Discipline is all about raising confident, caring, compassionate, courageous and socially well-adjusted children through to young adulthood. Excessive stubbornness, tantrums and other unacceptable behaviour in toddlers and small children is all about a strong will developing, an excitable personality, the need for significant attention and noticing that a parent reacts very strongly to this behaviour. We should accept that little ones are by their very nature rather chaotic, curious, adventurous, untidy and given to clumsiness and delight at being grubby, and the sting will go out of many so-called ‘discipline’ crises.
Of course it is a parental responsibility to help your children develop toward greater rationality, responsible action, tidiness, cleanliness and co-ordination, but this is a gradual process and it is simply not worth the anger, the frustration and the resentment so many parents experience in their efforts to discipline. It may be difficult to believe that your children will ever master these milestones and give up on bad habits, but they will and you need to provide the positive atmosphere so necessary for best completion of this task.
There is nothing as off-putting as a whining, tantrum-throwing child, especially in company. And yes, it does reflect badly on us, the parents. In my opinion though, not only because we haven’t been tough enough but because we also haven’t been sensitive enough to the emotional needs of our little ones. Emotional needs can be met in only a few ways. Most important of these is spending significant time with our children. Time where we allow no distractions, where we interact meaningfully with our whole being and not half our minds on something else. Time where we discover the delightful quirks of their personalities and where we are transported back to the healing beauty of play and simple activities. Time where we experience the mutual benefit of touch, through massage, tickling games or pure cuddling. Time where we acknowledge that the total demand on our resources by our little ones is not wrong, but simply about who human babies are, how they are programmed and the way in which they grow into confident, happy adults. Research is increasingly linking all manner of crime and violence to lack of gentle, involved pregnancy, harsh birthing and hands-off child raising – a very good reason to reconsider our disciplinary methods.
Let me hasten to add that this does not mean there should be no limits for children – this is where parents need to be a little tough! Wise, loving house rules are excellent because it is part of the socialization process and imparts a sense of security, no matter how they kick against them. Many parents err on this point, but even more err on the side of lack of significant interaction with their little ones.
Babies and children have all the potential to be just as complex – and complicated – as their adult counterparts, with a few very significant differences. They only become anxious if their parents radiate anxiety, even if their inherent temperament predisposes them to be a worrier. This basically means that they are happy by nature. Although they have personalities as individual as ours – and that means some are nicer than others! – most babies and small children are just waiting for the chance to laugh and enjoy. Much as their parents are convinced that they display intentionally manipulative behaviour, children do not display significant rational behaviour and analytical ability until the age of three to four years.
As with so many of life’s challenges, the answers to discipline challenges are often deceptively simple. This requires a leap of faith for many, but take it from the many experienced parents who have discovered that chilling out a bit and emphasising happy times attains the same goals in a far more contented fashion.
Golden guidelines for dealing with problem behaviour
- Example is all-important so consider your own actions and reactions as parents and individuals, realising that there is also a personality-gene component to temperament.
- Spend significant time with your child often. This means nothing must disrupt your time together and you should rediscover the joy and fantasy of a childhood world with your child, reading, picking flowers, stroking the dog, etc.
- Reward ‘positive behaviour’ by interacting with your child at such times too (not only waiting for bad behaviour to notice your child), not in a patronising way or by taking over your child’s game or activity, but simply quietly joining in.
- Have few wise, loving, consistent house rules that recognise the nature of a child (so they mustn’t be too adult-like!). Reach consensus between partners about house rules. Don’t discuss these in front of your child. Be prepared to accept that rules will not necessarily be exactly the same as when you were a child and practice the art of give and take, so that both parents feel good about the rules. Always test them against the bigger picture. Tidiness in the home teaches a child many good things but fighting daily about perfection leaves a legacy of unhappy memories and associations, for instance.
- Use the word ‘no’ as seldom as possible as it will carry no effect if forever in use but not backed up with action. The child’s safety and respect for other people and their values and property are the most essential occasions on which a firm ‘no’ without the need to explain in detail should be used.
- Even if you are able to afford it, do not give in to your child’s every material wish. These are limitless anyway, but it is a most valuable lesson to learn, that things of value must be earned and that contentment depends on many other things too. Rather give of your time and teach your child to fold a paper jet than buy the most convincing model plane.
- Do not be a slave to your child. If you give them their due by spending significant time with them, sometimes shorter, sometimes longer, it is your right to firmly but kindly let them know who the parent is.
- Learn and use the skill of distraction as this is an excellent tool for teaching self-discipline. Helping your child to rather channel negative energy (which might well lead to tantrum behaviour) into something pleasant or constructive teaches the lesson that you do not always need to do what you feel compelled to right then, but that your mood can improve a great deal while you pace yourself by consciously doing some other activity. The key to successful distraction is noticing the build-up of negative patterns in time, and drawing attention away by offering a compelling enough alternative activity. Generally if this involves animals, water, mud or bubbles, most little ones will respond easily and leave off the negative behaviour. Keep a handy “wits’ end” list stuck to your fridge to consult when you simply cannot think of an effective distraction.
- If after all of this (and you must not skip any of these steps!), your little one still throws a tantrum or displays other unacceptable behaviour, simply say a firm ‘no’, turn around and walk away, not making any further eye contact or conversation. Keep moving as your little one will probably follow you and make their feelings known increasingly loudly. Play music to help soothe you (and your toddler). By letting your child get to you now, you would be the audience, your child the actor! Remove the audience value and no actor will perform. Obviously this technique will need to be adapted a little if you are out and about, but if you are consistent at home, tricky situations will occur less and less frequently elsewhere.
- Remember too that little ones pick up on their parent’s anxiety and can then play up. Taking Rescue Remedy (sometimes just you, the parent, but also helpful for the child) can cut through behaviour that builds into a vicious circle, due to the anxiety factor.
- Toddlers with tantrum tendencies, where it seems to be in their personality, often do very well on a course of homoeopathic Chamomilla D6.
The child’s perspective
It is important to consider what children are getting out of the irritating mannerisms they display. Very often these are about comfort. Any repetitive habit provides a sense of the familiar, and if it feels good, a child will soon learn to indulge that sensation. Comfort habits are fine unless they are a sign that the child is not deriving enough nurturing from its prime comforters, the parents. Take more time and approach your child more gently and chances are many of these habits will peter out.
Boredom is a sure fuel for annoying habits. Hands that are never busy will get up to mischief. Learn to read your child’s behaviour and body language in such a way that you are able to intervene positively in good time, by calling to your child to come and play a hands-on game. Limit video and TV watching too.
Genetics does seem to have some influence. These are often the most difficult habits to help break and paradoxically are often least acceptable to and understood by a parent fearful of the repeating cycle.
Some habits help a child to test limits set for him or her, like swearing, shrieking or prolonged silliness. Of course these can all be simple cases of following a bad example, youthful exuberance or delight in the unexpected. House rules set in kindness and love with a good pinch of tolerance and flexibility will see you able to ensure that behaviour remains within realistically acceptable bounds while maintaining some semblance of parental dignity and control. Follow through with setting a good example.