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Useful Phrases for Gentle Discipline

child holding a broken robin's egg


In the thick of daily parenting, making the shift from traditional or punitive parenting to gentle discipline means stocking your parental tool kit with some new tools.  Learning how to parent with gentle discipline is sort of like traveling to a new country; it can be helpful to have a phrasebook handy to refer to in new situations.  Here are a few useful phrases that can be used in gentle discipline with kids of varying ages.

  • “How did you feel about that?”
  • “Your face/body looks like _____.”
  • “It looks like you’re feeling _____.”
  • “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have done that.  Can I try again?”
  • “You really want to _____, but you can’t do that right now. I can see how upset you are about that.”
  • “I can see there’s a disagreement about ____.”
  • “I want ____, and you want ____.  Can you think of a way we can work this out?”
  • “What did you want to happen there?”
  • “If you could go back and do that again, what would you do differently?”
  • “This girl is playing with the toy right now, but I’ll sit with you and keep you company while you wait for your turn.”
  • “You really like it when ____.”
  • “You want to play house, and he wants to play racing cars.  Can you find a way to play both things together?
  • “Let’s take ten deep breaths together before we talk about this.”
  • “Let’s play outside instead.”

It’s important to remember that the emotional attachment and connection between parent or caregiver and child is the catalyst that makes these phrases and gentle discipline techniques work.  Simply saying the words without the emotional intent behind them will be ineffective in achieving your goals as a parent, and confusing for your child.  But if you genuinely look for a child’s input, validate his experience, apologize for your mistakes and give children plenty of opportunities to burn off energy in appropriate ways, these phrases will be useful in many, many different situations.

Looking for more info on gentle discipline?  Check out these posts:

What are some of your favourite phrases and techniques to use in gentle discipline?

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Cynthia April 19, 2011, 8:50 pm

    Great phrases – I always appreciate the review for those difficult times when my brain wants to automatically jump to more familiar (but far less gentle) ones.

    I noticed you said the phrases were ineffective without the emotional intent behind them. Do you think that is always the case? I’ve found that during those above-mentioned difficult times – when I’m tired, overwhelmed, or feeling emotionally distant – the phrase “fake it ’til you make you” actually rings true. If I can bite my tongue for a minute, then force out a more gentle alternative to what I might have wanted to say, my kids still respond positively. It seems to get us over the hump until I’m in a better place emotionally and have the reserves needed to back up my words with the appropriate emotional intent. What do you think?

    • michelle April 20, 2011, 10:01 am

      Great point Cynthia – I guess it is really more of a continuum than I made it seem in my post. Sometimes I too need to just say the words without really feeling it, but I’ve noticed that it always works better when I feel really connected and empathetic towards the kids. It’s also totally possible that some kids will respond more to the actual words and others are more tuned into the emotional atmosphere. In any case, saying the words even without the actual emotion sometimes reminds me to tune in to what the kids are needing, what I need, where we are emotionally and where any disconnections might be, which is usually the first step to sorting any problems out.

  • Cynthia April 21, 2011, 2:04 pm

    Ah, yes, I think that is the key – recognizing that saying the words without the feelings is only the first step in regaining balance and connection, rather than a long-term method.

    On the other hand, maybe for those just starting out with gentle discipline (leaving behind a more punitive approach), just saying the words is necessary in order to develop the habit of using those phrases instead of falling back on old ones. Even there, however, if the connection/intent doesn’t eventually develop, something needs to be looked at and fixed.

    I guess it’s a “which comes first, the chicken or the egg?” thing. Is it the connection that needs to be in place first, or does developing the habit of using those phrases help to develop the connection? Interesting.

  • Julie October 22, 2016, 2:18 am

    What a great list! My kids go to a wonderful preschool where the teachers use these phrases daily. It’s been a great education for me as well, to hear them so seamlessly put into practice.

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