THE MISBEHAVIOUR DILEMMA

By Waheeda Essop (Occupational Therapist)

Tantrums, sibling rivalry and mischievous activity are part and parcel of parenthood. We all have had childhood memories of what we ‘got up to’ as children, whether it be rebellious teen streaks or naughty pre-schooler pursuits. With this we also have memory of our parents rules and how they dealt with us in those situations. A solid scolding or firm spanking was, in my memory, a fairly effective means of discipline. Is this enough for children of today? 

So lets start at the beginning. Discipline is a parenting approach used to develop good and appropriate behaviour. By enforcing discipline, you empower your child how to ‘behave’ and how NOT to behave. They also gain insight into what they are feeling and how to manage this.

ESSENTIALS IN DISCIPLINE

  1. Have RULES. Rules offer structure and boundaries to children. And, believe it or not, help alleviate anxiety. Knowing what they can and cannot do often puts kids at ease in new situations and unfamiliar scenarios. Rules have to be age-appropriate. For e.g. a toddler will understand ‘no hitting’ coupled with a stern shake of the head as a rule. While a teenager will better relate to ‘no screen time after 8pm’. Prioritise rules during implementation. Things like hitting or damage to property can take a priority. 
  2. CONSISTENCY has got to be one of the most important aspects of implementing discipline. And this is really hard!! We are often too tired, sleep-derived or just have too many other things on our plate to follow up with misbehaviour. And it really is the easiest just to give in!! The problem with ‘consistency’ is that, the one or two times we decide to overlook or give in…can sometimes break down all that you have built in managing behaviour. And our kids (the intelligent buggers), pick up on this, and end up testing their boundaries again and again!
  3. The WHY MOMENT. When something occurs that infringes the rules or when discipline is needed, take a moment to ask ‘Why is my child doing this? Questions like:
    • Is he hungry? 
    • Is she teasing to get a rise from her brother or is it her form of affection?
    • Did he break his brother’s toy because he is angry with him or is this directed at me for not giving him enough attention?
  4. Focus on the BEHAVIOUR not the CHILD. During a reprimand, avoid saying things like ‘you’re stupid’ or ‘dumb’. Rather focus on the behaviour, ‘you hurt your sister’ or ‘you lied to me’. Then couple this with an emotion, like ‘ your actions have made me angry’.
  5. After all is settled, FOLLOW UP with your child after a reprimand or penalty with positive words like ‘I love you’ or ‘I don’t want you to get hurt’, to offer emotional support. Never apologise to your child about reprimanding him/her.
  6. Highlight and COMMEND GOOD BEHAVIOUR. It may be a few words like ‘thanks for that, you’re a star’, but will do wonders for kids self esteem and confidence! Making kids aware of your good actions are also helpful. So if you have shown a good gesture or exchanged kind words to someone, tell kids about what you did, why you did that and what happened when you did it. For example, ‘My co-worker worked really hard on her project so I mentioned her efforts at our staff meeting, this made her happy’.
  7. Apply CONSEQUENCES AS SOON AS POSSIBLE and do not reason with your child or involve yourself in an analysis of ‘who did what and why’ for too long before implementing discipline.
  8. AVOID EMPTY THREATS and promises to discipline. Always follow through regarding what you say or intend to do. 
  9. If behaviour was inappropriate, give PRACTICAL EXAMPLES how they should have behaved in that particular situation to allow for learning and modification. 
  10. Take heed of your child’s PERSONALITY AND TEMPERAMENT. They may each respond differently in different situations.

TYPES OF DISCIPLINE

Distraction

This usually works well with young children, especially toddlers. It can also be used with preschoolers as they have a shorter attention span depending on the scenario

Time-Out[1]

Time-out is an effective technique to parents of young children, aged two years through primary school years. It is effective because it keeps the child from receiving attention for a period of time. It must however be implemented correctly to be effective. It must be used unemotionally and consistently every time the child misbehaves. 

Some suggestions for parents on effective time-out include the following:

  • Introduce time-out by 24 months.
  • Pick the right place. Be sure the time-out place does not have built-in rewards. The television should not be on during time-out.
  • Time-out should last 1 min per year of the child’s age, to a maximum of 5 min.
  • Prepare the child by briefly helping him or her connect the behaviour with the time-out. A simple phrase, such as “no hitting,” is enough.
  • Parents should avoid using time-out for teaching or preaching. When the child is in time-out, he should be ignored.
  • The parent should be the time keeper.
  • After time-out is over, it is over. Create a fresh start by offering a new activity. Don’t discuss the unwanted behaviour. Just move on.

As with other disciplinary techniques, parents should refrain from hurting the child’s self-esteem by instilling shame, guilt, loss of trust or a sense of abandonment.

Consequences

Once parents have rules set up i.e. discussed and agreed with children, rule infringment can be looked at. For example, ‘if you exceed your screen limit…you will have your tablet taken away on the weekend’. These work better for school going children. They should be reminded of their offense and related consequence of their actions. 

HERE IS A SHORT GUIDE FOR DISCIPLINE THROUGH THE AGES.[2]

BABIES 0 – 12 MONTHS

Infants need a schedule around feeding, sleeping and play or interaction with others. The schedule helps regulate autonomic functions and provides a sense of predictability and safety. Infants should not be overstimulated. They should be allowed to develop some tolerance to frustration and the ability to self-soothe. Discipline should not involve techniques such as time-out, spanking or consequences.

1 – 2  YEARS

At the early toddler stage, it is normal and necessary for toddlers to experiment with control of the physical world and with the capacity to exercise their own will versus that of others. Consequently, parental tolerance is recommended. Disciplinary interventions are necessary to ensure the toddler’s safety, limit aggression, and prevent destructive behaviour. 

Removing the child or the object with a firm “No,” or another very brief verbal explanation (“No –hot”), and redirecting the child to an alternative activity usually works. The parent should remain with the child at such times to supervise and ensure that the behaviour does not recur, and also to assure the child that the parent is not withdrawing love.

Early toddlers are very susceptible to fears of abandonment and should not be kept in time-out away from the parent. However, occasionally, a parent may become so frustrated with the child that he or she needs a period of separation from the child.

Early toddlers are not verbal enough to understand or mature enough to respond to verbal prohibitions. Therefore, verbal directions and explanations are unreliable forms of discipline for early toddlers.

Example: The toddler wants to play with a breakable glass object on a hard kitchen floor. Remove the child and the object and redirect the toddler’s attention to a more appropriate activity such as playing with a ball in another room. The parent should remain with the child.

2 – 3  YEARS

The struggle for mastery, independence and self-assertion continues. The child’s frustration at realising limitations in such struggles leads to temper outbursts. As parents try to have empathy in understanding the reason for their outburst. At the same time, continue to supervise, set limits and routines, and have realistic expectations of the child. 

Knowing the child’s pattern of reactions helps prevent situations in which frustrations flare up. When the child regains control, the parent should give some simple verbal explanation and reassurance. The child should be redirected to some other activity, preferably away from the scene of the tantrum. The toddler cannot regulate behaviour based on verbal prohibitions or directions alone.

Example: The toddler has a temper tantrum in a public place. Remove the child from the place of misbehaviour. Hold the child gently until the toddler gains control. Give a short verbal instruction or reassurance followed by supervision and an example.

PRESCHOOLERS (3 – 5  YEARS)

At three years to five years of age, most children are able to accept  limitations and act in ways to obtain others’ approval. However, they have not internalized many rules, are gullible, and their judgment is not always sound. They require good behavioural models after which to pattern their own behaviour. The consistency should apply not only in the rules and actions of parents, but in other adults who care for the child.

Ensure rules are set and kids are made aware of these regularly. Time-out can be used if the child loses control. Redirection can also be done. Or small consequences related to and immediately following the misbehaviour is another alternative. Approval and praise are the most powerful motivators for good behaviour. Lectures do not work well and some consider them to be counterproductive.

Example: The preschooler draws on the wall with crayons. 

You can either

Use time-out to allow him to think about the misbehaviour. 

Or, use logical consequences, eg, take the crayons away and let the child clean up the mess to teach accountability.

SCHOOL-AGE CHILDREN (6 – 12  YEARS)

The child’s increasing independence may lead to conflicts. School-age children tend to choose their own activities and friends. Parents should continue to supervise, provide good behavioural models, set rules consistently, but also allow the child to become increasingly autonomous. 

Praise and approval should be used liberally, although not excessively, to encourage good behaviour. The use of appropriate motivators should be encouraged; for example, buy a keen reader his or her favourite book.

Acceptable means of discipline include withdrawal or delay of privileges, consequences and time-out.

Example: The child destroys toys. Instead of replacing these toys, let the child learn the logical consequences. Destroying toys will result in no toys to play with.

ADOLESCENTS (13 – 18 YEARS)

During these years conflicts frequently ensue because the adolescent is influenced by his peer group. He tends to challenge family values and rules. Parents can meet these challenges by, setting rules, not belittling the adolescent, and avoiding lectures or predicting catastrophes. Contracting with the adolescent in some form of agreement is also a useful tool. Disciplinary spanking of adolescents is most inappropriate.

Despite their challenging attitudes and need for independence, many adolescents do want parental guidance and approval. Parents should ensure that the basic rules are followed and that logical consequences are set and kept in a nonconfrontational way.

Example: The adolescent defiantly takes the car and has an accident. The logical consequence would be that there is no car to drive and that the teenager has to help pay for the repairs. This teaches accountability.

In summary, clear rules and appropriate strategies will offer parents and children structure and ease the process of dealing with unruly behaviour. Appropriate discipline provides a platform to mould behaviour, alleviate anxiety and remove insecurities. 

“Self-respect is the fruit of discipline; the sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself.”

-Abraham Joshua Heschel


[1] Drs Peter Nieman, Calgary, Alberta; Sarah Shea, IWK Health Centre, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 2004, Effective Discipline for Children. Oxford University Press, 05/05/2021, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2719514/.

[2] Drs Peter Nieman, Calgary, Alberta; Sarah Shea, IWK Health Centre, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 2004, Effective Discipline for Children. Oxford University Press, 05/05/2021, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2719514/

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