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Bratty Behavior Explained

Like most preschoolers, my son could be a handful when he was 3 years old. But even when he was naughty, he was so adorable that I couldn't bring myself to discipline him properly. He'd act up, then he'd flash a mischievous grin that made me laugh and forgive him. My husband and I let him get away with much more than we should have. And many times, we gave in to Eric's demands because we were too tired to deal with the whining or crying that set in when we did say no. The result: Eric turned into a discipline nightmare.

So how did I put an end to the madness? By changing my discipline habits. For starters, I realized that I had to set rules, then stand firm no matter what. And if he didn't follow them, I had to enforce consequences. "If a child can make you change your mind just once, your 'rules' become something he can ignore," says developmental psychiatrist Denis Donovan, M.D., author of What Did I Just Say!?! Could you use a little backbone in the discipline department too? Try these strategies for dealing more effectively with common behavior problems.

Hitting

  • Why kids do it: Hitting is a normal phase in toddler development, and it usually begins at about 2 years old. But this does not mean you should ignore your child's aggressive acts. You need to teach toddlers that hitting is wrong and help them learn to control their impulses.
  • Are you handling it wrong? You need to discipline hitting immediately. "When you say to a child, 'If you hit him again, we're leaving,' you're giving him permission to do it one more time before he gets in trouble," says Edward R. Christophersen, Ph.D., coauthor of Parenting That Works: Building Skills That Last a Lifetime. In your child's mind, saying this is the same as giving him the go-ahead—and that's not the message you want to send.
  • How to stop the bad behavior for good: Never let your child get away with hitting. When he whacks another toddler—or you—immediately pull him away and say, "No hitting. Hitting hurts." Stating your rule and then explaining it will help him understand why he should follow it. Then remove him from the situation. If you're at the playground, leave immediately. If you're at home, put your preschooler in a two-minute time-out. And be sure that hitting doesn't pay off. If he hit a playmate while grabbing for a toy, be sure to take away the toy. He'll begin to realize that using words and gestures is more effective.

Whining

  • Why kids do it: Because it works! Whining grates on parents' nerves, so they tend to give in rather easily, says Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D., creator of the DVD 1-2-3 Magic: Managing Difficult Behavior in Children 2-12.
  • Are you handling it wrong? Admit it—kids sometimes need to whine to get our attention. When your child asks for something in a normal tone of voice, you may ignore her or just say no because you're too busy or too tired to deal with whatever she wants at the moment. That irritating voice is supereffective—it gets you to turn around and focus on what she's saying.
  • How to stop the bad behavior for good: Simply tell your child, "I don't listen to whiny voices. If you ask me in a nice voice, I'll help you get what you want." Then keep the promise. Really listen when your daughter asks for something. Don't say no automatically—think about whether there's a valid reason to refuse her request. If there is, explain why so that your child knows you mean it. While she may not be happy, she'll stop whining.

Throwing Tantrums

  • Why kids do it: Toddlers don't talk much, so the more angry, scared, or frustrated they get, the more they turn to tears, shrieks, and other meltdown maneuvers. But preschoolers, too, may resort to behavior like this when they don't get what they want. Tantrums tend to occur when a child is hungry or tired.
  • Are you handling it wrong? Too often, parents just become exasperated. "You may yell, grab your child's arm, or even spank him," says Dr. Christophersen. "Instead, remain as unemotional and matter-of-fact as possible. If you shout when he has a tantrum, you're teaching him to do the same thing when he's angry." If you feel yourself start to lose control, take a deep breath and calm down.
  • How to stop the bad behavior for good: Be empathetic when your child says he doesn't want to do something or becomes upset when you've said no to him. Say, "I know you want a cookie. I know you're feeling upset. But we're having dinner soon and we don't eat cookies before dinner. You can have one for dessert." Talking to your child in this way will acknowledge his feelings, giving him back a sense of control. Also, plan ahead: Carry snacks when you go out, and run errands and schedule visits at a time when your child is well rested.

Resisting Bedtime

  • Why kids do it: It's pretty simple: Children don't go to bed when you ask them to because they'd rather keep playing or stay up with you. "Two-, 3-,and 4-year-olds want to assert their independence," says Parents adviser Jodi Mindell, Ph.D., author of Sleeping Through the Night. "They don't want to be told to go to bed."
  • Are you handling it wrong? "Bedtime battles tend to happen when parents don't set consistent limits," says Dr. Mindell. Don't let kids stay up late and fall asleep on the couch, and don't let them get away with stalling techniques such as getting out of bed because they're thirsty or asking for a good-night kiss again. Once kids know you won't give in, bedtime goes a lot more smoothly.
  • How to stop the bad behavior for good: Set up a bedtime routine, and enforce it. "State the rules clearly—'Bedtime is 7 p.m. We put on our pj's and read two books.' And follow through every night," says Dr. Mindell. "Include every one of your child's nighttime needs in your routine—a last trip to the potty, a good-night hug." Then just put up with the fussing—it's temporary. To help your toddler feel as if she has some control over the situation, let her choose which of two pairs of pj's she'd like to wear or which story she wants to read. Finally, make sure your child is going to bed early enough. "Once kids get overtired, they get cranky because they're all wound up and can't fall asleep," adds Dr. Mindell.

Acting Defiant

  • Why kids do it: Around ages 2 or 3, your formerly easygoing angel may morph into a stubborn, sassy handful who refuses to listen or follow your requests. His favorite word? "No!" What's going on? "At about this age, children start to learn that they do have some control over their environment, and they're trying to become more independent," says Parents adviser Sal Severe, Ph.D., author of How to Behave So Your Preschooler Will, Too!
  • Are you handling it wrong? The absolute worst way to handle your child's defiance is to argue or plead with him. "Parents sometimes make the mistake of treating kids like little adults," says Dr. Phelan. "If your child isn't listening, you may bombard him with more and more reasons for why he should cooperate. But that's not discipline; that's begging."
  • How to stop the bad behavior for good: Refuse to argue; instead, be consistent and clear about what kind of behavior is expected. "Acknowledge that there are times he might not want to do something—like put away his toys—and that his feelings are understandable, but tell him he still has to do it," says Dr. Severe. Just say, "Let's get started. I know you can do a good job." Then take him by the hand, and help him pick up his toys.

Copyright© 2005. Reprinted with permission from the August 2005 issue of Parents magazine.

All content here, including advice from doctors and other health professionals, should be considered as opinion only. Always seek the direct advice of your own doctor in connection with any questions or issues you may have regarding your own health or the health of others.