Frustration, anger, and occasional acting-out are behaviors seen in every child. Whether you are strict or more laid-back and easy-going, it is important to find a strategy of discipline that works for your family. The following guidelines may help you shape your approach.
1) Always consider your child's age when setting limits or punishing. It is unfair to expect more than a child can do. For example, a 2 or 3 year old cannot control the impulse to touch things. Instead of instructing them not to touch, remove fragile objects from reach. If you send your toddler to the bedroom for more than 5 minutes, the child may totally forget the reason due to a short attention span. See: Time out
2) Be clear. A child should understand what behavior needs to change. Rather than saying, "Your room is messy," tell the child what needs to be picked up or cleaned. The first time you show the behavior that needs to change, explain what the punishment will be the next time it happens. Do not keep defending yourself once you have stated what you want.
3) Be consistent. Do not change rules or punishments at random. Punishments will obviously change as the child gets older, so make sure you explain why the rules change. If one caregiver accepts certain behaviors but another caregiver punishes for the same behavior, the child is likely to become confused. Eventually, the child may learn to play one adult against the other.
4) Reward good behavior. Complement the child on a new behavior that you have been working to improve. Reward them with more attention for desired behaviors. Save toys, gifts, or money for changes that you and the child have been working on for a longer period of time.
5) Be calm, friendly, and firm. A child may become angry, tearful or sad, or may start a tantrum. The more even-handed and controlled your behavior is, the more likely your children will pattern their behavior after yours. If you spank or hit, you are showing them that it is acceptable to solve problems with violence.
Allow your children to express their feelings, but at the same time, try and help them to channel anger and frustration away from violent or aggressive behavior. Here are some suggestions on dealing with temper tantrums:
- When you see the child starting to get worked-up, try to divert attention to a new activity.
- If you cannot distract your child, ignore the child. Every time you react to an outburst, you reward the negative behavior with extra attention. Scolding, punishing, or even trying to reason with the child may encourage the toddler to act up more.
- If you are in public, simply remove the child without discussion or fuss. Wait until the child calms down before resuming your activities.
If the tantrum involves hitting, biting, or other harmful behavior, do not ignore it. However, do not overreact. Instead, tell the child immediately and clearly that the behavior will not be tolerated. Move the child away for a few minutes.
Remember that a child cannot understand complicated explanations, so do not attempt to reason. Give the punishment immediately. If you wait too long the child will not connect the punishment with the behavior.
Jennifer K. Mannheim, ARNP, Medical Staff, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health, Seattle Children's Hospital; and Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.