You probably thought there couldn't be anything more exasperating than a toddler's bedtime tantrums or public meltdowns. Now you realize: Those were the easy days. At least your 15-month-old wouldn't scream "You're the worst mom ever!" when denied a new pair of jeans.
The school years bring countless joys, but the increased defiance that sneaks into your child's repertoire isn't among them." At this age, children can challenge your authority in ways that push your buttons far more effectively than before," says Alan Kazdin, Ph.D., director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic. Back talk, sarcasm, sibling manipulation, elaborate excuses for avoiding chores - these pose no shortage of tests to your parenting skills and your patience.
So what's a frustrated mom or dad supposed to do?
In search of answers, we asked a group of moms to share their most vexing discipline scenarios, then enlisted Kazdin and other child-behavior experts to weigh in with some proven solutions. In general, the experts said, school-age children demand a more nuanced approach than they did when they were little, one that emphasizes praising positive behavior rather than punishing defiance. But keep in mind, "there's no one right way to discipline," says Los Angeles child-development and behavior specialist Betsy Brown Braun, author of Just Tell Me What to Say: Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents. "What worked for one child or situation may not work for another. You have to keep trying different approaches, and mix and match techniques - but you'll eventually find something that works for you."
Q: My 7-year-old has become totally sarcastic. When I tell her to apologize to her sister, she'll say "So-reee" snidely, even on the tenth time I have her repeat it. Help!
A: "I applaud a parent wanting to have her children face their actions - that's a good, positive intent - but an insisted-upon apology doesn't work at this age," says child-behavior expert Kim John Payne, M.Ed., author of Simplicity Parenting. There's a developmental reason for that: Before they're about 8 or 9, children just can't feel true repentance.
A more effective response is to state your disapproval ("We try to speak respectfully in our family") while also commending your daughter for something she's done well. For example: "You normally look after your sister very nicely." Says Payne, "When disapproval comes with a genuine affirmation, you're less likely to get a defiant child or one who collapses and sulks."
Once you've made your point, tell both girls that you'll talk about the situation after everyone's calmed down. Separate them, perhaps by giving them both small jobs, and later on, take each one aside so she can tell you her side of the story. "Listen, but don't comment," Payne advises. "If you say too much, you're on someone's side."
Finally, tell your 7-year-old that she needs to "make good" with her sister, and ask her for ideas. (She could, for example, ask her sib if she wants to walk the dog together.) "Making good" or "putting things right" is more effective phrasing for children than "I'm sorry," Payne says. "It stays in concrete actions, not in abstract feelings."