A Calm Approach to Discipline

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Your 4-year-old is locked in a struggle over a favorite toy with another child and the playdate is about to descend into madness.

THE MINDFUL METHOD An important part of mindfulness is fostering a deeper awareness of the body and using that to maintain calm. "In situations where kids are agitated, I tell them to wrap their arms around themselves and give themselves a hug," says Chris McCurry, Ph.D., a clinical child psychologist and author of Parenting Your Anxious Child With Mindfulness and Acceptance. "When children get really upset they feel like they are falling apart, so reconnecting with their body allows them to feel more contained and centered." Children also associate hugs with comfort and reassurance; if they take a deep breath and squeeze, it breaks the negative chain of associations and gives them something positive to focus on instead. "It helps them change the channel," says Dr. McCurry. This technique also has an added bonus: With their arms otherwise occupied, the little ones are less likely to hurl a toy or hit each other.

Your 3-year-old is still way too wound up from the latest round of roughhousing with her big brother to settle down for the night.

THE MINDFUL METHOD Tell your child to lie down on her bed, and put a small stuffed animal on her stomach. Have her close her eyes and use her breath to pretend to gently rock the toy to sleep. Ask her to notice how thinking about her breath can make it become slower and deeper. "Paying attention to breathing has the effect of calming the entire nervous system," says Greenland. "It helps kids understand that feeling the breath can make them feel better." Teaching them to access it as a way to relax while they are still young can give them a powerful anti-anxiety tool later in life.

Your boys, ages 4 and 6, have been bickering in the backseat for the past half hour.

THE MINDFUL METHOD Turn off the radio and suggest this game: Tell the kids to shut their eyes and name three things they can hear. When they've finished that game, roll down the window and see whether they can name other things they can smell. "I often talk to parents about using mindfulness as a way to help their kids focus their 'attention spotlight' on something positive rather than negative, like boredom," says Dr. McCurry. "You want to help your kids learn how to filter out certain things while allowing others to come in." By having each boy keep his eyes closed, you're also limiting the information he gets from outside--including the goading sight of a brother sticking out his tongue. "This uses distraction to defuse the situation, but having children shut their eyes is intriguing and helps them shift gears faster," says Dr. McCurry. The game also helps your kids tap into the mindfulness concept of sensory awareness--a calm appreciation of the world around them.

You're trying to cook dinner, and your 5-year-old is bouncing off the walls, desperate for attention.

THE MINDFUL METHOD As soon as you can take a break from cooking, tell her it's time for a quick dance party. Set a timer for three minutes, turn the music on, and say that you'll both shimmy like mad until the timer goes off. "The essence of mindfulness is accepting what's happening rather than resisting it," says Dr. Saltzman. "By showing your kids that you can roll with things, you're teaching flexibility." Embracing a child's exuberance rather than fighting it also often has a surprisingly calming effect--and chances are she won't be able to make it to the end of the designated dance time. "As parents, our default is often to try to control exasperating behavior, but when you give that energy an outlet, you realize that kids can't sustain it very long," says Dr. Saltzman. "It often takes less time to channel wildness than to try to corral it."

Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Parents magazine.

What Is Positive Discipline?
What Is Positive Discipline?

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