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The Discipline Dilemma: Guiding Principles for Managing Challenging Behaviors

Tuning In, ZERO TO THREE’s national Parent Survey, conducted in partnership with the Bezos Family Foundation, revealed that parents struggle with finding effective ways to discipline their children. Over half (56%) say that managing their child when he/she misbehaves is one of their top challenges. Nearly 6 in 10 parents (57%) say they struggle with figuring out the most effective way to discipline. Sixty percent wish they had more patience and 47% wish they could do a better job of managing their own emotions.

At the same time, parents told us they don’t want one-size-fits-all approaches because they rarely work. So instead of advice, we offer frames that can help parents tune in to the meaning of their child’s behavior and develop a discipline approach that works best for their individual child and family.

1. Be sure your expectations for your child match his/her age and stage of development. Recognize that young children are driven by emotions and not logic, so irrational behavior is totally normal.

Expecting more from children than they are capable of can lead to lots of frustration for both parents and children. Our research revealed that a majority of parents believe children start developing self-control much earlier than brain science tells us is possible. More than half (56%) of parents believe children have the impulse control to resist the desire to do something forbidden before age 3. And 36% believe that children under age 2 have this kind of self-control. And almost half (42%) believe children can control their emotions, by 2 years of age. In fact, these skills start developing between 3.5 and 4 years, and take many more years to be used consistently. Having appropriate expectations is critical because the meaning you assign to a child’s behavior influences how you react. If you think your child is purposefully breaking rules, you are much more likely to react in harsh ways that escalate, instead of calm, your child. If you see these behaviors in the context of normal development, you are more likely to approach your child with empathy and appreciate these moments as opportunities to teach good coping skills.

2. Feelings are not the problem. How kids (and adults!) act on and express their emotions can be problematic.

Recognizing and naming feelings is the first step toward learning to manage them in healthy, acceptable ways over time. Validating your child’s feelings also reduces her need to act on those feelings.

3. Manage your own emotions.

It is important to tune in to and manage your feelings, because how you react in these challenging moments with your young child deeply affects her ability for self-regulation and self-control far into the future. Research and real-life show that when parents react harshly (emotionally or physically), children’s distress tends to escalate. Children can’t learn when they are upset or scared.

4. Look at the world from your child’s perspective. Learning to manage emotions and deal with life’s frustrations and disappointments is hard work for very young children.

Toddlers have strong feelings but few tools for managing them. The part of the brain responsible for managing behavior and impulses is still very immature under age 3. Young children need help to cope with life’s rules and limits. They need support and guidance to learn about controlling their emotions and adapting to the many rules they encounter at home and in the outside world.

5. All behavior has meaning.

A tantrum in the grocery store might be caused by sensory overload, fatigue or disappointment about not getting a cookie. Biting may be due to a need for stimulation or a strategy to keep others out of her space. Trying to understand the root cause of a behavior can help you find discipline strategies that are sensitive and effective. This means asking some questions about factors that impact behavior: What’s going on in your child’s world? Has she experienced a recent move? A loss? The arrival of a new baby? Parental stress? What about your child’s temperament? Is she a big reactor or a go-with-the-flow kind of kid? Is he persistent or does he get frustrated easily? How does she react to new people and experiences? Does she jump right in or need time to feel comfortable? All of these factors influence children’s ability to cope with everyday rules, challenges and disappointments, which can include: adapting to a new experience, having to share, learning to sleep in their own room, or stopping an activity they love because they have to do something they don’t love (like leaving the playground to go home for a nap).

6. See your child as a partner in solving problems.

Starting at around 2.5 to 3 years of age, children begin to understand logic—why things happen. That means she can start to participate in problem- solving. “Throwing balls at people is not okay. It hurts. What are other ways you can use the ball?” “Two boys, one truck, what should we do?” The more children feel they are a part of the solution, the more likely they are to cooperate with it. Life is a series of problems to solve every day, so nurturing this skill in young children is one of the greatest gifts you can give them.

7. Avoid harsh punishment.

There is increasing and overwhelming evidence that harsh emotional and physical discipline methods (like shaming or spanking) are harmful to children’s social-emotional and cognitive development. While it may appear to work in the moment—stopping a behavior out of fear— it is not effective in teaching self-control in the long term.

Discipline is both a challenge and an opportunity for teaching children critical life skills that will help them thrive in all aspects of their lives. Use your power in positive ways.


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