Positive discipline 101: How to rein in your kids when the pandemic changes the relationship

(CNN)Misha Garnier's 14-year-old son, Lino, is playing a lot of video games right now.

"That seems to be his sole pursuit in life," she said.
She'd like him to help around the house more and spend less time online, but she recognizes video games are one of his few connections to friends and the outside world. When she lashes out or tries to abruptly pull him away, he becomes hard, shutdown, withdrawn.
These days, it's difficult to decide how to discipline her son considering his limited options for entertainment. And anything she'd take away is what allows her reprieve when she needs it.
    For getting her son to do chores, she's found that scheduling deadlines and warnings for unloading the dishwasher helps. It makes expectations clear and gives him a sense of agency.
    Kids may be pulling back from responsibilities or acting out now because they're sad or frustrated over how the pandemic has changed their lives.
    When those instances occur, there are ways to watch out for the deeper meaning, help them cope and use those situations as teaching moments.
    But what about when kids go too far? It can be complicated to find a balance between leniency and strictness during this time, especially as parents balance the roles of guardian, teacher, entertainer and friend. The good news is there are productive methods for what to do when you need to lay down the law.

    Know the purpose of discipline

    Discipline isn't simply about punishing a child who has done something "wrong." It's about explaining what would have been the appropriate behavior and acknowledging it as the child improves, so they're continually motivated to behave well.
    The function of discipline is to socialize a child as a functioning member of society by teaching him or her about what it means to be a member of the family and eventually the wider society, said Joshua Coleman, a psychologist in private practice in Oakland, California and senior fellow with the Council on Contemporary Families.
    That includes learning how to communicate, inhibit impulses, tolerate frustration and communicate needs in a way that maximizes the probability of other people wanting to meet those needs, he added.
    Discipline also involves explaining how to productively address unpleasant feelings and how to repair relationships if others' are hurt by their actions.
    The word "discipline" often carries a negative connotation, but in its best form discipline is a way to help teach kids internalized rules that their impulsive nature may resist, Coleman said. It should be rehabilitative more than punitive, and consequential only when necessary.
    "Many parents are trying to do their best juggling remote work, child care, online schooling, housework and cooking," said Mary Alvord, a Maryland-based psychologist specializing in treatment of youths and coauthor of "Conquer Negative Thinking for Teens." This brings fatigue and frustrations which can result in parents reacting to negative behaviors by punitive means.
    "Parents are role models and need to calm themselves first to make an impact," she said. "We know that what works best with discipline for children is structure, consistent limit setting and attention to what they are doing correctly.
    "Discipline doesn't equal punishment and I think that's where parents go wrong. If parents start just reacting to the negative, it becomes extremely punitive and it also can harm the relationship."
    Responding with negative reinforcements such as yelling, screaming or spanking may get your child's attention in the moment, but it may reinforce the behavior long term if it's all you're paying attention to, Coleman said.
    Instead, positively reinforce good behavior to get them to focus on what you want them to do, achieving the ultimate behavior you want in the long term, Alvord suggested.
    Make little comments that show your kid you appreciate the effort he's making. Give them physical affection, and talk with them about what would cause better behavior and how you might reward it.
    "Parents need to shift out of the rule of being managers and more into the role of consultants," Coleman said. "The language of consultants [says] you can do X or Y if you want to, but the consequences are this."

    Make your expectations clear