Discipline/behavior management is often the most difficult topic for professionals and parents alike. Children do not come with a user’s manual, and “bad” behavior can drive adults up a wall. Below are a few of my thoughts as well as some tried and true techniques that I have used to tame even the most trantrum-prone toddlers.
Begin with the end in mind. Your goal is to raise a healthy, responsible child who loves you, behaves well, and is able to make his way independently in the world. Evaluate all of your parenting decisions in light of this goal – “Is the choice I’m making getting us closer to or farther from our desired outcome?”
The goal of discipline is to TEACH and CORRECT, not to punish. Punishment makes the offender mad, resentful at the discipliner, and rarely teaches him anything about his “crime” or how not to do it again. Think about our prison system and how there are many repeat offenders. Often, people come out of jail with more anti-social behaviors than they had when they went in. Clearly, that punishment doesn’t teach them very much about how to behave better and get along well in the world. Instead, discipline is about identifying the offense, and teaching the child a better way to handle the situation, and having him do something to correct what he did wrong. The goal is that the child does better next time, not that he feels bad about himself.
Discipline is about the behavior, not the child. Never lose sight of how precious your child is. His behavior in this situation may be bad, but teaching discipline must come from a place of unconditional love and respect for the child. We behave well for people we love and respect – build a strong, loving relationship with your child to motivate him to please you. Remember, it’s about the relationship, not the battle.
Get off the escalator! No one wins in a shouting match with a child. The louder or wilder he gets, the quieter and calmer you should be. Children in a rage need the reassurance of a calm, steady, levelheaded adult. Allow the child to scream or cry it out, knowing that you will be there, ready to listen, when he is ready to talk calmly. Do not allow the situation to escalate.
Give choices. Offer the child control in areas where he can have it, where both options are acceptable to you. “Do you want the red cup or the blue cup?” doesn’t matter much to the adult, but it allows the child to feel some sense of control in his world. You can also give choices when the child is behaving poorly. For example, if the child is throwing a fit and refusing to sit at the table, “You can sit in the blue chair or in the brown chair. If you do not choose, I will help you choose.” Give the child a chance to comply, and then physically move him with the explanation, “Okay, you did not choose. I will help you choose. Let’s sit in the brown chair.”
Give the child an out. If the child is throwing a tantrum, offer him a way to step out of the cycle of escalating bad behavior, “If you want to sit and take some deep breaths, I’d be happy to speak with you when you can talk in a nice voice.” Sometimes, children need suggestions of a way to pull themselves out of a spiral.
No child is too young to behave well. It is much easier to establish good habits early than to try to change course with a child who has months, or years, of learned misbehavior.
No child is too deaf to behave well. Children with hearing loss can, and should, be expected to behave at a level equal to their hearing peers. For very young children who do not yet have access to sound or sufficient language, picture schedules, experience books, or natural gestures may be needed to make adult messages more clear.
Children thrive with structure and routine. For young children, the world is an unpredictable place over which they have little or no control. Think of how you would feel in that situation – wouldn’t you do anything you could to exert power in the only way you knew how (tantrums)? Adults can help scaffold children to good behavior by providing consistent daily routines with clear, pre-taught expectations and consequences.
Give natural consequences. Nobody yells at you, makes you feel ashamed of yourself, or has you sit in time-out if you break something. Instead, as an adult, it is your job to fix, repair, or replace the broken item. From that, you learn to be more careful next time, and suffer the consequence of having to pay (in money and/or time) for the replacement. This is a natural consequence. Children, too, should deal with the natural consequences of their actions – if you spill it, you wipe it up; if you use a toy to hit, you may no longer play with that toy; if you yell, no one will listen to you. Natural consequences are far more effective than unrelated punishments and rewards (e.g. time out, sticker charts, doing chores as punishment for unrelated behaviors, etc.). They teach children that their choices of how to act are directly tied to good – or bad – outcomes, and force the child to evaluate how he wants to behave next time.
Think out loud to model self-regulation. Children are not mind readers. They need adults to model and talk through more appropriate processes of behavior. Adults can make mature decision-making patterns “audible” to the child by talking through their thoughts about difficult situations and problem solving. For example, a parent could say, “I felt really mad when I found out that there were no more cookies. I wanted to yell and scream, but I knew that was not an okay response. Instead, I decided to have some grapes.” Talk about the problem, the related emotions, the options for how to handle it, and the resolution.
Provide the child with scripts and options to handle his problems. Suggest things that the child could say or do instead of a negative behavior. For example, if you see a child about to grab a preferred toy away from a friend, model, “You could say, ‘May I have one?’”
Use positive/”can” language, not “nos” and “don’ts.” Instead of “no running” (in which the child usually only hears “running” and thinks, “Yeah! That’s exactly what I want to do!”), try, “Inside, we only walk. Outside is the place where we can run.”
Children cannot be held accountable for what they do not know. Pre-teach good behavior. Before a situation, talk through a few – short! – reminders of how the child is expected to behave. For example, “Today we are going to the grocery store. In the store, we stick together with Mommy, take only the items Mommy says off of the shelf, and only buy things that are on our list.” Have the child repeat the instructions back to you.
Discipline should be developmentally appropriate. Children should be expected to behave well in situations that are matched to their age or cognitive/emotional developmental level. Unreasonable expectations (e.g. a toddler should sit still for two hours) lead to explosive situations.
Understand the power of context. Is the child tired? Wet? Hungry? Bored? Sick? Bad behavior is often a very young child’s reaction to discomfort that he has no other way to express.
Hitting is not okay. Spanking and hitting teach the child that physically hurting someone is an acceptable response to frustration. If you do not want your child to hit others, why is it okay for you to hit him? Hitting is not a natural consequence, teaches violent and antisocial behavior, teaches the child to use violence, not words, to solve problems, and has not been shown to improve behavior or parent-child relationships. Hitting is not okay.