As a father of three, I know how challenging it can be to discipline a child. Skirmishes with a youngster who talks back or throws a tantrum in the middle of a crowded supermarket can leave otherwise confident parents feeling frustrated and desperate, grasping for the right words or tactics to get their child in line.
The good news: There are strategies you can use to take control and keep your cool during bouts of bad behavior -- even when you're faced with these five tough discipline problems.
Lawrence Balter, Ph.D., is a professor of applied psychology at New York University and the author of several books on parenting.
Whining is something almost all young children do, especially before they're old enough to talk well, because it's one of the only ways they can express frustration and anger when they don't get what they want. No matter how irritating it may be, parents need to understand that little whiners aren't just trying to get a reaction (though that's a big part of it, and one reason even grade-schoolers whine when they don't get their way). Whining, like thumb sucking, is also a self-soothing activity: Little kids feel better when they make those sounds because it allows them to release their feelings.
HOW TO HANDLE
When a toddler starts to whine, ask him to repeat what he's saying in a variety of ways -- first in a whisper, then slowly, then very fast, and so on; this game may distract him from whatever he was whining about in the first place.
With a preschooler, you can set some ground rules. As soon as your child begins to whine, interrupt immediately and say calmly, "You're whining. I don't like to hear it, so please talk to me in a regular voice." If he continues, repeat your request. If he changes his tone, compliment him by saying something such as "I liked the way you told me what you want without whining." (Similarly, take the emotion out of your own voice. No matter how tempted you may be to snap, "Stop it, you're driving me crazy," keep in mind that reining in your own reactions will help you better communicate what you want to your child.) Then let him know you understand why he's upset and negotiate a compromise. For example, if he's unhappy because you've told him he can't eat a cookie until after lunch, put it somewhere nearby where he can keep an eye on it, and promise him that he can have it after he finishes his meal.
By listening to your child and praising him when he uses a strong and clear voice, you'll teach him that explaining what he wants without whining will get him much further.
Tantrums can be unnerving for parents, not only because they often involve public scenes but also because they represent a loss of control over the child and the situation. Fortunately, tantrums become less frequent as children reach grade-school age and learn better ways to deal with frustration.
HOW TO HANDLE
The trick to curtailing tantrums is to nip them in the bud. Reacting with alarm or anger, or giving in to a child who's throwing a fit, will teach her that a tantrum is an effective means of getting what she wants. Instead, say, "When you stop crying we'll talk about it and see what can be done," and walk into the next room. (If your child is too young to be left alone, stay with her. It's okay to hold her if she comes to you, but don't respond to what she wants until she calms down.) Do something, such as leafing through a magazine or opening the mail, to let her know she won't get your attention until she's calm. In most cases, tantrums stop much more quickly in the absence of an interested audience.
If you're in a public place, ignore any glares you get and take your child to a private corner to wait for her to calm down. Say, "I'll sit down with you until you stop screaming." If she doesn't stop crying or screaming after three or four minutes, take your child and leave.
Tantrums aren't always predictable. Kids throw them for all sorts of reasons -- they didn't get something they wanted, they're having trouble mastering a task, they're just tired. Even so, you can head off some outbursts by avoiding circumstances that might lead to one. If you see your preschooler trying to work out a puzzle that she saw her 10-year-old sister whiz through, for instance, help her with it or steer her attention to a game that's more appropriate for her age.
And don't expect more from your child than she can handle. For example, very young children can't amuse themselves for extended periods of time and are likely to get cranky, so avoid taking a toddler or preschooler to the supermarket or bank during busy times, when you'll have to stand in long lines. If you must take her somewhere where you know she'll have to wait, bring along some favorite toys or snacks as diversions.
A father told me recently about a typical tussle between his two young sons. Shortly after he had settled his 4- and 6-year-old boys into the car and pulled away from the curb, he heard a bloodcurdling shriek from the backseat. When he asked what was wrong, one of the boys shouted, "Tell him to stop. He's breathing my air!"
Sibling rivalry is a natural response to having a constant competitor for parental time and affection. But when it goes unchecked, it can get in the way of a loving sibling relationship and spoil the fun that brothers and sisters would otherwise have together.
HOW TO HANDLE
The best way to get sparring siblings to call a truce is to first separate them for as long as it takes them to cool down. But don't try to decide who's right and who's wrong unless you've actually witnessed one of the children hit a brother or sister or deliberately provoke a fight (in which case you should take appropriate disciplinary action for that behavior). Otherwise, you risk playing favorites or being drawn into the squabble.
In all likelihood, you won't be able to completely eliminate sibling rivalry, but you can work at limiting its intensity. Emphasize to your children the importance of looking out for one another's interests. Teach them to respect each other's personal property and to not borrow something from a brother or sister without permission. Never compare siblings with one another, and establish rules for situations that commonly provoke disagreements: Work out in advance who will sit where in the car, whose favorite TV program they'll watch and when, and so on.
You remind your preschooler to brush his teeth and hop into bed for a story before sleep. Twenty minutes later, you find him dunking toy cars in the sink.
Sound familiar? Part of the problem is that young children experience the passage of time quite differently from adults. When they're engrossed in something, they almost believe the clock will stand still until they complete that activity. But dawdling doesn't end when kids learn how to tell time. Older kids may still need a reminder from Mom or Dad that they're running late.
HOW TO HANDLE
Don't say a word about what you're doing as you lead your toddler from one activity to another. At night, for example, rather than mention bedtime, engage your child in a conversation about something that happened during the day. He'll be so engrossed in the talk, he'll hardly notice that he's out of the bathtub and into his pajamas.
Another tactic: Since the concept of time for preschoolers is often tied to activities, such as juice time, nap time, and bath time, you can motivate a child to keep up the momentum by letting him know what's next on the agenda. Try saying, "Let's get you into your pajamas right now so we can pick a book to read." You can also make a game out of an activity. For instance, say, "Let's see if you can pick up all your toys by the time I count to fifty," or announce breathlessly, "I'm running really late for my appointment and I need your help," and ask him to carry your briefcase to the door, fetch your umbrella, or get his lunch box out of the fridge.
If this ploy leaves your school-age dawdler unimpressed, take a harder line. Hold his hand, lead him downstairs, put on his coat, and deliver him to the school bus with hair uncombed and a piece of fruit and a small box of cereal for breakfast to eat on the way. Eventually, this will teach your child that no matter how much he resists, some things, like meeting the school bus on time, are not negotiable.
Remove distractions. If the TV is off, the cat's not in his room, and his toys are put away, he's more likely to concentrate on the task at hand. Clearly state what you expect him to do, and be sure your child has everything he needs to accomplish the task. If you want him to brush his teeth, put the toothbrush, toothpaste, and cup of water within easy reach.
Another way to prevent dawdling is to lay out your child's clothes and backpack the night before. Not only will you avoid waiting 15 minutes for your child to pick out the outfit he wants to wear, but you will also cut down on the morning rush. It's also a good idea to establish a routine -- a bath, then a snack, then brushing teeth, followed by a story before bed, for example, or combing his hair, getting dressed, and making his bed before coming down to breakfast.
Starting at the age of 2, your child will begin testing authority, and one way she does this is by talking back to adults. Declaring "Don't want to!" or "No!" is a child's way of saying she's tired of taking orders and that she wants more independence.
HOW TO HANDLE
This is a tricky issue because you don't want to squelch your child's first steps toward autonomy, nor do you want to sanction rudeness. In a serious tone say, "I don't want you to talk that way to me. If you disagree with me that's okay, but you'll have to do it in a polite way." Give her some examples of acceptable forms of protest, such as "I have another idea" or "I disagree." Make it clear that she'll lose a privilege the next time she talks to you rudely, and as with all disciplinary tactics, be consistent in your enforcement. Don't allow rudeness to go unchecked on one day and then react vigorously the next.
By giving your child your attention and responding to her opinion when she disagrees with you politely, you'll show her that you value her thoughts and that it's okay for her to think differently from you.
An important tip: Be aware of your own communication style. If you express your disagreement with others by using snide comments and sarcasm, you can expect your child to do the same.
As your child develops more self-control and learns to express her needs and frustrations in constructive ways, tantrums, whining, and other negative behavior will become much less of a problem. And by teaching her that it's okay to tell you what she thinks and feels, you'll build strong communication skills that will be helpful as your child approaches adolescence -- a stage that will be fraught with its own set of discipline challenges.