Discipline Ring
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Rounds in the Discipline Ring

by Diane MacKenzie


Children with bipolar disorder present an unusual dilemma for their parents or caregivers. Unless they are stabilized, most often through a combination of medication and therapy, they are virtually impossible to discipline. Scores of parents across the country can attest to this rather bold statement. As parents of children with bipolar disorder we become accustomed to trial and intimate with error. The levels of risk-taking and defiant behavior are high, often from an early age. Our first, a feeble attempt at disciplining these kids leaves us scarred and confused. I know. I have limped away, from my own son, so that I could nurse my wounds. I read all the books. I went to therapy. I asked my mother for advice. There seemed to be nothing I could do to stop the endless power struggle that raged on between us. I started to wonder if there was something wrong with me. Was I that horrible because I overslept one day last week? Or because I had gotten divorced from his father? Every time I stepped into the "Discipline ring" with my son, I knew that I would have to be fast on my feet.

ROUND ONE - "Distract him with something else."

Yes. That is exactly what the book said. If they are playing with something inappropriate, offer them something else. Remove the object from their hand and replace it with a toy or your own hand and draw their interest toward something more appropriate. Okay. I can do that. And sure, it makes sense. So, why not? I reached for the remote control while shaking his favorite toy in my other hand. He giggled and jerked his hand away. I chimed, "Give Mommy the 'mote, Keith." He smiled and spun on his heel, pitching the device across the room. I heard it land with a resounding thud. We looked everywhere...couldn't find it. We located it by accident while cleaning the ashes out of the fireplace. The same fireplace that we had already dug through several times. Now, if you apply this same scenario to other things, many of which are never located again (i.e., lighters, small animals, forks, knives, various tools and an assortment of other age-inappropriate items) you have the results of our trial run with the distraction theory. Needless to say, it was not a method that we used for a very long period of time.

ROUND 2 - "Time-out is an effective method of discipline, if the technique applied correctly."

Time-outs can be effective. My daughter responds to it very well if it is used consistently and correctly. However, "correctly" is a relative term in this case. Some books say that the child must be seated in a chair, where there is little to distract him or her. Other materials say that the child must be confined to his or her room. Once they are in their room there are certain things they are not allowed to do. Talking on the phone, playing video games and watching television are out of the question. The idea is to separate them until they have time to refocus and can cooperate. The book said to have the child get to know the chair. Let them sit in it and set the timer (one minute per year of age) so that they have an idea as to what they should expect. Keith was three years old at the time. Our therapist had suggested that we give this a shot. I looked up to find Keith swinging one of his toys around the living room. He had tied a long piece of string to a fairly heavy truck and was simulating some kind of tornadic activity. I calmly but firmly told him to stop....one...then two...then three times. Third time is the charm that gets the chair. I took him by the hand and led him to his chair. I explained that he would have to sit in the chair until the timer went off and further, that if he got up or talked or played that his time would start over. Little did I know that he had no concept of time, whatsoever. Unfortunately, he still doesn't seven years later. The first time that he was sent to the time out chair he spent the next three hours there. He screamed. He kicked. He rocked the chair so hard that he turned it over twice. I was finally forced to sit in the kitchen chair beside him. He had to have constant supervision, just ensure that he remain seated. Every time he was allowed to get up, despite having broken every single rule, he was back in the chair in less than ten minutes. We continued on with this trial run for the next three months. I could no longer do housework. My daughter suffered because I could not spend adequate time with her. The strain on my relationship with Keith's father (Who was also bipolar, although it went untreated and undiagnosed, throughout the course of our marriage) mounted until we began fight more and more often. Our therapist insisted that we were doing something wrong. We had followed the rules to the letter and his behavior remained the same. The therapist advised us to make an appointment with a psychiatrist. He no longer felt capable of helping us or our son. Another bell had rung and another round was over.

ROUND 3 - "Reward the child for positive behavior using a sticker chart to detail their

Sticker charts are neat. They are fun to design and there are even some really nice, inexpensive, pre-made boards that come with reusable stickers. There are computer programs that print out "checks" and keep a running tally of the child's account balance. I though to myself, " What a great idea. It must work well or it wouldn't be so easy to fin." I remembered using the little metallic stars when I was in school and though that it would be fun for the both of us. Rewards can be as small as a piece of gum or, as big as a trip to the zoo. It is best to save the larger rewards as monthly or weekly treats. Whatever fits into your budget and schedule. However, the novelty wears off of sticker charts very quickly. Keith became impatient. He did not understand nor, was he capable of, waiting the required amount of time to earn a reward for his behavior. As he got older, he developed more expensive tastes and was not as easily impressed. Stickers, candy and small, piƱata-size toys just didn't cut it anymore. He expected to go to Dairy Queen for ice cream or McDonald's for a Happy Meal every day. Keith has a meltdown when events do not meet his expectations. After experiencing several of these rages, we decided to can the charts once and for all. It had become more work and was producing some very undesirable results. Last year, the school administration informed me that they were going to try something similar. They devised a sticker notebook to encourage Keith to do his homework. They asked if I had attempted this before. I advised them of our luck with this method but, insisted that they go ahead. Things seem to work differently for Keith in different environments. I warned them that his interests change quickly due to the nature of the disorder and that the rewards would have to be changed frequently. Rewards progressed from a small treat, to homework passes, to extra computer time, to an occasional Coke and candy bar from the vending machine. Needless to say, I was called in for a conference to discuss yet another strategy. The round three bell rung and we all collapsed in our neutral corners, exhausted and temporarily defeated.

ROUND 4 - "Let him fall and get hurt a few times. He won't do it anymore. He'll learn."

My brother has a simple philosophy when it comes to children. He used to tell me all the time to stop hovering over my son. He seemed to have no idea exactly what Keith was capable of doing. His oldest daughter had been a handful and he was certain that Keith's behavior could not be any worse or more dangerous than hers. After attempting everything, short of grounding or spanking, we decided to let Keith find out for himself. Letting cause and effect teach him what was acceptable and what was not, sounded like an easy thing to do. I decided that maybe my brother was right. He was older and wiser. He had been married to their mother for 15 years so he must have a knack for this stuff. He had done a wonderful job raising two beautiful girls that had turned out to be intelligent, polite and well-mannered. What could it hurt? We had tried everything else, hadn't we? Needless to say... three dog bites, countless broken toys and numerous accidents later... we had to admit that this tactic was not going to work either. He simply did not learn from trial and error. It almost seemed that, if a particular activity had dangerous or undesirable consequences, it was immediately more appealing to him than before. He seemed to thrive on the risks that he took and the nerves that he shook. I was convinced that I was raising the next Evil Kneivel...that I was going to have a head full of gray hair by the time I was thirty...and that I had met defeat once again, in the discipline ring.

ROUND 5 - "Ground him. Make him stay home and he'll shape up. Take away some
privileges. He's probably being influenced by his friends."

I now know, why my mother never grounded me. Grounding is as much punishment for the parent as it is the child. It always starts very subtly, about an hour or so, after Keith wakes up.
Plaintively, he whispers, "Mommy, I love you."
I say, "Well, I love you too, Keith."
He says, "Mommy, can I go to [insert "friend of the week's" name here]?"
I calmly say, "No. You can't. You are grounded for [insert "offense of the week" here]. Remember?"
He says, "But Mommy, there is nothing to do." He is getting much more vocal at this point. His voice has definitely gotten louder and he is standing up and moving towards me. He seems to be in actual pain.
"No, Keith. You can't. You are grounded." I say it with firmness and give him a chance to respond. He only glares at me.
When he does walk away the chances are high that the scenario will end in one of two ways. He will either wait, until I am in the bathroom or attending to some other necessary task and, he will walk brazenly out the front door or he will work himself up to a crescendo repeating the first scene time and again, until he rages and lashes out at me. Following this rage he will collapse in total exhaustion. (Believe me, those rages wear me out so I know it must be much harder on him.) I have never seen anyone have an epileptic seizure but, I am sure that these rages are similar in appearance.
However, allow me to say, that of all the forms of discipline I have discussed, this is the most effective. Sometimes, it is absolutely necessary. When Keith is very manic or when he is close to the boiling point of rage, constant supervision is essential. It helps us to ensure his safety, the safety of his siblings and the safety of others. It is those times that we have to batten down the hatches and be prepared to ride it out. We have had to go to the extreme of locking ourselves into the house at night and nailing the windows shut. (The kids have been given explicit permission to break any window in our home in the event of a fire.) It is not an orthodox way of parenting. It is an effective way of parenting and one that is essential to our survival as a family.

ROUND 6 - "He just needs a good spanking. A paddling would set that boy straight."

I have never believed in corporal punishment. I found out, that desperation will make us do things that we never thought that we would do. Keith's behavior has become progressively worse since the age of three. Several times, over the course of his young life, we have been told that he needs a good whipping. A few short slaps to the backside would turn him into the model child. I resisted for years before coming to believe that anything was possible. Maybe spanking did work. I had never tried it so, how could I argue. I was never spanked as a child so, I could not make an assessment of its pros and cons. We began to spank him. At first, it was only for major offenses. We noted no change in his behavior. Then we decided to spank him for both, major and minor offenses. It seemed that the more we spanked him, the more we had to spank him. We also had to spank him harder and harder to achieve the same effects. I absolutely could not do it anymore. It suddenly dawned on me, that I was using the wrong technique, once again. I backed up and reassessed the situation. Part of the reason that it was wrong for our family is because, I was strongly opposed to it. Once I came to understand that I was going against my better judgment, I went back to using preferred techniques. I was more confident in parenting my son. Being more confident made the methods we chose to use more effective. But these same methods were still far from perfect. We no longer physically discipline Keith at all.

Bear in my mind that this is only our personal story. I am also quite certain, that there are many similar stories, involving children with other difficulties. I am not, in any way, saying that the aforementioned methods do not work at all. If consistent limits and rules are applied, these techniques can be turned into solutions. However, with a bipolar child, the parent remains in training permanently. We must be quick and creative. Solutions must be innovative and are sometimes seen as unorthodox to an outsider. The methods described here have to be altered and employed at different times. The parents must learn to recognize, the different phases of the disorder, in order to discipline the child effectively. Different forms of communication must be used depending on the affected child's mood. Fortunately, this often forms a very open line of communication between the parent and the child. I can say that, despite the chaos it sometimes causes, it does have its virtues. Keith and I have to speak very honestly to one another in order to avoid major misunderstandings over minor incidents. The result is a hodgepodge of styles that blend together forming something of a "consistent inconsistency." As confusing as it seems to spectators, it is often the only way to effectively manage these children until some degree of stabilization is attained. We have had our battles. I have won a few, lost a few. We have all gotten banged up along the way. But, I have to admit that I value the time that we have spent in the discipline ring.


About Diane

I am a poet by nature and a writer at heart....29yo mother of three born in Memphis, TN on Halloween. I love to write...poetry, articles, fiction, the whole shebang. I write for myself and for anyone else who might be interested in my occasionally coherent babble. Enjoy.....

Diane is a talented a gifted writer and her works include many other venues besides Bipolar Children.  She writes for Themestream and her titles can be viewed (and rated!) at the following url...Diane's Articles

Please visit her there.

Diane can be reached by EMAIL


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