Turgeon and Julie Wright.
Unsurprisingly, good communication and empathy are key – but the real secret is in using the right words so that your child knows you understand how they feel, and so taking the heat out of the situation.
Turgeon and Wright talk about the ALP model – Attune, Limit Set, Problem Solve. Used properly, they say, it can work in every situation – from public meltdowns, to tantrums at bedtime, to arguments with siblings.
“Our experience and decades of research tells us that when parents are both empathetic and consistent, children are more likely to tap into and grow their innate sense of right and wrong, rather than only do the right thing out of fear or when someone is watching,” they explained in a recent interview with The Independent newspaper.
So how do you put their strategy to practical use?
Imagine your child has had a play-date at a friend’s house. You go to collect them and they don’t want to leave – they’re having too much fun. They start to cry and refuse to cooperate.
This is how ALP would work:
- Attune: Get down so you’re at the same physical level as your child and can make direct eye contact. Reassure them, in a calm and kind voice, that you understand how they feel: “I know you’re upset, you’re having a lovely time and want to stay.”
- Limit set: Explain the situation to them: “We really do have to go now. It’s time for everyone to have their tea.”
- Problem-solve: Offer something that will encourage your child to behave: “Why don’t you hold my hand and we’ll skip down the path, and you can choose some music to listen to on the way home?”
Turgeon and Wright say the important thing is to show that you understand what’s wrong. Even though their reactions might seem extreme and silly to us, in a child’s world the smallest upset is instantly all-consuming and urgent.
By showing empathy, rather than reprimanding them or getting cross yourself, they’ll see you want to help.
“Research tells us that when parents are both empathetic and consistent, children are more likely to tap into and grow their innate sense of right and wrong.”
While many of us understand the premise, in the heat of the moment it’s easy to forget how to apply it. This is where the book really comes into its own, providing scripts and body language for real-life situations. It answers the question “What should I actually say?” and offers practical, how-to illustrations.
There are also examples of phrases to avoid, as there’s a danger they will exacerbate bad behaviour and cause communication problems as your child grows.
Among them are “How many times have I told you not to do that?” and “Stop crying like a baby”, along with issuing ultimatums such as “If you keep doing that, there’ll be no television/dessert/story later.”
“Communication is how we form a secure attachment with our child and how we grow to know and connect with each other,” explain the authors.
“Our long-term goal is that they can eventually tell us with their words how they are feeling and what they’re struggling with. The more difficult the feeling, the more important that they feel safe talking to us about it.”
Communicating in this way when they are young, they say, increases the likelihood of open, honest interaction between you as they get older.
Showing your child that you are listening, that you understand and want to make the situation better is far more effective than lashing out – and makes life easier for both you and your child.