Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Behavioural Problems, Tantrums & Discipline

Question of the Week: Our daughter’s behaviour has been so difficult and we have tried everything we know to deal with it, but nothing has worked. Do you have any suggestions?

Discipline has been a ‘hot topic’ in our country of late with the Anti-Smacking Law remaining despite the results of the referendum, and the heated debates we have had between our politicians and between us as families with varying opinions, as it strikes at some of our core family values. But we’ll get to discipline a little later. First, let’s look at the reasons why our children might be throwing tantrums or being difficult in their behaviour.

There are so many reasons why our children start to behave in this way. It may be a combination of our child exercising their desire to be independent or expressing their personality (you might have heard of the “terrible twos” for instance - because the ages of 2-4yo is where developmentally children are wanting to find a bit of independence). It may be that we have not known how to discipline our child at all, or tried different ways and given them up quickly, believing they have not worked, or not had the strength to follow it all the way through. It may be that your child is simply wanting more attention from you, and the way they have discovered they get that is to throw a tantrum or behave in such a way that you will notice. Or it may be that there are problems in the family, in the home or at school, and without knowing how to communicate their feelings, your child has simply acted out their anger or fear with their behaviour - their way of saying “something is wrong!” While we can’t fully address all of these issues, we would like to give you some tips on each of them.

Step One: Boundaries

The first thing you must do as parents is to discuss what your boundaries are and how you are going to respond if they are crossed by your child (we will give you some ideas on how you can respond a little later). It’s so important that you agree as parents as to your approach and work consistently as a team. If one of you does not agree with the boundary or the response, then the exercise is futile - your child’s behaviour will not change and she/he will become confused when one parent is allowing behaviour while the other is not. It’s important to discuss what you both feel is unacceptable behaviour. Don’t assume that you both will reach the same conclusion about what is unacceptable - all of us come from different families with different parenting styles and one of us might just feel it’s best to “let it go” while the other may feel it is important to address the behaviour.

Once you have agreed what is unacceptable behaviour and how you will both respond to it, it’s important to be consistent. Make sure that the response you have chosen is something that you are both comfortable carrying out. If it’s not, then it will make the situation worse. Your child loses respect for your authority and stops paying attention to your words if they become idle threats that you don’t follow through on.

Step Two: Be Consistent

There is no point in carrying out discipline some of the time in response to behaviour, but not others (because you are too tired or the circumstances would not allow for it, eg. at someone else’s house or at the supermarket. Again, inconsistency undermines your authority as a parent and your child will continue to test the boundaries, knowing that sometimes she/he can get away with it.

Step Three: Don’t Give Up

There are times when, as a parent, you simply get exhausted with the process of addressing difficult behaviour with discipline. It takes an enormous amount of energy to persevere and remain consistent time after time - and it feels like an ongoing battle with your child. But don’t give up. Your child’s personality may have a very strong will, and if this behaviour has been allowed to continue for a long time, it will take some time for you to break it. There may be some other more positive tactics you might introduce alongside the discipline you have chosen that might help, but don’t chop and change the type of discipline you use - your child will only become confused. Just remember to balance your battles with times in the day where you simply enjoy your child. It is hard work for everyone concerned if the entire day is a battle between you.

Tips: Addressing the Cause of the Behaviour

  • Find ways to talk to your child about their behaviour in a calm manner, asking them questions to help them think about why they do it. Obviously, their ability to think and reflect and respond will depend on their age, so you may need to help them with some of their words. Teach your children about their emotions and how it is okay to express it but encourage them to express their emotions in an appropriate way. Invite them to talk to you about their feelings. Discuss what is unacceptable behaviour. As your children get older and grow into teenagers, these discussions are the most important part of discipline - without it, our children grow to resent us and we begin to lose the relationship through lack of communication.
  • If your child is at a stage where they are wanting to express some independence, find ways in which you can encourage and accommodate it. There are times where you can give way, such as allowing your child to choose what he/she will wear (or giving two choices if this ends up causing more problems!), helping you with the housework, or making small decisions such as what they will play with or where they might like to go on an outing.
  • If your child is seeking attention from you - give it to them! Try ignoring bad behaviour and praising them as much and as often as possible for good behaviour. Set up a reward chart, and make a big deal of it, be consistent with it and put on your list of things they achieve the key issues that you are battling with your child on a regular basis. Don’t reward your child with a sticker (or tick or stamp) if they have not shown good behaviour in that particular area - your child knows when they haven’t, and it will just end up being another way of being able to get away with their behaviour and still be rewarded. Make sure that you are spending quality time with your child, giving them that undivided attention and praise and encouragement that they long for.

Tips: Discipline

  • If difficult behaviour has become a pattern at certain times or during certain activities in the day, talk to your child about it in advance. For instance, you might say “we are going to have dinner now. I want to see you sitting nicely and using your manners.” (You might explain what using your manners means - addressing the behaviour you don’t like - such as using their knife and fork not their fingers, not talking with your mouthful, saying excuse me when other people are talking and you need to say something or waiting your turn etc.) Discussing activities and the behaviour you would like to see in advance helps children tremendously. Prevention is the key!
  • There is some behaviour that you might decide as parents you are simply going to ignore, and praise good behaviour instead - and you may find this works well, and those behavioural problems just fade away. The wise saying “choose your battles” applies here - otherwise you will be battling your child all day long and everyone will be miserable. So decide what behaviour you can let go, and what behaviour you can’t.
  • The tone of your voice and content of what you are saying is so important. When telling a child that you don’t like their behaviour and to stop it, there is a few things you need to do in order for your child to listen: 1) change the tone of your voice - if it’s the same tone that you use when you are talking normally or even praising your children, why would they stop and take notice? 2) don’t shout - apart from it creating a tense and aggressive atmosphere, children are emotionally affected by shouting and what’s more, they often don’t listen to it and instinctively know that you are wrong to do it - particularly as you don’t accept shouting from them, 3) change and lower your voice, remain calm but firm so your child knows that you mean it, 4) ask your child to come to you and get down on their level when addressing them about their behaviour - that way they realise that what you are saying is important and they will listen, 5) keep your instructions brief and use language your child understands - you might want to give a lecture on their behaviour (especially if it’s really made you mad!) but don’t complicate it, otherwise your child will become confused about what you are wanting
  • Have you found yourself telling your child off all day long and using the word “don’t” 50x a day? Sometimes we find ourselves saying “don’t” or telling our child off automatically before they have even done anything wrong - perhaps pre-empting bad behaviour, but this is not helpful. Not only does this make life with your child an unpleasant one, your child simply becomes confused about right and wrong and stops listening to “constant telling off” so that when she/he does do something wrong, your correction may fall on deaf ears. If this is you, try to get “don’t” out of your vocabulary and instead ask your child for the behaviour that you want to see. When you do have to address a behaviour, make sure you follow it up with behaviour you would like to see, eg. “We do not take toys off other children. I want you to go and give that toy back to that child and to go and find another toy to play with.”
  • When children cross the line and exhibit behaviour you have agreed is unacceptable, draw your child aside, speak with a low tone, say what you don’t like and what you would like instead briefly and clearly and give a warning about what will happen if they don’t stop that behaviour. It is important to give the warning every time in order to be consistent. If the behaviour continues, follow through so that your child knows they are not just idle words, and that when you speak to them about their behaviour, they need to listen and respect you.


  • Time-out is a great way to discipline children at a certain age. This can start as young as 2 years old, and might continue through to 7 years old - or as long as it seems to make a difference. You might use the child’s bedroom for time-out (particularly if the child simply needs time to calm down) or, you might find that environment is too “rewarding” and instead use a “naughty step”, a “naughty corner” or a “naughty chair.” Whatever works for you and your child. You may have to try a few locations before you have one that works for you. I have had a child go into time-out in their bedroom only to discover they had jumped out the window! Time out in the bathroom didn’t work either, they unravelled the toilet paper and made a mess! I had to settle on a “naughty corner” where I could watch her, yet made sure that I was not engaging with her during the time that she was there.
  • When putting a child into time-out, ensure you explain why you are putting them there. Put the timer on for the duration of how long they will be staying - the consensus is one minute for every year of their age, eg. 2 mins for a 2yo. Don’t speak to your child or engage with your child while they are in time-out, and make sure the rest of the family doesn’t either. If your child takes him/herself out of time-out before the timer has sounded or acts up in some other way, explain you are now restarting the timer because of this, and restart it. Do it over and over again (including putting your child back into the spot you have chosen them to go in for time-out) until they stay there. If they are calling out or trying to talk to you, ignore them. And if it carries on, explain that you are going to restart the timer and why. When time-out is up, go to your child and ask them why they were put there and ask them to apologise to you. Once they have said they are sorry for their behaviour, give them a reassuring cuddle to show them you still love them despite their behaviour!
  • Don’t go on to talk to them/lecture them about their behaviour afterwards. They have experienced the consequence of their behaviour, let them now change it and enjoy the rest of the day. Use the time your child spends in time out to calm down from the anger it might have created in you. Sometimes you need time out as a parent when you feel angry with your child for their behaviour. Don’t carry your anger on into the rest of the day - deal with it, and then rise above it to be the positive parent your kids deserve.
  • Time-out can be anywhere. Sometimes families are at a loss as to what to do when their child behaves badly in public, such as playgroup or at a playdate or at the supermarket/shopping mall. Choose a spot that is away from other people. It might be under a tree away from all the fun, or in another room of a person’s house. It might be abandoning your supermarket trolley, taking the child to “time out” in their carseat in the car, shutting the door for four minutes (or whatever the case might be) and waiting outside (with your back to them) until that time is up, then resuming your shopping.
  • Time-out is not locking a child in a room for an indefinite period of time. This creates fear in a child, and can cause emotional damage.

Taking Away Privileges

  • Before we discuss taking away privileges, it is important to determine what is a privilege and what is a need. Children have both physical and emotional needs. They have a need to be sheltered, fed and clothed, educated, nurtured, encouraged and loved. Withholding any of these, as we know, is abuse. So in terms of taking away privileges, this would not include, for instance that your child “goes without dinner.” It might include, however, “going without dessert.” One is a need, the other is a privilege. It’s important for us to recognise the difference. Often we see toys as being a need. On the one hand, it is a part of a child’s learning - so we would not take all toys away from a child as a punishment. On the other hand, it is a privilege that our child has a computer, a playstation, access to a television or dvd or any other toy that is special to them. When they are older, it is a privilege for our children to have a mobile phone or access to the internet or to go out with their friends in the evening/weekends, or to borrow the car and so on. Therefore, since it is a privilege, it is reasonable to expect our children to treat us and the things we have given them with respect.
  • When time-out no longer works for your child due to personality or age, taking away privileges is another way of disciplining our children. The same process applies: the warning, the explaining and then the following through as well as the discussion afterwards and expecting an apology. It’s often helpful to take away a privilege that has caused the behavioural problem, eg. children fighting over a particular toy or “grounding” a teenager when they have engaged in an activity outside of the home that is unacceptable. This helps a child/young person to recognise that you have given them a privilege, and you expect them to treat that privilege with respect. Sometimes, though, behaviour does not involve a privilege (a toy or freedom you’ve given them) and taking away a privilege is then simply used as a punishment - a consequence of their behaviour.


  • Tantrums are thrown by children to gain their parents’ attention and can start as young as 1yo! I have even had parents tell me that their baby less than 1yo had started to throw tantrums! It’s helpful to teach your children an appropriate way of seeking your attention and to prevent tantrums by giving your children quality time. But to stop your toddler having tantrums, the best thing that you can do is to ignore it. Ensure your child is safe (not near objects that could hurt or fall on your child), and then simply walk away and ignore it. You’d be surprised at how quickly the drama might stop when your child no longer has an audience! When you have a baby who throws him/herself back onto the floor (potentially hitting their head), clearly it would not be safe to simply leave them on their own and walk away - although once they‘re on the ground they may be safe to be left so long as they are not continuing to throw themselves back. You might choose instead to put them in their cot (on their soft cot mattress) and walk away, just standing outside the doorway waiting for it to stop - you don’t want your baby hitting his/her head on the cot rails and so on, so it’ s best to be within earshot, but enough of a distance that your baby realises they’re not getting the attention they’re looking for!
  • Keep in mind, it might take some time for your child to realise that this is just not worth the energy. Eventually it will stop, if you don’t give attention to it. If you sometimes give attention to it, the tantrums will carry on a lot longer than they have to.
  • Often children have extreme emotions that they don’t know what to do with. Over time, as parents, you will help them to learn other ways to express their emotions. In the meantime, we want the tantrums to stop.
  • It is definitely challenging for parents when they are in a supermarket, a shopping mall, at someone else’s place or out and about in public when their child throws a tantrum. A lot of parents don’t know what to do, and it doesn’t help to get the “looks” from disapproving people around them (although the ones in the know usually give sympathetic smiles!) Here’s a few things that you can do: 1) Prevent the tantrum from happening: explain what behaviour you would like from them, involve your children in the experience (eg. helping put groceries in the trolley) so they are not bored, deal with difficult behaviour early on (eg. one warning then time-out in the car) so that it doesn’t escalate into a tantrum, 2) If you are in the shopping mall or the supermarket where there are a lot of objects and a lot of people, remain a safe distance away, don’t talk/engage with your child, wait till the tantrum is over, ignore the stares and looks, remember this stage will pass!! 3) If you feel your child is not safe, move unsafe objects away from your child or move your child to a safe place - not much fun having a kicking, screaming, struggling child in your arms, so only do this if you have to, 4) If you are in a supermarket/shopping mall and your child has just had a tantrum and you were unable to deal with it by walking away, you might choose to put them in time-out for their behaviour (eg. in their carseat in the car while you stand outside it with your back to your child) so that this kind of behaviour doesn’t continue while you try to finish your shopping, 5) If you are in a situation where you can simply walk away (because your child will be safe) - such as at another person’s house - then do it! Ask your friend whether you could both go into another room until the tantrum is over.
  • Don’t stop your grocery shopping or your time with your friend because of your child’s behaviour - unless you know that your child is tired or hungry. If your child is bored, find ways to deal with that rather than simply returning home. You do need to listen to those needs, but otherwise their behaviour should not control your life. Your child needs to learn that you are the parent, and that their behaviour does not have the power to control you!

Parenting is not an easy job and behavioural problems and discipline is perhaps the hardest part about it - but we hope that you have found this advice helpful and we wish you the best with it!

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