Before I became a mom, I was one of those smug morons who shoot parents the evil eye when their children--"hellions" was my term--jump on a sofa or have a nuclear meltdown at Target. I actually thought discipline was a matter of just saying "No!"
Now? I have twin toddlers who fling their sippy cups across the table, flip over their dinner plates, and then, for good measure, applaud their performance. Um, I get it.
What I don't get: how to stop the shenanigans. If I react--either with that firm "No!" I used to espouse or a calm "Boys, that is not how we behave in this household"--my tykes seem to lap up the attention and toss their cups farther. But ignoring the behavior doesn't help, either.
What parent can't relate? Lovable as they are, our little ones often do things that we swore no offspring of ours would ever do--leaving us incensed, exhausted, mortified, and baffled.
We're not going to promise we have the answers that will turn your child into a compliant, well-behaved kid who never whines or throws stuff (wouldn't that be awesome?). The truth is, toddlers and preschoolers are supposed to be rebellious. Saying no, testing limits, and tearing through the house like Tasmanian devils is their job. It's part of how they learn about themselves and their place in the world. The good news: Most of their naughty behavior is stuff they'll outgrow. While your discipline efforts now may seem in vain, you're teaching your child important lessons for the future.
For help in the meantime, we rounded up some of your most exasperating discipline dilemmas and enlisted experts to weigh in with the best tricks to try, both for on-the-spot bomb defusing and changing the behavior for good.
Q: Sometimes when I try to give my 2 1/2-year-old a timeout, he refuses to do it and just continues to misbehave. How can I get him to comply?
A: "A child of two and a half is extremely impulsive, and he wants what he wants," Notes Noël Janis-Norton, director of the Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting program, based in Pasadena, CA. So it's no surprise that he'll often resist time-outs. If you sense that issuing one will only worsen the situation (they can make some kids even more defiant, says Alan Kazdin, Ph.D., director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic), try another tactic. Is there a more natural consequence he could face? If he's banging his truck against the wall, for example, calmly take the truck away and say "Oh bummer, you can't play with the truck if you're going to bang it." Plus, kids can become desensitized to punishments, so if you find yourself defaulting to many time-outs a day, they're probably no longer very effective. He may just need a break--let him look at books or play with a toy in his room until he's calmed down enough for you to at least talk to him. Then arrange your child's environment so it's easier for him to behave, suggests Janis-Norton. Say he keeps knocking books off a shelf. Move the books somewhere else until he has better impulse control.
But the best way to avoid the whole time-out test of wills in the first place? Offer praise--lots of it--for good behavior. Toddlers comply about 80 percent of the time, Kazdin says, but parents tend not to notice. "We're hardwired to pick up on negative things, but we let compliance go by the wayside." When your son plays gently with his toys or follows through on a request, Kazdin advises, pat his shoulder (touch is a key element of effective praise) and specify what he did right. If you praise compliance in even the most minor instances, Kazdin says, "it spreads to the difficult ones." It's even important, he notes, to praise a child for going to time-out.