How to Put an End to Difficult Behavior

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Offer choices. When a child refuses to do -- or stop doing -- something, the real issue is usually control: You've got it; she wants it. So, whenever possible, give your preschooler some control by offering a limited set of choices. Rather than commanding her to clean up her room, ask her, "Which would you like to pick up first, your books or your blocks?" Be sure the choices are limited, specific, and acceptable to you, however. "Where do you want to start?" may be overwhelming to your child, and a choice that's not acceptable to you will only amplify the conflict.

Provide alternatives. When you want your child to stop doing something, offer alternative ways for him to express his feelings: say, hitting a pillow or banging with a toy hammer. He needs to learn that while his emotions and impulses are acceptable, certain ways of expressing them are not. Also, encourage your child to think up his own options. For instance, you could ask: "What do you think you could do to get Tiffany to share that toy with you?" Even 3-year-olds can learn to solve problems themselves. The trick is to listen to their ideas with an open mind. Don't shoot down anything, but do talk about the consequences before a decision is made.

Use time-out. For moments when reasoning, alternatives, and calmness have no impact, use time-outs: Send your child to a dull place to sit for a brief period and pull herself together. This gives you both a chance to cool down and sends the message that negative behavior will not get your attention. The less you reward any negative behavior with attention, the less your child will use that behavior to get her way.

Admit your mistakes. Be sure you let your child know when you've goofed by apologizing and explaining why you acted the way you did. This will teach him that it's okay to be imperfect.

Bestow rewards. It's highly unlikely that your child will always do whatever you say. If that happened, you'd have to think about what might be wrong with her! Normal kids resist control, and they know when you are asking them to do something they don't want to do. They then feel justified in resisting you. In cases in which they do behave appropriately, a prize is like a spoonful of sugar: It helps the medicine go down.

Judicious use of special treats and prizes is just one more way to show your child you're aware and respectful of his feelings. This, more than anything, gives credibility to your discipline demands.

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