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Not all healthy discipline involves correcting inappropriate behavior our children may be exhibiting. A major part of setting limits and teaching our children involves preparing them for behavior choices they will make in the future – and preparing them to know what to do in those moments of decision. Parenting experts have found some specific strategies that are effective in this type of discipline.

Proactive vs. Reactive Parenting

There are two broad types of parenting that experts have identified in encouraging good behavior in our children in the future, namely reactive and proactive parenting. Reactive parenting is the most commonly studied parenting strategy and is how parents respond to a child’s misbehavior. The behavior has already happened, and you are now reacting. While this aspect of parenting is certainly important, we believe that far more important is proactive parenting, or anticipating the problems children might have and acting before the child’s behavior has become a serious problem.

There are two main approaches to proactive parenting, namely, cocooning and pre-arming. Cocooning is a parent’s attempt to shelter or protect their child from potentially negative influences and is probably an aspect of parenting with which you’re familiar. While it is certainly appropriate to shelter your children from negative influences, the likelihood is that at some point, your child is going to be on her or his own, and your only parenting influence will be what you have taught them beforehand. Leading parenting researchers have found that while cocooning is relatively effective for young children, it often backfires on older children and leads to excessive curiosity and the tendency to seek other sources (e.g., peers, media) for answers to questions that parents will not address.

In contrast, pre-arming is defined as providing your child with some form of advanced teaching and coaching for when they confront situations that may tempt them to not follow family rules. Pre-arming can take many forms and is basically a tool to achieve open communication with your child. It means anticipating situations your child might experience and talking with him about how to deal with those situations and feelings.

Also, you shouldn’t assume that because you are proactive, your child will not still struggle with some aspects of their behavior decision-making. We are confident that a positive emotional bond and a proactive approach will result in fewer struggles, but we certainly expect that you’ll need to address these issues with your child frequently, especially during the pre-teen and teenage years. One of the keys to promoting responsible behavior is building a relationship of openness with your children and pre-arming them with the tools they will need to make good choices when the time is needed. This takes time and diligence, and continued desire on your part (even if your pre-teen child is seemingly annoyed or unwilling).

Fitting Your Parenting to Your Child

One of the truly frustrating things about parenting advice is that it often assumes that all children are the same – which any parent with more than one child can tell you is a ridiculous notion! We encourage you to tailor your discipline strategies to the particular child with whom you’re communicating and consider that what works for one child might not work well for another child.

For starters, always tailor your discipline to your child’s age and maturity level. Make sure you have realistic expectations and that you provide the needed support for your child to meet your expectations. In addition to age, considering your child’s temperament is also essential to effective parenting. Temperament is the biologically based way in which children respond to the world around them and is usually fairly stable over time.

Research has identified two primary extremes in temperament, with the rest of our children falling somewhere between these two extremes. Two important temperamental distinctions that have been made are between children who are over-regulated and children who are under-regulated. This means that some children have a tendency to control or regulate their emotions and behaviors too much (over-regulated), and other children do not control or regulate their emotions enough (under-regulated).

When they are infants, over-regulated children react strongly and negatively in response to loud noises, strong smells, or discomfort and may be particularly difficult to soothe. Over time, these children may grow up to be shy, withdrawn, or anxious children and teens. On the other extreme, under-regulated children almost seem to increase their energy and become more engaged when presented with stimuli. As infants, these children may be highly active but may also be very laid back – nothing seems to bother them. Under-regulated children do not fear authority and grow up to be extroverted and sometimes impulsive children and teens who may be at risk for conduct disorders or risk behaviors.

While these extremes help us to understand temperament, the important thing to remember is that very few children are at the extremes. Because of socialization influences (parenting central among these), most children (about 75 percent) fall somewhere in-between these extremes. The key is to identify your child’s overall temperamental tendencies and how these might impact their risk level for different online safety issues.

  • Over-Regulated Children. What can we do as parents to alter our approach for different children? If you are cocooning and non-communicative or punishing about online safety matters, an over-regulated child will be much more stressed and less likely to communicate about things they see or experience. With a child who is over-regulated, it may take a bit more for him to open up, and you may spend quite a bit of time wondering what is going on inside his head. Don’t shut down just because your child seemingly doesn’t want to talk about it. Again, hopefully, if you’ve started opening lines of communication early, this won’t be as much of a challenge, but some children just don’t seem to want to talk no matter how much you’ve prepped them. Parenting experts suggest that parenting strategies such as setting limits and appropriate rules are quite effective for over-regulated children (as they are unlikely to push back), so you might need to keep yourself from overly cocooning a child with this temperamental tendency because he may be more willing to be sheltered than would a child who is under-regulated. Gentle discipline is much more effective with children who are over-regulated than is harsh discipline. So be gentle when your over-regulated child makes mistakes, and be patient as you try to encourage him to share his feelings with you.
  • Under-Regulated Children. In contrast, for children who are under-regulated, you likely will have no problems getting them to ask questions and talk with you about behavior issues, but helping them to control their behavior may be more of a challenge. Start by acknowledging that your child is not flawed or shameful in any way, but that temperamental tendency will make appropriate behavior decision-making a bit more difficult for her to manage. Parents with under-regulated children will likely feel like this is a bigger problem than over-regulation because it is external and noticeable. But this isn’t necessarily the case. In some ways, it is easier to identify a problem with an under-regulated child and then help to solve it because it’s often all out in the open. Under-regulated children often don’t respond particularly well to discipline (because they more rarely experience anxiety or fear of punishment), but they do tend to respond well to the positive emotional bond, as it creates a bond and a feeling that they can trust and depend on their parent. If they feel this security, they will often have a greater desire to adhere to parental rules and eventually internalize parental values as their own in an attempt to make their parent happy and maintain the relationship. Under-regulated children respond particularly well to parenting practices that include pre-arming and joint conversation and decision making. Try not to harshly punish your under-regulated child, even though she may consistently make mistakes. If you punish and shame her, she will just begin to be more secretive and is more likely to develop problems. Instead, provide her with specific strategies to use when making decisions.

The bottom line is that one size does not always fit all children when it comes to parenting, and this is no exception when you are teaching your children about online behavior and digital safety. The first positive step is to notice and acknowledge the temperament and maturity of your child and stop trying to fit a square peg into a round hole if your attempts at parenting aren’t working the way you want. The best parents are flexible parents, so be willing to try something new.

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