Andy Blum, LCSW, Early Childhood-5th Grade Counselor

Conscious discipline vs. Punishment

Figuring out how to discipline our children can be one of the hardest parts of parenting. It is very easy to just react to what has happened without forethought or deliberation, but then later the question becomes, "Did I, as the adult, do the right thing?"

One of the most important mind shifts you can make as a parent is to be conscious and intentional in how you discipline your child instead of just being reactive. For me, the fundamental difference between conscious discipline and punishment is the outcome you want to achieve. Do you want the behavior to change? Or do you want retribution for the wrong behavior? If you just punish your child, it is likely that the behavior will occur again. If you want the behavior to change, you need the child to reflect on his/her actions, take personal responsibility, manage his/her emotions, and learn the missing skill.

So how do you do that? Let's look at two examples. In the first example, your child hits a sibling. If you yell, scream, or put the child in time out, the child knows you are upset and may feel bad that they have done something wrong. However they have not learned to regulate their emotions or what to do instead of hitting. In the second example, your child consistently forgets to turn in their homework. If you yell at them, punish them, or let them fail the class, they may feel bad about disappointing you, but your child does not know how to fix the problem.

If you look at the two examples from a conscious discipline perspective, the goal is to change the behavior instead. First, conscious discipline says, "disciplining a child from a place of anger is ineffective every time." If you are angry, you are not thinking from your executive state, and the consequence will be ineffective and probably make you feel badly afterwards. When your child's behavior has caused you to get angry, you need to breathe and maybe even tell your child, "I am very upset right now, we will discuss this when I am calm." This can be very effective in modeling how children can handle their own anger, and it also leaves them with a little angst, which is not a bad thing either.

Once you are calm and can speak rationally, conscious discipline tells us to follow DNA, which stands for Describe, Notice, Acknowledge:

  • Describe their body, show and tell your child what their face and hands are doing. This helps the child be aware of what is happening in their body.
  • Notice the feeling, you seem angry, frustrated, etc. This helps children identify the feeling and learn how to handle it.
  • Acknowledge the intention of the behavior. There is a reason for every behavior. Give your child an alternative thing to do to replace the negative behavior.

Here is how you can use DNA in the hitting scenario from above. Start by describing their body, mirror their angry face and say, "Your face is going like this, your hands are in fists." Next, notice the feeling, "You seem angry." Now, acknowledge their intention, "You wanted that toy. You may not hit, hitting hurts. Look at your sister's face, she is sad. Next time, say 'can I please have that toy?' Practice with me." This teaches your child self-regulation, empathy, and gives them a more effective tool to solve their problem.

Now let's look at the homework example. You can say, "Your shoulders are slumped, it looks like you are overwhelmed by remembering everything to take to school, and disappointed that you forgot to turn in your homework. You want to remember your homework. What can you do to help remember to turn it in?" Your child has to care about the outcome. Reflecting on choices and outcomes have a lasting impact on the child's behavior and ability to find alternative solutions. Conscious discipline states: "Consequences only work when the child takes responsibility for their actions and ownership for their feelings."

Disciplining our children can be difficult, and oftentimes it comes after they have upset us. Just take a deep breath, and remember that this is an important opportunity to teach them.