We'd just finished dinner at a restaurant. During the meal, my daughter, Michaela, 4 at the time, picked at her chicken tenders, ignored her broccoli, and used her straw to dribble water onto her place mat. Now she was demanding ice cream. The answer was obvious, right? No way. Then she got down on her knees, clasped her hands together, and batted her eyelashes -- I'm not kidding! -- "You're the best mom in the world. Pleeeease?" It was a dreadful combination of whining and begging. I caved. Again.
Like most kids, my daughter quickly learned to get what she wants by repeating a behavior that worked in the past. She zeroed in on my weak points by expertly combining a whiny voice with a dash of drama. This is just one of several go-to methods that kids frequently adopt to try to get their way (depending on her age, language skills, and disposition, other techniques your child could embrace include tantrum-throwing, obstinateness, and constant arguing). And just when you think you have a grip on managing your kid's M.O. of manipulation, something may change -- and you'll be faced with a new challenge. Still, that doesn't mean you're doomed to years of giving in; there are some basic strategies for dealing with the most common problem behaviors. Whichever your child's current style may be, the key to addressing it is consistency.
In the midst of a fit, your kid is frustration personified: He flings his body to the floor, kicks his feet, pounds his fists, and wails in a voice that is nearly unrecognizable as his own.
Who does it "Nearly all children between 1 and 3 resort to tears, shrieks, and other meltdown behavior at some point," says Patricia Prince, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Boston University School of Medicine. In fact, 60 to 80 percent of all 2- and 3-year-olds will have a tantrum at least weekly -- and 20 percent at least daily. That said, "this behavior may continue up until about age 4," she notes -- then it should taper off.
What's behind it Very young children throw tantrums for a basic reason: They're frustrated about something, but their vocabulary and reasoning skills are not yet developed enough to articulate what's wrong. Toddlers and some preschoolers haven't yet gained impulse or emotional control, so it's nearly impossible for them not to show their frustration physically.
How to stop it You can't entirely avoid tantrums; they're a natural part of development. But if you want fewer, avoid giving in to them, which will only reinforce the behavior, says Dr. Prince. Moreover, the worst thing you can do is give in some of the time, which teaches your child that if he throws a big enough fit, he'll eventually win you over.
So the next time your kid is wailing and flailing on the floor, try this strategy: State your stance once or twice ("No, you may not have a cookie"), then ignore the behavior. Easier said than done, it's true, but keep in mind that most tantrums last less than five minutes. (If you're out in public, remove your child from the area. The situation will immediately become less stressful for both you and your kid.) Make sure your tone of voice is calm and neutral, and don't bother trying to explain your reasons; toddlers aren't capable of understanding. Just keep doing what you were doing when the tantrum began -- your child will eventually learn that tantrums don't work.
You should also be wary of situations that can trigger tantrums. You already know that every time you take your toddler to the toy store to buy a birthday present, he can't resist the impulse to beg and cry for something of his own. Either avoid bringing him or be prepared to let him pick out a trinket. If your child is a bit older, explain the situation beforehand. Say, "We're going to the store to buy a present for Danny, but we're not getting anything else. If you want a toy, tell me what it is and we can put it on your birthday list." Keep in mind that tantrums usually occur when a kid is tired or hungry. Carry snacks when you go out and run errands when your child is well rested. If he has more than three tantrums per day, or if they last longer than 15 minutes, other factors could be contributing -- such as sleep or his diet. Not sure what the cause could be? Consult your pediatrician.
"Let's put on your shoes." "No." "Want to go to the park?" "No." "Do you know any words besides 'no'?" "No." When did your cutie turn into Negative Nancy?
Who does it Kids start using the word no defiantly between 15 and 18 months and may continue to be obstinate through 3 or beyond, says Dr. Prince.
What's behind it Toddlers like to be in control. Their options for influence are limited at this age, and saying "no" is a basic way they grab for power. It doesn't re-quire a large vocabulary, motor control, or the ability to reason.
How to stop it The key to dealing with a Master of No is to phrase requests in a way that offers your little one options, even if they aren't real choices. Want her to put her shoes on? Say, "You can wear your blue shoes or your brown shoes. Which would you like to put on?" If your child says "I want candy," and you don't want her to fill up on sugar, instead of saying "no," tell her, "Candy is a treat for after dinner, but you can have a carrot or a cheese stick now." Letting her choose the snack, even if the choice is limited, helps her feel a little powerful. Also, make sure you aren't saying "no" all the time, says Marilyn Augustyn, M.D., a developmental and behavioral pediatrician at Boston Medical Center. Save your use of the word for safety issues: "No, we don't put our hands on the stove. No, you don't cross the street without a grown-up." If you manage to use it only in such situations, kids will understand better that no really does mean no -- and that what you're saying is serious business.
When kids combine a nasal voice, elongated vowels, and dramatic gestures for maximum impact, they achieve what is probably the most grating of all bratty behaviors.
Who does itThis approach generally appears a while after the onset of tantrums -- but the two can definitely overlap. "Whining usually starts around age 3, but it depends on a child's vocabulary," says Dr. Augustyn. The more words your child has at his disposal, the better he'll be at expressing himself without an annoying tone. Still, "this behavior can continue for some time if a child has experienced success with the tactic," she warns.
What's behind it Like throwing tantrums, whining is a natural way for a child to express frustration. By age 3 or so, he is at a point developmentally where he can control the impulse to throw himself on the floor, but he may not have developed the ability to reason and make a logical request. In other words, he may know quite a few words, but he doesn't have the skills to use them effectively. And even some usually articulate kids may revert to whining if they are hungry or tired or feeling cranky. A whine is a simple way to add zip and drama to whatever your kid is trying to communicate. And there's no way around it: That annoying voice definitely gets your attention.
How to stop it "Give your child a hug and say, 'I see you are really upset right now,'" says Jane Nelsen, a child and family therapist and author of the Positive Discipline book series. "This may seem like rewarding the behavior, but it is not. Children are more likely to hear you when they feel they are understood." Once he's calmed down, say in an even tone: "Speak to me in your normal voice. I can't understand what you're saying when you whine."
If your child doesn't respond and continues to whine, say, "Come find me when you are ready," and leave the scene. Then be sure to hold your ground. Intermittent reinforcement -- giving in some of the time -- is not a good idea. It'll only teach your kid that if he whines long and hard enough, you'll probably break.
She'll say just about anything to persuade you to give in to what she wants: "But all the other kids get to watch that show." "The show is educational -- if you let me watch it, I'll learn something -- don't you want me to be smart?" "If you let me watch it, I promise to clean my room!"
Who does it This type of behavior usually begins at about age 5, when kids have figured out how to use language and logic to express their wants.
What's behind it Your child has graduated from kicking and screaming to using words to convince you to let her do what she wants to do. "She may still believe that the world essentially revolves around her, but she is starting to see that other people have a different perspective," says Nancy Close, Ph.D., assistant professor at the Yale Child Study Center. As her language skills develop, she'll learn that because someone may have a different opinion, she'll have to try harder -- negotiating is a way to do that, Dr. Close says.
How to stop it While you don't want to discourage the complex thinking behind negotiation skills, sometimes parents just need a break from the endless debating. Use positive reinforcement as much as you can, but, as always, stay with your decision. Say, "I love that you've thought about our dinner plans so thoroughly, and your suggestion of hot dogs is a good one. But I've already made burritos for tonight. I'll put hot dogs on the menu for another day." Even if your kid phrases her argument 30 different ways, you have to hold strong. (Unless, of course, her powers of persuasion actually do get you to change your mind, in which case you may want to start saving for her law-school tuition.)
Even if you've compromised on something before, remember that not every issue is open to discussion. You can simply say, "We'll have no more talk about this." Because kids want to feel validated, it's important to let your child know that you do hear what she's saying, even if you don't actually agree. Sometimes that bit of understanding is all they really want. For kids 6 and up, offering explanations is also helpful. "You're pointing out to them that you care, and that there is a reason for what you are doing," says Dr. Prince. Even if they don't like it, they'll like the way you are treating them.
Feeling Good About Discipline
Let's be clear: Discipline isn't punishment. The word itself comes from the Latin for "to teach." "Kids need guidance to help them muddle through childhood," says Dr. Patricia Prince. Discipline means teaching them about boundaries. They want to learn what the rules are, and what we expect of them -- and if you don't give a clear sense of what is and isn't okay, you're not helping them in the long run.
That lesson starts when you let your child know that having a tantrum or whining won't get him what he wants; both are out of bounds. Setting consistent limits also gives kids a feeling of security: "We all need the sense that something is going to stop us," says Dr. Marilyn Augustyn. Concerned that being strict could prevent you from being close with your kid? Don't sweat it. "Kids form attachments very early; your response won''t change that bond," she says. "You can correct them over and over, and your kids will still love you."
Originally published in the March 2012 issue of Parents magazine.