Discipline your attachment-challenged children without the emotional whiplash

I am the mother of two attachment-challenged, traumatized children and the guardian of another. Working extensively with parents raising children from similar difficult beginnings, I am an attachment specialist called out from under the safety of my professional rock to share the ugly truth about my shortcomings. I do this every day in my blog to help other parents avoid some potholes along their adoption journey.

Even as the owner of The Attach Place Center for Strengthening Relationships, for the longest time when it came to disciplining my traumatized children for misbehavior, I was stuck teetering between two polar extremes: all in or all out. I was either intensely engaged, enraged and engulfing the offending child with my disappointment and anger or completely disengaged, disaffected and dismissing the offending child from my world altogether.

Each reactive approach was antithetical to creating safety, behavior change or stronger attachments. So what was my point? Punishment, pure and simple. I thought I needed to punish my children with too much or too little of my emotion. That’s how I was disciplined as a child.

While I intellectually understood that was hurtful, unconsciously I was hardwired to repeat the past. In the moment of upset, I didn’t have any other easy-to-call-upon parenting tools. Empathy and compassion surely were not on my radar as viable positions, especially when confronted with chronic, nonsensical misbehavior.

I take no pride in revealing this, though I often do. Frankly, I repeat this story in as many forms as I can for those of you who are raising children from difficult beginnings of abandonment and maltreatment, because I hear from so many parents trapped between these same two emotional opposites.

Discipline was never meant to be about wielding emotions in the first place. It was always intended to be about teaching right living. The only thing emotional disciplining does is give children emotional whiplash that last a lifetime.

If you have trouble knowing what discipline looks like when emotions are not involved, try some new ways of thinking and acting: 

  • Patiently and repeatedly teach and train your child: “Be gentle. Be gentle. Be gentle.”
  • Empathize with your child about how hard it is to do the right thing when desire for the wrong thing is so powerful.
  • Understand the impact of difficult beginnings on your child’s regulatory systems and therefore on the ability to make positive decisions and healthy choices.
  • Refuse to abuse your child with either your overpowering anger or with active withholding of your connection — also known as rejection.
  • Discipline that breaks the heart of your child is mean and punitive, not loving and transformative.
  • Using restorative justice is a teaching model for correcting poor behavior.
  • Rewarding your child’s misbehavior with being out of control or distancing from you reinforces attachment issues within your relationship.
  • Commit to therapeutic parenting for healing the already wounded heart of your child.

You are the greatest force in your child’s life. Do you want to influence with love or fear?

For more on this and other topics, check out Ce’s daily blog Wisdom For Adoptive Parents or sign up here for daily parenting support in your inbox. @attachmenthelp.