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Tailoring Discipline to Your Kid's Personality

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You wouldn't send your pre-schooler to soccer in his dad's size-13 sneakers, would you? Of course not—talk about mismatches! Yet when it comes to discipline, we rarely tailor our approach to our child's temperament. Whether our kid's shy or brash, a great arguer or a genius at covering his tracks, we respond the exact same way when he's out of line, then wonder why nothing changes.

There are legit reasons to assess your child's personality and fine-tune your repertoire. First off, it's for your little one's own good: A recent study at the University of Washington, Seattle found that when you match your parenting style to your child's temperament, his risk of anxiety and depression is halved. And wouldn't it be awesome not to have to keep repeating yourself over and over? And over? OK, maybe you'll still have to with your partner. But your kid? Pick the way he pushes your buttons from our list, based on what experts say are some of parents' most common frustrations. Then dig in for ideas that may actually get your child to listen.

Your Challenge: Clown Control

Is your kid a cutup? You know, the one who's always sticking up two fingers behind his sister's head just before the camera snaps (family photo, take 17…argh!). Jonah Dalton, 4, of Salt Lake City, fits the bill: “He's like our yellow Lab puppy—high-energy,” says his mom, Kathy.

In the MOMENT: Your first instinct may be to shout “Knock it off!” but you'll get better results if you're more specific, says Louis Lichtman, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Alfred University, in New York. “Your child may not understand the impact of his behavior,” he says. Take him aside, give him a moment to calm down, then explain the problem (“When you make devil's ears behind your sister, the picture is ruined and we have to do it all over again”). If he shapes up promptly, fine. If not, Lichtman recommends a brief time-out. If he's verbal enough, have him recap what he did wrong and what he'll do differently going forward. If he can't, explain it again.

For the FUTURE: Find ways to channel your child's exuberance. Dalton always tries to give Jonah a little extra running-around time before church or preschool: “It helps him get his wiggles out,” she says. She also sets clear expectations before they go into more formal situations, like family gatherings (“You can run in Aunt Sandy's backyard but not inside the house, where it will be crowded”). “If I catch him about to do something he shouldn't, I say ‘Now Jonah, you're about to do X. Is that really what you want to do?’ That's usually enough to get him to reconsider.” But don't stifle that fun-loving personality, adds Laurie A. Couture, parenting coach and author of Instead of Medicating and Punishing. When taking a family portrait, for instance, say to everybody, “OK, we're going to take a few serious photos, then some silly ones.” Your child will try a little harder to hang in, knowing the fun stuff is coming. And who knows, Couture adds, “five years from now, the silly picture may be your favorite.”

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