God Help Me! My Kids Are Driving Me Nuts—Becoming A More Graceful Parent

Parenting is hard work. And more often than not, just when we think we’re starting to figure it out, our kids enter into a new stage and it feels like we have to start figuring it out all over again! But you’re not alone.

The Theology Of The Body reminds us that families are schools of love and virtue where we all learn to live life as a gift, and that parents are the most important teachers in this school of love.  Parenting is hard, and it’s tempting to settle for just  “getting through the day” with our kids. But Catholic parents are called to do so much more.  The Church tells us that parenting is actually one of the most important ministries in the Church because it is the primary way the next generation of Christian disciples is formed. The world needs loving, responsible, godly people. God has commissioned Catholic parents to give the word what it needs.

That’s a big job! But the more we can approach parenting in a prayerful, thoughtful, intentional, graceful manner, the more we are able to fulfill our mission as Catholics–to let God change the world through our families by raising the next generation of faithful, courageous, loving, responsible, and godly men and women. Of course, none of us know how to do this perfectly. No matter how well we think we were raised by our parents none of us are saints and none of us know how to raise a saint–which is exactly what we’re called to do! We all have a lot to learn!  That’s why, everyday, especially when we’re struggling, we need to turn to our Heavenly Father and pray, “Lord, teach me to be the parent you want me to be–in this moment, and all day, everyday. Help me to respond to my children in ways that will glorify you, help me be my best self, and bring out the best in my kids in every situation. Give me your love and your grace, and let my kids experience your love and grace through me.”

Here are three practical ways to be a more grace filled parent!

1. Remember To Lead–When you’re correcting your kids, only 5% of your energy should be focused on what they did wrong. The other 95% should be focused on leading your children to a better place. Before you correct your kids, ask yourself, “What does my child need to handle this situation better next time?” Put your energy into teaching those skills. Punishments don’t work.  Teaching does. Using techniques like do-overs, role-playing, time-in, cool-downs, and other loving guidance approaches to discipline focus on giving your kids the skills they need to succeed next time–instead of shaming them for failing this time. Lead your children to virtue by showing them a better way to express their emotions, communicate their needs, accomplish their goals, get along with others, and manage their stress. The more energy you put into teaching instead of punishing, the quicker your kids’ behavior will improve overall and the less stressed you’ll be!

2.  Celebrate Success–Tell your kids when they handle a situation well by acknowledging the virtue they displayed. You don’t have to throw a parade–in fact, it’s much better if you don’t–but simple comments like, “That was really responsible.”, “You handled that really respectfully.”,  “That was very generous.” “That was a very loving choice.” and similar comments help kids understand that virtues aren’t just a list of words to memorize, but a practical guide for handling life’s ups and downs with grace. Believe it or not, kids want to be good, and they desperately crave your approval. By remarking on all the ways that exhibiting virtues help them manage their emotions, express their needs, negotiate stressful situations, and get along with others, you are showing your kids that they already have what it takes to do the right thing and you’re making them want to get even better at it. Celebrate your kids’ successful efforts to display virtue by letting them know you saw what they did and that you are proud of them for doing it.

3. Fill the Tank–There is a fuel that drives good behavior. Don’t forget to fill the tank. Both research and generations of wise parents will tell you that extravagant affection is the fuel that makes kids want to behave and try harder to please you. Research shows that affection is actually communication. Taking time to hold your kids close all throughout the day actually helps them reset their heart rate, respiration, body temp and other bodily rhythms when they are feeling stressed, frustrated, angry, anxious, or overwhelmed. Affectionate parents literally incline their children’s hearts to them, and make their kids naturally turn to their parents for guidance and comfort. Yes, you will still need to teach your kids what to do but affection is the fuel that makes correction work.

For more parenting resources, a community of Catholic Parent support, and a team of professionals ready to answer your questions, share in your challenges, and celebrate your parenting wins, join us at CatholicHOM! Online or in your app store!

Also, be sure to check out:

Parenting Your Kids With Grace (Birth to 10)

Parenting Your Teens and Tweens with Grace (11-18)


Wrestling with Sibling Rivalry: A Mini-Article on Cultivating Peace in Your Home

By: Dr. Gregory Popcak

bro and sis fighting

I have two children, ages 3 and 5, who often push each other’s buttons.  They do play well together sometimes, but my three year old son loves to hear his five year old sister scream, and she seems to prefer to scream rather than being generous with her time and toys.  Many times, this exchange has escalated into her screaming very unkind words at him, after which he wrestles her to the ground and begins hitting her.  How should I handle these volatile moments when they occur, and what can I do to build a more amiable relationship between two personalities that at times seem like oil and water?

–“Wrestling with Wrestlers”


Dear “Wrestling”

Socialization doesn’t come easy to small children. Little people have a hard time managing the big emotions siblings can generate and they need our help. By 6 or 7, children have an easier time handling feelings, impulses, and reactions, but until then, they still need a lot of supervising, coaching and structure.  The best way to handle the volatile moments you describe is to anticipate and prevent them. Track when your children play well together. What are the circumstances that allow them to get along and how are those times different from the times they don’t? Is there a structured activity? Are you more present? Are they more rested or fed? Identify the differences that make the difference and then do your best to set up more of those situations. Catch them being good and ask yourself what you can do to create more of those times when success comes more naturally to them!     For more ideas, check out my chapter on Sibling Revelry in Parenting with Grace: The Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.

Dealing with Tantrums

By: Dr. Gregory Popcak



“I’m NOT going to do my homework! You can’t make me. I HATE you.” Seven-year-old Alex screamed at Beth, his mother, one day after school.     When she tried to take his hand and lead him to the kitchen table to do his work, he ran away and began screaming even more. It became apparent that it would take some kind of physical restraint to get him to the table and Beth, six months pregnant, was too tired and too overwhelmed by her condition to engage in any kind of physical confrontation with her son.  She tried another few minutes to negotiate, then to beg, then, finally, she gave up in frustration.  “I don’t know what to do with him when he gets that way.” Beth told me in session, “He used to be so compliant, but since he turned seven, its like he’s possessed.”

Tantrums tend to peak at two points in childhood, from age two to three, when children’s emotional and physical resources are easily exceeded by their environment, and then again from age seven to eight. Traditionally, developmental psychologists like Louise Bates-Ames of Yale University’s Gesel Insititute attributed this second burst of tantrums to anxiety related to school separation, but surprisingly, I have observed the phenomenon among many homeschooled children as well. As far as why tantrums often recur or become more acute at this stage, the jury is still out.  But news regarding the treatment of these tantrums is far more optimistic. The following tips are part of a format I use in my tele-counseling practice that, except in the rarest cases, practically eliminate such tantrums in as little as four weeks.

Step One: Check Your Affection Connection.

Children at this age tend to feel insecure about themselves as they begin to engage in more peer relationships. Whether they attend school or are homeschooled, they are putting themselves on the line socially much more (relationships were previously fairly tightly monitored by adults, but now they are becoming more and more peer-directed.) As such, they need to know that their home base with you is secure. Ask yourself, “How much time do I actually spend cuddling, holding, complimenting or doing activities with this child?” It is probably somewhat less than you used to do. That’s o.k., but if Johnny feels insecure with his friends, AND he isn’t getting the affection from you he is used to, he is going to feel like “Nobody loves me” and you are going to get tantrums.

Step Two: Are You Being Consistent?

From age three to five, most parents have been teaching kids the rules.     Around age six or so, children tend to start “getting it” more consistently. Not perfectly, of course, but just enough to make the parent think that he or she can ease up a bit. Backing off can be an important part of helping children learn self-monitoring (it is unhealthy for us to breathe down our children’s necks constantly) but be careful not to back off too much, or before you know it, you will have a little Napoleon on your hands.  Now is the time to clarify the rules and review consequences. Some time when the child is already calm. Review the one or two most important rules that will begin to restore order THAT WEEK. Likewise spell out the consequences of not obeying that rule (Don’t tax your brain. Keep consequences simple and connected to the offense). Concentrate on consistent enforcement of that rule for the entire week. Do this over the next three to four weeks, until both you and the child are back in the swing of things.

Step Three: Assess the Intention.

Tantrums, even at this age, are usually the result of a child’s emotional or social resources being exceeded by his environment. What are the academic, social, or other challenges that are most frustrating TO YOUR CHILD (not you). Don’t know? Ask. You might discover that “we just started learning long division and it makes me feel stupid, ” or “Jimmy says that I’m a sissy because I’m not allowed to play Super Death Bunnies on the computer” or perhaps it is even something much more serious, though it needn’t be.  Chances are, these challenges are either directly causing the tantrums (because the child doesn’t have an appropriate way to address the resulting frustration) or they are indirectly contributing to the tantrums by increasing the child’s overall stress level, just like you get snappish when that project is due the same week you have to take your mother to the doctor and it is your turn to run the church bake sale. Help your child address these stressors well. By decreasing the pressure in the pipeline, you decrease the likelihood of tantrums.

Step Four: Mate Check

Though it is an ideal to continue to work toward, parents rarely agree completely on parenting strategy. When tantrums start, parents can often become pitted against each other as the stricter parent starts accusing the other parent of being too soft, or the other way around. Now is not the time to start having these fights. They have nothing to do with Johnny, except that they make him feel more insecure (because the two most important people in his world now seem to hate each other, and he thinks its his fault) and thus increase the likelihood of tantrums. Likewise, though you will be tempted, this is not the time for the “iron fist.” I am referring, of course, to ill advised parenting “techniques” such as even more creative (but illogical) consequences, angry lectures, and corporal punishment. Invariably these things will make the tantrums worse as they increase the child’s sense of insecurity, thus the stress, and then you begin to see more intense, and even violent tantrums. If the parents respond even more forcefully, you may end up with a child who seems completely out of control, even possessed as the child flies into a rage from which he or she cannot extract him or herself for several hours (until the overdose of adrenaline and cortisol have run its course).  There is much more to say on this topic, but this should get you started. Soon, you could be on your way to taming those terrible tantrums, and maybe breathe a little bit easier.


James was a seven-year-old boy who had terrible tantrums whenever he faced his homework..“I can’t get him to do anything” his mother, Liz, complained, “If I try to make him sit there and do it, he has a fit. He’s so defiant.  Similarly, another couple recently called me because their daughter, eight-year-old Melissa, began having more vicious tantrums in the last six months. Her parents, Frank and Laurie, explained that she had always been, to use their word, “temperamental,” but that recently, she had been becoming unbearable. “I tried to send her to time-out, and she fought me so hard that she almost broke my thumb.” Laurie explained. “I am at a loss for what to do.”  Most parents tend to think that once early childhood is a memory, the child will leave behind the tantrums that are common to that phase of development. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.  Children of seven, eight, and even older, can indulge in tantrumming behavior that can have serious consequences to the parent-child relationship, not to mention school, social, and family functioning.

The most common reason for late-occurring tantrums is that parents have made the mistake of being too easy on tantrumming behavior in the earlier years. Because parents correctly assume that tantrums are common to early childhood, they incorrectly assume that the child will outgrow those tantrums with time and little, if any, intervention on their part. But time does not cure this problem, skills do, and without the skills that are learned by loving but firm system of discipline, tantrums will simply worsen with the years. Fortunately, it is not too late to change. In my own practice, I have found that once the intention behind the tantrums can be assessed and a more respectful way to achieve those intentions can be taught to the child, tantrums will often decrease significantly within two weeks, and disappear within a month, but it takes consistency, and a willingness to be lovingly firm.  While some parents and children require professional assistance to overcome tantrumming behavior resulting from more serious concerns, for example, childhood anxiety or depressive disorders, or acting out related to a serious psychological or social stressor (abuse, divorce, major move, etc.) most children respond to simple steps such as the following. Try these as a way of getting started.

Step One: Intervene Earlier.

Too often, tantrums result because parents wait until the child is already worked-up before trying to set appropriate limits.     If your child is prone to tantrums, you must begin intervening earlier than you usually do. Michelle, the mother of seven-year-old John-Paul, said, “I used to let him roughhouse and play very loudly in the house because I thought it was good for him to work off that steam, even though the noise drove me crazy. But I noticed that he tantrummed more often when I let him get so worked up. His energy became so high in his play, that he couldn’t reign it in when it came time to do something else. I finally started putting limits on how boisterously he could play in the house. That brought his intensity level right down and I found that since he was calmer in general, he didn’t get so violently angry when he got frustrated with me for asking him to clean his room or do his homework, or just said ‘no’ to him for some reason.”

Step Two: Let the Child Deal with Their Own Feelings.

First the bad news: There is nothing you can do to make your child get control of his emotions. Now the good news: You are not obliged to get control of your child’s emotions.     Let me explain. Your child’s emotions belong to him. Therefore it is his job to get control of them–not yours. While it is good to offer some verbal and emotional support, after a certain point, the child starts thinking that it is your job to make him feel better because you have been so good at “talking him down” in the past. Unfortunately, as life becomes more complicated, and the child becomes more intelligent, it becomes harder for you to talk him down, and your alleged failure at calming him down will make him even angrier, having a paradoxical effect on his behavior.

If you notice that the more you try to calm your child down, the more hysterical she becomes, you are probably talking too much. Give your child the chance she needs to sit with her own feelings and work them out by trial and error. Having first tried to offer a reasonable (but not extended) amount of emotional support to a distressed, angry, or frustrated child, if the child is becoming more upset, simply say, “Well, I have done the best I can to try to help you with this. Now, you need to figure it out for yourself. I am willingly to talk with you more, but only if you can be calm and respectful. Until then, you must go (to their room, or other, less desireable place) until you are ready to be calm and respectful.  The child must stay in that place until his mood and behavior reflect a real change in attitude. Don’t let him out just because he says, “I’m ready.”  Make sure that the expression on his face, his behavior, and his tone of voice, say he is ready. The first few times you do this, the child may end up being in his quiet place even up to several hours as he wrestles with his darker emotions, but as he learns that he had better direct his energy inward if he ever expects to see another human being, the time alone will decrease to minutes, even seconds in some cases.

Step Three: Teach and Practice.

Tantrums often result because the child doesn’t have a more appropriate means to say what he needs to say or achieve his intended goals. It does little good to lecture. You need to teach alternative behaviors and have the child rehearse it in front of you. If the child speaks disrespectfully, say, “Please say that again more respectfully” and require him to say it–over and over if necessary– until the words, facial expression, and tone of voice convey the respect you are seeking.  Similarly, if the tantrum was provoked by an argument with a sibling, then once the child is calm (see step two) rehearse the scene. Take the role of your child’s sibling, and periodically step out of the role to coach your child through the appropriate response to the things you say and do.  Just remember, children learn mostly by doing. When it comes to teaching any subject, expecially good behavior, rehearsing beats lecturing hands down.  Following these three simple steps can help you be on the road to a tantrum free household in no time

Spanking: Continuing the conversation

By: PaxCare Staff

corporal punishment

Here is an excellent article on the challenge to effectively communicate what research says about corporal punishment and to help parents do an even better job without it.   The author is a researcher at the Columbia Univ.   School of Social Work.

The Negative Effects of Corporal Punishment

We found that children who were spanked by their mothers at age 5, even relatively infrequently, went on to have higher levels of behavior problems at age 9, even after taking into account other family risk factors that also affect child behavior. Given the chicken vs. egg cyclical nature of this, we also controlled for earlier problems with the children to ensure that it wasn’t just that kids who acted out were simply being spanked more.


And 5-year-olds who were spanked frequently, defined as two or more times a week, by their fathers also went on to have lower vocabulary scores at age 9, even after controlling for an array of other risk factors and earlier child vocabulary. This is an important finding, because few studies in this area have examined effects on cognitive development.


A leading researcher on child spanking, Elizabeth Gershoff from the University of Texas at Austin, correctly suggests that some of these cognitive effects may be indirect rather than a result of spanking only. Parents who spank may not talk to their children as often, or kids with behavioral problems may be more distracted at school. To account for some of these possibilities, we did control for a host of other family factors, such as the mom’s IQ, the child’s earlier verbal intelligence, the child’s behavioral problems as well as a measure of how cognitively stimulating the home environment was. So, it appears that spanking is having an effect on vocabulary above and beyond those other factors.

Some Alternative Solutions

The author goes on to say that we professionals  need to do a better job telling parents not just to stop spanking but what to do instead.  We agree.   In  Parenting with Grace:   Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids  Dr. Gregory Popcak and his wife present over 40 different discipline techniques that have been shown to work more effectively than spanking.   When you use these techniques instead of corporal punishment, you can actually have higher expectations for and better behavior from your kids.   Test us out by picking up a copy of  Parenting with Grace.


"My Kid Won't Listen to Me!" The Art of 'No'

By: Gregory Popcak

yes and no

Michael wasn’t getting along with his 14yo son.  “He’s been really disrespectful lately, and I know I need to find some better ways to handle him.” I asked what was behind his son’s increased negative attitude toward him. Mike answered, “I think I tend to be pretty negative. He’ll ask me for something; if he can go out with a friend, or stay up a little later one night, or do whatever, and I just find myself saying ‘no’–not for any good reason really. It’s just a reflex. Like I’m already stressed out and saying ‘yes’ is going to complicate my life further, so I just don’t.”  St Paul says, “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger lest they lose heart (Col 3:21).” Although dads have a right, even an obligation, to “Just say ‘No’” sometimes–especially to something that puts our kids well-being or soul at risk–it’s important to resist the urge to give reflexive “no’s” without cause. Nothing provokes any person, child or adult, to anger more than an unjustly frustrated need or request.

To Whom ARE They Listening?

When we make a habit out of reflexively saying “no” to our kids, we fuel the fires of disrespect and disobedience. Dads will often complain to me that, “My kid doesn’t listen to me anymore.” Although it’s tempting to ask “why?”, a more useful question is, “To whom DOES your child listen?” His mother? His friends?  The kid is listening to someone. Why? What are those people saying? More particularly, why does the child believe that these people have answers that you don’t have? The answers to those questions give us us clues how to win back the heart of a child we’ve alienated by our unjust “no’s.”

Inspiring Willing Submission

Although a parent can always try to compel obedience from a child (a hit or miss proposition if there ever was one) research tells us that children only willingly submit to a mom or dad’s authority when they believe that a parent is genuinely committed to helping them meet their needs. When our kids are convinced that we are committed to being their best hope for helping them get everything they need to live and grow into successful adults, they attach themselves to us and offer their obedience to us. We become their mentor as well as their father, or as I put it in Parenting with Grace, “we create the kind of relationship that makes our kids want to look more like us than anyone else.”

The Qualified “Yes”

The best way to create this kind of attached, discipleship relationship with our kids while still protecting them from poor choices and dangerous situations (to their bodies and souls) is to trade “reflexive no’s” for “qualified yes’s.”  This means we need to take Christ’s command in Mt 5:37 seriously and be intentional about our “yes’s” and “no’s.” In particular, it’s best to save a definite “no” for those times when we can easily and clearly explain to our children why we genuinely believe that something is dangerous for them.     Otherwise, it is always better to use a technique I call, the “qualified yes.” A “ qualified yes” is a kind-of, “Yes, but first….”  For instance;

Example 1:

Child: Can I go to my friends house?

Father: Yes, but I need you to clean your room first.

Example 2:

Teen: Dad, Can I get my driver’s license?

Dad: Absolutely, but I need to see you being a little more attentive and responsible around the house before I’d be comfortable putting you in the driver’s seat. Tell you what, take the rest of the month. If you can show me that you can do your chores without being asked and be helpful around the house without us having to point things out to you (i.e., demonstrating signs of responsibility and attentiveness) then at the end of the month, we can start driving practice and work toward your permit.

The technique of the “Qualified Yes” works on several levels. First, it stops you from alienating your child with reflexive “no’s.” Second, it demonstrates that you want to give your child good things, but only if they can demonstrate they can handle the responsibility. Third, it teaches your child the importance of working for things they want. Fourth, it conveys that earning privileges is not so much dependent upon getting your permission as it is demonstrating their maturity. Finally, it gives you a chance to encourage the development of virtues your kids need to exhibit to become loving, whole, and holy grown-ups.

Four Tips For Effective Discipline

By: Dr. Gregory Popcak

father son discipline

Elizabeth called me at the seeking counsel. A homeschooling mother of five, she was having trouble keeping her children on task no matter what the task was. “I can’t get them to listen to me.     I’m embarrassed to say it, but when I ask them to do anything, especially their schoolwork, I have to put up with all kinds of back talking. When I correct them, we get into arguments. I’ve tried everything, even spanking, and nothing works. I really want to keep schooling them at home, and my husband is very supportive, but I’m getting to the point where they’re driving me crazy and I’m starting to think very seriously about sending them to school.”  Even if you have great resources, a supportive spouse, and a vital spirituality, the one thing that could still threaten your homeschooling success is the lack of a consistent and effective program of discipline.  While I go into great detail on how to set up an effective discipline system in my book, Parenting with Grace, I would like to review some of the basics here in the hopes of sparing you some of Erica’s angst.

1. Identify and Review the Rules Regularly.

One of the biggest reasons for noncompliance is that children are not clear on  what the rules are.  Even if you have told them again and again, perhaps you need to do it in a more concise and consistent manner.  Too often, we parents use a shot gun approach to rules, spouting dozens of them at once without taking the time to explain or teach what we want our children to do. “Stop picking on your sister!” “Put that down!” “How many times have I told you…!”  When we find ourselves engaging in this kind of repetitious yelling, chances are we need to reexamine our approach. Identify the biggest behavior problems you are currently facing, limit yourself to two or three problems– you don’t want to overwhelm yourself or your children.  Next, identify what the appropriate alternative to that problem behavior is and the consequence for not exhibiting that alternative. For example; if your children are arguing over toys, the alternative behavior would be “sharing” or “taking turns.” Write this in the form of a rule and post it on your refrigerator. “We will take turns and share.” Across from this, write the logical consequence for not following this rule. “If you do not take turns, you will lose your turn or lose the toy.”  Now, instead of yelling the next time the children are arguing over the toy (or whatever else the behavior is), simply say, “What is the rule?” or, if you have written and posted the rule, simply say, “Please go look at the rules.”  If they cannot work it out for themselves, go to number two below.

2. Let the consequence do the talking.

Resist the urge to argue with your children. Once you have clearly identified the  rules and consequences, and have reminded your child of the rule and consequence once when the need arises, do not yell, do not argue, do not pass “Go”, do not collect $200. Move directly to consequence.  If the rule is “share or lose the toy,” and your children are being less than generous with each other, then remind your squabbling children of the rule once. If they continue to argue, take the toy. Make no speech. Do not announce what you are going to do. Do not threaten. Quietly and calmly, walk in and take the toy.  Period.  Perhaps they can earn the toy back if they can play cooperatively for the next half hour. Or, perhaps they will lose the toy for the day. Your choice. But whatever you do, let the consequence do the talking for you.  Another example. If your child is not allowed to go to karate until his room is clean, then remind him once. If he simply grunts at you, let it go. He has been told. Later, when he shows up in his ghi telling you that it is time to go, ask him if his room is done. If not, then tell him that, unfortunately, you cannot take him until the room is clean. If he starts to argue, simply look at your watch and smile, “Tick, tock, tick, tock.” Chances are he will roll his eyes and stomp off to clean his room, after which, no matter how late it is, you will take him to his lesson (part of the consequence is the humiliation of arriving at class late for having made an irresponsible choice).  Notice, at no time in either of these examples did the parent argue with the child, try to convince the child to see the wisdom of his or her intervention, or encourage the child’s protestations. The rule was explained before the problem situation, a reminder was given in the situation, and then when the problem continued, the consequence did the talking for the parent; quietly and gently, but firmly.

3. Use Logical Consequences.

On the other hand, if you are going to let your consequences do the talking, you better make sure that your consequences are talking sense.  The word consequence means “in order” but many of the consequences parents devise for their children are completely inconsequential (out of order). For example; taking a child’s bicycle away for refusing to do his schoolwork makes no sense (it’s “inconsequential”), because losing the bicycle does nothing to motivate good study habits. On the other hand, telling a child that he must complete X amount of school work before he does anything else (including play, or eat lunch) and then sticking to it, does make sense because the child knows that if he ever expects to get up from that table and do anything else, he better focus.  A logical consequence is not merely a punishment. A logical consequence encourages or enforces the positive behavior you are trying to instill.  If a child speaks disrespectfully, the logical consequence is to insist that the child repeat what he said until he says it in a way that meets with your approval. This consequence encourages respect as opposed to merely punishing the disrespect. If a child isn’t paying attention and makes a mess or breaks a toy, the logical consequence is to clean up the mess, and perhaps pay for the damage in money or work. This consequence encourages responsibility as opposed to merely punishing irresponsibility. These consequences encourage do not merely punish the bad behavior, they encourage the more desirable alternative.

4. Use Time-Outs, but Don’t use Time-Outs as Punishments.

Time outs are effective ways to correct misbehavior, but they should not be used  to address every misbehavior, nor should they be used as a punishment. Time-outs themselves do not correct problems, they are simply a tool to help the child gain control of herself so that she can respond better when the parent does teach her what to do next time. Here is a step-by-step format for using the time-out effectively.

  • If the child is emotionally out of control or defiant and will not be redirected by a gentle reminder, then the child goes to time out: One minute per year of age.
  • The time-out does not officially start until the child stops arguing and is quiet. In other words, an eight year old child may take five minutes to calm down once he gets to time out, but only then does he begin to serve his eight minutes.
  • Time out should not be in the child’s room or other place of entertainment. A stairwell, or child-safe bathroom is best.
  • Once the time is up, the child may come out if he is able to a) explain what he did wrong. b) apologize. c) give some sense of what he needs to do differently the next time, OR, at least respond positively to your suggestions. If the child is unable or unwilling to do these three things, back to time out. One minute per year of age.
  • Once the child has regained his composure and expressed a willingness to change (see previous bullet point) The time out has been effectively completed. However, if the offense is serious enough, you may exercise the option of giving the child additional consequences that will allow them to clean up the literal or figurative mess they made. Don’t overdo it though. The virtue of justice requires that the offender be expected to do just enough to correct the immediate wrong. No more, no less. This will help your child see that you are firm, but fair.

Discipline is an essential part of a successful homeschool and home for that. Hopefully, these few  tips will help yours run more smoothly and productively. For more parenting and effective disciplinary tips, be sure to check  out  Parenting with Grace: Catholic Parent’s Guide to Raising (Almost) Perfect Kids.

Discipline or Criticism?

By: Dr. Gregory Popcak

mom yelling at kid

Jenna was crying when her mom found her.  “What’s the matter, honey?”  She looked up through her tears, “Daddy said that I was stupid.”  Ken, Jenna’s dad, walked in the room just then, “No, I did not. She wasn’t paying attention when I was trying to help her with her math homework and when she made the same mistake I just corrected her for, I told her not to be so stupid. She just needs to pay attention, that’s all.”  Every parent gets frustrated from time to time. Children ignore directions, forget rules, become distracted, and outright disobey on a fairly regular basis. But the case of Ken and Jenna raises an interesting question.  What is the difference between discipline and just plain criticism?     Let’s take a look at the following four ways to know whether we are addressing our frustration with our kids, or just taking it out on them.

 1. Discipline teaches. Criticism Tears Down.

Discipline comes from the Latin word for “student.” As such, discipline is always primarily concerned with teaching a child what to do differently, instead of merely lecturing them about what to stop doing. Unlike discipline, which gives a child helpful information he or she can use to improve his or her behavior, criticism is primarily intended to make the child ashamed of himself.  For example, if you ask your son, Joey to get you a can of corn from the pantry, and he brings you a can of yams, clearly he was not paying attention. Here are two responses you could make:

~Criticism:     (Roll your eyes. Look at child as if he is an imbecile)

“What is wrong with you? Don’t you ever listen? I said corn! I wish you’d pay attention for once in your life.”     (Child slinks off.)

~Discipline: (Take Joey’s chin gently in your hand. Make good eye contact.)

“Joey, I asked you for corn. Please say, “’I’m sorry for not listening, Mom. I’ll go get the corn now.’”

(Joey) “I’m sorry for not listening, mom.”

(You) “AND?”

(Joey) “I’ll go get the corn now.”

(You) “Good, now please, hurry up.”

See the difference? Discipline not only sent Joey to get the corn, it also taught him how to respond when he didn’t listen properly (i.e., by apologizing respectfully and offering, verbally and behaviorally, to correct his mistake). Further, the mother in the discipline example didn’t undermine her own dignity by insulting the child or losing her cool. She was firm, focused, and directive.

2. Discipline is behavioral.  Criticism is personal.

Generally speaking, discipline addresses behavior, while criticism dresses down  the person displaying the behavior. For example: Sandra’s room currently meets the criteria to be a federally registered disaster area. Her dad, Tom, wants her to clean it up.

Criticism: “You live like a pig! Don’t you take care of anything? I want this place cleaned up.”

Discipline: “This room is a mess. You have the next 30 minutes to get it in order or no TV tonight. Do you understand, Miss?”

“Yes dad.”

“Good.     See that it’s done.”

Notice that in both cases, dad is frustrated. But in the criticism example, dad is taking that frustration out on Sandy. He may not mean it, but when dad walks away, all she is thinking is, “Dad says I’m a pig. That is SO unfair. I think HE’S a JERK.”     Sandra isn’t thinking about how she needs to change her behavior. She is simply fantasizing about the day she gets to move out of the house and make whatever messes she wants to. In the meantime, she’ll probably stall, taking the rest of the night to “clean her room” (mostly by staring at it poutingly) with the express purpose of annoying her father.

By contrast, the discipline example focuses dad’s frustration on the room, not the child. Tom’s direction is clear and firm.     Sandra still won’t like having to clean her room, but she can’t blame her frustration on dad “calling me names.” She knows dad’s expectation, and she knows the consequence for not meeting it. She’ll still be grumpy, but she’ll too busy for the next half hour trying to salvage her TV privileges to waste any time plotting her passive revenge.

3. Discipline is Focused. Criticism is Broad and General.

While criticism makes sweeping statements about the child, the child’s character,  or his temperament, discipline is concerned with correcting a specific offense in a specific moment in time.     Billy forgot to take out the trash.     Mom is less than happy to find him playing videogames instead.

Criticism: “All you ever do is play those stupid games. I am so sick of your irresponsibility and selfishness.”

Discipline: (Mom places herself between Billy and the TV screen) “Billy.”

“Mom, I can’t see!”

“Billy what did I ask you to do?”

“Uh…. Oh. Take out the trash?”

“Go. Now. No more videogames for the rest of the night.”

“But MOM!”

(Eyebrows raised.) “Excuse me?”

“Yes, mom.”

In the criticism example, Billy may or may not get up to get the trash. More likely, figuring that Mom is already mad at him so what does he have to lose, he will attempt to argue that she should let him finish his game. At this point, she will either hit the roof, in which case she undermines her dignity and further loses her child’s respect, or she throws up her hands in powerless disgust–and loses her child’s respect. Even if he takes out the trash, she still feels like an ineffective parent, and she will probably spend the rest of the night wondering “What kind of kid am I raising?”  On the other hand, the discipline mom doesn’t worry about what kind of kid she’s raising. She knows that she has what it takes to see that he gets the guidance he needs, when he needs it. In her actions, the misbehavior is addressed. The consequence is firm. The disrespect is dismissed, and the offense is corrected. End of story.

4. Discipline builds rapport. Criticism builds estrangement.

The bible tells us, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. But later  on, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace.”  When I say that discipline builds rapport, I do not mean to imply that little Johnny will throw his arms about you and say, “Thank you! Thank you for showing me how to be a responsible, productive citizen! I love you so much, oh wise and wonderful parent!” But when you are able to stay focused on the behavior, give positive directions for correcting problems, and do it in a way that does not demean the child, your son or daughter will come to see you as a fair minded and good person. Your child will respect you, and when your child needs advice, direction, or counsel, he or she will seek it from you.  By contrast, use too much criticism, and your child will become withdrawn and alienated from you. As scripture says, “…do not nag your children, lest they lose heart.”     Criticism is easy. Too easy. And so we all give into it at one point or another. It is one of those offences that just doesn’t seem all that serious at the time. What’s one little word or phrase?

But one little word or phrase, repeated a million times over the course of 18 years of a child’s life makes a deep impression, and ultimately, it leads to a parent who asks, “Why won’t my son/daughter talk to me anymore?”  St. John Bosco addressed this when he wrote, “When the pupil is convinced that his superiors have high hopes for him, he is drawn back again to the practice of virtue. A kind word or a glance does more to encourage a child than a severe reprimand, which only serves to dampen youthful enthusiasm.”  Make discipline your goal, and reap “the harvest of righteousness and peace” in the form of better obedience, a clearer parental conscience, and a closer relationship with your children. For more parenting tips, check out Parenting with Grace: Catholic Parent’s ® Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids (2nd Ed.)

I Beg to Differ! Dealing with Discipline Disagreements.

By: Dr. Gregory Popcak

parents arguing over child

Dana and Andrew were at odds.  “We were raised very differently.” Dana explained. “Andrew’s folks were pretty laid back. I came from a very orderly home.”  Andrew chimed in. “Her family’s great–don’t get me wrong–but they’re kind of uptight. Lots of rules. I just think kids oughta be kids.”  Dana interrupted, “You just don’t have any idea what kids really need!”  “Hey!” said Andrew. “All I know is that’s the way I was raised and I turned out OK. You married me, didn’t you?”  Dana looked at me wearily, “See what I mean?”  Sound familiar? If so, you shouldn’t be surprised. Parenting disagreements remain one of the most frequent reasons couples cite for seeking marital counseling.  And there are countless others with similar problems who never get to the counselor’s office. If you and your spouse are ready to leave this old fight behind here are 4 tips to help you get over the hurdle.

1. Leave the cookie cutters in the kitchen.

Parenting is not a cookie cutter process.     In the end, it doesn’t matter what you read in that book, what your neighbors told you, or how your parents did it. Those tips may have worked great for the author’s kids, the neighbor’s kids, or for you as a child, but your child is a unique individual with unique needs who learns–you guessed it–uniquely. For each child you have, be prepared to parent differently, because each child is a different person. Other’s experience and the past can serve as reference points, but the present reality has to trump those rules of thumb. Leave the cookie cutter methods for making cookies.

2. Avoid Academic Arguments.

Many couples engage in academic arguments about “What kids need.”  For example;  “Kids need to have a pet to learn responsibility.” VS. “Kids shouldn’t have pets until they are more responsible.” “Kids need to clean their plates.” VS. “Kids need to be allowed to stop eating  when they want.”  “Kids need play dates for socialization.” VS. “Kids have too many play dates.  They need unstructured time.”  These discussions go no where because they have nothing to do with the reality of your family! Who cares what “kids” need? The real question is what do your children need? Generally speaking, is your child responsible? If so, then why worry about teaching him responsibility? Or, by contrast, if your child is not responsible, then why limit yourself to pets?     Unless you are hoping to prepare your child for a rewarding career in animal husbandry, wouldn’t it be good to focus more on compliance with chores, homework, and volunteering to help around the house regardless of the addition of pets?

Similarly, is your child undernourished? Then by all means, she should be encouraged to clean her plate. But if she is gaining weight and growing, what’s the problem? Likewise, is your child socially inept? If so, by all means, sign him up for more play dates. But if he already works and plays well with others, what are you arguing about?  My point is not to resolve these specific issues or make light of such concerns. My point is that many of the parenting “problems” that husbands and wives argue about have nothing to do with reality. They are not really parenting their children. They are merely arguing about the “best” way to play the parenting role with imaginary children irrespective of the family they actually have.

3. Identify specific goals.

Once you leave behind the false security of cookie-cutter parenting and stop pouring energy into academic arguments about imaginary children, you need a real plan. Don’t ask yourself, “What can we do to get these kids in line?” Ask instead, “What specific things does this child need to learn to be more responsible/respectful/ generous/etc?”          Does little Hedwig have a temper? Don’t just punish the outbursts, teach her what to do instead. Don’t know how? Start by asking yourself, “When Heddy is respectful, why? What is enabling her to be more respectful then? Why is she motivated to behave better? And specifically, what does she do that I like?” Then use these specific motivators and encourage these specific behaviors more often–or build upon what she already does well. Here’s another example. Does little Theophane have a hard time sharing his toys? Don’t just punish the lack of generosity. Recall the times he does share. Ask yourself why. What’s different then? And what skills does Theo need to apply that same behavior to the new situation? I can’t go into much more detail in the space we have, but I offer ample examples of how to do all this in Parenting with Grace: A Catholic Parent Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids. The point is that good behavior does not spontaneously erupt by punishing bad behavior any more than good math skills spontaneously erupt by punishing poor math skills.     Identify what your specific child needs to learn and what motivates that particular child. Then follow it through.

4. Know when to get help.

I know that in tip #1 (above) I said that you shouldn’t worry about what all the different “experts” said. You shouldn’t. But sometimes you and your mate are just too close to see the situation clearly. Remember that time the teacher said what a great kid you have? Or the waitress complimented your children on their politeness and you thought, “What kids are these people talking about?”  Avoid both degreed and self-appointed “experts” who spout platitudes about what “all kids need.” But do seek advice from those wise friends, and respected professionals who can help you see your children with fresh eyes and offer you new tools that are tailor to the unique needs of your unique child.

That’s a Wrap.

In short, forget what you think you know about parenting. Instead, you and your mate need to get to know the child you have in front of you right now, build a solid relationship with that child, develop a shared vision of the specific behaviors and values you want to see in your family, and ask yourselves what specific actions or techniques motivate each particular child to demonstrate those values and behaviors. If you’re still finding your house prone to domestic disputes of a disciplinary nature, call your PaxCare Tele-Coach  today and get the solutions to the issues you’re struggling with. Call us and get the skills you need to succeed in all your family and parenting endeavors.

Yelling Makes Parenting Harder, Study Says. (+5 Things To Do Instead)

By: Gregory Popcak

mom yells at teen

The University of Pittsburgh and the University of Michigan recently released the results of a study that showed that yelling at teens actually aggravated problematic behavior rather than extinguishing it.   Likewise, teens who were consistently yelled at had higher incidences of depression, school problems, lying, stealing and fighting than kids who did not experience “harsh verbal punishment.”  Researchers also found that the more parents yelled, the more they felt they needed to yell as the problem behaviors increased creating a vicious cycle of yelling begetting bad behavior which begat more yelling.   Most interestingly, the researchers also  found that a strong parent-child bond  did not  protect children or parents from the negative consequences of yelling  that  I listed  above.  In my experience, parents who yell often feel powerless.   They tend to threaten and have a less effective approach to applying consequences.     Often these parents will lift consequences once they no longer feel angry instead of letting the consequence stay in place until the child has demonstrated not just a change in immediate behavior, but a change of heart.       Here are 5 things parents can do that are more effective than yelling.

1.   Collect the child

When your teen  commits an offense, it is often because they have fallen out of rapport with you.   The result is that they either stop caring about offending you or fail, for some reason, to seek your advice before acting.     The first step in disciplining a child of any age—especially adolescence—is “collecting” him or her.   That is, quietly saying, “Come here.   Let’s talk.”   Followed by some display of physical affection.   Collecting the teen puts him or her in a place where he or she is now willing to hear what you are saying instead of simply reacting defensively to every word that comes out of your mouth.   It can be hard to remember to collect your teen when you’re angry, but this simple step can spell the difference between a compliant cooperative teen and WWIII.   Your choice.

2.   Seek to Understand.

Now that you’ve collected your child and he or  she is more receptive to your guidance, seek to understand  what your son or daughter was thinking when he or she committed the offense.   Don’t interrogate.   Ask, honestly and gently, with a sincere desire to understand your son or daughter’s intention.   Questions like, “What made you decide to do that?”   “What did you hope would happen when you decided to X?”   “What message were you trying to send?”   “What were you trying to accomplish by choosing Y?”   are good places to start.   Don’t accept, “I don’t know” as an answer.   Take a break if you need to, but let your child know that you deserve real answers that will enable you to help him or her do better next time.   And don’t let your kid off the hook until you get those answers.   (As an aside, if your teen consistently refuses to answer your questions or stalls interminably  with “I don’t know.”   That’s a clear sign counseling is probably indicated).

3.   Brainstorm Solutions

Now that you know the intention behind your teen’s behavior, it’s time to come up with other ways your child could meet that need.

*Was the intention behind your teen’s disrespect a flawed attempt at telling you she was angry?   What words should she use next time to convey her message?

*Did your son miss curfew because he lost track of time?   Perhaps he needs to set his phone  alarm in front of you before he goes out for the next few weeks to demonstrate that he will remember when he needs to go.

The goal of discipline is not so much punishment as it is to give the child the guidance, tools, and support he or she needs to succeed next time and the time after that.    Whenever possible, treat misbehavior as a learning experience more than a failure of character.    If you can go into disciplining your teen with the attitude that it is your job   to figure out how to improve future  compliance as opposed to merely demonstrating your frustration with them, you will be on the right track.

4.   Apply Consequences Appropriately.

Additional consequences are not always necessary but when they are, make sure they are not time-limited but behavior-limited.   For instance grounding a teen  ”for a week” usually means that the teen will wait out his week and then return to business as usual—bad behavior included.   That’s a waste of time and energy.  Instead, tell your son, “Because you came home late again, even after we talked about setting your phone alarm, you are grounded for at least a week. During that time you will show me that you are able to remember what I ask of you by doing chores without being reminded.   We will review your progress at the end of the week.   If you have been consistently thoughtful and attentive to our expectations, you will be released from grounding.   If not, you will be given another week of grounding to continue practicing being thoughtful and attentive.   And so on, and so on, until I see that you are trustworthy.”  See the difference?   With the latter arrangement, the teen’s behavioral change and change of heart is the key to his freedom, not the mere passage of time.

5.   Revisit and Revise the Plan as Necessary.

Adolescence is complicated.   New situations arise all the time that make old solutions obsolete.   If a plan you developed with your teen stops working, don’t get exasperated.     Repeat the steps above and develop a new plan that take into account the changed circumstances.   Teens will behave if they know that 1) you are committed to helping them succeed and 2) you are committed to helping them get whatever they think they need in the most godly and efficient way possible.   By contrast teens will misbehave when they feel like they can’t win and/or if they see you as an obstacle to getting their needs met.   Using the steps I’ve outlined here works better than yelling because it gets you and your kid on the same side of solving the problem and has you working together to develop a plan for future success instead of competing to see who can make the other more miserable.

For more ideas on how to raise godly teens, check out  Parenting with Grace:   A Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids. (2nd Ed.   revised and expanded)  or, if you need some personal support to help you get your relationship with your teens in order, contact your PaxCare Tele-Coach today. If necessary, we can refer you to the  a faithful Catholic therapist who can get your family life back on track. Call us to get the support and skills you need!

Catholic Bishops & Corporal Punishment

By: Gregory Popcak


Is it possible to articulate a consistent, coherent Catholic position on the use or corporal punishment?   As a family therapist and Catholic parenting author it’s a question I spend a lot of time prayerfully considering.   Many good parents on both sides of the debate have very strong feelings on the subject and it can be confusing for parents to have to sort out the pros and cons on this issue.    My own thoughts on the subject have been widely circulated. (See an article I wrote on this subject here.)  In light of this, I was honored to  discover that my work on the subject was recently (this past June)  cited in the  South African Bishops’ Conference—Catholic Parliamentary Liaison Office (SABC-CPLO)  report to South African Parliament on  The Use of Corporal Discipline in the Home.

The report articulates the Catholic position on recent controversial legislation in South Africa protecting the “physical integrity” of children and prohibiting the use of corporal punishment. It  clarifies the difference between the Catholic view of child discipline in contrast with  many of Protestant sects that are protesting  the Children’s’ Amendment Bill.    The SABC-CPLO articulates a position that promotes positive discipline in lieu of corporal punishment.   Specifically, the document is notable for its assertion that,  “There is nothing in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which supports the right of parents to use corporal punishment.”  I applaud the SABC’s efforts to promote the Catholic view of the dignity of the  child and children’s rights to be treated as persons.   As Pope John Paul II wrote in his  Letter to Children,  “children suffer many forms of violence from grown‐ups….How can we not care, when we see the suffering of so many children, especially when this suffering is in some way caused by grown‐ups.”


I realize that  spanking is a controversial issue, but the South African Bishop’s document makes for excellent reading for any Catholic parent who has an interest in the corporal punishment debate.  I don’t wish to overstate things. It is true that, at this writing, corporal punishment remains a matter of prudential judgment for Catholics, but as the Church continues to reflect on this issue, she appears to be moving consistently—and internationally—toward opposing it.      For instance, last year, Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans was on the receiving end of a great deal of parental anger when he spoke publicly and forcefully against the use of corporal punishment.  At that time, he said,  I do not believe the teachings of the Catholic Church as we interpret them in 2011 condone corporal punishment. It’s hard for me to imagine in any way, shape or form, Jesus using a paddle.”  Read the article here.  

All of this, of course,  is completely consistent with the writings of Catholic educators such as St John Bosco who, all the way back in the mid 1800′s, wrote,  To strike a child in any way…and other similar punishments must be absolutely avoided.”  At any rate, it was an honor to have my work cited by the South African Bishops’ Conference in their efforts to promote the Catholic vision of family life.    I hope you’ll  take some time to reflect on the document and allow it to speak to your heart about your  parenting choices.      If you’d like to  learn more about effective,  Catholic approaches to  child rearing and positive discipline,  check out  Parenting with Grace: A Catholic Parents’ Guide to Raising (almost) Perfect Kids.