Ever feel guilty for yelling at your child -- which didn’t even help? Children need thoughtful discipline to understand consequences but there are boundaries to be set. Even the most loving parents could use checks and balances to ensure their discipline teaches children and never --even unintentionally-- harms them physically or emotionally. In honor of National Child Abuse Prevention Month, here’s guidance to safeguard children’s wellbeing and avoid actions that could cross the line to abusive territory.
Stay cool, calm and collected
Sure, you’re upset your angel secretly downloaded a violent video game or threw a tantrum. Remain measured in addressing misconduct and don’t escalate your own behavior. In verywellfamily.com, Jaclyn Halpern, Psy.D., says that discipline should aim to teach not punish.
For example, one minute of time out per age can be an effective tool but extended isolation to control behavior is harmful.
“Punishment can turn into abuse when a caregiver is unable to self-regulate. Leaving a child alone a few minutes while a caregiver is calm, nearby and available to attune to basic needs like using the bathroom is very different than denying a child access to the bathroom or withholding food, drink, sleep, clothes or safety,” she says.
Maintaining emotional control is critical. “A caregiver may first reprimand, then yell, then threaten and then may ultimately end up shaking or hitting their child once they can no longer control themselves.”
In “What is the Difference Between Discipline and Abuse?” Patrick Coleman notes the “speed at which correcting a child can turn into damaging a child” in the heat of disciplinary moment. Child abuse is anything that results in harm or the potential for harm for a child under 18. In the article, Dr. Michele Borba explains that discipline “is teachable, it’s calm, it’s dignified. Abuse is the opposite of those three.”
Don’t discipline when distressed. “There’s tremendous power in the act of stopping and taking a breath. It is essentially a parental time out,” Borba says. “Be calm because your child is going to respond to you in a far better way.” “Be a nurturing parent” and show that conflicts can be resolved peacefully without yelling, states the Washington State Department of Children, Youth & Families. “Use privileges to encourage good behavior.”
Love not Fear
Hamilton County Job & Family Services suggests these questions: Is there mutual respect or fear? Do you feel good about the exchange? Never try to scare a child into obedience. Emotional abuse is words or actions to hurt a child’s self-worth or emotional wellbeing like name-calling, shaming, withholding love, threatening, or criticizing hurtfully. “Anger and fear are the breeding grounds for abuse, which does not have to be as extreme as calling a child a name or slapping them across the face. Abuse can be extremely subtle, but it’s always done with an extraordinarily negative intent that reduces a child’s dignity,” says Borba.
Target Behavior, Not Character
Resist character attacks. “When a parent shifts from focusing on the ‘why’ behind the behavior or even on the behavior itself, to attacking the child’s character, they are engaging in emotional abuse,” Halpern continues, and also with giving manipulative “quiet treatment” and withholding affection.
To Spank or Not to Spank
Florida allows for corporal punishment when it’s not intended to harm the child. But if it “results in significant injury to the child, such as bruises, cuts, or an inability to sit down, then it will be considered child abuse,” states Elise Howard in Psychology Today.
There are varied affirmative approaches to discipline. Child psychologist Dr. Ross Greene, Ph.D. recommends in verywellfamily.com: ask the child what’s difficult; ask oneself why it’s important to behave as asked; and together develop a solution. It “solves the problem, improves the behavior associated with the problem, improves communication and improves your relationship.”
Learn parenting skills from experts and share with other parents at The Children’s Trust Parent Club workshops, held throughout the county for free. Find a workshop and register at TheChildrensTrust.org/ParentClub.