Q: My 2- and 5-year-old daughters are out of control. They won’t listen. I have tried spanking, timeouts, good behavior charts, taking toys and privileges away and nothing works. When I tell them to stop doing something they act like i’m not even here. They throw tantrums in public and at home. They listen to their dad whenever he tells them something. What else should I try?
A: I’m so sorry you’re going through some tough times with your daughters. I think we’ve all been there! Sometimes it helps to remember that young children are little scientists, biologically designed to experiment with everything in their environment–including our boundaries. While it’s our job to hold boundaries firm, it’s their job to test them. Thus, Jane Nelsen, author of Positive Discipline books, recommends responding with kindness AND firmness at the same time. Kindness shows respect for our children and firmness shows respect for ourselves and/or the needs of the situation. For example, if it’s time for lunch and your children don’t want to leave the park, using kindness and firmness might look like this: “You’re having so much fun building tall towers in the sand AND it’s time to eat lunch and our bodies need food. Would you like to lead the way to the car or hold my hand?”
Nelsen also teaches parents to focus on the future and solutions rather than on the past and mistakes. All misbehavior occurs for a reason–a problem that needs to be solved, lack of a skill that needs to be taught, a misunderstanding about how to feel significant that needs to be addressed, etc. So instead of using punishment in the form of blame, shame, or pain to make children pay for their mistakes, we can work to solve the problem, teach the skill, make amends, etc., keeping in mind that children do better when they feel better.
Instead of telling them what NOT to do, you might try telling them what TO do in the form of a question. For example, instead of, “No throwing blocks in the house, you might try, “Would you like to build with blocks or throw a ball?” With your older daughter, you might try more open-ended questions like, “What might happen if you throw blocks in the house?” After she answers, you could respond with, “So what might be better to throw?”
Connection before correction (or instruction) is another great tool for gaining cooperation. Before asking a child to do a task, try taking an interest in her activity, joining in her play, giving her a hug, or telling her you love her. For example, if it’s bedtime and your daughter is busy drawing, you might start with, “It’s time for bed in five minutes,” then add, “Can you tell me about your drawing?”, then when the five minutes are up, “Okay. It’s been five minutes. Now what’s it time for?” If she still doesn’t comply, you could try the kind and firm approach: “I know you’re really focused on your drawing. I have a hard time stopping when I’m in the middle of something too. AND it’s time for bed. Would you like to be done with this drawing now or finish it up first thing in the morning?”
When a child has a tantrum, it’s important to remember her rational brain is temporarily off-line (just as ours is when we’re very angry or upset). Thus, it’s not a time for teaching. Rather, we can help a child feel better first before attempting to problem-solve. When children feel bad about themselves, they’re too focused on their own feelings of insignificance to absorb any message we give. Sometimes taking deep breaths, reading a book, getting a hug from mom or dad, or simply relaxing in a special spot can help our children feel better so they can do better. When they’re calm and ready, we can then look back at what happened to cause the meltdown and invite them to brainstorm solutions.
Also, never underestimate the power of empathy. You might try this simple formula: “You feel ___ because ___ and you wish ___.” Throwing in a story from your own childhood when you felt similarly can also be pretty powerful.
There are many more wonderful tools for increasing cooperation in both Positive Discipline for Preschoolers and Playful Parenting, both of which I highly recommend. If you have more questions, please feel free to contact me again.