You've said no -- it's too close to dinnertime for a sweet. In fact, you've said no more than once. But when you come back into the kitchen, you find your preschooler hanging precariously off the freezer door with a box of Popsicles clutched in her hand.
Do you explode? Or give in and let her have the pop? Either reaction would be normal because your brain tends to operate on autopilot in stressful situations. "But if you respond in an overly harsh or wimpy way, you miss the opportunity to teach your child the skills she needs to do the right thing in the future," says Becky Bailey, Ph.D., author of Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline. It's tough to keep your cool, but it'll be easier to discipline thoughtfully if you've already considered smart responses like the ones for the following situations.
Holding hands when you cross the street is one of those non-negotiable safety issues. "This shouldn't be a debate. If she refuses, just take her hand," says Lynne Reeves Griffin, author of Negotiation Generation. Even when you threaten to carry her, you still make it sound like she has a choice.
Sharing doesn't come naturally for toddlers -- especially at their own house. Don't let your disappointment over your child's "selfish" behavior (or worries about what the other parent will think) interfere with your ability to reinforce the concept of taking turns, no matter how many times you feel like you've covered this ground before, says Parents advisor Sal Severe, Ph.D., author of How to Behave So Your Preschooler Will, Too! Remind him that his friend is only playing with the train for a little while, and use terms he can understand to explain how long he'll have to wait. When you're alone later, you can practice sharing, to help him appreciate the fact that taking turns doesn't mean losing a toy forever.
"It's natural for young kids to want these foods -- after all, the packaging is designed to attract their curiosity," says Dr. Severe. Since you're focused on your list, your child may be tossing items into the cart in order to get your attention -- or to sneak in treats because you're distracted. Keep her engaged from the start by allowing her to make choices about items on the list (yellow or red apples? chocolate or vanilla pudding?) and let her put things you're buying into the cart for you.
As frustrating as this is, try not to let your child see that you're annoyed. When he pops out, calmly walk him back to bed -- and don't give him any snacks or read an extra book unless you want to be doing this every night. He probably imagines that all sorts of exciting things are happening after he goes to sleep; when you make his repeat appearances boring and repetitive, they'll eventually stop.
"The right response is probably the opposite of what your instincts are telling you," says Betsy Brown Braun, a child-development and behavior specialist and author of Just Tell Me What to Say. Rather than punishing her for kicking, just walk away (and take the remote with you). Separating yourself is a powerful strategy; you won't stay with her if she hurts you, but you won't let her distract you from the original issue. Later on, remind her that no matter what she's feeling, it's never okay to hurt another person. If you get mad and yell at her instead, there's a good chance you'll feel guilty afterward and may even turn the TV back on.
No child likes to end a fun playdate, so give a warning and change the subject to the next activity. "Offering two choices about what to do next will give him some control over what's going on," says Dr. Bailey. Time is a tough concept for kids, so it's helpful to use a visual cue: Hold your hands out far apart to indicate a five-minute warning, then move them closer when there are two minutes left, and put them together when it's time to go.
This is about the noise, not the arguing (at least they're using their words). "Your goal is not to get involved and not to assign any blame," says Braun. "You simply need to remind them to use their indoor voices or take the screaming outside."
"Parents sometimes think it's better to just distract their toddler or ignore unwanted behavior, but 1-year-olds are old enough to follow simple rules," says Griffin. In fact, your child is probably watching to see your reaction when he demonstrates his new high-chair maneuver. Calmly let him know that sitting is always required at mealtime. If he doesn't get a rise out of you (or a free trip onto your lap for the rest of the meal), he'll take a seat and be less likely to stand up during the next meal.
There are two issues here -- the back talk and the jacket. "If you respond in a tone that shows you mean it, most kids will hang up the jacket," says Braun. "She probably heard another kid talk like this, and she's seeing if she can get away with it." The most important thing to do is take a deep breath, and focus on the good behavior you want to teach her.
Originally published in the June 2009 issue of Parents magazine.