Discipline is about much more than correcting “misbehavior”; it affects your child’s full development. It teaches children to manage their emotions, learn right from wrong, follow the rules and cooperate, and be compassionate, empathic human beings.
And parents are struggling with finding effective ways to discipline their children. Over half say that managing their child when he or she misbehaves is one of their top challenges, according to “
Tuning In,” the national parent survey ZERO TO THREE conducted in partnership with the Bezos Family Foundation in 2015. As a child development specialist, I get calls every week from families struggling with any number of challenges, such as the two-year-old who won’t go to sleep until she has been read an ever-increasing number of books, so the bedtime routine is now two hours long. These parents are exhausted, frustrated, angry and resentful. They feel like failures because, the way they see it, all they do is yell and deal with ugly power struggles, leaving little room for love or joy.
Parents are trying really hard to get it “right” – using a range of discipline strategies like distraction, taking toys away, or spanking. But they find most of them ineffective (see table). And the ZERO TO THREE research also showed that parents don’t want to use harsh strategies in the first place. Almost a third of all parents say:
“I spank even though I don’t feel okay about it.” One mom summed it up: “If there is another way they can listen to me without a spanking, I would prefer not to spank them.” So it wasn’t surprising that the survey found that almost 6 in 10 parents wish they knew more effective ways to discipline their child.
There’s no one strategy that will work for every child. There isn’t a prescription that can be written for discipline. No formula to follow. But as we sort out which strategies are best for our families, what can be helpful is understanding where irrational or bad behavior is coming from and remembering how much our own emotions affect how our children react. Here are some things to keep in mind:
Be sure your expectations for your child match his or her age and stage of development. Young children are driven by emotions, not logic, so irrational behavior is totally normal. Expecting more from children than they are capable of can lead to lots of frustration for both parents and children. The ZERO TO THREE research revealed that a majority of parents believe children start developing self-control much earlier than brain science tells us is possible. These skills don’t start developing until children are between 3.5 and 4 years, and take many more years to be used consistently.
Having appropriate expectations is critical because the meaning you assign to your child’s behavior influences how you react. If you think your child is purposefully breaking rules, you are much more likely to react in harsh ways that escalate, instead of calm, your child. But if you can see these behaviors as part of the development process, you are more likely to approach your child with empathy and appreciate these moments as opportunities to teach good coping skills.
Feelings are not the problem — it‘ s what kids (and adults!) do with them that can be problematic. Recognizing and naming feelings is the first step toward learning to manage them in healthy, acceptable ways over time. Validating children’s feelings also reduces their need to act out on those feelings.
Manage your own emotions. It’s important to tune in to and manage your feelings, because how you react in these challenging moments with young children deeply affects their ability for self-regulation, self-control, and overall emotional health far into the future. Research (and real life) shows that when parents react harshly (emotionally or physically), children’s distress tends to escalate.
All behavior has meaning. Throwing a tantrum in the grocery store might be due to sensory overload, fatigue, or disappointment about not getting a cookie from the bakery. Biting might be due to a need for stimulation or to keep others from invading your child’s space. Trying to understand the cause of a behavior can help you come up with discipline strategies that are sensitive and effective.
What’s going on in your child’s world — has she experienced a recent move? A loss? The arrival of a new baby? Parental stress? It’s also important to think about your child’s temperament. Is she a big reactor or a go-with-the-flow kind of kid? Is he persistent, or does he get frustrated easily? How does she react to new people and experiences — does she jump right in or need time to feel comfortable? All of these factors influence children’s ability to cope with life’s natural stressors, such as adapting to a new experience, not getting everything they want right when they want it, having to share or to sleep in their own room, or stopping an activity they love to do something they don’t love (like having to leave the playground to go home for a nap.)
See your child as a partner in solving problems. Starting at around 2.5 to 3 years of age, children begin to understand logic — why things happen. This means they can start to participate in problem solving. “Throwing balls at people is not okay — it hurts. What are other ways you can use the ball?” “Two boys, one truck, what should we do?” The more children feel they are a part of the solution, the more likely they are to cooperate with it. Life is a series of problems to solve every day, so nurturing this skill in young children is one of the greatest gifts you can give them.
Avoid harsh punishment. There is increasing and overwhelming evidence that harsh emotional and physical discipline methods (i.e., verbal shaming, spanking) are harmful to children’s social-emotional and cognitive development. While such tactics may appear to work in the moment — stopping a behavior out of fear — they are not effective in teaching self-control in the long term.
Look at the world from your child‘ s perspective. Learning to manage emotions and deal with life’s frustrations and disappointments is hard work for little ones who have been on this earth for just two or three years. Toddlers have strong feelings but few tools for managing them. The part of the brain responsible for managing behavior and impulses is still very immature. Young children need help to cope with life’s rules and limits. They need support and guidance to learn about controlling their emotions and adapting to the many rules of everyday family life.
Learn more about how to support children’s healthy development in the first year and beyond, by visiting zerotothree.org and JoinVroom.org, or by following # ParentForward on Twitter.
Data presented here are drawn from an online survey of adults conducted for ZERO TO THREE and The Bezos Family Foundation by SoAct Consulting, an independent research company. The survey was conducted in October 2015 among a nationally representative sample of 2,200 parents of children aged birth through 5 years. The Margin of Error at the 95% confidence level for a sample of 2200 is +/- 2.1%.