The Neuroscience of Positive Discipline

by Stephanie Tam Rosas ~

Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson didn’t set out to explain why Positive Discipline (PD)
is so effective, but that is ultimately the result of their book “The Whole-Brian Child”. Many of
PD’s core concepts and approaches have worked with families already, but the science behind
them gets further explained in how they ultimately promote brain integration. The results of a
well integrated brain = flexibility, improved decision making skills, more control over one’s 
and emotions, a fuller understanding of the self and success in school and relationships.

Not a bad list! Let’s explore 4 PD concepts that lead to this miraculous brain.


What it looks like: When your child seems upset, frustrated, regretful, disappointed, you name it, help them to identify what emotions they’re experiencing in that moment.

Why it works: Emotions are processed in the right brain and limbic system, but putting words to these feelings engages the left brain since language is a left brain function. As a nice result, your children also develop a stronger sense of awareness!

What it looks like: In PD this usually involves asking questions that help your kids think things through and identify outcomes or consequences. The purpose of curiosity questions is to get children to think for themselves about solutions or their next steps instead of always telling them what to do. If your child needs to do their homework you might ask “what is your plan for doing your hw?” or “what do you need to be able to study better?”

Why it works: The right brain processes feelings and autobiographical memories while the left side makes sense of them. Again integration happens when both hemispheres work together. When you ask curiosity questions, you access the left brain to think linearly and the prefrontal cortex which processes future consequences. Asking these questions regularly can actually help strengthen the prefrontal cortex on a regular basis.

What it looks like: Connect with their child before you start trying to teach them right from wrong or discuss their latest misbehavior. Using nonverbal communication, find a way to help them feel seen and understood as the children you still love, and not the monsters who just gave you massive anxiety. This can come in the form of a hug, positive eye contact (no death glares) or just a calm presence. Be warned, this goes well beyond just using your words. If you non-verbally communicate a sense of frustration, anger or disappointment, your kids will pick up on it and unavoidably stay emotionally triggered and activated in their right brain.

Why it works: When children are upset (or any human for that matter) they are functioning from the right brain and limbic system. Absorbing logic or a lesson happens on the other side in the left brain and higher brain (more specifically, the prefrontal cortex). If you want any message to sink in, your child needs to be able to activate their left side. But here’s the catch. Before the left side can be activated, the right side needs to calm down first. That’s where connecting comes in, especially non-verbally (a right brain function). After you’ve connected, the left hemisphere can start firing and your child will actually be able to absorb to what you’re saying.

What it looks like: So you’ve tried to connect before correct and it’s just not working. It might be time for one or both of you to take a positive time out! This is just a chance to cool off and calm down on your own. Some ideas might be listening to music, taking a walk, writing, drawing, exercising, meditating or talking to a friend. When you’re child is not upset, help them make a list of what they might find calming. You can also make a list for yourself so you can model this cooling down behavior. Important to note: you cannot send your child on a positive time out as you would with a traditional time out. That would keep them triggered and completely defeat the purpose. You can however, recommend or encourage it.

Why it works: Unlike traditional time outs that are punishing, positive time outs are meant to provide children the opportunity to regulate their limbic system. As we discussed with connection before correction, when people get upset or triggered, their limbic system becomes highly activated among a myriad of other stress responses: cortisol and adrenalin hormones get released, your sympathetic nervous system gets activated and it becomes incredibly hard to focus on any logical meaning making. Breathing and other calming activities can help to decrease these physical and neurobiological reactions and return you to a more neutral, and therefore receptive, state. You are then able to think logically with your pre-frontal cortex which processes all those important lessons you hope your kids will understand.

Based on:
Siegel, D. J., & Bryson, T. P. (2011). The Whole-Brain Child: 12 Revolutionary Strategies to Nurture Your Child’s Developing Mind. Delacorte Press.
Nelson, J. (2006). Positive Discipline. Ballantine Books.

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