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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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{C}Your Challenge: Energy Conservation

Is your child an Aries? No, not the astrological sign—a kid like Aries Adams, 4, of New York City, who's always on the go: “She's the first kid to leap into the fray,” her mom, Alina, says. When she gives her parents grief, it's usually because she's done something impulsive—say, run over to touch a fragile object or climbed up on something she shouldn't.

In the MOMENT: How do you discipline an intrepid kid? The classic time-out's a good option: She needs to take a breather (about one minute per year of age, so four or five minutes in this case) to think over why she shouldn't have done it—with a little help from you, if necessary. It would also be appropriate to revoke a related privilege: If she was running with your iPad in her hand, maybe she doesn't get to use it for the rest of the day.

For the FUTURE: Kerry Kelly Novick, a psychoanalyst in Ann Arbor, MI, and the coauthor of Emotional Muscle: Strong Parents, Strong Children, recommends helping your child develop what she calls an internal traffic light. “When you're out driving, explain how traffic lights work—that green means go, yellow means slow down, and red's a signal to stop,” she says. “Then talk about how it's smart to check in with the traffic light inside yourself before running to explore something. Is it a green-light situation—you're at a kiddie gym class where all the toys are for everyone—or is it a yellow-light situation—you're at a new friend's house and would like to pick some flowers in her yard, but you're not sure how the mom would feel? In that case, maybe you should talk to the mom.” When you catch your kid exercising her “yellow light” by checking in with you or another adult about something, praise her to encourage it going forward.

Your Challenge: Halting the Hitting

Some little kids, when they're frustrated, can't fight the urge to reach out and touch someone—hard. “My five-year-old daughter, Sydney, recently punched a pal because the girl had a toy and didn't want to give it to her,” says her mom, Kate Burch, of Norman, OK. “She's also punched her sister because she wasn't doing what Sydney wanted when they were playing together.”

In the MOMENT: Watching your kid go all Kung Fu Panda is enough to make your own blood boil, but never answer violence with violence, even just a swat on the butt, Couture insists. “Kids learn from imitation, so that will only make her more apt to act out physically in the future,” she explains. Instead, first comfort the victim, together. You might say “Ouch! That must have hurt!” Then ask your child to help you address the injuries: She can get an ice pack, for example, or go get a toy that can help her friend feel better while you apply a bandage.

The idea here is to build empathy and give your mini-Mike Tyson a close-up look at how her punching bag is suffering. Shari Medini of Lancaster, PA, follows up with a stern “We do not hit” when her 18-month-old, Matteo, lashes out. You can also talk things through when she's calmer. “Sydney and I talk about whether she'd want someone to punch her if he was upset or frustrated. She now realizes she wouldn't,” says Burch.

For the FUTURE: Role-play to come up with phrases she can use to express herself instead of through hitting (“I'm angry!” “It's my turn now”) and talk about whom she can turn to for help, such as a parent or teacher, when she runs into a glitch with a pal. “We've come up with a bunch of things Sydney can do when she feels like punching someone,” says Burch. “Some are serious, like walk away and do something else or try to talk to the person, but others are silly—pretend the other kid is a clown or look out the window at the clouds. We haven't had any more hitting incidents since.”

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Shy kids misbehave just like any others—but you may have a harder time figuring out what to do about it. “People learn to tiptoe around them,” observes Couture. In fact, you may blame the wrong kid for the torn-up book if there's a more boisterous child around: “The quieter child is often upheld as ‘good,’” Couture says. Even once you've figured out your shy kid's the culprit, dealing with her can be tricky, since she can crumple at a discouraging word.

In the MOMENT: “It's easy to say ‘Gosh, she's so sad. I should just leave her alone,’” Couture agrees. But don't. “You need to have a dialogue all the more with a shy kid, or else she may learn she can use her timidity to get out of having to face the music when she misbehaves.” A time-out isn't generally the way to go, not with a child for whom alone time is often a relief. Instead, talk over what happened in a cozy way, like Cate O'Malley of Rockaway, NJ, does. “Madeline, my three-year-old, crumbles into tears at a raised voice,” she says. “So I usually put her on my lap and quietly explain the error of her ways, or I kneel down till we're eye to eye so she's less intimidated.” Try to find out why your child did what she did: Was she trying to get attention or fit in? If there's someone she needs to apologize to, help her do it, holding her hand or even saying some of the words for her.

For the FUTURE: Help her learn good ways to break the ice with a new pal or a playgroup—for instance, by showing them a toy she likes. And when guests come over, have her say hello, even if all she can do is wave and smile. “Shy kids can learn to use shyness as a form of rudeness they can get away with,” warns Couture. “Show your child she can't do that. It will also help her see that it's safe to be herself and comfortable around people.”

Your Challenge: Dethroning the King of Denial

When Shari McGuire of Maple Grove, MN, asked her 4-year-old, Trevor, who scribbled on the floor, he told a T. rex-size whopper: “He said, ‘The dinosaur across the street did it, Mommy!’” she laughs.

In the MOMENT: Hey, maybe someday your kid will become a lawyer worthy of his very own Grisham novel. And that's cool. What isn't cool is letting him off the hook with transparent, if hilarious, excuses. “You've got to let your child know that you have zero tolerance for lying,” says Lichtman. But that's not to say your response should be harsh, especially while your child's still so small. McGuire saves her smiles for private and, in the meantime, sets Trevor to correcting whatever he's done. (Better still, outline what the consequence will be next time.) As for the Jurassic juvenile delinquent? “I just tell Trevor that from now on, when the dinosaur across the street comes over, he can't let him misbehave,” McGuire says.

For the FUTURE: Watch your own reactions. If someone cuts you off, do you shout, then mutter for a half hour? If so, says Lichtman, you may have helped your King ascend the throne. “If a child thinks he'll get screamed at whenever he does something wrong, then he becomes motivated to lie and keep things secret,” he says. Learn to take the small stuff in stride and keep your composure. It's not easy, but the payoff's totally there.

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