Each stage of childhood has its challenges, especially when it comes to discipline.
After Jupiter resident Melissa Dixon figured out how to tame her toddler from hitting, biting and flailing on the floor to get his way, she was not prepared for his latest tactic: hair-on-neck-raising screaming.
“I fully admit that I have no idea how to correct this,” says Dixon, who also has a 7-month-old son, Fischer. “With hitting and biting, it felt pretty cut and dry: You catch them in the act, hold their hands, say some variation of ‘no hitting’ and then sit them in time-out for a minute. But with the screaming, it’s not just loud and painful to witness, but it’s downright embarrassing. I hear people in Publix commenting, ‘Wow, that kid has lungs!’ ”
So, why the tantrums? There are many reasons, says Deborah Newell, director of Triple P (Positive Parenting Program), which is funded by Children’s Services Council of Palm Beach County and run by Community Partners’ Parent-Child Center in Riviera Beach.
“If children are overtired, if they are hungry, if their environment is not consistent, and they are unable to regulate due to constant uncertainties and changes, they are going to act out in some way to get their parents’ attention,” Newell says. “Children, no matter their age, need structure and consistency. They need appropriate boundaries and limits. They learn that misbehaving often leads to the parent giving in just to get the child to conform.”
Offering a reward isn’t necessarily the best, so is there a better way to discipline at any age?
“You could promise me $1 million to solve an advanced algebraic equation within five minutes — never mind the fact that I have forgotten nearly everything I once knew about algebra — and as incentivized as I would feel, there is no way I’d win the money,” says Chris McGinnis, a psychologist at Boys Town South Florida. “I’d just say you’re being mean or unfair. It’s the same for a child who misbehaves.”
Children excel at explaining what they can do or should have done, but then it has little influence on the next time, McGinnis says. They just make the same mistake again.
Parents need to teach a motor sequence or muscle memory of understanding that there are negative consequences to certain behaviors, McGinnis says — just as learning to drive a car or throwing a ball requires practicing the motor sequence over and over until we have “unconscious competence.” In other words, try to take the tantrums in stride while instilling and practicing good behavior.
“There is an age-old notion that kids are born perfect little angels, and we can only destroy their perfection by any wrong and unthinking move as parents and teachers,” McGinnis says. “Infants and toddlers are needy and selfish at first. They come into this world not knowing a thing about eating with a spoon and wiping their mouths with a napkin, sharing with siblings or classmates, or using words instead of aggressive behavior to get what they want. All children misbehave. It is our job to socialize them, to teach them right from wrong.”
To achieve that effectively, Newell encourages parents to be available, show affection and maintain clear, calm communication with consistency and structure.
Common misbehaviors at each stage
The words “toddler” and “tantrum” are nearly synonymous because this is the age when children begin to test their independence. Remember your children have little natural self-control. You must teach them to express anger through words instead of kicking, hitting or biting. Model your behavior by controlling your own temper and expressing your anger in quiet, peaceful ways.
Elementary school age
Your obedient, good-natured child may start to show signs of defiance because their peers are beginning to influence them. Let your children know you understand peer influence and you’re going to help them figure out how to make it better. Give a clear message that you’re on their side.
Causes for misbehaving
• They want attention: Children often feel left out when a parent is occupied, such as on the phone. So they whine or hit a sibling to get attention. Strive to ignore negative behavior and praise positive behavior.
• They copycat: Children repeat what they see, such as something on TV or a peer misbehaving at school. Monitor your child’s interaction with TV and model your behavior in various situations.
• They test limits: When you establish rules, children want to see if you’re serious. Set clear limits and consistent consequences.
• They lack skills: Teach your child what to do in a situation instead of just punishing with a consequence after misbehavior. Demonstrate alternatives to learn from mistakes.
- Dr. Chris McGinnis, psychologist, Boys Town South Florida
- Deborah Newell, program director, Triple P (Positive Parenting Program)