Break the Yelling-as-Discipline Habit

Make no mean no, and discipline with patience when you feel like shouting.

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Why is it that kids are at their worst just when you're least able to handle it? You're rushing to pull dinner together, return a phone call, tidy up the playroom, and change a diaper. Then suddenly a stubborn little voice says, "No! I won't," and before you know it, you've said something you shouldn't have -- and probably wouldn't have, if you weren't so crazed. So how do you stay calm when you're feeling harried? Even more to the point, how can you keep your kids from misbehaving when you're scheduled within an inch of your life? Take a deep breath, and read on for answers to your top discipline dilemmas.

Rush Hour

Discipline Dilemma: When I'm in a hurry, I blow up over my child's smallest misdeeds. What can I do to control my anger?

Stay-Calm Solution: Stress magnifies every little problem. You may be on edge because your 3-year-old refuses to put her sweater on, but her behavior is perfectly age-appropriate. The key is to tame your temper. You can't expect your child to learn self-control if you don't model it, says Naomi Drew, author of Peaceful Parents, Peaceful Kids: Practical Ways to Create a Calm and Happy Home.

To defuse your anger, practice Drew's simple three-step strategy for parents prone to yelling: Stop, breathe, chill. First, before you snap, tell yourself, "Stop."(Sounds silly, but it works -- it's like a mini wake-up call.) Next, take a slow, deep breath to calm yourself. Third, explain to your child, "I'm very upset, I've got to cool off." Even if you're in a hurry, it's important to take just a few moments to decompress. Get a drink of water, or step outside and look at the sky for 20 seconds.

When you're composed, go back and explain to your child, "I got mad because I asked you to do something and you didn't listen, but I didn't want to yell. I think we can find a better solution." Then work out a reasonable consequence: "If you don't put on your sweater, we'll be too late for storytime at the library."

Long-Term Tactics: Remember that your child needs time to shift gears. Make sure your expectations are realistic; you may need to pad your schedule so you're not always rushing. Another way to stave off blowups: Once you make an unpopular decision or issue a consequence, disengage completely. Don't respond to pleading, which will only prolong a scene and push you to your limit. "Allow your child to work through her disappointment on her own," says Anthony E. Wolf, Ph.D., author of The Secret of Parenting: How to Be in Charge of Today's Kids -- from Toddlers to Preteens -- Without Threats or Punishment. "There are certain standards that a parent has to enforce. If you get your child to cooperate, you're doing your job; she doesn't have to be happy about it.

    Phone Frenzy

    Discipline Dilemma: My 3-year-old son acts up whenever I'm talking on the phone. Why can't he understand that I'm busy?

    Stay-Calm Solution: "When your concentration is divided, a child naturally becomes more demanding," says Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D., author of Playful Parenting. "He sees that you're giving attention to someone or something, but not to him. "Remember that your son may not understand that you're temporarily unavailable because you're talking to someone on the other end of the phone.

    When he interrupts, say "Excuse me" to the person you're talking to (so that you model how you'd like him to behave), and tell him, "I'm talking to someone on the phone. I'll be busy for five minutes, and when I hang up, we'll play catch. "Give him a hug if you can, and return to your conversation. Of course, if he's really losing it, you may have to end the phone call. But yelling or threatening punishment will only increase a child's anxiety, making it harder for him to cooperate.

    Long-Term Tactics: As always, prevention is the best strategy. Set up some activities he can do while you're on a call -- drawing, coloring, working on a favorite puzzle -- or put a toy telephone and some office supplies next to the phone and encourage him to make a call when you do. "Then practice and role-play the behavior you expect of him when you're on the phone," Dr. Cohen advises.

    In addition, get in the habit of setting a timer (no more than five minutes) for each call you make or receive, and explain that when the bell rings, you'll be done with your conversation. Most important, when your child cooperates, show him that you've noticed: "You were so quiet, and that made it very easy for me to finish my call. Now I really want to play with you."

      Sibling Squabbles

      Discipline Dilemma: My kids start whining and fighting as soon as I walk in the door. Then we start arguing, and it ruins the evening. What's the answer?

      Stay-Calm Solution: By dinnertime, your kids are tired, hungry, and craving your attention. "They're acting up because they love you," Dr. Cohen says. "Knowing this can prevent you from getting sucked into these power struggles." Try saying, "I want to hear all about it, but first I need to give everybody a big hug." This helps you make the transition from work mode to mom mode. And by showing how delighted you are to see your kids, you'll cause some of those petty concerns and rivalries to disappear.

      Or not. Some misbehavior calls for immediate attention, but as long as you react calmly, nobody's evening is going to be ruined. If your kids are fighting over a toy, simply put it away for a few minutes. If they're shoving and punching each other, begin with a warning. "Explain quietly that they need to follow the rules, and if they don't, there will be consequences," says Linda Dunlap, Ph.D., a child-development specialist at Marist College, in Poughkeepsie, New York. If their rowdiness continues, separate them for one minute for every year of age.

      Long-Term Tactics: Alter your evening schedule. Make it a habit to put off opening the mail, checking your messages, or rushing into the kitchen to cook until you've reconnected with your kids. After a small, healthy snack, sit on the couch and read a book to them. They'll not only find the physical contact and the rhythm of your voice soothing, but the story will distract them. If dinner can't wait, invite them to tear lettuce for a salad while you start the pasta.

        Hearing Problem

        Discipline Dilemma: It seems as if the busier I am, the more I have to repeat myself to get my kids to listen and the more irritated I become. How can I get them to pay attention?

        Stay-Calm Solution: Your children are betting that you're too distracted to follow up on your requests. If they're used to hearing you call them to the table five times, they know they can stall until command number six. "You have to act after one warning if you want your kids to learn that you mean what you say," Dr. Wolf says. If your 6-year-old persists in riding his scooter without a helmet, take the scooter away. If your 4-year-old won't change into her pajamas, stop what you're doing, and walk her to her bedroom.

        Make sure, however, that you're not firing off a confusing barrage of instructions. And don't issue requests that seem impossibly vast to your child, says Karla Valentine-Roffler, a behavior analyst based in Orlando. Instead of demanding that your daughter clean her room, ask her to put her books back. Then recognize her efforts: "What a nice job. Thank you!"

        Long-Term Tactics: Whenever you can, reward your child for behaving well, so she doesn't think the only time she gets your attention is when you punish her for disobeying. "If you find yourself constantly calling her over to point out a problem -- 'What are your socks doing on the floor?' or 'Clean up that spill' -- try calling her over for a hug or a word of praise instead," Drew suggests.

          Slipping Standards

          Discipline Dilemma: Sometimes I'm so exhausted that I just don't have the energy to enforce the rules when my kids misbehave. What can I do when I feel that tired?

          Stay-Calm Solution: You can let some infractions slide when you're completely spent, Dr. Wolf says. Just don't do it too often. If your kids learn that you'll give in, they'll test your resolve relentlessly. If a broken rule is low on your list of priorities -- a forbidden cookie or a bossy remark to a sibling -- let it go. But don't ignore serious violations of your standards. If you've been inconsistent and want to change your pattern, clue in your child if he's 5 or older, Dr. Dunlap says. ("I haven't been sending you a clear message. Here are the rules, and I'm going to try my best to follow them too. Sometimes I haven't, and it's caused us problems.") This way, you accept responsibility for your contribution to the situation instead of just blaming your child.

          Long-Term Tactics: Do what it takes to get more rest and lower your stress level. For instance, ask your spouse or a friend to relieve you so you can take a break. You'll need to do far less disciplining if you stay in touch with your children. Family dinners, walks, even ticklefests are not only energizing for you but will also help head off misbehavior in your child. You'll end up being a better disciplinarian -- not to mention a better, more loving, and less stressed parent.

            Copyright© 2004. Reprinted with permission from the April 2004 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.