3 Ways You Can Use Positive Discipline To Help Your Child

Kicking, biting, scratching, screaming, head-banging!  If you work with a child with autism or have one of your own, these behaviors are a part of everyday life. Knowing how to respond is really one of the toughest and most frustrating aspects of life with these kids. It’s also really puzzling; if only you could understand why.  Why does he do it, and how can I help?

I really believe that at the root of a child’s difficult behavior is his attempt to regain a sense of significance and belonging. What I mean is that even your child on the autism spectrum has to know that what he does matters in life, and also that he has a place of meaning and importance in your world. So, what does that have to do with discipline?

When your child isn’t feeling that he has an impact on the world around him and that he isn’t connected with you, he will begin to feel discouraged. When he’s discouraged, he acts out and will do anything he can to try and feel like he does matter again, that he is important to you.  That’s where we see the kicking, biting, head-banging, and screaming. It’s his desperate plea to regain his sense of belonging to you, and the sense that what he does matters.

So how do we help him regain a healthy feeling of importance to you? How can we help encourage that sense of significance and belonging and also stop the behavior? The answer lies in discipline, but it’s not what you’re thinking. The word “discipline” carries so much negative baggage, and brings to mind images of punishment, consequences, and time-outs. But really, discipline, in its original Latin form, disciplina, means “teaching; learning”.  When I discovered this meaning, it changed everything in the way that I approach kids’ behavior.

So, I want to offer you three ways that you can use positive discipline to stop the behavior, help your child reconnect to you, and feel important and valuable again.

Three Ways to Use Positive Discipline to Help Your Child

1. Take time for training.

If discipline truly means to teach, then we need to take the time to train our children. Maybe he needs to learn about some options of how to respond to an unpredictable change in events. Perhaps he needs you to teach him how to do the task that led to his frustration in the first place. It is very helpful to back up and break tasks down into smaller steps. Once broken down, teach each step along the way, so that he knows what to do and feels confident doing it. Use visuals and social stories that talk about each component so that everything is clear. Then you will need to practice, practice, practice with him until he can do it on his own.

2.  Show him how to do it, but don’t do it for him.

Model what you want him to do, and wait patiently for him to do it. Many children will respond very abruptly if we try to “motor” them through the action, so simply model and wait. If he isn’t responding to you, try gently guiding him to do the action, but be sensitive and responsive to what he is communicating. If he’s receptive and needs more guidance, continue to guide him. If you sense his resistance, gently fade your support and wait patiently for him to initiate again.  A visual sequence that demonstrates each step along the way is a helpful way to show him exactly how to do what you are teaching. This, along with your gentle, loving guidance will help him know what to do instead of melting down.

3.  Empower your child by getting him to help you.

All kids want to feel useful and we can aid them in achieving this by simply giving them something helpful to do. This can be as simple as finding the smallest task that he can help with and giving the guidance to do it. Perhaps getting into the car for errands is really difficult for him— next time, try getting him to help you with the “special job” of carrying the keys from the front door to the car, or have him help you carry the bags needed for shopping. Helping in this way will give him the sense that he has an important role in that routine and that he is really capable of doing something useful.

So, when we understand that our little ones are not just misbehaving and being difficult, but rather trying desperately to connect with us and feel important again, it changes everything.  Instead of reacting and using tactics of blame and shame, we can see that they really need us to teach them what to do, guide them by the hand, and help them feel strong and capable. Instead of feeling dis-couraged, your kiddo will feel en-couraged.  When he is encouraged, he feels whole and complete and his needs are being met.  He no longer has a need to act out and you are both connected.

How about you?  How are you using discipline to teach your children important skills? Let us know in the comments.

Photo courtesy of Joanne Escober

4 Steps to Recovering When You’ve Lost It With Your Child

One of the most guilt-inducing situations as a parent is losing it with your child.  You’ve been there, I’ve been there, we’ve all been there.  It’s easy to feel that you’ve done irreparable damage.  But what if your mistake could lead you to connect on a deeper level with your child? Let’s take a look at how that might look.

Let’s paint a picture of a common scenario…

It’s Monday morning and Dan has a big work week ahead of him.  He has lots on his mind and is feeling the pressure of what’s to come.  While he is in a rush to get out the door and into the car to get his daughter, Lilly, to school, she has different plans.  As they are almost out the door, Lilly spots a hole in the dirt and is obsessed with dropping leaves, sticks, and whatever she can find down into the hole.  She drops her backpack, sits down on the ground, and begins happily dropping objects into the hole with a huge smile on her face.  Dan is less than thrilled and with a huff, tells Lilly to “Get in the car!  It’s time to go!”.  Lilly pays no mind to this and happily continues to drop things into the hole.  That is it!  Dan has had it and reaches down to grab Lilly firmly by the arms, shakes her and yells, “I said it’s time to GO!  Get in the car, RIGHT NOW!  I’m SICK of waiting around for you!!!”  Lilly falls apart and cries while Dan heaves her into the car seat so that he can get going.

So you’ve lost it!  Now what?

Cool Down

Once you realize that you have, indeed, lost it, take the time to recollect yourself.  This looks different for each individual, depending on what truly calms you down.  One way is to find your breath and breathe deeply for a count of 10 breaths.  This literally calms your brain down, getting more oxygen to your brain to help reactivate the rational and relational side that you cut off  access to when you lost your temper.  They don’t say “You’ve lost it” for nothing.  You have truly lost the parts of your brain that you need to help your child.  Dan might need to walk around the car a few times while focusing on his breath.

Now it’s time for the Thee Rs of Recovery 


This is one of the toughest parts as a parent and one that is a real game-changer.  We have to admit that we were wrong.  What?  Admit that I was wrong?  Doesn’t that make me look weak and ineffective as a parent?  No, it actually makes you look human and relatable to your child.  When you recognize that you made a mistake, you are opening the door for connection.  You are modeling vulnerability and owning up to your shortcomings— an invaluable character trait that I think everyone desires in their children.  Remember to make it visual for those that need it.  For example, Dan might make a drawing of the car and Daddy with a big mad face to represent how he was impatient with Lilly when getting into the car.


Once you’ve opened that door by recognizing your fault, it’s now time to apologize.  Apologize to my own child?  Yes.  Again, you are modeling strength, kindness, and integrity by being vulnerable enough to admit your wrong-doing and seek their forgiveness.  Young children are very quick to forgive, especially when we approach them with an honest heart and desire to reconnect.  It may be helpful to point back to your drawing or visual while making eye contact with your child and creating a sad or sorry face so that they understand.  Using humor here can also be quite helpful showing that you have a good sense of humor about your mistakes.


Now it’s time to work together with your child to figure out what to do next to repair the situation.  Maybe you decide to go back to the car and do it again while practicing more patience.  Maybe you just sit together with your child in your lap, hugging them for a while before moving on.  Whatever you decide to do, make sure that reconnecting is your focus.  Once you reestablish that connection you can both move on to a better place.

These are not easy tasks.  Raising human beings is an incredibly daunting and difficult job, but sacred and wonderful at the same time.  I hope that you can see how promising it is that by being vulnerable and human with our children, even our mistakes are meaningful opportunities to teach them valuable skills and to foster a deeper connection.

Photo courtesy of Jessica Lucia via Creative Commons

What to Do When Your Child is Having a Tantrum

Tips for Trantrums

Most of the time, your child’s tantrums leave you either upset or bewildered, but what if you could respond in a way that fostered a deeper connection between you?  Children’s mistakes are wonderful opportunities to learn and tantrums are the perfect example of this.  If you’re tired of losing it, too, then try approaching it in a new way.

1.  Just let them do it  

When your toddler has gone over the edge, their rational brains (we are talking the pre-frontal cortex where all the higher processes happen–thinking, processing, rational decision-making) have totally shut down and are overloaded by their rage.  You cannot talk to or reason with a child during a tantrum.  This only escalates the behavior.  It is always best to let them get it all out until they cannot cry, scream, or kick any longer.

2.  Be with them

Have you ever lost it before?  Have you ever cried and screamed hysterically?  Then I am sure you understand how comforting it is to have a trusted person by your side.  Your kids are no different.  Your child needs your support during such a display of raw emotion.  Don’t go anywhere, but be right there next to them.  If they will allow it, provide a loving touch with a calm hand on them.  If not, just be near them and be available to them.  A favorite stuffed animal or doll can also help with this.

3.  Model calmness

This is the toughest one of all!  But, if you can pull it off, it works so well thanks to mirror neurons, essentially a way that the brain works to mimic what is seen in another person.  When your child sees you being calm, their brains will work to calm down too and regain access to that rational part of their brains.  This also helps you maintain control of yourself during this time.  Circle of Security described the role well by saying that as parents we need to “be bigger, stronger, wiser, and kind.”

4.  Reconnect with lots of hugs and comfort 

Once the storm has passed and your child has finished their raw display of emotion, they are going to need to know that they are still okay with you.  Give hugs, rubs on the back, hold them. Dry the tears and just be with them in that moment.  In doing so, you are letting them know that they are safe with you, they are still loved despite their behavior, and that you are there to help them recover.

5.  Process the feelings and help them move on

Once the tears have dried, it is time to help them process through these big emotions and the situation that led up to it.  This will look differently for different children depending on their needs, cognitive level, and communication ability.  For some it may be a simple conversation to label feelings.  “You were disappointed when it was time to go to bed.  That made you mad.”  For especially young ones or those with communication challenges, pictures or simple drawings are very helpful in helping show them what they were feeling.

Be sure to help your child move on to the next activity.  If their tantrum created a mess, helping you clean it up is a great way to involve them usefully in repairing the damage.  Be sure to provide choices for the next activity.  “Do you want to have a snack or play outside?”  Again, this can be done through simple pictures on a choice board, which can be made at home.

Tantrums are never pleasant for anyone.  But how we approach and respond to them can make all the difference–teaching valuable emotional skills and fostering deeper connection.

What have you found to be helpful for you during a tantrum?  Are there certain strategies that you use for staying calm?  Let us know in the comments.  

(Photo Credit: D Sharon Pruitt)