by Guy Shahar
Published: 7th June 2017
The phrase “Discipline with Love” can appear to be a contradiction in terms. Either that, or it can be used as a lazy cliché. It is usual to see Discipline and Love as competing concepts, both of which parents are supposed to bring to their children, but which don’t seem to co-exist easily: either we are very strict with our children to ensure they learn to be disciplined, or we are very loving towards them without really setting any boundaries. Or we go backwards and forwards between the two, causing great confusion with our inconsistency.
None of those choices is very helpful with any child, let alone an autistic child, whose heightened sensitivity amplifies the perceived cruelty of an overly strict approach, and whose often disorganised understanding of the world makes clear boundaries essential.
So how can we bring both at the same time?
When we were treated at the Mifne Centre in Israel when my son was 2, we learnt for the first time how to consistently combine love and discipline in a way that provided support, security and structure for our child.
There was nothing shocking or revelatory to it. Having discovered it, it just seemed like common sense – though it did strike us how rarely we had ever observed it in action, anywhere in the world.
Normally, if a child “misbehaves”, parents warn them – usually with impatient voices – that they should quickly conform. If they repeat the offending behaviour, anger is expressed towards them and perhaps they are punished in some way. This is so normal that it begs the question, what alternative way could there be?
This is discipline without love. There is often an unwarranted judgement that the child’s behaviour is wrong simply because we don’t like it or it is inconvenient to us. There is no understanding of why the child might be behaving in that way or of what might make that behaviour attractive to the child or even of what the underlying nature of the child is. There is rarely any real recognition that the child may have legitimate behavioural preferences that simply don’t match with the adult’s preferences for the child’s behaviour, or of the fact that there is often no conscious intention to go against the adult’s wishes. The unwanted conduct is dealt with by force of emotion, scaring and intimidating the child into conforming to a behaviour they don’t really understand the benefits of, leaving them with a burning sense of injustice. It is sometimes accompanied by cruel and sweeping judgements on the child, which deeply hurt them and which remain silently fermenting within them until – when they reach teenage – the cumulation of years of this sort of treatment have turned them from pure idealistic souls into embittered youths who “inexplicably” recycle similar behaviour back to their parents, and are seen as even more of a problem as a result.
It is heart-crushing to see parents publicly yelling confidence-draining abuse even at their toddlers as if they were despicable enemies rather than their own children to whom they have a duty of love, care and support.
It is devastating for any child not to be able to rely on their primary carers for unconditional love and understanding, but for an autistic child whose sensitivity is far more raw than other children’s, the deepening impact of each such incident on their development and on their general ability to cope with the world should not be underestimated. It might get the superficial result of obedience in the immediate term, but at a devastating long-term cost to the development and wellbeing of the child?
Discipline with love is not even slightly related to the above sort of scenario. Discipline with love may not even be recognised as discipline at all by those who equate discipline with that sort of situation. Yet it performs the intended function far more effectively.
All it means is to remember that the person we are dealing with is our child, who has no reason to somehow already know how we expect them to behave. We remember that our job is not to forcefully impose on them our expectations of how they should behave to give us an easier life; our job is to guide and support them to reach an understanding of how best to conduct themselves, for their benefit. The learning happens to support them, not to give us convenience.
It requires patience and derives from how we see our child. We will need to take the time to help them understand what we think would be a better way for them to behave and have the patience to support them to get there.
Over time, this builds trust, and brings out the best in the child. Then, in moments of stress, when we need a certain behaviour quickly, all we need to do is ask for it clearly, and the child – by now feeling consistently fully understood and respected – will be keen to comply.
The Key Messages of Discipline
One of the therapists we met during our time at the Mifne Centre told us that there were 2 messages that it is critical to give to a child in a discipline-related situation. One is “I’m on your side” and the other is “I can cope with your behaviour”.
The second is important because if they sense that we are overwhelmed in any way by their behaviour, their sense of being contained is threatened, and they can easily become anxious again. It is only be giving the clear sense that “everything is okay and I can easily manage whatever is going on” that they may feel soothed and therefore responsive to support.
If we go down the road of needing to resort to harshness, not only are we seen not to be on their side (which by itself undermines any attempt at discipline), but it is naturally and correctly perceived as an admission that we cannot cope without such a resort.
Good discipline makes a child feel safe and looked after. That way, the order that discipline brings can be appreciated and can truly benefit them.
Dealing with Obsessions
That’s all very well when talking about minor incidents in general daily life, but what about when children become obsessive about something and this affects various aspects of their wellbeing?
Recently, my son became obsessed with the clothes that he was wearing to go outside, always making a big issue over whether he should be wearing a cardigan or a winter coat, or putting on his hat and scarf, etc – ascribing apparently random rules like a hat and scarf should be worn until a thermometer or a weather forecast says it has reached 19 degrees (even if it is 18 and very sunny), or that a winter coat shouldn’t be worn after March, whatever the weather in April.
It was hard not to become stressed or even oppositional – insisting that he wear the winter coat when it was cold or remove it when it was hot. The concern was that he may overheat and dehydrate, or that he may catch a cold.
But, if we had gone on with that, there could have been an immeasurably worse result than that. He could have ended up feeling misunderstood and not accepted. He could have felt that his attempts to make sense of how things should be done were not working, so he needed to double down on such attempts, becoming more and more rigid in the application of these impromptu rules.
Fortunately, we soon came to the conclusion that it was much better and more respectful to let him know how we felt about the temperature, what decisions we were making about what we were wearing outside – even lightly recommending what he might do – but making it clear that the decision was his, with no judgement or expectation from us.
That way, tension is avoided, confusion on his part is avoided, there is no sense of his being stifled and he gets the opportunity to work things out for himself, so that much more quickly, he can figure out that what to wear outside is not such a big deal after all and does not require guidelines based on the number of degrees that the weather forecast says. And at all times, the topic is treated with absolute lightness. The idea that “everything is okay” pervades (for more on this, see the article on Containment).
There was once very recently when he was getting very upset that we didn’t know what the exact temperature was and he didn’t have the information to be able to make the “correct” choice about what to wear. While reassuring him, we gently and supportively let him know that this is how people make decisions about what to wear all the time – they might go to the door or window to feel what they think it will be like outside, and then have their best guess about what to wear. Sometimes it is wrong, but even in those cases, it is not a big problem. I told a small story (he is very interested in stories about us) about a time I had gone out wearing a light cardigan when it turned out to be much colder than I had thought, and I had been cold for the whole day, but that this was just a little bit inconvenient and didn’t stop me from doing what I needed to do or enjoying my activities. This seemed to soothe him, and later in the day, he echoed his new understanding back to me, “It’s not so important to know exactly what you should wear.”
I think it tapped into an underlying anxiety about getting a decision wrong and not having any idea how serious the repercussions could be. I think he just needed to hear a calm reassurance that it’s okay to get it wrong and nothing catastrophic will happen. It was enough to lift a heavy burden of responsibility from him, and to start to enable a gradual loosening of this obsession with getting the right clothes for the right temperature.
There may be some who would be horrified by this “indulgence” and lack of “discipline”, fearing that conventionally acceptable behaviour on such things should be imposed by the parent to avoid the child growing up in a state of permanent disorientation, or even being spoilt. However, in my experience, the absolute opposite is the case. The child has a process that they need to go through in order to feel comfortable in certain situations. An autistic child has much more of a process. Externally curtailing that process leaves it incomplete and thereby perpetuates it so that the anxiety persists. It may be possible to force conformity for a while, but at an unimaginable cost to the child’s spirit, confidence and even orientation.
What about Serious or Violent Misbehaviour
There are answers here, but there are no easy answers. There are answers that entail us completely changing our perspectives, managing our automatic reactions, and still being very very patient.
First, we need to understand that what we may consider to be “misbehaviour” may actually be no such thing.
If you look at the face of an autistic child as they may be lashing out or smashing something up, you don’t typically see the anger or malice – or thrill – that you would expect to see accompanying such behaviour. It is far more likely to be a result of the pain and frustration that daily life inflicts upon them. They may actually be more devastated by what they have done that we are.
The last thing we want to do is compound that pain and frustration, instil a burning sense of injustice and thereby make a repetition of this behaviour all but inevitable.
All we can do for the best is to try to empathise with what they are going through. They are our children – entrusted to us for their well-being. In a world which has so little understanding of them, our main job is to understand their needs and to be constantly on the lookout for their welfare, however challenging it is at times.
The more often we slip out of this perspective, the more difficult we make it to rebuild trust – as we push our children away until they give up on us and it becomes harder and harder to rebuild our relationship. But the more consistently we can remain in this perspective (or bring ourselves back to it) and, in doing so, show them that they are understood and cared for, the more deeply trust is established.
And when they start to feel that from us, and to know they can trust us to demonstrate it when something is difficult for them, then that alone is enough of an anchor to slowly ease some of their ongoing stress. As a result, they can slowly become more easily influenced by our reassurances (provided they are given sincerely and authentically), even in the midst of such expressions of frutstration.
Things will not change overnight – and there may be many more such incidents before there are any changes whatsoever. The wish to bring about changes in a child’s behaviour may not be the best primary motivation for this approach. Whatever the results of it, it may be better to use it because we love and respect our child, and we understand that providing them with the love, understanding, reassurance and support that they so desperately need is our main priority.
But How on Earth can I Control my Natural Emotions?
This is the really hard part for many. In fact, “controlling” emotions is perhaps not the most effective way of describing it. “Controlling” emotions suggests forcing oneself to behave in a way that is not in line with what the underlying feelings are, thereby not addressing them and allowing them to run rampant beneath the level of consciousness.
It would be much better to slowly and gently change what our emotions are. This may be a long process, but it can begin with taking some time – during a relatively quiet period – to get a very clear understanding of our broader situation and how we feel about it. We might find that we are holding beliefs and attitudes that are reinforcing the negative emotions that we experience.
The first cornerstone of this process is to acknowledge how much we are doing and to value that. This is an easy part to forget. Being a good parent to a child with autism entails many more demands and sacrifices than being a good parent to a non-autistic child (which in turn requires much more than being a run-of-the-mill parent to a non-autistic child). It is easy to be overwhelmed by the scale of these demands and to berate ourselves for not being good enough to achieve all of them.
The truth is that every human being has their limits, and there probably isn’t a single person alive who could consistently do everything that is required. To dwell on what we can’t do is counter-productive. It will bring us down and further limit what we can do, giving us more reason to berate ourselves. It is a self-fulfilling downward spiral.
Far more effective is to recognise what we have given, and every little thing that we have achieved; to recognise that however hard it is, I have done my best – whatever that has been up to now – and that what my best is can keep expanding. It might even be helpful to congratulate ourselves for what we have done – far beyond what we originally thought we would need to do as parents.
That way, we bring a more positive energy to our parenting, and this is easily absorbed by our child.
It needs to be accompanied by an acceptance of the situation we are in. When life is hard, it can sometimes be tempting to feel some injustice about the sort of life that we have been led to. It is important to acknowledge this feeling if it arises, else it won’t be possible to overcome it. Provided we want to overcome it, it can be very powerful simply to take a clear and honest stance on it. Yes, life can be difficult – and different people experience all sorts of difficulties in different ways. People lose their mobility or livelihoods or face constant torments from others or the constant serious illness or the constant threat of real poverty. We have a difficult life in a certain way – perhaps multiple ways – but would we really wish it to be any different? Would we really want to change our child? If we did, they would not be our child anymore – we would effectively have lost them. However hard it is, is that what we really want?
If we find that the answer is yes, then our ability to be the sort of parent we would want to be is severely limited, and in this case, we will need to choose between carrying on as we are, or of getting some sort of professional help to be able to arrive at an acceptance of our situation. This will be of immense benefit not only to ourselves, but also to our child, who will then be able to experience the sort of nurturing parenting that could unlock huge potential in their development.
If the answer is no, then the most powerful thing to do is to take a firm stand on that. Direct our thinking much more to those aspects of our lives that we are happy with than to what seems unjust. It is well-known that wherever we direct our thought – provided it is sincere – that grows and affects our condition, attitude, behaviour and ultimately the sort of life we lead. We can use that knowledge to lay the foundations of improved parenting. If we can arrive at a state of gratitude for what we do have – even for a moment – that we have been entrusted with our child, and if we can use that moment of clarity as a reference point whenever we need it to bring our thought back to it, that is in itself a potent aid to improving our parenting (and anything else).
But even if we do all of this – even if we get a clear perspective on our situation and arrive at a state of acceptance, self-acknowledgement and more – we are still human beings living extremely demanding lives. There will be times – perhaps many times – when it all feels too much and we are on the verge of losing it.
Our task at those moments is to remind ourselves of this positive perspective and, as much as possible, to re-experience the understanding that we have arrived at. We might need to take a time-out to deal with the overwhelm (easier if we have a supportive partner who can sometimes step in). We might need to find ways to support each other – such as ways that we can speak to each other when things are starting to get to much that can alert the other person of the need for support, and for them to know how best to manage us at that moment and even to bring us back.
We may also need to find some techniques to manage ourselves in moments of acute stress. There are many on the Internet – different ways may work for different people. Some approaches to autism have their own ways – for example, the Davis Method has a process called Release, which parents can routinely use before or during any interaction with their child. In our own family, we have found Heartfulness meditation to be invaluable in creating over time a condition that provides a general ability to cope much better with daily stresses.
I have spent a long time talking about managing ourselves. That is because this is a first pre-requisite to being able to manage a child, especially an autistic child who can typically perceive very acutely the emotional environment around them.