Tuning In, the parent survey conducted by ZERO TO THREE, confirmed that discipline is one of the toughest jobs for parents when it comes to raising young children. More than half of parents across all economic, gender and racial/ethnic segments say that “figuring out the most effective way to discipline” and “managing my child when he/she misbehaves” are among their biggest challenges when it comes to parenting a young child (57% and 56% respectively).
One major factor that makes it so difficult for parents is an overestimation of children’s ability for self-control, which can lead to frustration for both parents and children. Our survey showed that more than half of all parents believe children have the impulse control to resist the desire to do something forbidden. And almost 50% of parents believe children can control their emotions—such as not having a tantrum when frustrated—well before children are capable of this kind of self-control, which is not until about ages 3 ½ to 4 years. The parts of a toddler’s brain that control emotions are in the very early stages of development in the first 3 years. Challenging behavior does not happen because very young children are “bad” or need to be “taught a lesson” through punishment. Instead, parents can see young children as learning machines who need support to manage strong emotions and offer the steady teaching and guidance they need.
Lessons are best learned through kind, consistent leadership and modeling. As parents, this means we need to show children how to “keep their cool” by doing it ourselves, over and over. Here are six scenarios that offer some ideas for using an empathetic, teaching and guiding approach to discipline in the early years.
Behavior: Child refuses to stop doing something you’ve asked her to stop, such as throwing a ball in the house.
Parent Self-Check: Acknowledge that the desire to throw is natural for young children and remember that she isn’t doing it on purpose to drive you crazy.
Validate Child’s Feelings/Goal/Desire and Explain the Rule: “I know you love throwing the ball because it’s so much fun. But there is no throwing a ball in the house. It can be dangerous. The ball could hit someone or break something.”
Engage in Joint Problem-Solving (with children over 2 ½): Brainstorm other ways your child can play with the ball. If it’s valid, use the child’s idea. If not, offer your ideas. For example, she can throw the ball in a basket; or, she can throw the ball outside.
Behavior: Child won’t cooperate with a transition, such as to stop playing and get into the car seat to go to child care.
Parent Self-Check: Recognize that transitions are hard for young children. They need time to adjust and empathy and support to cope.
Validate Child’s Feelings/Goal/Desire and Explain the Rule: “I know it’s hard to stop playing, but the timer has gone off. That means it’s time to get into the car to go to school.”
Engage in Joint Problem-Solving (with children over 2 ½): Offer choices, such as taking a book or a small toy to ease the transition. Use humor: “What car? This isn’t a car—it’s a spaceship and you are an astronaut. Hop in!” Engage your child’s imagination and empower him as the helper: “Bear wants to go to school and needs a lap to sit on. Can you help?” If these kinds of strategies don’t work, acknowledge he’s having a hard time and as calmly and gently as possible place him in the car and move on without reacting to the protest.
Behavior: Child demonstrates aggressive behavior like hitting, kicking or biting.
Parent Self-Check: Remind yourself that it’s not “personal” or “immoral”—it’s immaturity. Young children are driven by their emotions and act on their feelings.
Validate Child’s Feelings/Goal/Desire and Explain the Rule: “I know you are mad that I took the iPad away, but hitting is not OK. I know you don’t mean to be hurtful. Sometime when you’re mad your mind and body lose control.”
Engage in Joint Problem-Solving (with children over 2 ½): When your child is calm again, ask for his ideas about how he can calm himself and express his feelings in ways that are acceptable. Offer some ideas yourself, like taking deep breaths to calm down, stomping his feet to get the anger out, or using his words to express just how mad he is. Provide objects that are safe to hit. “You can’t hit people-that hurts. You can bang this drum instead.”
Behavior: Child tells a lie to try to get out of trouble, like saying she didn’t take a cookie when you know she did.
Parent Self-Check: Know that lying is a normal developmental phase. Young children don’t fully appreciate the meaning or consequences of lying. Calling them out on it directly is not a useful approach and can lead to more lying.
Validate Child’s Feelings/Goal/Desire and Explain the Rule: Go straight to the issue to avoid getting into a power struggle about whether she “did it” or not: “You wanted a cookie. I get that, you love cookies. But the rule is that you need to ask me before taking sweets from the kitchen. I know it’s hard when you want something you can’t have. You can choose apple slices or yogurt.” Using this approach sends an important message and sets a limit without shaming your child.
Engage in Joint Problem-Solving (with children over 2 ½): Let your child know that whenever she has a problem (like wanting a cookie), she can come to you for help figuring it out.
Behavior: Child talks back to you or says something that pushes your buttons: “You are a bad, mean mommy!”
Parent Self-Check: Calm yourself with a deep breath, and recognize that young children will rely on any strategies that get a big reaction from you.
Validate Child’s Feelings/Goal/Desire and Explain the Rule: Calmly address the underlying issue. For example, “I know you are mad that I won’t let you play with my jewelry. But my necklace is fragile and not a toy.” Then move. Avoid reacting to the words/behavior that are designed to yank your chain.
Engage in Joint Problem-Solving (with children over 2 ½): Ask your child for her ideas about other ways she can dress up. Offer a choice of something more acceptable your child might play with, such as some pretend/plastic jewelry or other dress-up items.
Behavior: Child yells or screams at you to do something, like demanding you make him a waffle.
Parent Self-Check: Take deep calming breaths and remind yourself that young children are driven by their desires.
Validate Child’s Feelings/Goal/Desire and Explain the Rule:“I know you are hungry and want a waffle, but I can’t help you when you are shouting at me. When you can ask me calmly, I am happy to help.”
Engage in Joint Problem-Solving (with children over 2 ½): Acknowledge that he has strong feelings and desires, then explain that demanding people do things and shouting are not acceptable strategies. Talk about or model other ways to communicate his feelings in ways that will make it more likely others will want to help him.
Behavior: Child melts down completely, for example when she is told it’s time to leave grandma’s house.
Parent Self-Check: Remember that the toddler brain has very little ability to control strong emotions.
Validate Child’s Feelings/Goal/Desire and Explain the Rule: “I know how hard it is to say goodbye to grandma. You love her so much. But it’s time to go. We will come back and visit again soon.” Then stop talking—that’s the hardest part! Too much language can be overwhelming to the child. She mostly just needs your soothing presence and to know you understand.
Engage in Joint Problem-Solving (with children over 2 ½): Problem-solving can only happen once your child is calm. Acknowledge her strong feelings. When she is calm, comment on what a great job she did calming herself down - no matter how long it took. Then work together on ways to manage when she has to part from a loved one, such as having a special “see-you-next-time” kiss, or maybe snap a photo to send to grandma’s phone on the way home as a way to feel connected.
More results from tuning In: National Parent Survey can be found on www.zerotothree.org/parent-survey. Learn more about how to support children’s healthy development in the first year and beyond by visiting www.zerotothree.org and www.JoinVroom.org, or by tweeting #ParentForward.