Do you have a young child, maybe below 7 years of age?
Do you find that he/she is often stubborn and demanding?
Do you find it difficult to be both calm and firm with the child, especially when he/she is typically stubborn and unrelenting?
If you answered ‘yes’ to all the above questions, this article is for you
Disciplining children is for sure a big big deal. I know this through almost all parents I have seen in therapy. Their children are no older than about 5 or 6. They’re all very adorable, no doubt. ..and they seem to know just what to do to corner their parents and get them to agree to what they say!
This sounds like it’s too extreme to be true, but if you are a parent, and have difficulty being assertive and firm with your child, you’d know exactly what I’m trying to say!
This article describes some ideas about children’s behavior, discipline and the ability to be firm with children when it is really needed. So let’s start out by asking
What Behavior Truly Needs to be Changed?
Understanding what behavior needs to be changed is the starting point of disciplining children with compassion.
There would be several occasions when you want the child to behave in a certain way and the child doesn’t. Do you need to be firm and insistent with the child every time this happens? Not necessarily.
Often, as parents, you may tend to get annoyed with what the child says or does and this is natural. However, take a pause, step for a bit out of your space and truly think for the child. This is very important if you wish to discipline them compassionately.
For example, let’s imagine that on an instance, your little one eagerly insists on trying to tie his shoelaces by himself. On another occasion, he insists that you buy him the latest games; only then he’ll move out of the mall.
What behavior out of these two could be annoying? Both. You could have a flight to catch or a meeting to attend while your child is at his shoelaces. You could be irritated at your child’s insistence for games every time you go to the mall. Both situations can be annoying for you.
However though, what behavior is truly harming the child? Clearly, the first behavior is not harmful, while the second one is. While you can gently request the child to attempt his shoelaces the next day, this behavior doesn’t need to be ‘disciplined’, while the second one probably does.
Thinking from the child’s point of view is crucial to make healthy decisions about how firm you need to be with the child.
The rule of thumb is, if the child is learning a way of dealing with the world that sooner or later would prove to be unhealthy, it needs to be modified.
‘Consistency’, the Backbone of Disciplining Children
Once you have established what behavior is harmful for the child, the next step is to initiate change in the behavior. Inculcating discipline, or changing negative behavior is a lot about consistency. It is about implementing rules consistently, on every occasion, until the child learns the healthy behavior, or unlearns the unhealthy one.
For example, if your child is asking for too many toys, you might have to say ‘no’ every time your child asks for excess toys, until he/she accepts the rule.
That also means, you will have to see the child whimper, whine away, probably get angry, cry, maybe sometimes even threaten you (‘I won’t eat dinner if you won’t get me that!’)
Some of you probably hesitate a little while you say no to your child. ‘After all, she’s all of 4! How can I say no to her?’ is one thought that could cross your mind.
I can understand that you are also in a dilemma internally, and that stepping up and being firm seems too difficult to do.
As a psychologist, I have the well-being of children very close to my heart. Yet, I think it is okay to say no to children if their behavior is clearly not healthy.
And Why do I Think So?
As parents, you do want to raise well-adjusted children. As a part of this process, it is very important for children to realize that they have boundaries; that at times, things will not go their way. And a good starting point for such training is you.
There are commonly 3 worries parents have in mind when they are unable to say ‘no’ emphatically. Let’s see what these worries are; and also why each of these worries is not necessarily good for the child.
‘He’s only 4! He wouldn’t know he’s behaving unreasonably’
Maybe this is true. Maybe very young children do not completely understand that their behavior is unhealthy, or unreasonable.
But that’s also why helping them recognize this is important! I find parents sometimes saying ‘yes’ to the child because the child doesn’t realize that the behavior is unhealthy.
It’s extremely important to be empathic towards the fact that the child cannot judge his behavior well; but it’s equally important to help him develop that judgment. Saying no and explaining why you have said no is a much better approach than agreeing to the child’s demand. That you care to explain why, is comforting to the child, and you still don’t agree to fulfill the child’s demand indicates to the child that the demand is unhealthy.
‘If I say no, He gets very angry and upset’
Children often easily learn to use their anger and stubbornness to get their way. It’s merely a survival instinct.
They don’t lose too much opportunity to throw a tantrum, especially when their demands are not being met with.
Often, their tantrums are loud and difficult to tolerate. They cry and look really upset. No, doubt, its difficult to see this and bear with it. However, giving in to their demand to avoid a tantrum can prove to be damaging in the long run. The child learns that tantrums help him get what he wants and readily employs this strategy when he wants to.
Its much healthier to say no and let the tantrum unfold. Be with the child through the tantrum so that he doesn’t feel ignored, however, let the child understand that tantrums don’t help. Saying no and being firm about it is the best way to go about this.
‘What if he gets emotionally hurt because I say ‘no’ several times?’
If you are worried about causing emotional hurt to children because you’re firm with them, always remember
whether you say yes or no will not necessarily affect them emotionally; but how you say yes or no will affect them emotionally.
Saying no to an unhealthy demand does not mean that you be impolite, or use language that is scarring. As a simple example, – just saying, ‘You’ve crossed your limit for toys this month’ is not hurtful. However, saying ‘bad boy, always asking for toys and troubling daddy’ is likely to be far far more hurtful, even if you buy him the toy.
And why is that so?
The first reply was directed at the behavior in question and was clear and firm.
However, the second reply stepped beyond the behavior. It labeled the child as bad. It also said that he tries to intentionally trouble his father. Well, at so young an age, children don’t completely understand that they’re being unreasonable and troublesome, remember?
Emotional hurt is only caused by behavior that stings the child’s self esteem and makes him feel low about himself. It is not caused by some basic rules that are followed assertively.
Hope this helped alleviate some doubts and answered some questions in your mind. If you have any afterthoughts, please do feel free to write back to me in the comments section.
Also, if you see any parent benefitting from reading this article, please do share it with them.
We conducted some parent group sessions at Inner Space, where we broached issues related to modifying children’s behavior and communicating with children. The links below would tell you more about these sessions:-
Image Credit: Tanozzo
About the Author: Malini Krishnan is part of the team of psychologists at Inner Space – A center for counseling and psychological assessment. Sadia Raval is the Founder & Chief Psychologist. You can know more about them here. You can follow them on Google+ , Facebook and twitter for regular updates of their work and share with them what you feel about this post.