The word Grounding originated as a term in aviation, often used when a pilot is prevented from flying an aircraft due to misconduct, illness, technical problems with the aircraft, or other reasons. The pilot is said to be “grounded”.
In general terms, Grounding refers to a common form of discipline used, in which a child, teen, or adult is not allowed to leave their home or bedroom except for required/permitted activities such as school, church etc. One is also said to be grounded when certain privileges, freedom and/or activities are removed such as playing video games, watching TV, extracurricular activities etc. This form of punishment has been suggested as an alternative to physical discipline or spanking for behaviour management in the home.
However, Grounding can backfire if the type and duration of restrictions are too severe relative to the behaviour meant to be corrected or if the restrictions are too difficult for the parent to enforce.
Many parents today use the words “You’re Grounded”, and do not follow through with the enforcement, others may enforce partially, while some grossly overdo it.
While discipline is a very important factor in raising a child, we should also make room for Empathic Parenting. As parents, it is important to draw the line between discipline and being mean. Some punishments are just not commensurate to the crime and we should be able to strike a balance by asking ourselves a lesson we want to teach. Ultimately, we all want to teach the child to make a better choice next time; we also want to teach that everyone makes mistakes and that the child has the power and courage to make amends.
As parents, we need to start by practising what we preach, empathy. I came across this piece on Psychology Today, from Laura Markham, Ph.D., the author of Peaceful Parent and Happy Kids. Here she discusses 10 Things To Do Instead of Grounding Your Kid.
This piece helps us understand that Empathy creates a connection with your child. Sometimes leaning back on the harsh punishments and going with empathy has a greater and more impactful result.
“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?”
Yes, empathic parenting always helps. Empathy creates a connection with your child. Children of any age, including teenagers, respond to that connection by being more open to your guidance.
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 lesson you want to teach, I assume, is that your child can make a better choice next time. You also want to teach that everyone makes mistakes, and your child has the power and courage to make amends. You want him to practice that. Right? Here’s how.
- First, move 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.
- Start with the connection. If your child is worried about you getting upset at her, she’ll move into “fight, flight or freeze” and learning will shut down. She’s also more likely to lie. The only way to actually “teach a lesson” is to create a safe conversation. To do that, remember that your child has a reason for what she did. You may not consider it a good reason, but to her it’s a reason. If you don’t find out her reason, you can’t prevent a recurrence.
- Tell your child you want to hear his thoughts about what happened. Then let him talk. Reflect to clarify (and demonstrate) your understanding:
“I see…so the guys really wanted you to play basketball, and it was at the same time as the study session for the test? That’s a hard choice.”
“Wow! So you and your sister were really furious at each other… you were so hurt when she….I would have been mad too, if someone said that to me……and you really wanted to get back at her, huh?”
- Keep your focus on connecting with your child and seeing the situation from his point of view. This helps you, and him, understand what motivated him. This gives him an opportunity to work through the feeling or the unmet need that drove his behaviour. Kids always know what the right choice was, but something got in their way. What was it? How can he (with your help) address that so he can make a better choice next time?
For instance, let’s say he played basketball with his friends instead of going to the study session and then failed his test. You might find as you talk with him that he has a lot of anxiety about being accepted by the guys and felt he had to play basketball to be accepted by the gang. This social anxiety maybe something he actually needs your help to sort, and once he does he would be a lot more ready to focus on schoolwork.
But by simply punishing him, you would never have even known about it. You would have lost the opportunity to help him address his feelings and find a good solution for next time. In fact, since punishment doesn’t help him resolve his conflict, he might very well do the same thing next time, but invent some story to cover himself.
- Ask open-ended questions. Keep the conversation as safe and as light as possible. If you can share a laugh, you’ll defuse the tension and strengthen your bond, so remind yourself that this is a growth experience for both of you, and summon up your sense of humour.
Was he aware of making a choice?
What led him to that choice?
What does he think about it now?
Was there a cost of making that choice?
Would he do it again?
Why or why not?
How could he support himself to choose differently next time?
- Explore and learn with your child, rather than assuming you know what should happen now. Once he isn’t being controlled by that unmet need or upsetting feeling, and he sees the result of his action (failed test, hurt sister, broken window, whatever), he feels regretful. This is only after the feelings or needs have been processed, of course. But once they aren’t driving him, his “goodness” is free to come through. He naturally wants to make things better.
So you ask him:
What can you do now to make things better?
Did this incident show you anything in your life that you want to change?
How can I support you?
- Resist the urge to jump in with punishments. Instead, be quiet and listen. This is not about him being punished and losing privileges and being told what bad things are now going to happen to him. It’s about him realizing that what he does has an impact, and taking responsibility to have a positive rather than a negative impact. If you can avoid playing the heavy, your son can actually take responsibility, because he isn’t on the defensive.
In the example of the failed test, maybe he makes a written chart about schoolwork, and sits with you to do it every night, and asks the teacher for extra credit work to do, etc. Is that punishment? No, not if this is the plan that he brainstorms with you to come up with. In fact, if you help him actually follow through and partner with him so he can achieve his goals, then it’s completely empowering and could transform his ability to achieve in school.
If the bad choice was hurting his sister, then the reparations would be to her. All children have mixed emotions about siblings, but that means there is affection and comradeship in there somewhere, and even protectiveness.
- What if he says no repair work is necessary; that he doesn’t care if he failed the test and his sister deserved what she got? He’s still on the defensive. Say “Oh, Sweetie….I understand why this happened and why you made this choice….but that doesn’t mean your choice worked out well…you must still be so upset to say that….I know that when you aren’t so upset you would feel differently….Let’s give this a break and talk more later.” Give him a chance to calm down. When you start talking again, start with empathy. That’s what helps him heal those feelings. Model taking responsibility, maybe by saying “I think some of this is my fault…I didn’t realize you were falling behind in class, or I would have helped you address it before now.”
- Step into your own power. You as the grown-up have more power than you know in this situation. Your child is depending on your leadership, even if she seems to be resisting it. If she hurt her sister, it gives you an opportunity to address the obvious sibling rivalry. If she failed her test, it gives you an opportunity to consider your family’s overall prioritization of schoolwork. When we give our children sufficient support, they usually rise to the level of our expectations. Some kids just need more support than others.
- Expect an adjustment period. Like any transition, a change in your parenting from punitive to empathic parenting will include both of you learning the new territory. No blame. We all do the best we can as parents. But if you’ve been punishing, your child was obeying out of fear. Once you stop punishing, she stops obeying. So you need to make it your highest priority to do some repair work on your connection, so she WANTS to cooperate with you, and doesn’t want to disappoint you. Otherwise, she’ll just flount your rules.
But what if she just can’t regulate herself to stop fighting with her sister or do her homework? This is where you pay the piper for your previous punishing — it’s likely she has some big upsets stored up that are driving her behaviour. 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. The key is to stay empathic and not take it personally. Remind her that you speak with respect to her and that you expect civility in return: “You must be so upset to speak to me that way…What’s going on, Sweetie?” Stay compassionate. Welcome her upset feelings. The more safety you can provide, the sooner your child will be willing to cry and share what’s really bothering her. Once she empties her emotional backpack of all those uncomfortable feelings she’s been lugging around, she’ll be much more open to connecting. And because you’ve stayed compassionate, she’ll know you’re on her side, and she’ll WANT to cooperate, whether she’s three or thirteen.
The hard part is changing your own habits, but luckily you’ll see positive changes very quickly so you’ll have an incentive to keep you going. Don’t worry about changing your child’s thinking. If you change, they change.