She’s screaming at me.
“It’s not fair!” she yells. Her hands are clenched, and her face is full-on fury.
I drop the mail I was sorting, and rush to wrap her in my arms and tell her I love her.
Her hands unclench.
Her face is now covered in tears, but it is no longer twisted in anger.
She wraps her arms around me, calm now.
We sit together and work on a way forward.
It didn’t used to be this way. No, it used to be that every time somebody melted down, I joined them in their emotions—adding my own meltdown to the chaos. It used to be that every time somebody disobeyed, defied or disputed me, I dished out consequences. Those consequences led to louder wails, larger tears and longer meltdowns.
Behavior never improved over the long term. And my parenting frustration and fear only grew. The louder I yelled and the more I punished, the worse things got.
I had to change, so I decided to try something radical (for me). No more yelling or punishing. Only connecting.
The next time my daughter melted down, I ran to her and wrapped her in a hug. It took a few minutes for her to calm down, but calm down she did.
So I began rushing to her each time she disobeyed or fell apart, and very soon, those hugs became the most critical part of my discipline.
Because they calmed us. They connected us. They put us on the same problem-solving team. We could figure anything out once we were connected.
It was counterintuitive—why should my kid get a hug when they’re screaming in my face? But connection was transformative.
As a parenting coach, I now teach parents how to connect instead of control, and hugging is the critical first step. Hug and show love when your child is at their worst, and you can figure anything out.
How to use hugs in your discipline
While not all children like hugs or physical touch when they’re upset, the principle of “connect first” does work for most children. If your child can’t handle physical touch, find a different way to immediately connect—sit next to them, crouch down below your child, hold their hand or whatever you know your child will allow.
1. Get there fast
The trick in using hugs is that you have to time it right. If you wait too long, you’ll likely feel too frustrated to want to physically connect. That’s normal (we all have our limits), so don’t beat yourself up if this happens. Just try to get there quicker next time.
I like to think in my mind: “Rush to connect.” Picturing myself rushing helps me to see my child’s defiance or meltdown as a moment when they need me. It’s a crisis, and I can rush to be there for them.
2. Just hug
This is not the time for moralizing or criticizing. When you rush to your child with a hug, the only thing you need to focus on is connecting with them. Save your lessons for later.
3. Feel the calm
This is a beautiful part. Stay in the hug and feel the calm. You’ll notice your child’s shoulders dropping. Maybe their arms will wrap around you. This is amazing and powerful.
4. Now you can talk + stay close
Once you’re both calm, go ahead and discuss what happened. If your child hit the cat, this is the time to discuss how the cat is feeling. But you must wait until you know your own feelings won’t get riled up again. Sometimes, this can take a while. That’s okay.
Stay close through the whole exchange.
5. Be patient with yourself
If this is new for you, give it time. Stick with it. I promise the first time you rush with a hug, you’ll be amazed at the new response you get from your child.
Don’t feel bad if you don’t always want to hug. Keep at it. This connected form of parenting will soon become second nature. You can use it every time your child misbehaves or melts down.
Keep the hug as your first step in discipline, and not only will your child feel calm, you’ll be gifted with calm confidence about how to handle whatever parenting throws at you.