Behavior Problems: Discipline That Works

Turn the frustration of behavior problems into teachable moments by understanding your child's behavior and the goals of discipline.



Behavior Problems: Discipline That Works

"What's this?" Jamie's father asked, as he pulled a large, green action figure out of her daypack. "It's mine," she answered emphatically. "I didn't ask you who it belongs to. I know it's not yours," her dad said, surprised to find his daughter in the midst of a lie. "Sam said I could borrow his Hulk." Jamie's dad realized that his daughter had not only lied — at least twice today — but may also have stolen.

It's pretty easy to tell when your preschooler lies. It's harder to know what to do with these kinds of behavior problems. The good news is that you do have choices if you can put aside your frustration and disappointment and recognize that discipline is a time for learning. The goal of discipline is to teach your child, over time, to value the basic rules that are necessary for getting along in the world and to develop the self-control to adhere to them — even when you're not present.

The 6 Steps of Discipline
Choosing the Right Discipline Method
Strategies to Avoid
Presenting a United Front

Behavior Problems: The Six Steps of Discipline
Fortunately, most disciplinary opportunities unfold in a reliable series of steps for both you and your child. The following will help you know what to expect when your child exhibits behavior problems, and help guide your decision in how to handle it — regardless of what your child has done.

1. Behavior problems. Your child breaks a rule or a value that's important to your family.

2. Discovery. If your child tells you what she did wrong, then you know she's already learned right from wrong. She now needs help learning to control her impulses and to fully understand the consequences of what she's done.

If you catch her in the act, you need to find out why. Was she too out of control to hide her behavior problems from you? Or did she need you to find out? 

If she hides what she's done, you also need to find out why. Does she know the consequences and fear them? Does she fear facing your disapproval and her own guilty feelings? Did she really think she could get away with it, or does she just need to be sure she's keeping you on your toes?

3. Confrontation. This is where your choices begin. You may need your own time-out to calm down. If you seem shocked, your child will be frightened by her own behavior and, in turn, have a harder time facing it. She won't be able to learn her lesson until she can. Often, you will need to soothe and settle your child before she can confront her own responsibility — her guilty feelings and your angry ones. If you bear down too hard or move in too soon, you're likely to hear, "But I didn't do it!"

Instead of saying, "How could you steal that toy? And lie to me on top of it?" you might offer your child a chance to explain. Ask, "Would you like to tell me what this is really all about?" If she lies or minimizes, you can insist, "Are you sure that's what happened? Is that really what you want me to think?"

If you think your child will lie before she can face the truth, you can help her by saying, "Look, we both know you took the toy. It's awfully tough to face it when you know you did something you shouldn't have."

4. Acknowledgment. Your child may fall back on denial, which can take the form of lying to avoid punishment and the fear and remorse that go with it. Now is the time to help your child address her feelings about the behavior problems and the consequences she is expecting. You can help her work through her emotions by saying, "It's brave to admit that you've done something wrong." Offer reassurance that the purpose of consequences is not to hurt her, but to help her learn how to stop herself from doing whatever it is again.

5. Consequences and reparations. The long-term goal is for your child to learn to consider the consequences of behavior problems before she acts, and to care enough to stop herself before she does. Consequences are most effective when they are closely tied to the misbehavior and are solutions to the problems the misbehavior has led to. For example, if your child steals a toy, she should call her friend to apologize and return the toy. She could also temporarily lend her friend a favorite toy, so that she can see what it feels like to part with a prized possession. 

Fair consequences focus on the lesson to be learned. Consequences that don't do this leave your child feeling distracted by her bitterness and confusion and will undermine her belief in your fairness and, eventually, in your authority.

6. Forgiveness. Your child will not learn from her mistakes unless she can also discover her potential for better behavior. If she has truly faced her mistake, she will need to be forgiven for it.

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Behavior Problems: Choosing the Right Discipline Method
Discipline strategies that work fit the behavior problems, your child's developmental stage, and his temperament. Understanding your child's temperament will help you predict your child's misbehaviors and guide your disciplinary style. An active, high-energy child, for example, is more likely to behave impulsively and lose control. He may need a more hands-on approach — such as a touch on his shoulders — to help settle him enough to pay attention to your limits. A quiet, sensitive child's transgressions may be more secretive. She may frighten herself with her behavior problems, and will be frightened by your disapproval. She'll need a quiet, reassuring approach.

How you respond depends partly, of course, on what your child has done. Some disciplinary methods work better than others. Here are some common situations and successful strategies to try:

  • Physical Intervention
    When to use: When your child's safety is at stake, you have no choice but to pluck him out of harm's way. This is especially important for young children who are not yet able to assess danger, cannot control impulses, or respond to your spoken demands.

    The goal: First, your child's safety. Then, teaching your child good judgment through the conversation that ensues once the child is safe: "You can't cross the street unless you're holding my hand. A car could hit you and hurt you very badly," or "Don't touch the knives. They're very sharp and could cut you."
  • Time-outs 
    When to use: When your child loses control. 

    The goal: Offering your worked-up child a chance to collect herself, and then, to think over what she has done. How you use a time-out is important. If a time-out is presented as a blanket punishment rather than as a self-calming ritual, it is less effective. Screeching, "Go to your room! You're in a time-out!" to an out-of-control child is bound to make her more frantic. Try saying, "We're both pretty upset right now. I think we each need some time by ourselves to calm down before we're ready to talk this over." Once the child is calm, you can tell her about other consequences if her misbehavior demands them.
  • Taking Away Toys
    When to use: When your child intentionally breaks a toy, uses one to hit someone, or fails to put it away. You can start this sometime after your child is a year old, but be sure he is able to think about the toy even when it is out of sight (object permanence), and that he can make the connection between his behavior problems and the toy's disappearance (causality). Don't expect him to change his behavior right away, though.

    The goal: This is a great way to help your child learn that his behavior has consequences: "If you can't put away your toys, I'm going to put them in my closet. We can't have them lying on the floor — someone might trip." Be sure to tell your child how long the toy will be off-limits and what he needs to do to earn it back. Otherwise, he may stop caring and give up, and your chance to help him learn will be lost.

When you focus on the important goals of discipline, your child will learn, over time, that it is second only to love. Remember the power of forgiveness: A child who believes that she is bad is bound to keep acting this way. Your child needs to believe in the possibility of behaving better in the future. Perhaps the most powerful disciplinary strategy of all is a physical one after all: a hug.

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Behavior Problems: Strategies to Avoid
When you take away something from a child as a punishment, you run the risk of making it seem more special. Food should not be used as a punishment or a reward. It is a symbol of nurturing, necessary for survival, and is best left unburdened by emotions that punishment and reward call up. When dessert is withheld, you send the message that the rest of the meal is less important — clearly, not what you want to suggest. 

The same goes for TV. With the exception of commercial-free, high-quality children's programming, television is rarely special. If you can clearly make the connection between a TV ban and the misbehavior, it can be used sparingly: "I told you to turn the TV off three times, and you couldn't get yourself to stop. There'll be no more TV tonight, and none tomorrow. It's too hard for you to listen when the TV is on."

A few words on spanking: When parents spank, it's usually because they lost control themselves. Supporters of spanking might say that it does stop a child's unwanted behavior. Sure it does. But so would any painful or aversive technique. It is a form of behavioral conditioning. If your goal is to teach your child to give in to people who are more powerful — powerful enough to hurt her — this method may appeal to you. But if your goal is to teach your child to know right from wrong, and to care about what's right for its own sake, spanking won't work. How could any child understand if you say, "Don't hit," but then hit her? 

Some parents who were spanked as children say, "I was spanked and I turned out alright." But was this because they were spanked or in spite of it? Sometimes, they'll say, "I was bad and I needed it." These parents' lives are often scarred by the sense of their own badness that they grew up with. Others say, "I don't remember why I was spanked. I do remember how much it hurt, how angry it made me, how much I wanted to get back at my parents." Perhaps it did stop the bad behavior momentarily, but what did spanking teach them? If discipline is teaching, spanking is not discipline.

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Behavior Problems: Presenting a United Front
Conflict over rules and consequences among the adults in your child's life can cause misbehavior. When a parent disagrees with another parent, a grandparent, a caregiver, or a teacher, a child is bound to be confused. The solution for the child is usually more bad behavior to find out which adult is right, or who is more powerful. 

Unfortunately, parental differences often arise in the midst of a crisis, so working to create a unified approach to discipline is key. These suggestions can help you meet the challenge:

  • Identify the behavior problems  that are likely to occur during your child's current developmental stage. Decide together how you'll handle these situations when they crop up. Be prepared to compromise, and stick to your agreements.
  • If your child misbehaves in front of both of you, make eye contact with each other before responding to your child. If you're not sure that you agree, tell your child to go to his room so that you can discuss the matter. Some children can comply with this as early as age 3, when they're not completely out of control. Young children, though, may be scared that you'll abandon them when you are angry, so be sure your child knows you will be coming back to get him. The trick is to buy time.
  • Do not disagree with each other in your child's presence. If you don't approve of how your partner handled a situation, talk it over in private. When your child knows that you take discipline seriously enough to work on it as a team, he, too, will take it seriously.

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