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Easy Ways to Get Your Child to Behave—and Want To

On any given day you've probably had two or three showdowns with your child over everything from brushing her teeth to getting in the car seat—all before lunch. But contrary to how things may seem, most kids like to behave in a manner that makes them (and you) proud—at least most of the time. The best way to get there: Help your child feel as if you and she are on the same team. These six strategies show you how.

Build stronger bonds

If you want your child to be more cooperative, change your focus from improving him to improving your relationship. When you dwell on the ways he's misbehaving, it just discourages both of you—you feel like a bad mom, and he feels as if he can't do anything right. Besides, all that energy you're using to correct him could be channeled into something more uplifting and effective. So try to give him positive feedback several times a day—a specific compliment on something you see him doing ("You're choosing such great colors to draw your picture," or "I really like the gentle way you played with your baby sister"). And don't forget to spend some time with your child each day, doing something he enjoys.

Be a booster

After having fed, diapered, dressed and done just about everything for your baby, it's hard to step back when she's older and let her do things herself (especially when you're in a rush). But micromanaging her life—from telling her exactly what to wear to opening her juice boxes—just sends the message that you're not confident about her abilities. So whenever you can, let her accomplish as many small tasks as possible.

And as much as you'd like to help, it's better for her to resolve some squabbles with her playmates or siblings on her own. You can encourage her to do this with a couple of simple sentences that state the problem and provide a resolution: "I understand you're angry, and I know you can use your words instead of screaming at your friend."

Sympathy Works

Stay cool

We've all been there. You tell your toddler it's time to turn off the TV, and he screams, "No!" Then you probably dig in your heels and find yourself in a shouting match.

But as you've already discovered, power struggles don't promote cooperation. They only make each of you angrier and teach your child to resist you even more.

The key is to control yourself. Maintaining your composure instead of showing your frustration lets your out-of-control child "borrow" some of your calmness. How can you do this? Label his intense feelings without judging them: "I can see you're really mad now." Then state the unacceptable behavior and give him a better alternative: "Kicking your truck isn't right. You can tell me you're angry without hurting things." If your older child likes to argue, look for something you can agree with: "That's true—it's more fun to play computer games than it is to do homework."

Remember, it takes two to keep a power struggle going. When my kids were younger, I often found that if I dropped my end of the rope in our tug-of-war (even though it pained me to do so!), they'd eventually stop resisting me, give up the battle, and concentrate instead on their behavior and how they could change it.

Try a little empathy

As busy moms, our expectations are often, naturally, self-centered: We need everyone's cooperation to get out of the house on time; we finally got the baby to nap and want our firstborn to play quietly. But it's important to examine your expectations from your child's point of view—for instance, she feels pressured when you rush through the morning routine, which prompts her to dawdle. Or everything seems to revolve around the new baby's needs, and your toddler was having fun banging on the piano.

When you notice and accept your child's feelings, it helps her handle the limits placed on her. And it takes only a few extra seconds. Instead of snapping, "We've got to leave right now or your sister's going to be late for school!" you can say, "I know it's hard to get up so early to take your sister to school. If you want, you can come in your pajamas."

And as annoying as it is, learn to tolerate a certain amount of grumbling, as long as it isn't disrespectful. Your child's "I don't want to go to bed!" lets her vent her feelings. She's also trying to distract you; if you answer her, you'll trigger a debate, which is the last thing you want. Either ignore the comment or say something understanding: "I know you wish you could keep playing with your dollhouse, but I'm afraid it's bedtime already."

It also helps to show you've heard what she said and you empathize with her ("You're sad that your friend has gone home. It's been fun having someone come over to play").

Between "You" and "I"

Blame the house

Such emotionally charged accusations as "Don't ever let me hear you call your brother that again!" are more likely to provoke resistance than matter-of-fact comments like "Name-calling isn't acceptable; our house rule says we treat everyone with respect." It's easier to get angry with a parent who's perceived as overly controlling than to do battle with an impersonal house rule.

In the same spirit, making simple observations and nonjudgmental statements about bedtime or cleanup will probably make it easier for kids to comply with the rules. Instead of saying, for example, "Your room is such a mess," try, "There are toys on the floor."

Use your "I"

Kids learn early on to tune out their parents' endless "no's" and nagging. So if your requests and commands aren't producing results, reframe them. Using "I" statements, tell your toddler what his actions do to you: "I get upset when I see you throwing food because I have to clean up the mess." (Just try not to whine when you say this!)

When you give a warning, continue to emphasize what you'll do: "I'll take away your plate if you throw your food again," and then follow through so it's not an idle threat.

As you focus on your own actions instead of harping on your child's behavior, you'll feel more in control and so will he. He'll begin to see the connection between his actions and their consequences.

Of course, no discipline strategy can make kids behave perfectly all the time. But if you and your child are caught in a bad cycle, sometimes all it takes is a change in your behavior to bring out the best in his.

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