My Child Does Not Respond to Discipline


My Child Does Not Respond to “Discipline”

Is your child one that does not respond to traditional means of “discipline”? The traditional behavior modification plans, such as stickers and stars, card flipping, clipping down, grounding, and revoking of privileges, is not effective for all children. If I may be so bold, many of the traditional approaches to managing behavior are sophisticated manipulation and bribery; “If you do what I ask, I will give you a prize. If you don’t do what I ask, I will restrict you, or harm you. Now, you should do what is being asked.” There is no teaching in this, only an assumption that the child knows what is expected, and can perform to the expectation. It also implies that if a child does not meet the expected behavior for a situation, that they are doing so because they are defiant.
That is a lot of assuming and implying when a child’s heart is at stake.

Many times, therapists, teachers and other professionals will blame parents; accusing them of not being consistent enough, or not being firm enough. Instead of offering a different model of parenting; they encourage you to do more consequences, more rewards, more punishment, with more consistency and intensity. They convey that the model works, it’s just that parents are not applying it properly. When in fact, for some children, imposed consequences and rewards, and punishment, triggers the very behavior we are hoping to reduce or extinguish.

Yes, the very things you are doing to try and stop a behavior, may in fact be what is causing it.

Children who have experienced pre-birth and early life trauma often experience a higher level of sensitivity to their environment. Their brains are more stress sensitive. Neuroscience demonstrates that some children, particularly children who have experienced in utero trauma during the last trimester, and/or trauma during their 0-5 ages, have a more sensitive amygdala. The amygdala is the part of the brain responsible for sensing threat and distress. In the mind body system, the chemicals expressed in times of excitement are the same as the chemicals expressed in times of fear. When rewards and consequences are posed it creates an energy that these children have difficulty containing. When we offer little ones a reward for good behavior they often get so excited and eager that they “pop”. In their mind body system, they are not able to contain the energy of excitement.

Imagine this, your child is sitting in class and the teacher explains that if they have 3 green light days, they can get a prize from the treasure chest. For our children, just the word “treasure chest”, may be enough to get their brains hyperactivated with excitement. So there your child is, with visions of jewels streaming from their fingers, while the teachers has continued to explain the requirements of getting this reward. In the meantime, your child is about to pop with the excitement of seeing themselves on the cover of Forbes magazine as the richest 8-year-old in the world.

As you can imagine, your child gets called down for the excited behavior. It doesn’t take too many of these situations for a child to begin to believe that they will never obtain the holy grail of the treasure chest. They quickly feel defeated and excluded. The reward is out of their grasp. All too often children who experience this defeat become bitter. They see through the thin veil of manipulation and bribery that is at the heart of these kinds of behavior modification attempts. These children respond better to relationship-based teaching and parenting.

Discipline on the other hand means to teach.
Typically, as humans, we first learn by watching. In fact, we watch for years. Neuroscience tells us that pre-birth to around age 4 is the most critical time of brain development. It is when the brain is collecting information about how to survive the world. For each child this is different. These early life experiences create the filter that we view the world from. When we experience a child who is not able to behave in the manner that the situation requires, instead of assuming the child is being defiant, what would happen if we assume the child is doing the best they can in that moment, and that we as emotionally mature adults, can teach them in the moment that they are safe and attended to. When we focus more on helping a child be calm and emotionally regulated at the brain level, we are impacting overall brain development.
Behavior is a communication of the internal state. When we are stressed we regress. This is true for us all. When a child is experiencing a behavior challenge there are any number of possible reasons other than the idea that they are defiant and simply want to push your buttons. If we can understand that behavior is communication, we can listen to the behavior and respond to the need that is being communicated. Most often the behavior is communicating that the child is overwhelmed. Instead of punishing or bribing or sending them away due to this overwhelmed state, calm yourself and bring them closer. Your emotional calm will help them learn emotional calm. We all have a most productive state of stress, a most productive state of being stimulated. If we focus more on connecting with our children, calming the internal state, the behavior will follow suit. As we become more aware of the needs of our children, overtime they will become aware of their needs as well. This awareness helps facilitate self-regulation, emotional maturity, and the ability, over time, for a person to recognize their internal state and meet their needs in more healthy manners.


2 thoughts on “My Child Does Not Respond to Discipline

  1. Amanda Munro says:

    Excellent. This contextualises my 14 yr olds behaviour so well.
    I gave up the Skinners rat type behaviour methods some time ago.

    One thing that gets in the way of relationship based support is the mobile phone to which she is almost addicted.
    Would be interested to see anything the Post institute had regarding mobile phones and children with trauma affected needs

    • Kristi Saul says:

      Electronics are highly addictive for all of us. This is a topic we have discussed in The Parenting Inner Circle. The podcast is available at in our shop. We also have a podcast that discusses dating that covers some aspects of technology and relationships. There are so many different aspects of mobile devices that it is difficult to speak directly to your situation. Social media has a different effect than gaming. Both have a significant impact on the brain and emotions. Asking your child what’s going on in their phone world is a good practice, as well as asking what is being discussed on their social media feed. Sometimes sharing what is going on in your phone world can help create more transparency in the relationship. I have found it helpful for older children and their parents do joint self edcuation and present the information each other. At 14 it may be difficult for her to “hear” what you are saying. She may be able to take in information from others more than she can from you. There was a recent school based project where teachers asked their students to annonymously answer the question “What my parents don’t know about social media is….” it was very revealing and very helpful. Have your child read articles that discuss the pro’s and con’s of electronics, and she can send you the links. Cell phones are here to stay. Educating and supporting them in a balanced lifestyle is important. I also find that having a relationship with your child based in trust is crucial. There are so many ways that people can be sneaky with their electronics, that if one wants to hide information and activty they can. Talking to your child from the heart about your concerns and helping them to know and believe that you have their absolute best interest and safety at heart is the work. It is best when we have a relationship with our children where they view us as their most trusted support. This is where we have to make decisions about control vs. connection. Much Love, Kristi Saul, MEd Head Parenting Coach

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