PTA Coffee Break: Forum addresses home discipline

Local psychologist and family therapist Dr. Thomas Habib of Mission Psychological Consultants spoke on "Love, Discipline and Achievement" in an evening forum Jan. 18.

Habib is an engaging man with broad experience working with parents of children who have "authority issues." He focuses on developing practical skills for disciplining in a culture where parents grew up believing "All You Need Is Love." Quite simply, we often fall into a trap of worrying that our kids "may not like us" if we discipline them. He joked that parents should run their families like a "benevolent dictatorship" rather than a democracy.

The goal of maintaining a solid discipline in the family is to develop the valuable skill of a kid's own self-discipline. Habib cited one long-range study in which children who showed greater impulse control and the ability to delay gratification — something that is developed through discipline — went on to become better adjusted, more adventurous, popular, confident, and to have higher SAT scores (+210 points) and GPA's (+1.5 points). Later in life they were shown to be more dependable, responsible and have greater self-control in the face of frustration.

Habib fleshed out his thinking on a two-dimensional matrix where the emotional closeness of the parents' relationship falls somewhere between disengaged to enmeshed and the style of the parental power ranges between chaotic to rigid. He finds most discipline problems fall into the "enmeshed/chaotic" box.

Enmeshment is characterized by material indulgence, excessive "allowance" for simple chores, parents showing too many of their feelings and the children being emotionally manipulative. Chaotic power yields children who set the emotional tone of the family, sometimes hit their parents, yet none of this is evident in school (where discipline is more structured).

Beyond the theory, Habib gave the eager parents in the room many techniques for setting a proper disciplinary tone. When our children are overreacting emotionally to something, we can cauterize the emotion by conveying in an emphatic tone "that's enough." When we have "stopped the bleeding" emotionally, and the child settles, we can then revisit it later, but be careful to calibrate our feedback so that the emotion isn't set off again. If the child has successfully gotten over the emotion, state simply "oh," rather than gush "good job!"

Other suggestions include saying "no." This builds our children's frustration tolerance. However, don't say "no" unless you mean it. It's OK to say in the heat of the moment a generalized "there's going to be a consequence." This delayed consequence "turns up the vigilance knob in a kid's cognition." However, follow-through is critical. Parents should try not to lose self-control because for kids "rattling an adult is intoxicating. They feed off it."

It's valuable to set parental authority early on (even before language is developed), so that "the look" (a kind of behavioral short-hand that conveys that the child is crossing a line) conveys authority and eliminates testing. According to Habib, this reduces the need for time-out and other disciplinary techniques.

Habib recommends the cold shoulder technique as another behavioral strategy for parents. This is where parents shake their head and wave off the child saying "I'm so disappointed in you" and then completely isolate the child with silence. Then, when the child becomes uneasy (and more receptive), the parent can say, "Do you know why I'm upset? I expect better from you and I'm going to be watching you."

Habib comforted parents by explaining that kids pull out the experiences they need in all these interactions. He likes feisty teens.

"They morph into adults with great volition and spirit," he said.

He worries about kids who get caught up in obsessive compulsive styles in academics. He recommends we as parents demonstrate the value of doing something, which is good enough rather than the very, very best, so kids are ultimately motivated by passion versus grinding away out of fear. Having respect for authority gives kids the ability to humble themselves later in life to receive the help of a mentor.

Finally, Habib offered a suggestion for parents of older teens. If earned by demonstrated responsible behavior, he suggests parents give them an emancipation speech, where they are congratulated for being a good kid with decent grades and responsible actions.

"You have shown you can handle yourself, so we are eliminating your curfew. We love you."

KATE ROGERS is a mother of three and a member of the Coffee Break committee.

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