Do you wonder whether your kids will ever behave and follow your rules without all of the seemingly endless whining, crying, bickering and battling? You’re not alone — we’ve all been there and done (and are still doing) that. It can be exhausting … and frustrating … and overwhelming. And every child is different — what works for one may not help even an iota for another. Sometimes it can be easy to fall into the same parenting and discipline routines and feel like you’re getting nowhere fast. So it can be useful (and eye-opening) to stand back from all of the squabbling, reassess and tweak things a bit to see if it helps bring a little more cooperation, connection and peace to the household. Here are some positive parenting pointers to keep in your toolkit:
1. Remember that there’s a difference between “discipline” and “punishment.”
They really aren’t one and the same. Discipline is intended to teach, train and guide children toward the right (the “good”) behavior. Punishment is intended to well, punish, the wrong (the “bad”) behavior.
2. Be consistent — set understood limits/expectations and then make good on your promises.
Kids have to believe that you really mean what you say. How often do we find ourselves asking the same question over and over … and ovvvvvver, without getting a response — even when we say, “I’m not going to ask you again”? Or how about when we give a “two-minute warning” for something and two minutes turns into 20?
Our kids know we’ll continue to ask repeatedly before we actually get fed up and expect action — so it’s no surprise that they just keep doing what they’re doing until they absolutely have to stop. If we’re consistent in expecting a response after the first (sometimes the second) ask, and within the allotted time period we’ve asked, they’ll learn (eventually) that you mean business.
“If…then….” statements can be really helpful here. For example, if you ask for something and it doesn’t happen the first time, you say, “If you don’t do _________, then (consequence).” After the statement, slowly count to three in your head and if your child hasn’t started the action, give the consequence. If your kiddo has started the action, reward verbally and with attention.
3. Stay on the same page with your spouse, partner, significant other and/or any step-parents.
This is a BIG one. Research consistently shows that inconsistencies in parenting cause significant behavior problems. So, by all means, act as a team to agree upon and form a united front about what the ground rules and, when applicable, acceptable consequences are. Then make sure both of you are consistently following through on the positive parenting rules you established together. That way, it doesn’t become a he said/she said scenario where kids try to play you against each other (“But, Dad, Mom said…” or “But, Mom, Dad always…”).
4. Avoid going to extremes.
Be careful not to dole out harsh, unrealistic threats and punishments in anger (e.g., “Push your sister again and I’ll take away all of your toys forever!”). Failing to follow through on consequences that you know full well you could (and probably should) never actually enforce could weaken all of your disciplinary efforts. Plus … huge punishments may take away your power as a parent. Let’s say you ground your kids for a month — they may not feel motivated to change behaviors because, well, everything has already been taken away. There are also times when being too stern can backfire. Kids can become immune to overblown reactions and, so, they may not take them seriously.
Try to pause before you react and spout out a consequence that you know is ridiculous as soon as it leaves your lips. Consider whether it’s rational and realistic — for both your child and you. For example, will it actually be punishing your child or you if you remove all screen privileges (TV, movies, phone, tablet) for a month? Or, if you take away your teen’s keys for the week, does that mean you’ll become the interim chauffeur to and from after-school activities, practices, games, etc.?
5. Have tons of “time-ins” — “grow the good.”
Discipline is about recognizing good behaviors, not just punishing bad ones — the whole “catch them being good,” rather than “catch them being bad” thinking. And that means really paying attention. So, instead of saying, “Good job!,” provide specific praise (e.g., “I’m proud of you for sharing your toys at the playgroup” or “You made your bed without me asking — that’s awesome!”).
When you’re giving these positive parenting “time-ins,” praise the opposite behavior for the one you discipline the most. In other words … if you frequently punish for hitting a sibling, praise your child for “using kind hands” and “kind playing” with the sibling.
Also, not new (but still really helpful for some): Sticker/rewards charts and/or behavior jars, which can help you keep track of what your kids are doing well and, in turn, applaud them with tangible benefits for their actions (e.g., a special treat, a little more TV, extra time with Mom or Dad, or just increased hugs or cuddles, etc.). With lots of consistent time-ins, you may soon find you’re “growing” more of the good behavior you’d like to see.
6. Help them understand what the right thing to do is, rather than emphasizing the wrong thing.
In other words, instead of “Don’t jump on the couch,” try “Please sit on the furniture and put your feet on the floor.” You’ve probably heard teachers take a similar approach — instead of “Don’t run!,” they may say, “Please use your walking feet.”
At the same time, emphasize the importance of choosing the “right choice” (or “good choice”) versus the “wrong choice” (or “bad choice”) — e.g., using an inside voice instead of yelling, or asking for a turn instead of grabbing a toy. If you think they’ve made a bad choice, use it as a learning opportunity — ask: “Do you think that was a good choice or a bad choice? Why? What could you have done differently?”
7. Make sure they know you’re telling, not asking.
To ensure you’re crystal clear, avoid stating directives as questions (e.g., steer clear of saying something like, “Would you please put on your coat?”). Because, let’s face it, when kids hear things phrased in question form it sounds optional. So we really shouldn’t be surprised when they say, “NOOOOOOO!” In their defense, you did ask. Instead try, “Please put on your coat.”
8. Try to get to the root of the (mis)behavior — to possibly prevent some outbursts before they even happen.
Sometimes kids act up, well, just because. But sometimes there’s an underlying culprit. Are they tired, hungry, coming down with something, getting bullied or having friend problems, struggling with schoolwork, etc.?
Especially keep an eye on sleep. Lack of sleep can be a huge trigger for all ages. When grown-ups are tired, they may be grumpy or have low energy, but kids can become hyper or disagreeable or have extremes in behavior. So if you know your toddler is tired, it’s probably not the best time to go grocery shopping or try to squeeze in just one more errand. Most children’s sleep requirements fall within a predictable range of hours based on their age, but (as with everything) every child is unique with distinct sleep needs.
9. Have a plan in place — ahead of time.
Whenever you’re going into a situation that’s normally tough (for you and/or your kids), make sure you’ve armed yourself with a plan. For example, we all know all too well that it’s a struggle (translate: it feels practically impossible) to give consequences and/or rewards when you’re out and about as effectively as you would at home.
Say you have kids that scream in the car. (Haven’t we all, at one time or another?) Nothing good can come from going into that mind-numbing situation without a plan. So try telling your tots before they get in the car that they’ll get a sticker, small prize or little treat if they use indoor voices during the ride — and then continue to remind them about the reward at regular intervals. Heading out on a long road trip? Take it a step further and print out pseudo “travel tickets” from the Web to acknowledge good behavior — and help keep the stress to a minimum for everyone (especially the driver).
10. Help them find and express their feelings.
This is especially helpful for little ones, children with special needs and/or kiddos who are extra sensitive. Encourage your kids to “use their words” when they’re upset before (and instead of) blowing up, misbehaving and/or lashing out. Help model and encourage “I” statements (e.g., “I feel very frustrated when you hit your sister like that. How does it make you feel when she yells at you?”). Help them to remove generalizing “absolute” words like “always” and “never” from their vocabulary and to talk, instead, about how they’re feeling in that specific moment and situation — and why (e.g., “I’m feeling really mad right now because Emily just said she hated me.”). You may not have thought of this being a way to help your child connect, but the idea of providing your child with a baby doll or any toy that they can look after would benefit their growth in sharing their feelings and connecting with you as parents. As kids like to mimic their parents, this may be a great way for you all to bond and develop your child’s imagination. This toy doesn’t have to be a baby doll, but you could also look into something like dolls pushchairs from Play Like Mum to help encourage interpersonal skills and find new ways to play with friends.
It can also help to mirror their feelings back to them. If you’ve ever gone to therapy, you’ve probably seen this in action: “Wow, you’re really upset. It sounds like you’re feeling very sad, mad and frustrated because your brother is going to a birthday party and you aren’t.” You can follow with a “coping statement” like “What should we do to feel better?” or, with younger kids, “Let’s do _________ to help you feel better.”
When you acknowledge out loud that you recognize how kids might be feeling and why they might be feeling that way, they’re more likely to feel listened to, acknowledged and validated. This positive parenting tactic also helps them feel more connected/attached to you — and more likely to come to you to talk when they’re feeling upset.
11. Give them some control and (limited) choices.
Children (especially toddlers and preschoolers) like to at least feel as if they have some control — that their opinions and preferences matter. So try something like this: “Would you like applesauce or apple slices?” to give them narrowed-down choices that are still preferable to you either way.
It’s often less effective (and overwhelming) when you give: 1) Too many choices (e.g., “Would you like applesauce, apple slices, oranges, grapes, peaches or a banana?”) or 2) No specific choices (e.g., “What would you like for a snack?”). Offer two options (between “this” and “that”) to keep it simple and allow them to still feel empowered about having a say.
As they get older, give kids and teens more control over some things — allow them to make decisions about stuff like clothes, hairstyles or even the condition of their room. This will limit the number of power struggles — and save your collective sanity. And keep reminding yourself to focus on the positives (e.g., let them earn a later curfew by demonstrating positive behavior, instead of setting an earlier curfew as punishment for irresponsible behavior).
12. Connect and communicate.
We hear it all the time as parents: “Spend time with your kids.” Sounds simple enough, right? But how often do we run through our day from start to finish, without ever really pausing to truly connect? Some therapists say even as little as 10 dedicated, uninterrupted minutes a day with each child can make a huge difference. That means putting the phone down, turning off the TV, pausing all to-do’s, and focusing on whatever they want to do — talking, playing a game, reading, doing a craft, etc.
And how many times have you heard “Make an effort to eat dinner together as a family”? But, sincerely, this really can be the most ideal time for everyone to connect at the same time. Instead of just asking, “How was your day?” (knowing that the default answer will likely be “fine”), maybe ask each other about the “good” and “not-so-good” parts of your day (three of each). You’d be amazed at how much you can learn and the conversations this could start.
Also a great relationship builder: Reading to your child, especially before bed. From newborns to preteens, even once kids can read on their own, that special time together can mean the world — especially if you make it a predictable routine that they (and you) can look forward to every night. Mix it up by adding in character voices and taking turns reading to each other.
13. Take care of yourself — have regular Mommy (or Daddy) “time-outs” to recharge.
When we’re frazzled and exhausted, it’s easy to feel like everyday misbehavior and tantrums are amplified — every little whine, every little scream can seem like it’s building up to a crescendo of deafening, maddening proportions. And, let’s face it, even if we don’t mean to (or don’t even realize it), sometimes we can feel resentful and take out our stresses and frustrations about life in general — money, work, housecleaning, cooking, hectic schedules, relationship spats — on our kids.
No doubt it’s often easier said than done, but positive parenting works best when you try to get the “me time” (and/or couple time) you need:
• Catch more ZZZs. Take a cat nap. Go to bed a few minutes earlier every night.
• Go to the gym (use the on-site child care if one’s available).
• Take a bath — with the door locked and headphones in.
• Have coffee with a friend.
• Go on a walk or run.
• Try mindfulness meditation, which can be helpful for both you and your child when things get heated.
• Have a girls’ (or guys’) night out.
• Take a class.
• Join a team or group.
• Go on a date.
Enlist the help of a relative, friend, babysitter or neighborhood child who can act as a “Mommy’s helper” while you’re home. You don’t have to always handle everything on your own. Whenever possible, just find time to relax and reenergize every day, even if it’s for only a couple of minutes — for their sake and yours.