How Discipline Works Backwards for Aggression

Two kids, boy brothers, fighting in garden, summertime rainy day

The steps of positive discipline provide parents with a framework for moving through any discipline exchange. For most all behaviors, the idea is to work forward through the steps and consider which are needed or are the best fit. I tend to get through most discipline exchanges with empathy and choices or positive intent and choices but that may not be what fits best for you. It is good to stay flexible.

It is also helpful to note there are several ways to stay in front of this discipline including considering logistics for ways to solve behaviors or checking your routines and schedules to avoid struggles and giving clear and consistent warnings to help children prepare themselves. There are also proactive discipline techniques such as giving positive directions and giving descriptive praise to encourage wanted behaviors and lessen the need for the steps of discipline. That said, sometimes the behaviors still happen.

Here are the steps with definitions of each. For each step I am also providing an example for this scenario: Your child wants to walk at the grocery store but keeps pulling things off the shelf onto the floor.

  • I message – I messages are a way to express your negative emotion and blame the behavior or the situation rather than blaming the child. This is either passive blame, “I am frustrated, this is a mess,” or “I am worried, something might break” or global blame “I am frustrated, no one is listening.” The point is to diffuse the blame rather than blame the child directly which leads to defensiveness and arguing.
  • Empathy – This is acknowledging the child’s emotions in the situation, understanding their upset before you move towards discipline. In the grocery store example this might be “I know you are bored. It is so boring to shop,” or “I see you are excited, you love being here. There is so much to see.”
  • Positive Intent – Positive intent is recognizing the good reason behind the negative behavior. This may be “I know you want to help,” or “I know you are having fun.”
  • I messages, empathy and positive intent are all foundation steps in the framework. You don’t tend to see a lot of behavior change from these steps but they help to keep communication open and encourage the child to be a listener to what comes next. The next steps including choices and consequences are viewed as the active steps of the framework which lead more towards changes in behavior.
  • Choices, Challenges or Contribution – These are ways to encourage the good behavior while avoiding consequence language. These techniques are more open and flexible than consequences. Choices would be “Do you want to hold my hand or help push the cart,” or “leaving everything else on the shelf, do you want to choose the cereal or the cookies next?” Challenges would be making up a game or making it fun, “Can you duck walk on the center tiles all the way to the other end of the aisle,” or “Can you count how many characters you see on the cereal boxes?” Either way, they aren’t focused on pulling things off the shelves. Contribution is giving the child a job to get them through the behavior this might be making the child the “list checker” or the “cart organizer,” rather than just walking.
  • Natural Consequences – Natural consequences are what just might happen if the child chooses or continues the behavior. “If you keep pulling things off the shelf, something might break,” or “you might get hurt.”
  • Logical Positive or Logical Negative Consequences – Positive logical consequences are the good related outcomes such as “If you can leave things on the shelf, you can pick the cereal,” or “you can use the scanner,” or “you can walk the whole time.” Negative logical consequences are the bad related outcome such as “If you are pulling things off the shelf, you will have to ride in the cart,” or “you will have to hold my hand.”

As a parent, when one child hurts another, I tend to work through the steps backwards and start with a logical negative consequence. This is mostly because I want it to register differently to my child. I want them to realize, “Oh, when I hurt someone this all works differently.” The only way for it to register this way is to work forward for all other behaviors and avoid starting with negative consequences unless there is aggression.

  • Attention to victim first – As hard as it is, avoid initially looking at or speaking to the child who was just aggressive. Turn your initial attention to the victim child saying something like, “I am so sorry. Are you okay?” This avoids giving that initial attention to the aggressive behavior and accidentally reinforcing it. I am not saying comfort and snuggle and go overboard, just avoid initial attention to the aggressive behavior.
  • Logical Negative Consequence – Again, as best you can, good to give a consequence related to the scenario. If they were pushing over a toy, the other child gets the toy. If they were hitting over a spot on the couch, other child gets the couch. It can also be fine to end the activity or leave the situation, just be sure to tie it to the behavior as best you can.
  • Empathy or Positive Intent then Choices – The consequence is where many parents end the exchange. I think it’s best to go back through empathy or positive intent and better choices for the exchange. Good to redirect the child to better behaviors following a consequence for aggression.

If aggression is happening often, helpful to also coach being gentle or other related skills out of the moment. Coaching might include reading stories like Hands Are Not for Hitting by Aggasi and No More Hitting for Little Hamster by Ford. This might be brainstorming ways to be gentle and practice gentle touches and making lists about how to treat people. Good to also coach any known triggers. If you child is hitting over taking turns, coach how to take turns by role playing, giving puppet shows, drawing pictures of it going well and drawing comics that teach the point. There is a free audio workshop on coaching wanted behaviors available at on parentingbydrrene.com.

To learn more about this and other discipline techniques you can join Dr. Rene for a workshop in Northern VA.

Listen to her audio workshops online.

Or read Dr. Rene’s workbook 8 Weeks to Positive Discipline.

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