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."
Q: When my 9-year-old gets his 4-year-old brother to do something inappropriate, like open an unbought bag of corn chips at the store, who gets the time-out?
A: Both children should receive consequences, but a time-out isn't the way to go.
"The purpose of a time-out is to create some space between the child and a parent who wants to heave him against the wall, but time-outs don't teach a lesson," says Brown Braun. "Your child isn't necessarily thinking about what he did."
Instead, calmly say to the younger child: "You opened something that we weren't going to buy. That is against the rules of the market and our family. I'm going to buy the chips now because I have to. But you may not eat them because you did not follow the rules. And I'm not going to keep bringing you to the store if this happens again."
Later, talk to your older son. It's normal for him to do a little boundary testing - and to try to manipulate his sib. Not only does that let him claim "It wasn't me!" but, points out Brown Braun, "it's pretty intoxicating to be the nine-year-old whose younger sibling will do anything for him."
To make the reprimand fit the crime, say something like "I'm disappointed that you're choosing to teach your brother to break rules. Rules matter, and your brother looks up to you."
Just as important, when you see your older child setting a good example, praise him for being a stellar role model. "Your nine-year-old loves the power, so turn it into a positive kind of power," Brown Braun advises.
Q: I'm mortified when my 6-year-old daughter throws fits in public. Should I ignore it? Or discipline her right then and there, risking more embarrassment?
A: "Everyone feels embarrassed when that neon light goes off that seems to say 'I've lost control,' but now's the time to put on your mom hat and not worry about it," says Brown Braun.
Instead of lecturing or punishing your daughter right then, calmly let her know what you expect of her and what will happen if she doesn't follow through. For instance, if you're out at a restaurant, say "It is not okay for you to talk to me that way. If you stop, you can stay at the table. If you keep it up, we're going to have to leave." (Brown Braun says parents always worry that this outcome is exactly what the misbehaving kid intends, but, in fact, "having to leave is powerful stuff" - especially if it means going without dinner, TV, or company once you get home.)
"Try to avoid threats like 'If you do that one more time, you will not be able to go to Disneyland next Saturday.' Consequences need to be immediate and directly related to the misbehavior," adds Brown Braun. Of course, having to take your food "to go" will be a pain for you, too, but it's the best way to nip this type of behavior in the bud.
Last, remember to use a firm voice and avoid pleading language like "Oh, come on, honey, stop that." "Your child needs to know you mean business," says Brown Braun.
Q: What should I do when my 8-year-old daughter refuses to clean up her room?
A: Pause for two heartbeats, and then calmly instruct her to do a smaller task than you'd initially asked for - to tidy up her art supplies, for example, rather than the entire room - and tell her you'll help. Say: "I need these crayons picked up. I'll hold the box." Often, children refuse to comply because they've been "sent away" or given too large a task, experts say.
Be sure to give an instruction, not a request. "We think that saying 'Shall we clean up?' is polite, but it's actually being wishy-washy," says Payne. And don't negotiate. If you find yourself saying "if" and "then" in the same sentence - such as "If you clean this up, then you can have a Popsicle" - rephrase, because you're essentially giving your daughter the option not to do it at all.
When dealing with a particularly stubborn child, consider trying a points chart, suggests Yale's Kazdin, who is also the author of The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child. Offer your daughter one point for cleaning up a certain part of the room or certain toys. "She can earn five points a day, and a certain number of points earns her a small reward," Kazdin explains.
He adds that rewards alone don't prompt children to change their behavior, but they do remind parents to offer praise for compliance - and praise makes a huge difference.
Q: When I ask my 10-year-old to set the table, she says she can't because she has "soooo much homework." Yet she's never too snowed under to watch iCarly. What do I do?
A: The moment she balks, give your daughter a moderate, logical consequence for not setting the table, advises Larissa Niec, Ph.D., director of the Parent-Child Interaction Therapy Clinic at Central Michigan University. For example, when dinner is over, she won't get to watch TV; instead, she'll have to do homework. "If the excuse doesn't work, children will typically stop using it," says Niec.
Then, to avoid this situation in the future, notify your daughter, in advance, that it's now her job to set the table. You might say, "You're older now, so these are the expectations: You're going to help out your family by doing this every night."
Afterward, be sure to praise her when she follows through, says Niec. "Sometimes, paying attention to the positive behavior is all it takes."
Fine-Tuning Your Parenting Style
Staying calm, standing your ground, being consistent. They're the hallmarks of good parenting, but also easier said than done. Fortunately, shoring up any weak spots in your parenting doesn't require a whole new personality. With just the tweaks below, you could be in for a much calmer dinnertime.
If you're a screamer:
While alone and relaxed, rehearse a couple of key phrases, such as "After dinner, everyone helps with cleanup," advises Crista Wetherington, Ph.D., a pediatric psychologist at Children's Medical Center, in Dallas. This gives you a response to whip out when you're exasperated, so you can avoid emotion-based spouting off.
If you're a softie:
"Pick one or two behaviors that are really inexcusable, and tell your child in advance what your expectations are," Wetherington says. For example: "This week, we're going to work on mealtimes. If you raise your voice, you will be taken away from the table." Stand firm on a single issue, and your child will learn that you've developed a backbone.
If you're a flip-flopper:
"Choose one issue and solemnly swear - out loud, to someone - that you will not change your mind," says discipline expert Betsy Brown Braun. If you start to feel like you're folding, remind yourself that children feel more secure when parents are consistent.
If you're too tough:
For every reprimand, challenge yourself to praise your child three times for good behavior. "If you pick and pick, it makes kids think they can't ever make you happy," Wetherington says. "Children need to learn that they can make mistakes and recover." So when you feel an excessive scolding coming on, ask yourself: Is this absolutely necessary?
If you and your spouse send different messages:
"Whichever parent starts the argument finishes it, and that 'no' wins," Brown Braun says. Couples need to see eye to eye on the big stuff, like whether it's okay to watch TV on a school night, but for smaller issues, agree to disagree.
Suzanne Schlosberg, a freelance writer living in Bend, OR, is coauthor of The Essential Breastfeeding Log.