The Soft & Hard Sides of Discipline A Brief Look at Empathic Parenting

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Have you ever had difficulty determining when
"enough is enough" with your child? Or questioned
when you should draw the line rather than be
flexible and give in to his requests? Have you ever experienced
the pain and confusion of knowing your child wants
softness from you, but feared that this softness will somehow
be "bad" for him/her in some way?

These are issues that all parents face regarding discipline
and how best to provide the guidance and support
your child needs along with the love, nurture and empathy
they most long for. In working with coaching and therapy
clients, and as a parent myself, I've come to understand the
deep complexities involved in serving as a loving, empathic
parent while at the same time providing effective
guidance and authority.

These are not simple, easy or comfortable issues. But
asking yourself the following questions can be greatly
beneficial and productive in
the process of empathic and
effective parenting.

When my child is acting up, what is he

longing for on a deeper level?

Often, a child acts up or misbehaves for purposes that are
not readily apparent on the surface. Misbehaving can in
fact be a child's way of gaining your attention and direct
engagement with him. He may be craving your attention
and love, and unable to achieve these in a productive
manner. Sometimes, acting out is a way to distract parents
from their own conflicts, so that the attention is again
refocused on the child. It can be a form of "homeostasis,"
keeping the family intact and functioning. So the key
question here is: What may my child's misbehavior be
saying that I haven't yet fully understood?

Who is in control here? Do I need to set
clearer, more consistent boundaries?

Often as parents, our own insecurities about our parenting
skills lead us to doubt our ability to control and question
whether we rightfully deserve a place in this "executive"
role. When this occurs, we typically lose our ability to be
effective and authoritative. In essence, we have allowed

our children to climb up into the executive position and
make decisions for us. If you experience a sense of being
out of control with your children and feel as if they are
running the show, it is very helpful to stop and examine
your beliefs and attitudes around setting and enforcing
guidelines. Are you consistent, and firm? Do you provide
natural consequences when your children do not behave as
you need them to? When we make this careful examination
of our difficulties in acting authoritatively in our own lives,
we often find beliefs and fears carried over from our childhood
about ourselves, our parents, the nature of love,
support and self-assertion that need to be re-examined.

Am I showing empathy and care in my reactions
even though I need to be firm?

There are times, of course, when children need from parents
firmness and resoluteness, so that they may learn new ways
to achieve what is considered acceptable and beneficial
behavior in the family, and later, with their peers, in society
and their world at large. This firmness may be required in
many different areas including respect, rules, rituals and
communication as well as in enforcing appropriate boundaries.
But when we are firm and unmovable, can we at the
same time be loving and empathic? As parents, it is important
to examine our ways of enforcing rules to ensure they
leave room for demonstrating our genuine empathy and
care for the child's inner experience and her unique individuality.

Do I validate my child? Do I let her know that,
while I may not agree with her position, it is a
valid one to her?

What we humans seem to crave deeply and consistently is
validation—experiencing others' support that our personal
beliefs and actions make sense. Yet often when we struggle
with our children, we invalidate them as we attempt to
provide guidance about the ways we need them to change.
We can discredit or undermine their behavior or thoughts,
telling them they are wrong, silly, immature or crazy. A
different approach that builds self-esteem is to support the
idea that, while we need some change in their behavior, we
still understand and can relate to their position, and consider
it valid.

When I need to reprimand and give a consequence,
how can I execute it so that my child can save face with
dignity, while learning and growing from the experience?

It is very difficult for children (and adults) in a power struggle to admit defeat
and lose face. Yet this is often what we exact from our children when we demand
that they change, or that we are right, thus inferring that they are not. We
become much more effective when we allow our children to remove themselves
from the conflict with their dignity and self-esteem intact. There are many ways
to do this, all of which require keeping in mind the goal of fostering our
children's life energy rather than vanquishing their spirit as we attempt to bring
about positive changes in everyone's behavior.

Am I on the same page with my spouse so that the parental
unit is strong and cohesive?

In my work with families and children, one of the most common patterns to
emerge involves one spouse unwittingly using a child as a tool against the other
spouse. How does this occur? When we feel in some way powerless to affect a
desired change in our marriage, we can find ourselves using a child to side with
us, or to be pitted against our spouse. In our collusion with another, we become
more powerful and feel less alone. Further, when a child is acting out and
disregarding one parent, often there are ways in which the child is gaining
support in his struggle from the other spouse. The key question at the heart of this
dynamic is: Am I on the same page with my spouse about parenting and about
our own relationship? If not, am I involving my child in any way, through conflict
or through direct collusion, to get back at my spouse?

Can my power struggles with my children teach me anything
about my own fears and insecurities that need to be addressed?

When we struggle with our children, there are often underlying themes and
patterns that are playing out. It can be helpful to look at the struggle from a
distance, as a metaphor, to gain clarity on the key issue. As an example, we
often fight with our teenage children over their breaking curfew or disregarding
other rules. A deeper look can reveal key developmental challenges occurring,
such as the teenager's natural process of striving to achieve autonomy versus
dependence. Looking beneath the surface of our struggles, we often see our own
fears are being tapped…perhaps a fear of losing our children as they grow up,
fear of being alone, or fear of losing meaning in our lives as our children leave
home to pursue their own lives.

Am I fostering my child's own unique individual path or am I
trying to make it in the image of someone else's?

Finally, a very significant key to effective, empathic parenting is to ask ourselves
the question: What is my key goal in parenting? What am I, overall,
hoping to achieve as a good parent? To provide love and support, offer guidelines
for development, to foster the growth of a happy, healthy, productive individual?
Or perhaps, is it to create a loving, safe, supportive environment for my child to
become all he is meant to be in this world, based on his or her own dreams,
passions, energies and goals?

Whatever your answer to this pivotal question, its exploration will be extremely
helpful in setting your own parenting course. Increasing your awareness of your
actions as a loving, effective parent will ultimately help you expand your choices as
to how to react, communicate and behave. In the end, modeling empathic parenting
will benefit not only your children, but future generations as well.

Kathy Caprino is a personal/professional coach, consultant, and marriage and
family therapist. She is a co-founder of Living in Harmony - The Center for
Emotional Health in Westport, CT. See Kathy
may be reached at 203-226-6210 or

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