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“Dr. Laura —  Could you write about transitioning to positive discipline for parents of older kids? If I start Empathic Parenting now with my kids 12 and 9, will it still help? How do I all of a sudden “remove” punishment? My 9 year old always says ‘Oh now I guess I am grounded.’ How do I change his thinking?”

First, you don’t just “remove punishment.” Once you aren’t punishing, kids feel safer, so the emotions they’ve been stuffing come pouring out — sometimes in the form of rudeness toward parents. You need to replace the punishment with a positive connection with you, so your child respects you and WANTS to follow your rules.

Transitioning to positive parenting can be hard. Your child has already come to understand the world through a certain lens. He thinks the only reason to “behave” is that otherwise he’ll be punished by losing a privilege or being grounded. Of course, you’d rather have him choose to do the right thing because he wants to have a positive impact on the world, not because he’s afraid of being caught and punished. But how do you teach him the lessons he still needs to learn, if you no longer use punishment to motivate him?

Grounding your child, removing privileges, punishing with extra chores — all of these approaches are meant to “teach a lesson.”  But research shows that kids get preoccupied with the unfairness of the punishment, instead of feeling remorse for what they did wrong. The lessons you want to teach, I assume, are:

  • His actions have an impact on the world.
  • He can always choose his own actions and he is responsible for them.
  • Everyone makes mistakes. When we make a mistake, it is our job to repair things.  Cleaning up messes is usually harder than making a more responsible choice to begin with.
  • When we reflect on our actions and their impact on the world, it helps us make a better choice next time.
  • It takes courage to do the right thing. But when we make responsible, considerate choices, we become the kind of person we admire, and we feel better about ourselves.

Right? Here’s how.

1. First move yourself from anger into empathy. Once your child knows you’re on his side, he feels safe to engage with you. Without that sense of safety, your child’s heart is hardened to you — because he expects judgment and punishment — and you have no influence at all. So just tell him you need some time to think, and get calm before you talk about what happened.  (For more on managing your own anger.)

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Instead of Grounding Your Kid: 12 Steps To Teach a Lesson
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