Listen and Use Your Words
How you communicate with your child can prevent (or trigger) a blowup. "Talk without giving long lectures or scolding, and explain rules and expectations in language the child can understand," says Dean Pearson, Ph.D., author of Is Anybody in Charge? A Guide for Managing Children and Teaching Them Self-Control. That means keeping your cool, getting down to your child's eye level, and keeping sentences and requests simple. Allowing your kid to use his words helps too, so "listen carefully to your child's feelings and thoughts," Dr. Pearson says. Giving options can also reduce tantrums and disobedience. Instead of always telling your child what he can or can't do, give him choices ("Would you like to read a book or draw a picture?" "Do you want to put on your pajamas now or after you brush your teeth?") Your kiddo is likely to be more cooperative, and there will probably be fewer power struggles, if he feels that you are listening to him and that he has some control.
Focus on the Positive
Focusing on the behavior you like -- and ignoring what you don't -- teaches your little one that there are more effective ways to get attention. Don't overlook too much, however. Sometimes kids act up because they need something, such as attention, comfort, or reassurance, but they don't know how to ask for it. As long as your child isn't hurting himself or someone else, it's okay to pretend you don't see some minor offenses, says Nancy Buck, Ph.D., author of How to Be a Great Parent: Understanding Your Child's Wants and Needs. If the misconduct gets to a point where you can no longer ignore it (or if it occurs in an inappropriate place, like at the library or in a restaurant), make sure your reaction is calm and steady. Getting overly emotional or raising your voice tells the child that a particular behavior is an attention-grabber, which means he's sure to repeat it. Instead, notice the times your child is obeying the rules and make a big deal about those. However, if your normally docile child seems especially feisty, or the misbehavior is extreme or ongoing, consult a pediatrician or child behavioral expert for advice.
Try Quick Distractions
Toddlers and preschoolers are still young enough to be swayed by distractions. Saying "We don't pull the dog's tail" in a firm voice and immediately redirecting her (to play paper basketball or have a crazy dance session) can put a quick end to undesirable behavior without the need for harsh punishments. Over time, it will teach your child that certain things -- such as hurting the family pet or any animal -- are no-nos.
Withhold Privileges for a While
Another good discipline option is to take away privileges when your kid misbehaves. Make sure discipline is immediate and connected to the wrongdoing. So if your toddler writes on the wall, take away her crayons for 20 minutes. If you take away future privileges, such as going to the bounce house the next week, she won't remember why she got in trouble and she won't connect the misbehavior to the consequence.
Allow Consequences to Happen
Don't feel that it's your duty to determine (or prevent) each and every consequence. Sometimes it's best to let nature take its course; some consequences occur naturally without your intervention. For example, if your preschooler plays too roughly with a toy (despite your warning), the toy might break. The lesson she learns will have more meaning than if you had spanked her or taken the toy away before it broke. When consequences pose a risk to your child's well-being, turn to consequences that are logically related to the offense. If, say, your child runs into the street while playing outside, tell her to go inside the house. If she takes a flying leap off the couch, tell her to sit on the floor. To reinforce the lesson, explain the reason for the consequence. Say, for instance: "You could get hit by a car when you run in the street. If you won't stay in the driveway, I won't allow you outside to play." Or: "When you jump off the couch, you could get hurt. If you can't sit on the couch, you must sit on the floor.")
Find a Time-Out Spot
When young children have meltdowns or are engaged in a rowdy activity, they might not be able to unwind by themselves. A time-out forces a break in the unwanted behavior and gives the child a chance to regain self-control. For time-outs, find a safe spot with no distractions, state the reason for the time-out ("You can't hit your sister; you need a time-out.), and keep the time-out short. Experts recommend one minute for each year of the child's life. If your tot is being disruptive when you're on the go, time-outs can still work in public. Find an out-of-the-way spot (such as an empty a bench in the mall, a restroom, or a corner of the car's backseat), and keep interactions with your child to a minimum. Shrug off any embarrassment, and go through with the time-out as if you were at home.
Give Yourself a Time-Out
Time-outs can sometimes help parents as much as naughty kids. Moms and dads might spank because they're tired, frustrated, and overwhelmed. If you feel as if you're losing your sanity, take a breather. Let your child know, "Mommy is feeling cranky, so she needs a time-out." Then have a partner, trusted friend, or neighbor lend a hand. For those instances when no one is able to help, make sure your kid is in a safe area and take a quick trip to a quiet room to calm down and regroup. If you're in a public setting and feel your temper rising, take a couple of steps away from your child (but keep her within eyesight and arm's reach). Take a few deep breaths and go on a mental mini-break. Imagine what you would wear if you were on vacation, picture yourself in bed reading a good book, or think about soaking yourself in a warm bubble bath. To keep your stress levels in check, make it a priority to eat healthfully, exercise, get enough sleep, and take "me time" occasionally. Also, don't hesitate to call on family and friends when you need time by yourself. Taking care of yourself benefits both you and your child.