Discipline Strategies for Parents of Children with Muscle Disease

A psychologist who ran MDA parent support groups offers guidance on ways to handle misbehavior

Article Highlights:
  • The author, a retired psychologist, offers a list of helpful strategies and tips for disciplining your child — all while keeping your anger in check.
  • No parent will be patient, consistent and in control all of the time, but the tips are provided as a basic foundation for handling your children's misbehavior. 
by Arden D. Peters, Ph.D. on October 1, 2011 - 8:30am

QUEST Vol. 18, No. 4

The most important element of disciplining a child is to have your anger under control when doing the disciplining. When your anger is under control, you earn respect from your child, the discipline will be effective, and you are modeling how children can handle their own anger in a healthy manner.

Your anger is under control when:

  • You are talking at a normal volume, not yelling, screaming or verbally snapping at your child in anger.
  • You are not using swear words.
  • You are not insulting the child or calling them names.
  • You are not striking, pinching or grabbing the child out of anger (It is OK to restrain a child so that they will not strike you or hurt themselves, but do it with the least amount of force necessary.)

Your anger is out of control when:

  • Your voice is loud enough to be called screaming or yelling.
  • You use a swear word or some profanity when addressing your child.
  • You insult or demean them, such as saying, “Are you stupid?” or “Can’t you do anything right?”
  • You physically touch your child out of anger, such as slapping them, pinching them, shoving them.

Being in control of anger when disciplining a child is perhaps the most difficult requirement, especially when you are under much pressure, sick, stressed out or tired.

Think ahead.
Learn to remind yourself that a situation is coming up that will challenge your anger control. For example, be aware when family members are going to be rushed for time or extra busy, or when children will be in a situation where they are likely to test you to see with what they can get by. Simply being aware of such a situation increases your changes of having your anger under control.

Work on identifying that split second just before you lose control of your temper.
Training yourself to identify this split second and to think before acting is the essence of temper control. Count to 10, take deep breaths, have children wait in their rooms, or you go to your room in order to get control of your anger before giving correction to a child.

Brainwash your mind with the reality that you gain more control over a child when your anger is in control.
Repeat or think this reality statement — “I control my child best when I am in control of my anger” — numerous times daily until it becomes second nature. The more often we remind ourselves of this fact, the more likely it will have a positive effect on us.

Apologize.
When you do lose control of your temper, apologize to the child. Be specific. For example, “I am sorry I yelled at you,” or “I’m sorry I called you a dummy.” Be sure to apologize only for losing control of your anger. Do not apologize for being angry or for disciplining the child. It is fine to say, “I’m sorry I lost control of my temper.” It is not advisable to say you are sorry for feeling angry at the child’s misbehavior or defiance.

It is natural for adults to let a child with special needs get by with more than they would a child without special needs.

But this is damaging to the child, as he or she will acquire behaviors that others find annoying, leading them to avoid the child. It also is damaging because it gives children the message that they are not quite a full individual person like everyone else.

Children with disabilities are human beings first, and their entire existence is not defined by their disability. Letting children get away with undesirable behavior gives them the message they are weak in ways they really are not. With few exceptions, a child with special needs can learn to obey just like any other child.

Discipline tips and suggestions

The following guidelines apply to all children, with and without special needs. If you are unsure about how they apply to your child, discuss them with a psychologist or other professional.

  • Give your approval (a compliment) for acceptable behavior!
    A majority of shaping a child’s behavior is done by telling them you are pleased, proud, happy, etc., that they did what you wanted.

    It is not necessary to give approval every single time a child obeys the rules you have for them. It is necessary to give such approval consistently, so that it is part of your usual interaction with your child over time. When you give this approval, make sure you and your child are making eye contact.
  • When a rule is broken, handle it immediately if at all possible.
    Do not give a child a second (or a third, or fourth, or fifth) chance or warning or threat.
    • If you do not handle a behavior the first time a rule is broken, you create anxiety/insecurity in a child, and you make yourself look weak and not trustworthy. Trust is based on keeping promises.

      If you have a rule that your child has to put their dirty clothes in the hamper, but they defy this rule without having consequences for the disobedience, they will not trust that you really mean what you have told them about where to put their dirty clothes. When you make a threat to enforce a rule and you do not carry through, you are giving the child a message that you cannot be trusted to keep your word.

    • Not handling a misbehavior the first time it happens increases the chances you will get so angry that you lose control and verbally snap at the child, insult them, or hit them.

    • Enforcing a rule the first time it is broken helps teach the child a necessary skill to be safe, get ahead in life and be liked by others.

    • Be consistent. If a rule is enforced sometimes, but not others, it creates anxiety/insecurity in the child. Plus, it increases their anger when you do enforce the rule, as at other times they got by without obeying it.
  • Have as few rules as possible.
    If you make a rule and later are convinced that it is not a good or necessary rule, eliminate the rule or modify it. Then let your child/children know that the rule no longer exists, or has been modified.
  • Use the least amount of force/power/consequences possible when disciplining a child.
    If you use timeout as a consequence, do not put the child in timeout for 30 minutes if 10 minutes is severe enough to get his/her attention and make him/her think about what he/she has done.
  • Make the child look you in the eye when you correct him/her, as well as when you compliment him/her on behavior.
  • Use as few words as possible when correcting a child — no lectures!
  • Talk about a specific misbehavior when you discipline a child.
    For example, “You did not pick up your room without being told. Therefore, you may not play on the computer the rest of the day.”
  • Discipline one misbehavior at a time.
    Do not save up a bunch of disobedient behaviors and have a lengthy discipline session about all the things the child did wrong that day or during the past week.
  • Do not allow talking back or arguing when correcting a child.
    This is something that has to be taught, as it’s a natural tendency to try to get out of trouble and get your own way. When you allow a child to talk back or argue, you:
    • give the message to the child that he/she has a choice as to whether or not the rule is obeyed;

    • increase the anger level in the child, as no one likes to be given a choice, and then find out they really did not have a choice;

    • weaken your posture as an authority figure;

    • make it harder to control your own anger/frustration level, as arguing and talking back are inherently anger-provoking and irritating;

    • teach a bad social habit to your child, as they are likely to argue to get their way with peers, teachers (and when they are adults, with their boss). It is your responsibility to teach your child when it is acceptable to rebel against/argue with authority and when it is not OK.

      If a firm rule has been broken, then it is not OK for your child to argue with you and talk back about it. Arguing and back talk are behaviors that need consequences so they can be extinguished. Remember to compliment your child when you discipline him/her for some rule infraction, and he/she doesn't talk back or argue!
  • When you are enforcing a limit or rule, make an affirmative statement rather than asking a question.
    For example, say, “Take out the trash, please” rather than, “Will you take out the trash?” Asking a child to do something implies they have a choice.

    It is OK to be told what to do in certain circumstances. Understanding this and feeling comfortable with this fact is part of learning to live successfully with authority. Such affirmative statements should be said in a brief, firm, matter-of-fact manner, not in a hostile or harsh manner.
  • Hurt feelings are a normal part of healthy discipline of a child.
    This is tough for parents, as no loving parent enjoys seeing a child’s feelings hurt. While you do not have to like hurting a child’s feelings, you do need to accept it as a normal but unpleasant part of being a parent. Feeling hurt, ashamed, embarrassed or guilty is behind much of socialized behavior.

    There are many behaviors a well-functioning adult will not do because he/she would feel hurt, embarrassed, ashamed or guilty if he/she did it. Avoiding these unpleasant feelings in part motivates us to control ourselves. Remember, the hurt feelings a child has when a parent is out of control with anger are damaging. But the hurt they feel when you are loving, patient, firm and in control is not damaging.

    The hurt a child feels when disciplined in a loving, consistent manner is due to their having disappointed or let down someone they care about. It is a sign of a child being bonded to a parent and having respect for that parent.
  • Parents should never carry on a disagreement about how to handle discipline in front of a child or children.
    Such discussions are parental matters, and it is unfair to children to bring them into these disagreements. Have these discussions in private.

    Be sure you practice listening, anger control, willingness to admit mistakes, and understanding of your partner’s point of view when having these discussions.

    It is best for children if both parents follow the same guidelines/rules of discipline. If you can't talk out these differences and present a united front to the children, try talking with a trusted professional to see if he/she can help you overcome the stalemate on how discipline should be handled.
  • Never go against your partner’s authority in front of a child during a discipline interaction.
    The exception to this is if one parent is abusing a child — then it is necessary to protect the child. When you do not agree with how your partner is handling discipline, talk about it in private.
  • Both parents are to have equal authority and respect in disciplining a child.
    If you find yourself saying, “wait till your father gets home,” you’ve got a problem. Having one parent as the ultimate, strong authority sends two damaging messages to a child:
    • One parent is weak and does not deserve as much respect when it comes to obedience. This creates insecurity in a child, as children need to know that their parents can be trusted to be in control of the child and the home situation.

    • Discipline is a “bad” thing, and one parent is the “bad” person who does this “bad” thing. Discipline is an unpleasant and necessary task, but it is not “bad.” “Good cop and bad cop” have no place in a home.
  • There are no perfect parents, and there is no perfect discipline.
    These tips may be goals to which you aspire, or you may decide to simply give them a try. You will not be patient, consistent and in control 100 percent of the time. Strive to do what you think is right as much of the time as you can. When you fail, there is always “I am sorry,” and the opportunity to learn from your imperfection.

You will enjoy your children and family life the most if you practice loving, consistent, firm discipline and approval of desired behavior, and your children are obedient and well-disciplined. Other people also will enjoy your children much more when they are respectful of authority and obedient.

Arden Peters, Ph.D., is a retired psychologist from Wichita, Kan. He served as a consultant to MDA pediatric clinics and led MDA support groups for parents of children with neuromuscular disease in Wichita from 1998 to 2004.

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