Children & Discipline

Our behavior health experts, Dr. Reo Newring and Dr. Tony Pesavento, offer tips on disciplining your child during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Topic Breakdown

0:51 — How Children’s behavioral health experts are managing discipline in their own homes
3:10 — Positive interaction, and walking the line between discipline and understanding the circumstances
5:11 — Guilt about disciplining your child during a pandemic
7:33 — Modeling and enforcing discipline for COVID-19 prevention measures
9:37 — Disciplining and empathizing with teenagers
12:26 — Recognizing when your child needs professional help


Dr. Reo Newring: Hi, this is Reo Newring. I am a psychologist over at Children’s Behavioral Health.

Dr. Tony Pesavento: I’m Tony Pesavento. I’m one of the psychiatrists here at Children’s Behavioral Health. Thanks for joining us today for a quick podcast.

Today we’re going to focus a little bit on something that’s very important to parents, and that’s discipline. I mention that because Dr. Newring and myself are parents.

How Children’s behavioral health experts are managing discipline in their own homes

So Reo, I’d like to get started by asking you — during this pandemic, how are you handling discipline in your house? What have you done differently?

Dr. Newring: Yeah, it’s been different, for sure. It’s been harder.

Dr. Pesavento: Yeah.

Dr. Newring: I mean, the things that I’ve always done and that I always tell my patients to do, of course — I’m still really trying to do. I try to motivate good behavior. I try to use rewards. I try to do — if/then. “If you do your homework, then you can have some time on the electronic of your choice (or the electronic of my choice.)” A lot of that stuff. But I also find that I’m having to be a lot more flexible with how much time they’re spending online.

Dr. Pesavento: Sure.

Dr. Newring: And we’ve been watching what games they’re playing and monitoring those, and not allowing some of the — so a lot more oversight than I had been giving. What about you? What’s changing in your house?

Dr. Pesavento: Yeah, I think the biggest thing that I’ve struggled with in terms of implementing discipline has been the lack of other outlets, if that makes sense. It used to be that I wouldn’t have to be so on top of everything. That was because my young son would be at daycare, or would be at his little sports practice, or would be with his friends. And I feel like with all those outlets being removed to a certain extent, it’s almost like all we’re trying to do is have idle time. That’s just so much more challenging, as opposed to…

Dr. Newring: You’re just killing time.

Dr. Pesavento: Yeah, it just creates more opportunities for discipline, more than anything else. Because they’re not doing other normal kid things.

Dr. Newring: Yeah, absolutely. And trying to — I’ve been trying to involve my kids more in the day-to-day stuff that I have to do. I’m not going to have them do the dishes yet, but they love to help me cook. Two of them are very good at dicing. One less so. But you’re right. Way more opportunities for all of it. For interaction, for discipline, for positive interaction, and for me to be driven crazy.

Positive interaction, and walking the line between discipline and understanding the circumstances

Dr. Pesavento: Yeah, and I think you hit a great point. I think that while we’re here to talk about discipline, which implies we’re working on having kids do things — either things they should do or things they shouldn’t do — I think it’s also important to recognize that the family time together can be a really, really positive thing.

One of the things that I’ve had a hard time with is almost managing my own frustrations with situations at times. Because as you always talk about — parenting is a lot about modeling. It’s about — kids are going to do what you do. It’s almost hard for me sometimes to rein in my frustration and to maintain a positive outlook when it’s really hard to do things these days.

Dr. Newring: Yeah, I find myself walking — I will say, I mean — my kids, I’m lucky, because they’re 9 and 9 and 12. So I can say out loud to them, “Hey, I’m feeling really frustrated. Before I do something I’m going to regret, I’m going to walk away. Please respect that.” And they understand that. With a little one, it’s much harder to do that.

Dr. Pesavento: When I think about kids also — I don’t know how you handle this — it’s hard to walk a balance between being understanding that circumstances are really different. You also don’t want to go too far to, “Well, things are really hard right now. So whatever. Do whatever. It’s fine.” I kind of feel a certain level of sympathy for kids, in a way.

Dr. Newring: Yeah, absolutely. They just — there’s nothing they can do about it. If they’re upset, if they’ve got a thing that’s going wrong and that’s why they’re acting out — which is generally why my kids act out, is not getting something they want, whether it’s attention from me or had a bad interaction at school that day. How — I still have to figure out how to walk them through processing all the emotions and appropriately expressing themselves without acting out.

Guilt about disciplining your child during a pandemic

Dr. Pesavento: How do you, as a parent, balance the — I don’t want to say feelings of guilt, but a little bit of not feeling quite right about doing discipline in an unusual time.

Dr. Newring: There’s a couple of ways. One thing that I’ve always worked really hard to do is I take a mental step back and think, “Wait, what is the behavior I’m trying to get out of this kid? What is the behavior I don’t want to see out of this kid? And am I actually doing the thing that’s going to get me where I want it to go?”

When I don’t do that, I just yell. And it’s obviously not helpful, and then I feel really guilty. I feel terrible. I’m like, “I’m being an awful person. How’s that going to help my kids?” But if I can take that step back and think, “Wait, what I want to do is get, for instance, an appropriate ask. They gave me a ‘please,’ they gave me a good tone, and they gave me a full sentence. I’m giving whatever it is they just asked for.” And I’m not feeling guilty.

Dr. Pesavento: Yeah.

Dr. Newring: What about you?

Dr. Pesavento: I think the thing I have to remind myself is that the pandemic is temporary. I hope. I mean, knock on a tremendous amount of wood. I hope that we’re not dealing with this for significantly more of a period of time.

I have to remind myself that I’m working toward a greater goal, and that is to have my son, in my case, be set up in the best position possible to be successful going to school and to be interacting with peers. And going forward. And that even though right now I can recognize that things are different, I’m still looking toward the bigger goal of having them set up for the future.

I think that that kind of trumps my short-term guilt. But it’s — it’s definitely there. It’s definitely hard. And believe me, I think that that’s on — what you brought up is a really, really great point. One of the hard things about disciplining your kids is you don’t like doing it. You don’t feel good about it. You don’t like it. You don’t want — you want to see your kid in the best possible light. And when you step up and when you’re doing things right, sometimes it can feel like you’re doing things really wrong.

Dr. Newring: Well, and my heart breaks when their heart breaks. I don’t want to do that.

Dr. Pesavento: Yeah.

Dr. Newring: Yeah.

Also read, “Can I Still Give My Child A Time-Out? What To Do About Bad Behavior During The Pandemic

Modeling and enforcing discipline for COVID-19 prevention measures

Dr. Pesavento: How do you handle — and this is something that I’ve had a hard time with — is, kids are being asked to do things now that they would never do before. I mean, they wear face covers to school. They’re asked to wash their hands all the time. Some of those things. How are — is that something you think parents should also be enforcing discipline for? It’s such a unique and different thing, but it’s such a major safety thing, too.

Dr. Newring: Right. I think I would say, yes and no. The modeling thing I think is most important is to, as the adult that the kid is seeing, always do it and always do it with a good attitude. And always respond well if someone does give you a prompt with that kind of stuff.

The one place where I would think about discipline is if a teacher specifically said, “Johnny, you need to keep your mask on.” And Johnny says, “No, man.” Then — but that’s a — maybe I’m cheating, that’s a really obvious case where you provide discipline if your kid doesn’t listen to their teachers.

But in general, I think just — as much empathy as you can. You know, “Yeah, it’s a little uncomfortable and it kind of feels weird. And you’re doing a really good job.” Lots of positive reinforcement, I would say. Stick with the positive side.

Dr. Pesavento: I think being on the flexible side with that, too, is going to be important. Recognizing that if you catch them with their mask down or if you catch them having left a place not washing their hands, is to recognize that you want to look for the overall pattern, right? Because it’s such a big ask a kid to do something right every time. And if you’re getting on them when they’re not doing everything perfectly every time, you’re going to create frustration. Just look for more their greater pattern with things.

Dr. Newring: Exactly. And redirecting them. If they didn’t — “Hey, go back and do the thing,” rather than punish them for not doing the thing.

Disciplining and empathizing with teenagers

Dr. Pesavento: I would think that when you’re dealing with kids that are more the teenage/young adult range, I think that it’s — you’ve got more of a license to be firm with a couple of things, including the restrictions, including not going out, things like that.

I think that that’s more…because #1, them needing to be a model for younger kids, too. If your teenage son is going out and spending time with their friends, then what’s their 8-year-old brother going to want to do? He’s going to be like, “Well, look at Kevin. He’s going out. Why can’t I do the same?” So I think that really becomes a thing with modeling.

I think — and Reo, I don’t want to dominate this one — I just also think that one of the hardest things with, especially something as complex as a pandemic, is the ability to understand it. A younger kid is going to still have trouble wrapping their head around what a global pandemic is, and what an illness that’s airborne is. Whereas somebody who’s more at high school and has a lot more cognitive development — they’re going to have a lot greater understanding. “Oh, I understand what this is. This is like the flu, only times a million.” And so just having more cognitive understanding, I would expect them to be more adept at handling restrictions.

Dr. Newring: The other thing that I think comes up a lot more with teenagers is they’re a lot more quick to get angry and they’re a lot more quick to compare.

So this is one where like — speaking of modeling, you as the parent must be modeling appropriate behavior. A teenager can see through any kind of lie. They just have magic vision like that. So if you’re not doing what you tell them to do, that’s not going to fly with them.

Dr. Pesavento: Reo, I’ve got a question for you. How would you advise a parent who says that, “We’re trying to do the best we can with wearing masks and with restrictions on going out, and our teenage son has a group of friends whose parents — not saying it’s right or wrong — might not be doing the same restrictions as we are?”

And they see on social media that they missed the party on Friday night or that their friends are hanging out at a restaurant and they’re not there. How do you advise that they talk with their kids about that stuff?

Dr. Newring: Right, I try to stay on the same track that you were mentioning earlier. That this is not permanent. Yes, you’re missing your party now. It’s so hard, especially for the kids that are seniors this year or were seniors last year. They’re missing their graduation. They’re missing their proms. But really reinforcing, “This is safety and it’s so important.”

Dr. Pesavento: That’s really good insight.

Dr. Newring: Well, thanks.

Recognizing when your child needs professional help

Dr. Newring: One more question: When would you say that they maybe need some help?

Dr. Pesavento: Yeah, and that’s a really interesting question, especially these times. Because you wonder what is temporary versus what is permanent.

I would say that really when you see that your child is starting to struggle, in terms of their ability to function. I think that every kid is going to have a period during this time where they would feel down to a certain extent, feel like they’re missing out, or FOMO. Feeling anxious about going to school or going out to play sports or to do a concert or something like that where they’re around a lot of people. Just having lots of questions and mixed feelings about it.

But I think that if you start to notice that your straight-A student is all of a sudden not a straight-A student. Or your really, really socially, bubbly kid is not wanting to interact with friends, is not wanting to do things that they usually do, not wanting to leave the house as much, in terms of doing things that are safe. Then you might want to start asking more questions about, “Are we looking at an actual case of depression, or an actual case of more of an anxiety, that might need to be seen by either myself or Dr. Newring?”

Also listen to, “Mental Health Series: Anxiety

Dr. Newring: I think you’re exactly on point. That’s nice. Ladies and gentlemen — thanks for listening. I think, right?

Dr. Pesavento: Yeah, I think that that was a great conversation we did. Hopefully we shed some light on some issues that parents are struggling with, in terms of disciplining their kids during this difficult time.

Dr. Newring: And if you’re struggling, you’re not alone.

Dr. Pesavento: Absolutely.


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