Gentle discipline is not just a toolbox of tricks; instead I like to view it as the art of connecting and loving as we resolve a conflict together. It is about hearing the other person, yes, even if that person is a toddler or someone who is small; it is about not reacting in a defensive and emotional way; and it is about forging a path as a family together where the family agenda is the priority and all needs can be met (but perhaps not all at the same time!)
There are five ways I have found to really help families as they work through problems and conflicts together:
Commit to gentle discipline. If you have a partner in the home, commit to it as a team and agree to back each other up. The commitment is important. It may not always be perfect; gentle discipline is a process. For some families, gentle discipline comes easier than other families. Some of us have more baggage from our own childhoods to overcome. It may feel unnatural to try to connect to a child who is being difficult in our eyes. We may all have different things that our children do that may really bother us. We need to be able to step in for one another when things are flaring, and to back each other up as loving guides for our children. We must commit to the process of connecting during conflict every day.
Know yourself and your partner and how to nourish each other. What really upsets you and sets you off? Does knowing what is normal for each developmental stage of childhood help you? I find this can often help parents feel calmer, to just know what is normal for the developmental stages. Where is your self-care? If you are empty, it is so much harder to respond in a connected and loving way to your child. How do you love one another so you can respond to your children lovingly and patiently so you can guide them when they are having big feelings or big things happening? This is so important for all stages of development, but I think especially with teenagers.
What is the family agenda? It is incredibly hard for a child to know what is expected and how to live with the other family members in the household if no boundaries are set. The earliest harbinger of boundaries can be found in rhythm, and this happens when children are very small. As children grow, they can understand the boundaries (rules) of the family reflect values of the family. However, in order to have that, the adults of the family must get together and talk about the values you are creating together. Values are something that teenagers can respond to and discuss with you – are your teenagers’ values the same as your family values? Why or why not? What conflict does this create and how do you navigate this?
Recognize the patterns. Most families have recognizable patterns – this is what happens, this upsets this person, this is how this person reacts. It is hard to change conflicts within the family if you don’t ever see the patterns or if people are not willing to try something to change the patterns, especially the adults in how they react to what children do. Who is the calm one in conflict? Who shuts down? Who walks away? Who gets angry?
How do you resolve conflict? Because children are not miniature adults, they are not going to reason like adults in times of conflict (and even adults often do not do well in that!) Small children do not need intellectualized verbal sparring in order to resolve conflict; what they often need is distraction, rhythm, a boundary that is held lovingly without many words at all, the action of restitution. I find children ages 9-12 often function not much above these tools. What helps to limit conflicts in these ages is boundaries that are set up ahead of time and are known.
For teenagers , decide on how you will approach conflicts. The steps in our family, which we just wrote down recently so everyone was on the same page include: taking the time to calm down, making sure the problem is really and actually a problem ( some of the more verbal family members really need to write it down so the problem can be defined and not just a whole slew of emotions with nothing definable other than feelings), meet together in order to discuss without blaming others and in order to take responsibility for their own part in things, to really listen and paraphrase what the other person has said and then brainstorm solutions that work for the whole family. Lastly, we forgive, affirm, or thank the other person and make restitution. So that is a longer process appropriate for a teen who can really do these steps.
I would love to hear what you steps you think make the difference in making your family a home of gentle discipline and problem solving. I also have many, many back posts on this blog dealing with gentle discipline if you just search.