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.
Q: My 3 1/2-year-old protests loudly at bedtime, then repeatedly comes out with some excuse (she needs water, has to pee, or wants more stories). How can I stop this?
A: Establish a consistent bedtime routine: bath, two stories, two songs, etc. "Most kids don't have enough rhythm and ritual around bedtime," says Kim John Payne, author of Simplicity Parenting. "When they have the same routine every night, it's like soul balm."
Once she's in bed, tell her: "You don't have to sleep. Just close your eyes." Insisting that she sleep may make her anxious. If she comes out, lead her back without carrying her or even looking at her, and use what Payne calls the "broken-record response." Say "Here's Jen again. Let's go back to bed." "A flat-line response gives her no emotional oxygen. If you try to think of something clever to say and you're angry, then she's won," Payne says.
If she screams after you leave, repeat something like "Shh, everything's okay" from the door, Payne advises. "It's boring but calming. After a while, she'll stop because there's nothing in it for her." It could take several horrific days, though, so stay strong!
You could also try a reward system: Put a sticker on a chart every night she goes to bed quietly. After five stars, she gets a small gift. Just be warned that charts don't work for all tykes. Some kids realize they can raise the stakes and demand better rewards.
Q: Help! My 4-year-old daughter has such a hot temper that I've spoiled her rotten. If she doesn't get a toy when we go out, she can cry for an entire day!
A: Before you go shopping the next time, lay out your expectations. For example: "We are going to buy cousin Joey a train for his birthday. We're not buying anything for you, me, or Dad." When she starts yelling in the store, say "I know you really like it. Let's remember to put this on your birthday list. Today we're only buying a toy for Joey." It's important to acknowledge the child's desire, says Betsy Brown Braun, author of Just Tell Me What to Say: Tips and Scripts for Perplexed Parents, but "gently remind her she's not getting anything." Bring along another toy from home or play an I Spy game at the store (Can she spot a boy with a dinosaur on his shirt? A woman with a blue hat?) to distract her.
What if she goes ballistic? Either say, peacefully, "This behavior is unacceptable and we're leaving the store," or take a deep breath and let her melt down. Some kids are just more hottempered than others, and there's little you can do to cool them down once they're heated up. If you attract an audience, just shrug your shoulders and say "Being four isn't easy!" Then get your gift as quickly as you can, scoop her up if she won't walk on her own, and head for the parking lot.
Later, when it's all over, revisit what happened. Tell your daughter "That was really a big fuss. It's okay to be disappointed, but you still didn't get the doll. Sometimes you don't get what you want." The next time you visit a grocery or drugstore, praise her for not throwing a fit: "Wow, we just went shopping and you didn't whine the entire time!" Your little want-it-all may ease up on the Veruca Salt antics over time.
Q: My 2- and 3 1/2-year-old boys fight constantly. They hit and grab and scream at the top of their lungs. What should I do?
A: Try not to pull them apart unless you feel one of them is going to get hurt, says Kazdin. "As much as possible, don't interfere. Separating children doesn't teach them conflict resolution." Besides, aggression is natural between siblings, and though the screams suggest otherwise, your boys may enjoy the sparring. "It's a dance," Kazdin says, "and they both know the steps."
If they don't resolve things on their own, though, and the fighting escalates, step in. If they're arguing over a toy, take it away for 20 minutes. Avoid the temptation to scold your older son, on the theory that he should know better, unless you know for sure he's the only one to blame. "No matter how old kids are, it's natural for them to compete with their siblings," says Kazdin.
Later, take the opportunity to teach your boys about emotions (namely, anger and frustration!) and tell them how you calm down when you're upset, whether it's by taking deep breaths or lying on your bed for a few minutes.
When you can, try to give your kids some one-on-one time so they don't always feel like they have to vie for your attention. Siblings tend to get along better after they have time apart.