How to discipline your child
Got a tot who’s testing your patience? You’ve got to fill your toolbox with positive taming tricks.
‘At night, when she’s finally crashed out, sleeping like an angel, I look at her sweet face and can’t believe it’s the same willful, strop-throwing toddler that’s run me ragged all day. I love her more than anything obviously, but I’m finding this stage pure-patience testing. It’s so much harder than when she was a newborn,’ says Anita, mum to two and a half year old Iris.
Sound familiar? Even if you count yourself lucky having been landed with the most laid back of tots, they’ll be times during toddlerdom when your mum skills are tested to the absolute max. They certainly aren’t dubbed the terrible twos (and threes) for nothing.
But before you question what the hell you’re doing wrong – after more screechy car-seat squirms, food flinging and a full gamut of emotions expressed (all before 11am) – ¬it’s worth remembering that this frustrating, baffling behaviour comes with the territory. Toddlers are work in progress after all…
Laid back parenting trends such a free-range parenting and jellyfish parenting have popped up a-plenty in the last decade, promoting a mothering style that favours fewer rules and much more autonomy for the tots. And with that, old-fashioned discipline techniques seem to have fallen out of fashion. ‘It’s just not that cool to be the authoritarian mum always shouting orders at soft play or limiting how many toys come out of the toy box at a time. You’d seem uptight, ’ says Cara, mum to Seb 4, and Olivia, 2. And seeing that the dictionary definition of discipline – ‘the practice of training people to obey rules or a code of behaviour, using punishment to correct disobedience’ ¬– sounds harsh and horrid, it’s easy to see why it’s become a dirty word.
But as much we don’t want to be the bad cop in our little ones’ lives, the need for discipline is as essential for them as love, food and shelter. It’s the necessary act of setting rules and creating boundaries to prevent behaviour that’s either inappropriate (which differs wildly from family to family, of course), aggressive, or downright dangerous.
It’s also nonsensical to run your home as a democracy. Lacking in both impulse control and the ability to predict consequences, the little people look to you for a framework in which they can feel secure.
So effective discipline, strikes a balance. There are ways in which you can shape your toddler’s daily behaviour, without having to get out the big guns –shouting and punishment.
In her new guide, The Gentle Discipline Book, parenting expert and mum of four, Sarah Ockwell-Smith explains that ‘gentle discipline is focused upon teaching and learning, rather than punishing, and having expectations for children’s behavior that are realistic, given their level of brain development. It’s also about working with children, not against them.’
So how exactly do you work with a toddler who has face planted in the supermarket aisle because you said ‘NO’ to their kamikazi attack on the tins of tuna?
Sarah says that there are two options, an in-the-moment response and a long-term response.
‘When thinking in the moment, you need to think about how to cease the behaviour as quickly as possible in a way that is considerate and supportive. Calmly and firmly tell your child that their behaviour is not acceptable. Keep it short and concise because when they are in flight-or-fight mode they’ll not listen to reasoning and lengthy explanations. Once they are calm it’s time to explain why what they did was wrong and speak about alternative ways they could behave,’ she suggests.
SHARPEN THE COMMS
And if you feel like you’re permanently trapped in a power struggle with your toddler, looking at your language and tone of voice is a good place to make some changes.
‘Don’t under estimate how powerful a kind tone of voice can be as you have a conversation with you child about their behavior. Ultimately you’re trying to remain strong and consistent in your discipline while still interacting with your child in a way that communicates warmth, love, respect and compassion. These two aspects of parenting can and should co-exist,’ says Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson, authors of No-Drama Discipline (£9.09, amazon.co.uk).
Sarah believes one of the biggest communication mistakes parents make is telling a toddler what not to do, instead of what you’d like them to do. Because of the absence of logical reasoning skills, the latter makes way more sense to a tiny mind.
This worked for Rebecca, mum of Holly now four. ‘We went through a phase where Holly didn’t pay any attention to a word I said. It wasn’t until I changed my whole way of speaking to her that we turned a corner. Now, instead of shouting, “stop shouting’’, I ask her to use a quiet voice. Or I say, “arms by your side please,” instead of “don’t touch!” Simple stuff really.
FIND YOUR CALM
Often, you may not be able to fully control an intense parenting situation with just words, but you are able to control how you perceive the situation and your reaction to it. Being mindful – a state of mind where we are fully aware, present, and accepting of the moment ¬– can help us to maintain a calm place inside ourselves, from where we can be with our children, but not be caught up in their drama. It can stop us getting caught up in our own drama, too says Amber Hatch author of Mindfulness for Parents (£9.99, Watkins Publishing).
‘Parents may be vomited on, screamed at, poked in the eye, woken up several times in the night; they will have to tear apart children who are trying to bite each other; they will hear ‘I want that lolly’ 27 times; they will be humiliated in the supermarket; they will hear ‘I hate you’ and ‘I love you’ in the same minute; they will have to catch a child who’s falling off a wall; they will, at times, need to do everything one-handed; they will need to read the same story six times in a row; they will have to rescue a child who is gagging; comfort one who is crying, soothe one who is terrified of the dark; they will have to navigate through perpetual noise and chaos and mess – all this and more – perhaps in the course of a single day. Mindfulness can help parents to cope with all of that,’ she says.
But disciplining with mindfulness does not mean you have to follow a specific set of techniques - different methods will be appropriate at different times and only you can judge what is needed in the moment. You can only do that if you are being mindful of the whole situation – including what emotions the behaviour has triggered in you says Amber.
She adds, ‘what we can be sure of is that all of children’s behaviour is due to something. Bad behaviour doesn’t come out of nowhere. When confronted with a screaming or angry child, it’s really hard to recall that there must be a reason for the undesirable behaviour. But the moment to be considering possible causes can come later, when there’s a little more space to think calmly. What’s required in the moment is just you being present with your child – accepting the situation as it is in the moment.’
LEARN TO LISTEN
‘Very specific objects can be real tantrum triggers for my two year old,’ says mum Helene. I find myself bickering with him when he’s demanding something that seems really trivial to me. When I stop and think about it though, I realise that having his blue cup, rather than the white one, for instance, is a big deal in his world.’
When your toddler bursts into tears because their yellow spoon is in the dishwasher and they’ve got the green spoon instead, as tempting as it is to roll your eyes at the ridiculousness, try switching tack. Instead of just telling your toddler not to be silly and to eat up, showing empathy can sidestep the drama entirely.
‘Empathy may be the single most powerful tool that all parents have, and it’s always available. If you don’t know what else to do, try empathy. It’s the power to make someone else feel understood, and that feeling can diffuse any number of otherwise unpleasant situations and power struggles,’ says psychologist Dr Erica Reischer, author of What Great Parents Do (£12.99, Vermillion). ‘Empathy creates a safe place for our kids to experience hard feelings, like rejection or disappointment.’ Of course, this doesn’t mean you’ll stop the dishwasher cycle just to retrieve the favourite spoon but it does mean you acknowledge that your little one feels sad or angry about it. They may be too small to understand their emotions, but you can help manage the outbursts by not just dismissing those feelings.
Amber echos this by saying we should listen actively when our child is expressing how they feel, regardless of their rollercoaster delivery. ‘Active listening is about allowing ourselves to make a mindful connection with our children. To really be in their present, and hear what they have to say. Sometimes what they say isn’t what we want to hear. In that case, it’s so easy to switch off, deny their reality and close down their words,’ she says.
And you may find that your way, is not necessarily the same as everyone else’s way – discipline methods can be divisive between friends and family. There’s nothing that makes you question your parenting skills more than seeing your nearest and dearest do it in an entirely different way – especially when you presumed you shared similar values.
This was an eye opener for Gemma, mum to three year old Saffron. ‘I couldn’t believe it when I went to stay with my sister, who now lives in South Africa with her husband. Our little ones are the same age but our approach to parenting couldn’t be more different. I was there, battling to get my daughter to stay sat at the dinner table every evening while my nephew was allowed to drag his broccoli around the living room. As long as he ate it, she didn’t mind how. As a result, she thought I was strict and over controlling, I thought her way was chaotic and both the children were confused. I left not knowing which way was right.’
Parenting methods are individual, based on your instinct and knowledge about your own child. By staying as true as possible to the rules you’ve chosen for your family, in any situation, you’ll keep your discipline messages consistent for your tot.
‘We parents aren’t perfect though, so we may not follow through 100 per cent of the time. Just know that the more consistent you are with your children, the less they will test your rules and boundaries,’ says Dr Reischer.
TAMING TIPS TO TRY:
Whatever your take on discipline, these in-the-moment tricks work wonders on the twos and threes….
BE H-ANGER AWARE: Knowing your toddler’s behaviour triggers can be the first step to avoiding a rapid change in mood. Are you expecting too much from them when they’re overtired or hungry? Look for the signs and carry emergency snacks for when hanger strikes.
DISTRACT AND DIVERT: When you’re minutes from a meltdown, distraction can diffuse it. Take your tot out of a standoff situation by getting them to look at the floating clouds, or spot a bird in the sky. Use lots of enthusiasm for a quick and easy win.
CREATE A RE-SET CORNER: This is the naughty step, rebranded. Create an area at home that’s cosy and safe to take your child to when a temper tantrum starts or they’ve overstepped a boundary. Rather than it be a place of punishment, use it as neutral spot to press the reset button.
GET YOUR GAME FACE ON: A toddler isn’t being disobedient when they say ‘NO!’ to tidying up their toys. More often than not, they’re engrossed in their fun and want to carry playing. Why not reframe an order or instruction so it becomes a game (the getting dressed dance for example) and see how more positively your request is received?
RELINQUISH CONTROL: Toddlers are headstrong little souls with a growing urge to do things independently (usually at a snail’s pace). Don’t fight this, encourage it. If you’re wrestling with them over cleaning their teeth, brushing their hair or getting them dressed – let them do it all by themselves. Allow plenty of time for this.
LEVEL WITH THEM: Having a whiny toddler hanging from your jeans is beyond irritating, but imagine the situation from their perspective – they’re trying to express themselves to a giant. When asking them what they want or need, kneel down and speak face-to-face.
FEED THE INFO: If your tot reacts extremely to sudden change, repeating information again and again about the day ahead can help. This way your little one hears you’ll be leaving the house to go to the shops, long before it happens. No surprises.
PRAISE EFFORT: Praise is a reward for good behaviour, but be specific and focus mainly on the effort involved in achieving (or even not achieving) a task. ‘Well done, you tried very hard to sit still,’ is much more effective than simply saying ‘good boy.’