I’ll never forget the words during the homily of my wedding Mass. Father Kopil opened the homily, “’For better or worse’ isn’t really tested until little kids join your family in a few years, and ketchup is splattered on the walls and everyone is a mess.” I giggled at the time, but I had no idea just how much truth was buried in those words. Parenting is indeed a sacred and joyful calling, but it’s also a vocation that can purify your soul. Especially when ketchup is literally flying through the air.  

Parenting can test your mettle unlike anything else, but it also provides endless opportunities to demonstrate charity, patience, and mercy, and it’s not always easy.  If you do not control your emotions, then your emotions rule you, and discipline is quickly replaced with its cozened doppelgänger: punishment.

Distinguishing Discipline from Punishment

You cannot have peace in the home without discipline, but you cannot have peace in the home with punishments, and this is why: these two ideas are fundamentally opposed to each other.

Discipline is derived from disciplina, the Latin word for “instruction.” Discere is another Latin word that translates as “to learn.” It’s reasonable to say that discipline is the process of becoming a student and learning. With the image of a pupil, an instructor, and a lesson to be taught, discipline therefore becomes something very systematic—a place where emotions do not dictate actions.

On the other hand, punishment is derived from the Latin verb punire, to chastise and cause pain for a penalty or offense that has been committed. Echoing the theme of vengeance, punishments can be dictated by emotions and leaves little room for useful instruction.

It is love alone that separates discipline from punishment.

Guiding with Love

As a mother who has woken up to a bathroom toilet decorated with purple paint, I can attest that raising children is not without opportunity to discipline children, and that is something to give thanks for. Yes, really! Raising—and disciplining—children is a daily chance for parents to live out the faith, especially the Golden Commandment (Matthew 7:12) to love others as God loves us.

Love is what enables a parent to respond to a child’s wrongdoing with discipline, and it is love that prevents emotions like anger or rage from controlling our parenting choices. On a practical level, St. Teresa of Calcutta reminds us that “Love begins at home, and it is not how much we do; it is how much love we put into that action.” Remember that love itself is not an emotion; love is a verb, to will the good of another.

So how do we guide with love? Teach our children right from wrong without yelling or spanking? How do we discipline without negative emotions getting in the way?

Think of parenting this way: discipline should not be arduous, but it’s a gift you can enjoy as you teach and instruct and raise up your child. It’s about infusing love into every word, every action you take.

When Emotions Get in the Way

I’m not immune to experiencing big feelings. I’ve had proverbial steam come out of my ears more time than I care to admit, so it’s important to remember that we all have room for improvement, and there is no judgement here.

Emotions are a human experience that are neither good nor bad, but it is how we deal with them that has the biggest ripple effect on our children. When you want to discipline without the control of your emotions, you need to situate yourself at the intersection of faith and science, and you can do that by: 

  1. Taking care of the past.
  2. Practicing self-care and boosting mental health.
  3. Heeding the wisdom of saints.

Ghosts in the Nursery

Sometimes big emotions creep up because of unresolved issues in your own past. The past is gone—not dead—and any unresolved issues or emotions can affect your parenting in the here-and-now. According to an article published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child Psychiatry, “ghosts in the nursery” is a term used to explain the phenomenon when your own childhood emotions are triggered by your children.

What to do: If you’re experiencing trauma from the past or still working through intense emotions from your own childhood, consider talking to a Christian therapist to help you heal old wounds.

Self-care and the Parasympathetic Nervous System

I can tell you with absolute certainty that I feel like a new woman after any form of self-care. Lately, self-care looks a lot like a trip to the gym, a long run on the treadmill, and a hot shower.

There is no doubt that mainstream parenting brings practical tools for discipline to the proverbial table, but at the end of the day most of these tools are just that—tools. Counting to ten before responding to a child only goes so far, and if you’re already feeling frazzled, chances are good that counting to ten just isn’t enough to discipline without being ruled by your emotions. Been there, done that.

Parenting tips for controlling anger and parenting without yelling do work, as long as you take care of yourself first. You cannot give what you don’t have, and you cannot pour from an empty cup. If you are not calm and peaceful, you cannot share calmness and peace with your child. While it’s vital to have a faith-filled perspective on parenting, you also need to prioritize your own self-care care.

What to do: Below are tried-and-true self-care habits that promote good mental health (so you can pour from a full cup):

  • Exercise regularly! Exercise boosts your mental health and reduces the stress hormone cortisol. When your day-to-day stress levels are lower, it’s easier to discipline without cortisol-induced anger getting in your way.
  • Practice deep breathing, which helps to shift your body from fight or flight mode into the parasympathetic mode. Your sympathetic nervous system (which activates fight or flight mode) is designed to help your body tackle stressful or dangerous situations but even daily stresses like tantrums can trigger this response. Deep breathing from your diaphragm can help stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, AKA the relaxing response.
  • Practice mindfulness, which can help you create an equilibrium between your parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous responses.
  • Regularly find ways to practice self-care. Remember that self-care refers to anything from scheduling your annual doctors’ checkups to spa days to personal time reading in your library.
  • Hang newborn portraits of your children. Seeing the innocent baby images is a deterrent for using harsh words or adopting punitive consequences

Why these work: Self-care practices don’t immediately affect your discipline plan, but it does equip you with the calmness you need to approach discipline with love – not anger. Self-care practices like meditations help shift you out of the stressful fight or flight mode (in which your child becomes the “bad guy”) into a more relaxed parasympathetic mode, in which your child is a person to be loved rather than punished.

Learning to Discipline Under the Guidance of the Saints

During your meditations or even during a run outside, you can turn to the saints when you need a boost of love and support. Here are a few examples:

  • St. Teresa of Calcutta: “The child is the beauty of God present in the world, that greatest gift to a family.” When you’re tempted to yell or scold, repeat this. Repeat this often. Let the words permeate and soften your heart.
  • St. Zelie Martin: “When we had our children, our ideas changed somewhat. We lived only for them. They were all our happiness, and we never found any except in them. In short, nothing was too difficult, and the world was no longer a burden for us. For me, our children were a great compensation, so I wanted to have a lot of them in order to raise them for heaven.” This is just a quick reminder that your job as a parent has a wonderful destination: heaven. What’s not more motivating than that?
  • St. Louis Martin: “Soon we’ll have the intimate happiness of the family, and it’s this beauty that brings us closer to Him.”

Why these meditations work: Although the vocation to marriage and parenthood is God-sent, it can have the potential to feel isolated in our struggles. Meditating on the wisdom of the saints reminds that we are not alone and—even more importantly—we love God through our parenting. What better motivation to infuse love into discipline? To teach our children as God who is Love teaches us.

Going Forward with Love

So what is the answer the question: “How do you parent without being controlled by your emotions”? You must absolutely parent from the intersection of faith and science, prioritize self-care, adopt good-for-mental-health habits, and imitate the holy saints. In this way, you become the beacon of calmness for your child – not an addition to the chaos they already feel.