At a recent parenting workshop I conducted, one parent asked me how I would handle his three year-old’s behaviour. His family of four sat in the front row seats for about 45 minutes listening intently to my talk. When I stopped for questions and answers, the little boy of three years got off his seat and ran around in circles. His father felt embarrassed by his behaviour and was the first to ask about ways to control his son’s behaviour.
I was impressed by the self-control the little boy had while I was talking. When he started running about the room, I accepted his behaviour because he needed a bit of stretching and activity. After all, he has sat passively for a long time. He was just being a normal active child. I replied that it was permissible for this little three year-old to run in circles after sitting quietly for a long time. Since we were not having a formal all-adult seminar, we should expect the children to get restless after sitting for awhile.
Around two to six years, children learn through their senses and their physical activities. They want to imitate adult’s behaviour but they are limited by their lack of experience and maturity. They will make many mistakes before they get it right. Knowing this, adults should not try to force them to mind when they find it hard to cope with behaviour such as sitting in a seminar room and not move at all. The real magic in working with children this age is to understand their developmental needs and behaviour.
Here are some of the typical situations that most parents encounter with their young children:
- If your child runs away from you and refuses to get dressed as told, he expects you to chase after him, which you have done before. You should remain where you are and wait for him to turn back and look for you. If you are in a hurry to get ready to leave in the morning, complete your other tasks before getting your child dressed. This way, you can remain calm and be able to say firmly to him that you will wait right where you are. When he is ready, then he can come over. Your child will eventually cooperate when you are consistent and firm in your ways.
- Pay more attention to your child when he is behaving well. One mother of a five year old wanted to know how to manage her son’s impatient and demanding behaviour. I advised her to acknowledge him positively when he is able to wait for something he wants. For example, when you are lining up to buy his favourite ice-cream, let him know that you notice how well he waits in line.
- If your child is clearly being defiant and out-of-control, ignore him until he calms down and behaves better. When you first start ignoring your child’s negative behaviour, he will cry or scream louder than usual to show his displeasure. Be patient. It cannot get worse than this. The next thing he will do is to calm down when he cannot yell or scream anymore.
- If your child is crying or fussing because he is sick or hurt, give him your immediate attention. Always evaluate the situation properly. If your child is only crying for attention, then find something worthwhile for him to do. Decide carefully what to respond to your child. He will do better when you are clear and decisive on your part.
- Always consider your demand. Is it reasonable or would it be too difficult for him to comply? Children of different ages respond according to their maturity and level of understanding, Give clear and specific instructions so that he will be able to carry them out without difficulty. This is definitely more effective than yelling, hitting, screaming and spanking.
- Avoid making snide remarks over your child’s irritation. Saying things like “You are such a crybaby.” “Don’t be fussy. Eat your vegetables.” Sometimes, it is better to tell the child “You can take a bite or two just for taste. Next time you may eat some more and find that you like it.”
- If you choose to remove privileges, you must make sure that your child understands your reason for doing so. Taking away one toy and leaving others behind will not really make him miss that one toy. Or, you may remove the toy for too long until he has forgotten about it. Be consistent and work out what your child will miss. Set a certain time-frame without making this method lose its effectiveness.
- When one child misbehaves and the other siblings do not, avoid making comparison or allowing the other child to take advantage of the situation. Never tell your misbehaving child to act like her good sister. This will spark off instant sibling rivalry and lead to worst behaviour. Deal with each child and each situation separately. Make sure that you pay positive attention to each child to show them that they are loved and cared for as individuals.
- Parents tend to find too many faults with their children. This can lead to much behavioural problems. In most families, children are thriving normally with their strengths and weaknesses; they do not really have major discipline problems. Parents must learn to take a step back and let children learn to control their behaviour as much as possible. When we correct our children all the time, we do not trust them to learn to do the right things for themselves. Whenever it is possible, we should allow our children to learn do things by themselves and that includes self-discipline.
- Every child in the family responds differently to various methods of discipline. Parents must find out what works for each child rather than implementing the same method on all the children in the family. Even for triplets and twins, children have individual preferences. If parents have exhausted all ways of handling their difficult and challenging children, it may be the time to seek professional guidance and counseling.
Ruth Liew is an expert in early childhood education, child development, parenting, and child care. She is also an author and a columnist.