Online shaming as a form of discipline can take many forms and recent examples to be found on Youtube and other social media involve children being forced to wear signs with derogatory messages on them, public pledges from children regarding their poor behaviour and even online videos of children having their heads shaved, their grades posted online or being forced to participate in physical challenges as punishment. In a recent well known case in the United States, a 12 year old girl committed suicide after her father posted a shaming video of her online following her misuse of social media. This resulted in considerable social outcry and anger towards the father who was distraught, never having imagined that his actions could have resulted in the loss of his daughter.
Such a painful outcome speaks to the terrible consequences of online shaming; the severing of parent - child trust that may take years to repair. It also speaks, I feel, to a parent's place of desperation. To a feeling of parental hopelessness and loss of control. To a profound disconnection between parent and child that such an action would be considered by a parent the only means left to punish a child.
In the face of this tragedy, the question many parents are asking 'but what else is there to be done?' What is the best way to discipline your child when all else has seemingly failed? There are probably a thousand different behaviour management techniques and I have no intention of evaluating them here. For within each approach, there are elements that may or may not be helpful and what may work with your child today, may not work so well tomorrow. Such is the nature of parenting.
I have been reflecting lately however, not so much on techniques of discipline but upon techniques of connection. How do we maintain connection with our children so that we never get to such a desperate place where online shaming seems like the only way to regain control? Here are a few of my thoughts that I explore with the parents that come and see me in therapy and that I try to do myself as a parent.
1. Make connection an everyday part of your relationship with your child from the get go. Every day there needs to be at least one conversation where we simply listen to our child and explore what it is like to live in their world. Make conversation a part of family life from the moment they can talk. Recognise that the deepest conversations we may ever have with our kids, particularly once they are eye rolling teenagers, are often when we are engaged in another activity such as driving to soccer practice or hanging out the washing.
2. The words we use matter - as our children get older it becomes important to be mindful of our ways of communicating and use words that open up communication, rather than shut it down. Teenagers can be incredibly sensitive to perceived parental judgement. Being curious and asking lots of questions that help us to understand their world can be a great way to build connection. If you feel any desire within yourself to say 'You shouldn't have ...' , consider replacing it with 'That was a tricky situation....must have been tough to know what to do.'
3. Choose your battles. Some fights simply aren't worth fighting if it means every day is filled with negativity and tension. Find moments of unexpected praise.
4. When the temptation is to pull away, approach. When your child has driven you to the depths of despair and you feel like pulling away, if you can keep yourself calm, try approaching instead. An offered hug, an unexpected moment of kindness when our child is in the middle of out of control emotions can help maintain connection.
5. Reach for the hidden emotion. Beneath our child's expression of rage and frustration are often feelings of hurt, sadness, anxiety, bewilderment and self doubt. Being a kid is hard. There are confusing issues of social belonging, identity and self worth to work through. These are feelings that we as adults struggle with. It may be helpful to remember that our children have less resources to cope with them and need a little help from us to do so.
And remember that children often bring home the emotions that can't be expressed in the wider world. When the world is a confusing place, home is often the only place to vent the emotions, the safest place to fall. Maintaining connection, whilst lovingly setting limits, might help us keep it that way.