Oh, behave!

Discipline DilemmaThere’s nothing more terrifying to a parent—even the most sorted-out ones—than an out-of-control child. Often it seems that nothing—no yoga breathing, no master’s degree, no how-to book—truly prepares you for the harsh reality of handling the blood-curdling whines, turn-on-a-dime crying or obstinate refusals and accompanying fist-banging dramatics of your once and former angel.

Oh, dear parents, just remember you have nothing to fear but fear itself. Not only can you handle the startling reality of your child’s defiance, but you have to learn how to do it effectively for the sake of your child’s entire being—and your sanity.

So, now that you’ve lived to tell a tale of woe or two, take a cue from Dr. Michael Kaplan, our on-call child psychiatrist in private practice and assistant clinical professor at the Yale Child Study Center in New Haven, Conn., on how and why discipline rules.

THE FAMILY GROOVE: How do you handle defiant behavior? What happens when “no” doesn’t work?
MICHAEL KAPLAN: Managing our children’s defiant behavior is part and parcel of parenting. Our romantic notions of having children (swaddling a newborn, smelling their sweet skin, breast-feeding, watching them learn to walk and talk) all come crashing down the first time they start screaming for a cookie in the middle of a meal. All children will become defiant—it is the nature of the beast. The upside of this discussion is that saying “no!” is one of the ways in which children begin to define themselves as separate from us. It is a crucial part of child development. Defiant behavior, although difficult to take as a parent, gives children a safe way to explore very important boundaries. The problem is that it can make a mess out of a trip to the mall, a long car ride or the smooth choreography needed to get everyone out of the house in the morning.

Defiance starts earlier than most parents realize. Infants practice saying “no” when they turn their head away from a bottle or breast; avert their eyes when they have had enough of Grandma’s loud, off-key singing; or when they don’t want to be left alone in their crib. Managing defiance is based on many factors. Our family of origin lays down a pretty solid imprint on our words. We often find ourselves saying: “That sounded like something my father would say!” Our reactions to our own parents’ style of discipline play an important role. We all think we can save the “good” parts of what our parents did and eliminate the “bad” parts. It’s not that simple. Parenting culture—as promulgated in books, parenting magazines (even this one!) and on the playground—also holds great power over what we say and do.

The approach we take to our children’s defiance fits into a total context of child rearing. When considering how we treat their good behavior as well as their defiant behavior, the core concepts are the same: consistency, predictability and coordination between caregivers. Most parents don’t know or they forget that children don’t just listen to our words, but they watch what we do. How do we treat others? How do we treat our spouses? What do we say about other people? Children’s eyes are on us like Velcro, observing how we conduct ourselves as we move through life. The old adage that actions speak louder than words describes the way in which children learn how to behave. We are their primary teachers when it comes to their behavior.

The key to effective management of defiant behavior is to start early and be consistent. The most effective tool to date is the “time-out procedure.” The time-out procedure is based on solid science and uses positive reinforcement to alter behavior. And while this might not work with high-strung or high-intensity children, or typical children in every single circumstance, the core concept is simple: We appeal to the side of the child that wants mommy’s approval. Giving a child a chance to reverse course and save face creates an opportunity to turn a nasty encounter into a positive one. So, rather than sweeping in like a commando and insisting that a child just behave, you give the child a chance. The classic example is a child who is misbehaving and won’t stop. He is given a chance to stop by the count of three. If he does, great. If not, he is taken to a prearranged time-out spot where he sits and is casually ignored, for several minutes (the length of time is based on a simple calculation of number of minutes equals age in years).

The techniques and finer points of this excellent parenting tool are spelled out in the book 1-2-3 Magic by Thomas Phelan. What is most important?

  Staying calm
  Use a neutral voice (stifle that scream!)
  Both parents in a two-parent home need to be well-versed in the technique
  Consistency, consistency, consistency

TFG: How do you teach kids respect? Is showing them respect enough?
MK: Kids learn respect from watching us. It starts with respecting them. If we value what they say, value what contributions they make, and treat them fairly, predictably and with follow-through, they will experience respect. It is based on expectations. We set up a set of expectations of our children. If we learn and practice effective discipline, it teaches children right from wrong and the role of consequences for their actions. In addition to showing kids respect, they watch how we treat others. They are very astute at picking out mixed messages. If we talk respect but don’t act it out in our lives, kids will be confused. We can help them see respect by pointing out acts of respect that you observe in public (someone letting you go before them in line, kindness from the bank teller, helping a neighbor out) or in the news. The primary relationship they observe is how we treat our spouses and partners. Respect education begins at home.

TFG: How do you handle a tantrum? Why do kids have them?
MK: Tantrums are a special circumstance of problem behavior. They are usually the result of an upsurge of anxious feelings. The classic tantrums start occurring anywhere from 18 to 24 months and are the reason for the term “the terrible twos.” Understanding where your child is at this age helps you to de-stress in the face of a screaming monster. Developmentally, your child is in the earliest beginnings of an understanding of the properties and traits of his or her physical world. Children are living in a concrete world—and a world in which things need to be “just so.” This is normal. So when a child is eating an ice cream cone and it falls over, the child blows her cork. Even when she is offered a replacement cone—same cone, same flavor, same sprinkles—she has only one space in her developing brain for that particular ice cream cone or lollipop or cookie that happened to fall or break or get ruined. Even though we know that a rose is a rose is a rose, the 2-year-old cannot make that leap and falls apart alongside the ice cream melting on the sidewalk.

Another developmental leap that has not yet been made is the growing sense of past, present and future. Toddlers have a very primitive idea of this concept. Tomorrow and next year might be one and the same. So, if Jake demands a cookie in the middle of lunch and you tell him “not now,” he might translate that into a time well into the future, and he turns into a banshee in protest. And, of course, toddlers do not have the ability to tolerate frustration. Toddlerhood can be viewed as an exercise in learning how to extend the time until you reach a goal—this can be a painful process for kids and parents.

Managing a temper tantrum is similar to handling defiance. But the difference here is that less is more. While you don’t go into long explanations and rationalizations with run-of-the-mill defiance, talking or reasoning with a tantrumming child is like pouring oil onto a fire. When your child is tantrumming, pretend he speaks a different language than you do and treat accordingly.

The tantrumming child is treated calmly and firmly. A short “if you don’t stop by the count of three, you are going to your room” is usually the first line of attack. Don’t be afraid to scoop up your child and plop him in his room—or even to hold him until he stops, if necessary. It is kind of like the colicky infant who needs swaddling—only the toddler is bigger and would easily break out of a blanket. Appropriately holding a child decreases the extra stimulation firing in on all channels to his brain. This helps to reorganize the child and bring him back to Planet Earth.

TFG: Is there a different way you can/should handle a problem when you’re out in public?
MK: Kids always seem to find the best place to embarrass their parents. Like in the checkout line with a week’s worth of groceries, or on an airplane that is getting ready for takeoff, or at church during quiet prayer. It is going to happen. First, get your embarrassment in check and realize that you are not alone. And don’t pay attention to the stares of others—or even your child’s grandparents. Just fall back on the tools I just described. You can find a time-out chair/bench/step almost anywhere. You can talk in a quiet voice. You can tell Caitlin that her time-out will start the minute she gets in the front door. If all else fails, you might have to walk out of the store or your house of worship. If you are really stuck—like on an airplane—try to enlist the help of others around you, such as the flight attendants. They are typically expert in child-rearing disasters as well as emergency landings. And remember, just like pregnancy, it doesn’t last forever.

TFG: Is spanking ever an option?
MK: This has become a controversial topic. Different cultures treat spanking in different ways. The literature on spanking, however, is quite clear: It does not work to change behavior. It only activates the fear response. Now, an individual child who has had one or two spankings might “learn a lesson,” but, in general, the child who is spanked ends up focusing on the physical punishment, not the original crime. Many people will say that the reason why kids today don’t behave as well as they did in past generations is that parents are too afraid to use spanking. This is not true. The general cultural trend to treat children as little adults as well as the trend to avoid conflict at all costs are more likely reasons for this accepted observation.

TFG: Are there any telltale signs that your child’s behavior issues might need professional help?
MK: Parents are much more willing to get help today than in the past. It never hurts to ask for help, and your child’s pediatrician is the best place to start. If you find that your child is spending more time in time-out than time-in, that is the moment to ask for help. If you cannot take your child to outside events or even on simple errands, that is a sign. If you and your spouse find yourself arguing over discipline, then you might need a professional to sort out these conflicts. A clear sign is a call from your child’s teacher to notify you of problem behavior. Teachers usually err on the side of not telling, so when you get that call, it is time to respond.

TFG: What are some triggers of bad behavior that parents can look out for?
MK: The universal triggers are hunger and fatigue. It is important to know your child and her limits. We have all been guilty of pushing our children too far and paying the price. Anticipating possibly stressful events is the best medicine to avoid bad behavior. Our culture is so commercialized; it is hard to avoid candy and promotional products wherever we might take our children. Have a set of guidelines for yourself and stick to them. Your child does not need a toy every time you go to a museum. When you go to the market, let your child pick out one treat—that gives him or her some control and shows your flexibility.

TFG: How do you foster will in a child while still enforcing your rules?
MK: We live in a culture that celebrates the individual. They will get that message whether you value it or not. The pendulum has swung so far in the direction of willful children rather than focusing on responsibility, community and respect. Parents often confuse being firm with being tyrannical. Children pick up on this confusion, which gives them a mixed message about discriminating between right and wrong. Children need rules but not rulers; they need their parents to be authoritative, not authoritarian. If we become rigid with rules, unbending and inflexible, we will produce children who are either meek and passive, or rebellious and disrespectful of authority. It is all about finding the right balance. Will is also fostered in the ways in which we encourage our children to try their best in school, sports, the arts and any interest they pursue.

TFG: What about whining? How do you deal with it?
MK: If only we had a pill to eliminate whining. Whining seems to be hardwired into the human genome. It won’t take long before they find the genetic basis of this most annoying behavior. Ignoring is the best medicine and it does not require a co-pay. When ignoring fails, simple, calm reminders to your child that you only listen to “big-boy voices” often corrects the behavior. Appealing to the child’s wish to be bigger, older and stronger is a useful tool at these moments. If all else fails, you can become “strict” and tell him the thing he is whining about won’t happen for some protracted period of time unless he reverts back to his normal self.

TFG: Many parents worry that their older children might get the short end of the stick because the punishments are more severe for them than for their younger siblings, who may not know better yet because of their age. How do you discipline children of different ages fairly, but at the same time age-appropriately?
MK: This is a chronic problem for parents with children of multiple ages. The yardstick of expectations and punishments changes as the child ages. But the most important thing to remember is that children will always find something we do as unfair. The word unfair gets put into play the moment a sibling is born. Even though it hurts to feel that you are being treated unfairly, it is an important ingredient in development. First of all, you are the boss and don’t need to respond to sibling intervention when meting out discipline. Most of the time, this is a ploy to get you to minimize their punishment. It is an often effective tool to play on your heartstrings—no parent wants to ever feel they are favoring one child over another.

Developing a list—that you keep to yourself—of potential punishments, based on the age of the child and the severity of the infraction, will keep you honest and establish a system of fairness within the household. When older children start to complain that their younger sibs have it easy, remind them of a few choice examples from when they were younger. This usually breaks the ice and distracts them from their initial complaint.

TFG: How does or should disciplining your child change as he or she gets older?
MK: The core features of discipline never change: respect, following rules, setting expectations. What changes is the content. Setting limits is the same for a 3-year-old as for your older, driving teenager. Putting away a favored doll or PSP is equivalent to not having the car keys for a weekend. Children should be aware of the rules, expectations and what happens if they are broken. While your teenager might be bigger and more moody than you are, you are still in charge. The title of “Boss” does not go away until they leave home for good. What is often lost is the knowledge that teenagers still want limits, they still want their parents to be in charge, even when everything they wear, listen to on their iPod and say to us screams: Get out of my life!

TFG: What about bad behavior from other parents? How do you handle a parent who is hitting or screaming at his or her child in front of you?
MK: This is a tough question. We live in a society in which we are most often in contact with people we don’t know. In the old days, everyone was born, raised and died in their village or neighborhood and there was a sense of a community raising their children. There is a lot of evidence suggesting that the spike in urban crime over the past few decades is due to adults losing their “policing role” over the kids in the neighborhood. This is probably true for non-urban settings as well. Adults used to know every kid and his mother—and would let misbehaving children know that. Who didn’t live in fear of the phone ringing at night with a negative report from a neighborhood parent? That simply happens infrequently today.

We are, unfortunately, powerless when we see “bad parenting” out in public. Clearly, if a child is being abused, a report, which can be anonymous, filed with Child Protective Services can and should be made. If we witness poor parenting from friends, that might be a time to inquire about stress at home. Rather than address the behavior directly, which might lead to defensiveness or hostility, a gentle show of support might allow your friend to express other conflict or frustration in her life that is leading to a breakdown in parenting.

Got more questions for Dr. Kaplan? E-mail him at info[at]

Posted in Family