Here's what really works to get a difficult kid to behave.
I am the parent of a child who is different. These differences have meant that he has been difficult to parent. His temperament is sensitive, intense and impulsive, and these traits have meant that both at-home and at-school behavior have been problematic. So problematic that by the age of 7, he had been asked to leave his third school in so many years. Behavior ranged from pushing children in the playground to damaging property, stealing sweets from a shop, refusing to do what parents or teachers asked and releasing school pets from captivity!
I then became the pendulum parent, swinging between turning a blind eye and coming down hard on him, banning him from using the iPad for the rest of the week and then regretting it when I needed that digital babysitter. I found myself shouting like a banshee and threatening to cancel his birthday party, and all because he refused to eat his dinner when I had mixed vegetables with the meat.
It was so easy for my button to get pressed and for me to become a scary mama; eventually, I turned into a shout-a-holic.
However, I soon found out that punishment breeds resentment and rebellion and lowers self-esteem. Understanding that so much of my son’s behavior was because of low self-esteem and stress underpinned my new approach. His distracting behavior at school sought to deflect from his agonizing feeling of stupidity. I learned techniques to cool his impulsive brain. I looked at him through different eyes and found more compassionate and effective ways to discipline.
It is possible to encourage cooperation, even in challenging children, without shouting, nagging, lecturing, bribing or threatening and smacking. When parents use positive discipline, it is more likely that their children will want to do the right thing. This is the key to achieving cooperation. When children are being cooperative everyone is pleased with them. They feel happier about themselves and behave well. They then win more approval. It’s a positive cycle that results in happier children and calmer parents. Challenging children experience a lot of criticism, and what they crave more than anything are consistency and positive attention.
I advocate positive discipline not because I’m soft, but because this is what is effective to get kids to do what they’ve been asked and build good values. Telling kids off, pointing out what they’re doing wrong (no matter how well-intentioned) and punishing just doesn’t work. How often have you reprimanded your child only to find them doing the same thing the next day? Parents do that because that’s how we were taught and because we don’t have an alternative.
Top tips for positive discipline for challenging kids
1. Descriptively praise children in detail when they are doing the right thing and following the rules.
Notice and comment on what they are doing right rather than giving most of your attention to the difficult behavior. Criticism is demotivating and lowers self-esteem.
2. Don’t blame or punish, but teach.
Punishment delivered in anger breaks the connection with the child and makes him feel bad about himself, resulting in poor behavior. No learning takes place when a child is afraid or feeling resentful. When something goes wrong take cool-down ime. Try a two-minute break for minor misbehaviors and have calm problem-solving conversations for bigger things. When a child whines, instead of criticizing and scolding say: “It’s hard for me to listen to you like that. Please use your strong voice—that way I can hear!”
3. Make clear rules that focus on what you want to happen, not undesirable behavior.
Writing them down will help consistency.
4. Use small non-material rewards such as a game or activity with you or an extra story.
Recognition tokens like pasta pieces in a jar work well.
5. Follow through with relevant consequences discussed calmly and never make idle threats that you won’t carry out.
6. Instead of immediately saying “no” to a simple request, say “yes, when you have had supper/done your homework/tidied up …”
7. Make a rule for yourself that you are not going to shout, and apologize if you do, explaining why it’s wrong.
Eighty percent of parenting is modeling, so what children see, children do.
Over the years with developing awareness of how to parent more positively and researching good educational environments, our challenging son finished school on a high as school captain has completed a university degree and is now a budding entrepreneur. I have no idea what the future holds, but what I do know is he’s a good and capable person with a strong moral compass. The respect we hold for each other has been earned by using the long-term influence of positive discipline and not the short-term power of punishment.
Written by Elaine Halligan for Working Mother and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.