Implementing Gentle Discipline Techniques in Big Families

An NPN reader asks our natural parenting mentors:

For the past couple of years, I have been working on becoming a parent I can be comfortable with (doing away with spanking, anger, yelling, and an authoritarian mindset, although my husband is not on the same page concerning that part).

I love all that I am learning, but my big problem is following all of these “gentle” suggestions while managing four kids (ages 2.5, 5, 6, and 7) at the same time! My 5 year old has such huge meltdowns that he requires all of my mental and physical energy to contain him, and even then it is merely survival. I am not very satisfied with my own reactions, and I feel rather lost at times as to what to do. My problem is that I then resent him and resort to less gentle methods because I have the responsibility of caring for the others at the same time, which feels nearly impossible.

Also, sometimes the nature of the conflict is one that needs to be resolved immediately (such as leaving for school, cleaning up a spill, or destroying a sibling’s project) and there is no time for these type of suggestions. Suggestions buy time but don’t get dinner on the table when everyone else is melting down from hunger and the 5 year old is requiring all of my attention for some other issue.

I really could use something a little more “nitty-gritty” for these crucial moments (or a way to change my thinking, as sometimes that helps too!). Have you found any helpful advice or methods concerning how to manage larger families?


Here’s what our natural parenting mentors had to say:

Dr. Laura of AhaParenting.com: Good for you for working to move past authoritarian parenting. That’s not an easy transition, especially if your husband isn’t on the same page.

Let me start by acknowledging that big families are simply harder. While the love in your heart is limitless, your hands still can’t be everywhere at once. You have my admiration. It’s also completely understandable that you end up resenting your son, since he’s keeping you from being the parent you want to be to your other children, who, after all, also deserve a mom.

I do think there’s a way that you can help your son so he isn’t so temperamental. I want to reassure you that the problem isn’t with anything you’re doing, but with the inherent challenges of shifting from conventional to gentle parenting. Let me explain.

In conventional parenting, you spend a lot of time intervening when there’s a problem and fixing problems that come up. In fact, you can think of discipline as what parents do when there’s a problem.

So when we transition to gentle parenting, it’s true that all the interventions do take more time. Empathizing, listening, coaching – these are a lot more time-consuming than sending your kid to his room.

That’s the bad news. Fortunately, there’s good news, too. The good news is that once your family is in the swing of gentle parenting, many fewer things go wrong, so you don’t have to spend as much time intervening. There are many reasons for this. I think of them as the happy outcomes of gentle parenting. For instance:

  1. Your kids feel more connected to you, so they’re more cooperative.
  2. You’re helping your children feel safe enough to process their emotions so they aren’t walking around with full emotional backpacks, which means they aren’t being driven by those big upsets to act out and misbehave.
  3. You’re more calm, so your kids are more calm and your household is more calm.
  4. You’re less resentful and more emotionally present, and your kids respond to your presence by wanting to connect and cooperate and bask in your warmth.
  5. All of your hard work in helping your kids understand their own emotions helps them learn to regulate their emotions.
  6. All of your coaching your kids to express themselves to each other and negotiate win/win solutions pays dividends in better relationships between siblings.
  7. All of your efforts to work out win/win solutions with your children teaches them to be better problem-solvers.
  8. Your modeling taking responsibility teaches your kids to take responsibility for themselves.
  9. All of your nurturing and empathizing teaches your kids those skills, so when you start to lose it, they actually begin to “coach” you through your upset.
  10. Your kids believe you’re on their side, so they want to follow your guidance.

Sounds great, right? But about now, you probably have three questions.

WHY aren’t these ten happy outcomes happening yet for your family?

HOW can you make them happen?

And when they don’t – back to your original question — WHAT can you do?!

Let’s start with WHAT can you do to get better outcomes.

The truth is, by the time you’re in the breakdown lane, there’s not much you can do except pull over to the side of the road and hit the brakes so no one gets hurt. What do I mean by the breakdown lane? I mean that nitty-gritty moment when you need to get dinner on the table and everyone is melting down from hunger and the five year old has just destroyed his sibling’s project and everyone is crying. In that moment, the best thing you can do is to help everyone calm down by communicating that it isn’t an emergency.

need our love small

I know, that doesn’t seem like much. But it’s not nothing. It’s actually doing quite a lot. You’re modeling self-regulation in the face of frustration. You’re giving your kids the message that you are in charge and will act like a grownup, and that things can and will get solved.

You’re establishing a sense of safety. Your limbic system transmits to their limbic systems a sense of calm, so they can calm down and not act out. Every time that happens, your child’s nervous system builds more neural pathways for self-soothing.

You’re offering empathy to the kids who are hurting, so you’re starting the healing process so the feelings can dissipate and you can all move on. So when breakdowns like this happen, use your mantras to calm yourself (“It’s not an emergency…Whatever happens, I can handle it…They need love most when they least “deserve” it…”) so you can transmit calm to your kids.

HOW you can make the happy outcomes happen.

But while there might not be much you can do in the moment, there’s a lot you can do to avoid getting to this moment. Here’s where we segue into HOW you can make the ten happy outcomes above a reality in your family. If your family is in the breakdown lane often, it’s a signal that you need to do some preventive maintenance. In conventional parenting, you don’t really do much preventive maintenance, you just intervene with discipline when things go wrong. But with gentle parenting, you’re trying to get to the root of why things go wrong and address them so things don’t go wrong so often. That takes preventive maintenance, or more specifically: Empathy, Daily roughhousing, Special time, Routines, and Scheduled meltdowns. Why?

  • Empathy helps kids feel safe to process emotion, so they can move past their upsets to cooperate and problem-solve.
  • Roughhousing gets kids laughing, which is nature’s way of helping humans vent anxiety. Anxiety is just another word for fear, and all small humans feel fear every day. Fear drives aggression and rigidity, so when you roughhouse with your kids, you help them giggle out those fears so they can be more flexible, affectionate, and happy.
  • Special time builds trust and safety so that later, when kids get angry, they feel safe enough to go to the tears and fears under the anger rather than getting stuck in the anger.
  • Routines help kids feel safe.
  • Scheduled meltdowns give kids a chance to cry out any tears and fears (that would otherwise drive bad behavior) that the roughhousing laughter couldn’t quite surface, but on your schedule, rather than while you’re trying to get dinner on the table.

You can see that these preventive maintenance practices can go a long way toward keeping a challenging child out of the breakdown lane so often. Sure, they take work, but parenting is work either way. It makes you and everyone else a lot happier to have a family pillow fight before you start making dinner — which leaves everyone in a better mood and more likely to get along — than having everyone end up in tears. Rather than go into each of these in more detail, you can read about how to carry them out at an article I wrote on 5 Preventative Maintenance Habits at AhaParenting.com.

WHY the ten happy outcomes may not be happening.

Finally, let’s address WHY the ten happy outcomes listed above aren’t consistently happening yet for your family. I’m sure, by the way, that they are happening to some degree. But clearly, at least for your five year old, there’s a puzzle piece missing. He might simply be a very challenging child, but even a challenging child should be responding better than you’ve described to your new gentle parenting approach. When we transition to gentle parenting, some kids do just fine. Others don’t. The ones who don’t, who are still acting out when we’re parenting more gently, are signaling that they need some help with their big emotions.

Here’s what I mean: Any child who is aggressive is frightened inside. Any child who is demanding and has big meltdowns has some tears and fears that he needs your help to feel, express, and let go. The good news is that once we humans allow ourselves to feel an emotion (without running from it by acting on it), it dissipates. All children store up tears and fears in their “emotional backpack” and wait for a time when they feel safe enough to let those feelings out. Unfortunately, those emotions are always bubbling up, and kids will do anything to avoid feeling them, like destroy their sibling’s project or sass their parents. (The best defense is a good offense.)

So why is your five year old having a hard time and the others aren’t? Maybe he’s more sensitive or more strong-willed. Maybe he had some early trauma: a medical intervention, a difficult birth, a separation from you. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that he needs your help to empty that emotional backpack. Until he does, those big feelings will continue to make it hard for him to “behave”, no matter how gently you parent. There’s lots of support on the Aha! Parenting website to help your son with his emotions.

I want to close by saying that I think you are on the right track with your comment about changing your thinking. In those breakdown moments, if we can reframe the way we see his behavior, it doesn’t drive us so crazy. This means we stay more empathetic and connected with him, which makes a huge difference in just how bad things get. I find mantras, such as “he needs love most when he least deserves it,” to be invaluable.

Of course, that takes a willingness on our part to see things from our child’s point of view. At those breakdown moments, it’s natural to get angry at our child. After all, if he would just cooperate, everything would be fine. But our child isn’t acting out because he wants to be “bad.” He’s acting out because he has big feelings that he can’t articulate, so he has to “act them out.” His actions are a symptom, just as a fever is a symptom that our child’s body is having a hard time. In fact, he’s doing us a favor by letting us know that he’s having a hard time inside so that we can help him to resolve it. He needs that help if he’s to flourish and rise to his age-appropriate developmental challenges.

I hope that’s helpful. Enjoy your children!

Amy of Presence Parenting: Thank you for asking this pertinent question, not only for larger families, but for anyone who struggles to establish or maintain an honorable approach to parenting in the face of challenge. I can relate as I am currently guiding five children ranging from 5 months to 12 years of age.

It sounds like you have been learning some very valuable parenting skills that help you to parent more in line with your values much of the time. It also sounds like some of the skills make their way out the window when you are tending to all of the kids at once and the five year old (or possibly another child) is having a difficult time. The main question I hear in what you shared is, “How can I honor myself, my child, and all of my children, when time is short and I must meet everyone’s needs at once?”

First, an underlying philosophy is vital. It’s your go-to in moments of question. Putting it into action is the “nitty-gritty” you are talking about. Why is philosophy important? Because if we don’t have our values to guide us, we falter. It’s too easy to revert to what we were raised with, how we react when challenged, or some other variance that isn’t what we really want. It’s the difference between reacting and responding. Part of my personal parenting philosophy is a foundation of relaxation mediation. I teach myself how to respond to the complexities of parenting multiple children through changing my default to loving guidance (yes, it’s a practice).

Here are a few resources to refine, redefine, and anchor in a solid philosophy from which to parent from: Simple Inquiry for Parents, Tools for Creating Your Parenting Philosophy, I Find My Way to Peace, and Nurturing Presence. You may also benefit from a parenting mantra, which is a sort of statement that can help you refocus your attention, mind, and body on what is important to you when challenges arise.

Second, create a chaos plan. This can look like sitting down with a piece of paper and writing out what chaos looks like in your home: five year old melting down when you have five minutes to leave, all of the kids upset at once, feeling overtired and frustrated yourself at bedtime, and so on. Next, brainstorm ways to deal with the chaos. If someone is upset and combative, think of what you can direct the other children to – safe activities in their room, ways to help, a snack in the fridge, a book to read – while you help that child.

In helping your child who is upset, think about how this may go when you feel ill-prepared versus when you feel you have enough time, sleep, and/or resources. If you feel rested, is it easier to listen, reflect what your child is feeling, be there while he feels what he feels, and move to what’s next? It usually is, so building in some time to rest more – even with five minutes of conscious relaxation or meditation – may help. That can be part of your preparedness plan: if you are feeling stressed take five minutes and rest a bit so you can refresh yourself for the remainder of the day.

It may also be helpful to prepare some snacks ahead of time for kids to eat while you are dealing with another child or need to get out the door. Adding in some extra time before outings can make a difference as well. Allow your mind to explore all possibilities of lightening the experience of chaos through survival thinking. Mentally rehearse how you will meet chaos and see yourself confident as you handle the challenges of parenting.

A lot of figuring out how to prepare for chaos comes from moving through chaos without having what we need in place, so give yourself permission to learn along the way. If you feel like you’re short on skills to help with your chaos plan, talk with another parent who has many children or a parenting mentor.

Now, the in-the-moment application. Again, I am grateful you asked, because answering this question is helping me clarify my approach. Here’s what I’ve come up with…and I admit that it’s an evolving process. Kind of like coming up with one’s favorite recipe, you might start with someone else’s recipe that tastes really good, then you modify it, add a little of this here, reduce a little of that, and voila, it’s an even yummier yum. Possibly these will be some helpful pointers for you as you come up with your own perfectly evolving approach.

Breathe. Okay, you’re already breathing. Notice your breath. As you assess the situation, focus your attention deeply on the rhythm of your breath. If it’s quick and you feel upset (maybe even furious), allow it to ease a bit and continue to keep your awareness on your breath and body as you move to help your family. This alone can remind you to be intentional instead of reactive or harsh. This is a great time to bring in a mantra or pointer to your parenting philosophy, too.

Start with immediate needs. What needs attention right now? If you’re getting ready to go out the door and your five year old starts to get upset, begin by meeting your own immediate need to acknowledge that things are not going according to plan and it’s okay to feel what you feel. It’s okay for everyone to feel what they feel. If the need in the moment is for your child to be heard, listen to him as you get everyone else ready. If the need is for a snack or safety, honor that and get space if necessary for a few moments while you gently continue as planned.

Move to basic needs. Does anyone need to use the restroom, eat, get a drink of water, rest somewhere quiet, or connect for a hug? As you meet the immediate needs present, take note of what basic needs may need attention and attend to them. If your five year old is still upset, let him know you notice he may feel angry, sad, disappointed, and so on. If you need to move to help another one of the kids, do that. Just let him know you are making your way to the kitchen to prepare dinner. Invite him to come along, or come back and check on him in a few moments.

Breathe some more. As you take inventory of what needs to be done in the situation, allow yourself a few moments to just observe, allow your shoulders to relax, and even smile. Wow, this is parenting, full of challenges and I’m learning as I go!

Move to structure. Keeping with routine or rhythm can be helpful when we are willing to flow with the ups and downs of being the caregiver of many. Kids will get upset, and we can learn to help them through what they feel. It’s okay to tend to everyone’s needs while someone feels upset. As the child learns that feeling upset is not a problem, but something the family can work through together, the tendency for such emotions to derail the whole family will lessen. Once you feel you’ve regained a sense of equilibrium (use the sit down if it is helpful), move to what you planned to do before chaos erupted. Invite the children to accompany you to do the dishes, get out the door, or whatever feels appropriate given the circumstances. If you have a silly song you can sing along the way, all the better.

Appreciate. Look at your children and feel the love you have for them. Really soak it up. The whole body camera may be helpful to do when all is going well, too.

Breathe. Don’t forget about you in all of this because you are the one guiding everyone else. Instead of letting that statement reinforce any pressure you may feel, consider it a pointer to the immensity of power you have to mother your children through whatever comes. It’s in you. Enjoy the journey!

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Photo Credit: ralaenin
Graphic background credit: Tinneketin; graphic created by Tom – the Code Name: Papa of Code Name: Mama

2 Responses to Implementing Gentle Discipline Techniques in Big Families

  1. Amy Phoenix  

    I received some additional words of wisdom from a mother on my mailing list that my be helpful in addressing chaos before it starts…

    “I am wondering if this parent needs some suggestions as to ‘a systems set up’ that leads to the melt down of the 5 year old. Sometimes fixing a system makes recovering from chaos much easier as well since it can lead to much less chaos.
    –does he have difficulties with change? maybe he needs beginning of the day, 2 hour, 20, 15, 10 and 5 minute reminders of what’s coming up so that he can mentally prepare.
    –does he get tons of extra attention when he has a melt down? make sure he’s getting tons more positive attention other times so that melt-down times aren’t the only times he gets attention. making the melt down attention times not quite as fun (while still maintaining healthy care and positive outlook) may help. (? this has to be carefully done!)
    –being a middlish child may create some tension in not feeling in control of anything. Having a low stress chore that is really helpful and is only his chore to help him feel in control. (Keeping adult verbage positive is important! “Oh, thank you so much for doing this.” “You are being so kind and helpful when you do this for our family.” “Look at what you did! See how helpful this is!”) Or making sure he has some space in the home (wall space for pictures, square footage space, a drawer or two) that is his to decide what to do with–not for family toy storage or his clothing unless he wants it there.
    –does the five year old have a food allergy or blood sugar problems?
    –has something happened with this child that needs talked through or debriefed or an apology made to the child by a parent for overlooking needs at one time?”

  2. Julinda

    What if the dad’s parenting style is contributing to the problems? How does Mom deal with issues that Dad may have caused, without criticizing/hurting Dad?

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