Moving to Gentle Discipline with an Older Child

An NPN reader asks our natural parenting mentors:

I have a 9 1/2 year old daughter who was raised in the more traditional sense: warnings, time-outs, consequences, etc. My Husband is her stepfather, and the relationship between him and my daughter is very strained. He tries to be authoritarian1, and (of course) she doesn’t like it. He has been in her life for almost 5 years now.

My husband and daughter have constant power struggles and a lot of trouble seeing eye to eye. I am dissatisfied with using traditional discipline myself, too.

I’ve been wanting to change our parenting style because:

  1. I feel like I am distancing myself from her. I find myself often irritated with her and her decisions. I find it hard to bond with her now that we aren’t as close as we were when she was younger. I hate saying this, but I usually don’t enjoy our relationship.
  2. Our parenting style is not working for any of us. It’s tense with sometimes unclear boundaries, and she is simply starting to refuse requests, yell at us when she doesn’t like what we are saying/asking of her, and lying to us when she thinks we won’t question her. It’s becoming very hard to be around her with the way she treats us.
  3. We just had a baby. I want things with our son to be different than they have with my daughter. And I want to fix things with her (but mostly, that feels impossible at this point).

How am I supposed to change everything for her, and with our parenting, and give my son something more than what my daughter got from us up until now?

I appreciate any advice.

Here is what our natural parenting mentors had to say:

Charlie: I’ll start by saying that you are already half way there! You’ve identified the problem and you’ve identified your goals. It’s the process from getting from where you are to where you want to be that seems daunting. But, honestly, you are already so close.

My first suggestion is the hardest part. I’ve found it absolutely necessary for me, with my children, to get to a point where I can see that my children do not want nor are they the sole cause of disharmony. They do not want to engage in power struggles. They want things to go as smoothly as I do. It takes two to have a power struggle. When you can start to see your family as all on the same side looking forward to a peaceful home, it will be much easier to act gently with her. I highly recommend Parent Effectiveness Training by Dr. Gordon, particularly chapter 10 which is titled “Parental Power: Necessary and Justified?” if you or your husband needs some extra encouragement to let go of the authoritarian model of parenting.

My next suggestion is to sit down and talk to her about the real issue. Not the daily your-room-is-a-mess issue but the more global I-feel-disconnected issue. Explain it to her with the clarity that you’ve expressed in your question. An added challenge would be to avoid using “you” language as to not imply blame. Use words like “I” and “want” and “need” and “feel.” Encourage her to express her feelings using the same words. Help her identify what needs she doesn’t feel are being met and what feelings she does not feel are validated. Through this conversation (and many others as this is a constant dialog), you can find some common ground and ways to meet everyone’s needs.

As far as how to avoid this with your son in the future, I suggest reading, reading, reading. Naomi Aldort, Alfie Kohn and Adele Faber/Elaine Matzlish are the authors I most often recommend. However, even following the best advice in the world doesn’t mean there won’t be power struggles, moments of discord and even some periods of disconnection with your son. This parenting path isn’t about perfect parents raising perfect children. It’s about flawed people guiding other flawed people through their lives with unconditional love. To make a deep connection, it’s very important that we develop the ability to allow our children to be flawed and the willingness to allow them to see our flaws.

Mandy: It sounds as though you are all hurting from the lack of communication. When our needs are not being met, through connection or communication, it is easy for the cycle to continue and spiral into a place we don’t wish to be. Recognizing this is the first step in changing it. The necessary changes aren’t always easy, but they are definitely worth it.

I would recommend that your family sit down and talk. That sounds a bit contrite, but acknowledging the feelings of everyone and their underlying needs will enable your family to brainstorm ideas on how to meet everyone’s needs. It may be rough at first, as everyone learns to trust that other family members will respect their needs. As that feeling of trust is replenished, acting in ways which respect everyone’s needs and feelings will become more commonplace.

Two of my very favorite parenting books are Dr. Haim Ginott’s Between Parent and Child and nobel peace prize nominee Dr. Thomas Gordon’s Parent Effectiveness Training. Both books are based on non-violent communication techniques. If you are looking for a fast read to get you started, pick up a copy of Faber and Mazlish’s How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. The book addresses some of the same techniques discussed by Gordon and even includes comic strip examples of the reading material (perfect for those who prefer to do the bulk of their reading in the bathroom).

While you are working on more effective communication techniques, remember it’s a process and may take some time, be sure to plan in some connection time for everyone.

Joni Rae: I completely understand what you are going through. I have a twelve year old daughter and we went through the same thing at the roughly the same age. Our relationship began to suffer as she began to change from a child to a young woman. It is so difficult to begin the transition into seeing your daughter as a young woman, and often the ways we deal with little kids just don’t work when they get to the age where they start to struggle to assert themselves as individual people.

The first thing is I would do is to sit down with her. Do not try to adjust parenting practices without her knowledge and
consent. She will see this and resent the change. You need to make sure she is a part of the process. I would sit down with her in a relaxed atmosphere to acknowledge that there have been problems in the past and discuss how you are all going to move forward from here.

There comes a turning point in a child’s life where they need to be shown what to do instead of told. If she is showing resistance to your authority she might benefit from seeing you lead by example. The same tactic used for a toddler reaching for the electrical cord or a sharp knife might not be applicable to a tween that won’t clean her room. By this point in the child’s development they have begun to reason and think for themselves.

I don’t know what specific problems you are experiencing, but for example, lets say your daughter won’t clean her room. Instead of scolding her for not doing what you told her to do, jump in and help her. Redecorate, organize, and/or get new posters or curtains. By doing this you let her know that you care about the things that you are telling her to do and aren’t just ordering her about.

If she is having trouble with her homework, do it with her. Get in there and join in, and if you have trouble with it, let her know it’s tough and try to figure it out together. My daughter and I have bonded more over her math work than we have getting our nails done.

Try to put yourself in your daughter’s shoes. She needs to have reasons now, not just instructions. And the more you show her you have a personal investment in her development the better her behavior will be, the better your relationship with her will be, and the better prepared you will be for when your son reaches the same age.

Photo Credit: Deanna of Growing Warriors

  1. Authoritarian parents are highly demanding and directive, but not responsive. “They are obedience- and status-oriented, and expect their orders to be obeyed without explanation” (Baumrind, 1991, p. 62). These parents provide well-ordered and structured environments with clearly stated rules. Authoritarian parents can be divided into two types: nonauthoritarian-directive, who are directive, but not intrusive or autocratic in their use of power, and authoritarian-directive, who are highly intrusive. Parenting Style and its Correlates

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