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Conquer the Top 5 Discipline Issues from Toddler to Tween Like a Pro

If there's one thing I can rely on from my closest girlfriends, and them from me, it's honesty regarding our kids' bad behavior. Some of us are just getting a taste of it with our walking, talking toddlers, while others are fully versed and bracing themselves for the approaching tween years. Together, our children run the gamut of behavioral issues, from mealtime meltdowns to all-day attitude. However, none of us have tried-and-true answers for how to apply discipline that works every time.

The important thing for parents to know, says Sara Au, journalist and co-author of "Stress-Free Discipline," is "things are okay." She tells that it doesn't matter if your kids are "behaving badly from time to time or even more often, most problem behavior is completely normal." Her co-author, Dr. Peter Stavinoha, pediatric psychologist affirms, "Many, many parents are facing very similar challenges, and these don't mean you have a bad kid or you're being a bad parent."

Dr. Pete says a common mistake we parents make is paying more attention to our children when they misbehave than when they behave. In doing so, we set up a dynamic and miss an opportunity to promote positive behavior, which will make it more likely that kind of behavior occurs in the future.

If you have a child in the toddler to early tween years, ages 2 to 11, you may be dealing with one or even all of the following five problem-behavior areas. Our experts offer their strategies for successfully managing them:

1. Mealtime

Mealtime brings a myriad of problems and stress for families. To manage mealtime behavioral issues, Dr. Pete and Sara advise parents to prevent problems before they begin: "Peaceful meals begin with good preparation."

For example, if your toddler, like mine, is concerned about what's on TV, or your tween can't put down his cell phone, the book recommends managing these distractions while you eat. This means turning off the TV, implementing a "no screens at the table" rule, and taking action against other types of noise-creating problems that keep you from bonding. More importantly, as parents, be good role models and follow your own mealtime rules.

Sometimes bad behavior pops up when your child is simply hungry, so the authors suggest occupying your kids by involving them in meal prep. It will give them a sense of responsibility and an investment in the activity of mealtime. For example, your 2- to 6-year-olds can get out silverware or put condiments on the table; your 7- to 9-year-olds can set the table or mix ingredients; and your 10- to 11-year-olds can cut up vegetables with supervision or pour beverages. The important thing is to assign them something they're capable of doing in order to avoid failure.

For other mealtime issues you can't overlook, implement rules and coach your children to keep them on track. Dr. Pete says it's important to never assume your kids know what to do; be clear on expectations. Then, when your child behaves favorably during the meal, praise her to increase the odds that she'll repeat the behavior.

2. Tantrums

When tantrums strike, they bring loads of stress to everyone around. Dr. Pete says the key is to remember kids throw tantrums because they're learning how to properly process their anger. When children ages 2 to 6 throw tantrums, they're unable to correctly apply words to their feelings. At ages 7 to 9, it's when they face new pressures; and at ages 10 to 11, it's when they're confused about their feelings but prefer the guidance of their friends.

Dr. Pete says it's up to us to teach them how to talk about their anger, rather than lashing out verbally or physically, which will take time and constant repetition. To get through this process without anger and without submission, he recommends that you:

  1. Don't try to reason with your child during the outburst, since he or she is in no frame of mind to listen to logic or reason.
  2. Don't threaten punishment because it will only make it worse.
  3. Name and validate your child's emotion, which teaches kids to communicate what they're feeling and lets them know anger is not bad.
  4. Let the tantrum run its course. Stay near young children but send older kids to their room until they've calmed down.

Once your child is calm, Dr. Pete says, "Let bygones be bygones and return to the positive relationship. Have a quick conversation to reaffirm that there is nothing wrong or bad about feeling angry, and make a short request that the child talk about these feelings instead of having a tantrum."

3. Bedtime

Sleep plays such a critical role in our kid's development and behavior. That's why it's recommended that children ages 5 to 12 get 10 to 11 hours of sleep per night. That makes bedtime even more important—and more stressful when bad behavior rears its ugly head.

Dr. Pete says kids will try all kinds of tactics to get out of going to bed or staying in bed, and they need a consistent response from parents to learn boundaries and make it less likely they'll test them again. For example, if your child is getting out of bed, simply lead him back each time. If your child is calling out for you, simply respond, "I love you, it's time to go to sleep now." Dr. Pete and Sara call this the "disengaging strategy," and it requires you to stay calm and have as little reaction as possible in order to maintain a peaceful environment conducive for sleeping.

Consistency is also key during the bedtime routine. According to Sara, kids thrive on a schedule, so when bedtime is consistent, it's going to reduce a lot of the stress the family may be feeling. To help children who venture off track, she suggests redirecting their focus to the next task in the routine by using "when/then" statements, such as "When you're done putting on your pajamas, then we'll pick out a book to read."

Finally, parents are urged to act as good role models by winding down near bedtime, too. Sara says being quiet, even though you might not actually be asleep or even lying in your bed, will set the tone and encourage your child's sleep.

4. Homework

When you consider the excessive amount of homework that is required of children—and at a young age—it's no wonder homework tops the list of problem-behavior areas. According to Sara, it's often "a source of strife," with children either not wanting to do the work or becoming frustrated with the work itself. She says that's why kids need to have a disciplined mindset to do homework. To help shape this mindset, Dr. Pete says we must think as the child thinks and help them understand what expectations are and come up with strategies to help get them through it in order to build the habit of homework.

On top of helping our kids to be organized and establishing a routine, the authors suggest using positive reinforcement to make it more likely your children will successfully complete their homework. But they also acknowledge the need for negative consequences when some students seem to need to learn the importance of homework the hard way. They suggest comparing homework to an activity important to your child, like soccer or cheerleading practice. If they don't do one first, then they can't do the other.

Finally, Dr. Pete reminds us kids would rather be doing so many other things, which really makes role-modeling important. This means, when it's time for homework, parents should also engage in some sort of quiet work, like paying bills or reading a book, to demonstrate this is a valued behavior in your family and to minimize distractions for your child.

5. Attitude

Children seem to be growing up more quickly and exhibiting attitude earlier than ever before, which means this problem-behavior has the ability to test our patience above any other. However, as Sara believes, your kids might be driving you crazy, but they're not trying to on purpose. She says their attitude may be a result of freedom, fears, stress or other factors—not actually their disapproval of us as parents.

The first step you can take to keep your sanity is to decide which of your child's behaviors you can't or won't accept. Knowing this up front is important, because the authors say, "We can't intervene for every little thing or we'll exhaust ourselves and end up parenting in an inconsistent manner." For example, while you and your partner may be willing to overlook your kid's eye rolling, backtalk may not be tolerated in your family and will require a reaction on your part.

Obviously, ignoring your child's disrespectful behavior may be hard to do, but consider its ability to work to your benefit. The authors call it the "disengaging strategy" and use it as reverse-psychology: "Not giving any attention to a behavior makes it less likely that the behavior is repeated."

When you need to address the behaviors you can't tolerate, Sara and Dr. Pete recommend finding something that is meaningful to your child and using it as leverage to ultimately achieve the behavior you desire.