What’s a Parent to Do?
Discipline is, in its broader sense, the shaping of behavior through consequences. More than just punishment (negative consequences for bad behavior), discipline has positive elements as well. We hear a lot about the use of time-outs for unacceptable acts, but not as much about the use of time-ins (extra hugs or praise of time with a parent for a job well done). Good discipline includes both, with extra generous doses of time-ins.
Following are some general guidelines for effective discipline:
- Model good behavior:
Children learn by our example, especially as they get older. Beginning in their early years, we should model the control, honesty, and fairness that we hope and expect from them.
- Set good expectations: Expectations for our children should be realistic and age-appropriate, with rules set accordingly. A toddler can't be expected to make a perfect bed, but she can help put her toys away.
- Establish rules: Rules should be built slowly, with priority given to the ones that keep children safe and healthy. Tooth-brushing each night and learning how to deal with strangers are more important than spotless table manners.
- Be consistent and supportive: All caretakers for a given family need to be consistent in upholding the rules of the household. Grandma does no one any favors in the long run when she sneaks your toddler forbidden bedtime candy.
- Eliminate temptation: Temptation (to do wrong) should be minimized by ensuring that the environment is safe and child-friendly. By controlling your child’s environment, you’re setting the stage for a well-behaved child.
- Practice flexibility and compassion: Flexibility and compassion are needed with toddlers in general but especially when a child is sick, tired, hungry, or stressed. Remember, she can’t tell you what is bothering her and may be acting out as a result.
- Avoid tantrums of your own: Corporal punishment, adult bullying, and intimidation are adult temper tantrums. This behavior gets a point across, surely, but it hurts and can harm. It models the exact opposite behavior you hope to suppress in your child. It demeans physically weaker children and makes them angry. It also increases the chance that your children will go on to treat their children in the same way, and down on through the generations it goes.
The Response: Coping with a Tantrum
Remember, a tantrum is not motivated by malice towards a parent, nor is it a reflection on you as a parent. Tantrums are born of frustration, but are also live “performances” which are more likely to recur if given extra-attention. Trying to eliminate the audience by calmly and matter-of-factly addressing the tantrum is an effective response to normal tantrums.
Very aggressive or harmful behavior needs a negative consequence and merits a time-out or other form of discipline. This brief, deliberate period of isolation comes if a calm warning is not effective.
- Take a deep breath. Remind yourself again that this behavior isn't an attempt to embarrass or upset you, but is an impulsive acting out of toddler frustration. As the adult, you need to be calm and stay firmly in control.
- Repeat the request to stop.
- Physically remove your child from the immediate situation, usually by picking him/her up firmly from behind, to a quieter area.
- Hold him there for one to two minutes per year of age, or until the emotions subside with a hug and a calm voice.
- Afterwards, the issue is over. Move on and ahead without residual anger.
As with all disciplinary efforts, consistency is key. What you are doing is drawing intelligent, safe boundaries between acceptable and unacceptable behavior for your child. He will learn these important distinctions better when those boundaries are clear and upheld by everyone who cares for him.