1. Parenting
    2. Managing Child Behaviour
    3. "No, I Won't Do It": Disciplining Your Preschooler With P.E.A.C.E.

    "No, I Won't Do It": Disciplining Your Preschooler With P.E.A.C.E.

    Dr Meghna Singhal Dr Meghna Singhal 13 Mins Read

    Dr Meghna Singhal Dr Meghna Singhal

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    Written by Dr Meghna Singhal and published on 13 July 2021.

    By adopting this science-backed powerful strategy, you can help your child cooperate with you, learn emotional regulation and self-control, and be respectful. No more stress, no more conflicts!

    "No, I Won't Do It": Disciplining Your Preschooler With P.E.A.C.E.

    As part of navigating their way in the world, our preschoolers will often behave in ways that are, let's say, wildly short of adorable. They will push limits, throw a tantrum, refuse to listen to us, or behave in hurtful or inappropriate ways. As parents, we may find it difficult to deal with such behaviors, which may trigger emotional reactions in us and leave us feeling overwhelmed.

    Some parents believe (and can show actual proof!) that unless they yell, their child won't listen to them. Others believe that punishing is a surefire way of disciplining their child. This can stem from the belief that children should be scared of their parents. And so they use strategies such as spanking, time-outs or threatening their child to get them to comply. Some parents also believe that rewards and bribes are an effective way to get their children to listen and cooperate.

    How do we figure out which of these parents have it right? A lot of us parent the way we have been parented. Some of us reach out to family, friends, our child's teacher or even the internet for guidance. But with so much information about disciplining around, which source should we trust? One reliable source of information is scientific research on brain development.

    What's brain got to do with it?

    Research on brain development tells us that our parenting beliefs about punishment may have little scientific basis. Imagine the brain as having two major parts-an upper part and a lower part. The upper part, called thinking brain, is involved in thinking, planning, reasoning and decision-making. This thinking brain or the prefrontal cortex (PFC) also helps us regulate our emotions and allows us to empathize and understand the emotions of others.

    The lower part, called feeling brain, is responsible for our emotional responses and for the fight-flight-freeze response when we encounter a threat or emergency situation.

    Normally, the thinking brain and feeling brain are connected, or integrated. When your brain is in an integrated state, you're emotionally regulated and in control of your decision-making and responses. Your brain is in a receptive state-able to listen, understand and connect with others.

    But when the brain perceives a threat (real or imagined), the body goes into the fight-flight-freeze mode. When this happens, the thinking brain and feeling brain are no longer integrated-the thinking brain is hijacked by the feeling brain, due to which the thinking brain is unable to, well, think! It is unable to process information, reason, understand or learn. And that is why punishing a child, which invariably results in the child feeling upset, angry or threatened, is not a suitable way to make the child learn how to behave.

    To your child, connection with you is everything

    Your connection with your child means everything to her. The reason for this lies in our wiring. Human babies are born completely dependent on their caregiver and are wired to attach to their caregiver so that they can be protected. But when threat is perceived from this caregiver (whether it's through shouting, shaming or punishment), their world feels even more unsafe.

    You are such an important part of your child's safe world that any threat to this connection feels earth-shattering to your child. Thus, your child needs connection with you to feel safe (and have his brain work in an integrated way). When he feels safe, calm and connected, he can open up to learning, reasoning and reflection.

    There are also times the fight-flight-freeze response will happen because of other events, such as a fight with a sibling or doing something he knows is wrong. In such situations too, your connection with your child will be vital in bringing him to a space in which learning can happen.

    So, first connect to your child before you help him with discipline (which means learning appropriate behaviors).

    What is the goal of effective discipline?

    The goal of effective discipline isn't to shame, humiliate or punish our children, or make them feel worse. It is to:

    • help your child learn emotional regulation and self-control
    • help your child learn self-discipline
    • have your child listen to and cooperate with you
    • have your child follow rules and limits

    To change behavior, don't make your child feel worse

    Knowing how the brain operates under stress, it's a good idea to look at how we can change our parenting strategies to enable our children to learn how to behave better without using punishment. How can we enable their thinking brain to be switched on and integrated with their feeling brain, so that they are receptive to us? How can we create optimal conditions for learning appropriate behaviors?

    We can achieve this if we change the way we approach disciplining.

    Disciplining with P.E.A.C.E.

    How can you use a difficult moment with your child as an opportunity to help your child learn appropriate behaviors?

    Here's a step-by-step example of how you can turn a challenging moment into a learning moment for your child by using a science-backed process developed by ParentCircle called P.E.A.C.E. (Pause. Empathize. Await. Communicate. Engage).

    Your 4-year-old is happily playing and you find yourself with a few spare minutes. So you decide to call a friend on the phone for a little catch-up. As you're talking, your daughter walks up to you and says, "Mom, I need you." You signal one minute by holding up a finger. She doesn't budge. Ten seconds later, she says, "Mom, I realllllly need you now!" You stop your conversation and respond, "What do you want, beta?" "I want you to help me with my drawing. Come," she says and holds your hand and starts to pull you. "Can't you see I'm on the phone? I'll help you in a while," you say. But soon enough, your child begins to whine. Exasperated, you hang up the phone. "What is wrong with you?" you demand angrily, just as your daughter's whining escalates into a full-blown meltdown.

    Does that sound familiar?

    Let us see what brain science tells us about what's happening.

    What's happening in your child's brain: Your child is upset you're not paying attention to her. She's not able to manage her emotions. Her feeling brain starts to hijack her thinking brain. She cannot understand or make sense of what you are trying to tell her, as her thinking brain is not functioning at full capacity. Then, when you yell at her, she senses a threat. Her fight-flight-freeze response is triggered and this only adds to the big emotions she's already experiencing.

    What's happening in your brain: You are angry your child is not listening to you. Your emotional brain takes over. Your thinking brain is not able to regulate your emotions and is unable to respond with reason. You react, and often say and do things that may be unreasonable, ineffective or harsh, which you may regret later.

    What you need to do

    You and your child are both triggered-your child is upset that you won't pay attention to her and you're upset that your child won't let you have a 10-minute conversation in peace. When you're both in a reactive state of mind, neither of you is receptive to what the other person is saying. Because both of you are in an emotional state of mind and are not able to think clearly, this is not a good time for you to advice or "teach" your child how to behave (even if you try, it won't do any good!). So, the first step is to get your emotions under control and reintegrate the feeling brain and the thinking brain. This step is called Pause.

    Pause

    The first step is to get your emotions under control. No, it doesn't mean suppressing them; it means returning to a calm state of mind. When you're calm, your child doesn't feel threatened by you. But often parents find it difficult to become calm. With practice, you can train your brain to respond more than react. Here's how:

    • Tune into and acknowledge your feelings of anger, frustration and upset. Recognize that it's normal to feel that way when your buttons are being pushed. There's nothing wrong in feeling this way. Tell yourself, "This is NOT an emergency!"
    • Take steps to bring your feelings under control. This looks different for different people, depending on what works for them. Some ideas are: taking deep breaths, drinking a glass of water, hopping or jumping on the spot, splashing cold water on your face, going for a walk, screaming into running water (out of your child's earshot, of course!), doing a few stretches.
    • Tell yourself, "My child is not bad. He's not doing this deliberately to trouble me. He's not 'misbehaving.' He just has a need right now that I have to tune into." In labeling children as rude, bad, misbehaved or mean, we often overlook that behind their behavior are needs that they're unable to express. Ask yourself: Is my child hungry, tired or seeking attention?
    • Ask yourself: What do I want my child to learn right now? Do I want him to learn that it's okay to yell at someone when they're not listening to you? Do I want him to learn to deal with his upset in better ways? Do I want him to become more aware of his own needs? By pausing and asking these questions, your reaction will turn into a thoughtful response.

    Empathize

    The next step to disciplining your child involves empathizing with her feelings. This means you really try to understand where she's coming from and connect to her feelings. This will help soothe her and establish the connection she's craving (children's primary psychological needs are those for safety and connection). Here's how:

    • Narrate what you observe, without any judgment or criticism. I see you're making a drawing and you want Mumma to join you.
    • Let her know you understand what she's feeling. You want Mumma to draw with you. You're upset because Mumma is on the phone and won't listen to you.
    • If you're unable to initially come up with an empathetic response in words, you can use non-verbal gestures, such as a warm hug or holding your child's hand.

    Await

    The next step is to wait for your child to calm down, which can take minutes or hours. Wait for his thinking brain to become reintegrated with his feeling brain. Avoid lecturing, discussing, suggesting or directing during this time. Maybe just sit with your child, holding his hand if he lets you.

    Allow your child to cry and get his emotions out. Let him know you are there by his side. A little hug (if he allows you) can often do the trick. Once he is done crying, he'll feel better.

    At this time, you can continue to honor the boundary you've previously set. For example, if your child is refusing to come home from the playground and throwing a tantrum, you would still bring him back home. The idea is to empathize with your child while continuing to implement the limit, rule or boundary you've set. That is how this approach is different from permissive parenting, which entails giving in just because the child is upset.

    Communicate

    The next step can be followed once your child has calmed down. It entails having a conversation with your child-discuss what happened and how each of you felt.

    You could say:

    "I know you wanted me to draw with you. When I didn't hang up the phone, you felt upset. In turn your interruptions made me upset."

    Listen to what your child has to say:

    "You didn't sit with me. You made me cry ..."

    Engage

    The final step of the P.E.A.C.E. process is all about finding a solution. Now that you have discussed what happened and understood each other's feelings, it's time for you to help your child learn appropriate behavior. Brainstorm ways in which both of you can better handle this situation the next time or what you can do to avoid the situation altogether. Could it be deciding on a non-verbal sign your child can show to indicate she really wants you right away? Or if your child does want your attention, she can come sit on your lap for some time, while you're busy? Or anything else. Listen to your child's ideas and agree on a solution.

    This does not mean it won't happen the next time; your child will need constant reminders. It takes time and effort. Be patient and keep trying.

    Practice implementing this, because young children will need repeated reminders.

    When you apply the process of P.E.A.C.E. to handle various parenting situations, you can turn any challenging moment into a learning moment for your child, with less stress and more peace. Your child learns appropriate behavior and emotional regulation, and you grow as a parent.

    Remember, discipline your child not to control him, but to help him develop self-control.

    In a nutshell

    • Research on brain development is a useful guide to understand which disciplining techniques help our children learn appropriate behaviors.
    • Our goal as parents is to help our child (and ourselves) keep their feeling brain and their thinking brain integrated, so that we can respond rather than react.
    • Use the P.E.A.C.E. (Pause. Empathize. Await. Communicate. Engage) process for both yourself and your child to come to a receptive state of mind, before you communicate and engage with each other.

    What you can do right away

    • Make a "My Calming Tools" list-brainstorm all the things that you can do to help you calm down when you're angry.
    • When your child does something that makes you angry, tell yourself, "She's not doing this to trouble me. She is just a child being herself. I can help her learn better ways of behaving if I am calm and in control."
    • Spend 10-20 minutes with your child each day, focusing your 100% attention on him, showering your love and building connection.

    Also read:

    10 commandments of preschooler discipline
    6 tips for teaching good behavior and discipline in children
    How to discipline your child in front of his peers
    Discipline without punishment

    About the author:

    Written by Meghna Singhal, PhD. on February 01, 2021.

    Dr. Singhal is a clinical psychologist and Parenting Coach at ParentCircle. She has a doctorate degree in clinical psychology from NIMHANS (Bangalore) and holds a post-doctorate in parenting from the University of Queensland (Australia).

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