A renowned child psychologist discusses effective discipline strategies and ways to shape your little one's behavior.
Credit: Zohar Lazar

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Research has shown that how things work out for children depends more on their relationship with their parents than anything else. Even daycare hours and quality are less important. So if you want your child to behave acceptably, you must stay emotionally close. If your child acts in-your-face and don't-carish, you must make sure he knows you still love him even when you don't love the way he behaves.

Children begin to build their self-image by seeing themselves reflected in the mirror of adults' reactions. They decide they're good people, or the opposite, on the basis of what you seem to think of them. Studies have shown that if adults treat particular children as if they were cooperative, kind, and intelligent (and today's fighting at the playground just an aberration), the kids will tend to live up to those expectations. But if adults treat children as aggressive, stupid, and tiresome, chances are they'll act accordingly.

Yet the typical pattern is that the worse children behave, the more adults disapprove. The more disapproved of children feel, the worse they behave. So if you're beginning to think your 2- or 4- or 6-year-old is getting out of hand, a vicious circle threatens and the sooner you can turn things around, the better. You may need to try a number of different approaches, such as the following:

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Find ways of managing your anger. Losing your temper will make you feel bad and send the wrong message. It's fine if an 8-year-old -- "who's old enough to know better" -- sees that her behavior has made you cross, but it's key that you stay in charge of your anger. Kids take it for granted that anything their parents do is okay. So if you yell, throw things, or grab your child, you're teaching her all the wrong ways to behave. Similarly, a powerful argument against spanking is that it's always a lesson in bad behavior.

A lot of anger management is about avoidance. Babyproofing the rooms your child uses will make his explorations less irritating and reduce the strain of watching his every movement. In addition, distraction works very well with toddlers. Don't let anyone tell you that "walking around trouble" equals spoiling. Direct clashes teach a 1- to 3-year-old nothing and tend to bring you down to his level. Stay adult and take advantage of the fact that you're cleverer than your child. You can almost always find a diversion or distraction if you try.

With a baby or toddler, you can also use your superior size and strength to get your way with good humor. A child who won't walk with you or come in from the backyard can be carried "for a treat" and tickled. Even a young child who hits you or a playmate can be safely held while she's told no.

With a preschooler or older child who is getting on your nerves, escape -- an adult version of time-out -- is the secret. Stop trying to get the dishwasher cleared or the toys picked up and calmly remove yourself from the situation at hand for five minutes of peace and self-indulgence. You could gaze out the window, water your houseplants, put on some makeup, or check your e-mail. It doesn't matter what you do as long as it enables you to rejoin your child in a "let's start again" frame of mind.

Finally, don't forget diversions for yourself too. Try to build something that's fun for you -- even if it's only coffee with a friend -- into every single day. Keep in mind that it's unbroken stretches of time without adult contact that can feel depressing.

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Be realistic about the behavior you expect. Thirty years ago, a 1-year-old who scrambled off his mother's lap to join a party was surprisingly independent. Now a 1-year-old who won't join in is often called clingy. The current emphasis on babies' need for stimulation, along with the boom in group activities for toddlers and preschoolers, has pushed children's social development forward by about a year. That single year is a quarter of a 4-year-old's lifetime, and sadly, some children can't cope.

Children only become much more independent when their current need for dependence is satisfied. If your toddler is floundering, hitting other children, and behaving rudely at home, you may be seeing a sort of show-off pseudo-independence that really means "Help! I'm only just managing." Is your child getting enough attention (and downtime) when she's home? If she attends daycare, are there enough caregivers (one for every three or four toddlers)? The ratio of adults to kids is crucial to childcare quality. Is group play carefully supervised so children aren't expected to fight their own battles?

Make sure that neither you nor a caregiver is assuming your child's social understanding is greater than it really is. He knows "don't hit other children," but does he know what he should do with other children instead and how to do it? She knows "keep quiet and listen," but does she discover that if she listens to the teacher now, the teacher will eventually listen to her? He knows "wait in line," but does he understand that not pushing and shoving other kids ensures a turn for him as well as the other children?

Make the best use of your attention. Adult attention is the cause, the effect, and the principal agent of change in children's behavior. Unfortunately, parents don't always use this power to encourage "good" behavior and discourage "naughtiness." In fact, some parents get it the wrong way around. As long as children aren't doing anything tiresome, they're ignored. Only when they begin to feel lonely and neglected and start squabbling, interrupting, or reciting rude words do they get the "reward" of a parent's attention. (Think of the whining children who get candy at the supermarket and the well-behaved kids who don't.) If you're one of the many parents who fall into this trap, you're actually punishing your child for desirable behavior and rewarding the opposite. Try to spot and reverse this trend before your child discovers that attention-seeking always works in the end. Even if you can ignore the blackmail of a public tantrum, you can't ignore a child who plans to bite the baby.

Your child will only stop seeking attention with negative actions when she learns that she can get just as much -- and maybe more -- notice when she's nice. Making more overall time and attention available to your child may mean changing your hours, but changing how you use those hours may work too. Simple and obvious ideas sometimes work best. Calling ahead to tell your preschooler or older child you'll be home in 20 minutes can seem to take 20 minutes off the time you're not there. Switching off your cell phone and turning on the answering machine from the moment you walk in the door until your child is in bed -- and not checking your e-mail -- can help him feel you're not just there, you're there for him. Asking her to help you with tasks instead of putting on a video to keep her busy gives her that good message: "I want to be with you."

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Work on changing one behavior at a time. However difficult your child is being in general, don't try to change everything at once or he'll feel that you're trying to change him and, therefore, that you don't love him. Why then, his logic will go, should he try to please you?

Pick the behavior that bugs you most -- and most often (like all the time) -- and focus your attention on that first. Whatever you choose to work on, be aware of your own example. Keep in mind that your child won't do what you say if what you do is different. So if it's her bad language that's really driving you crazy, you and your partner may have to come to a private arrangement to set a good example with your own remarks and conversations. Likewise, if your child is hitting or bullying other children, make sure nothing that goes on at home could make him feel it's okay to behave that way. For example, kids who are spanked a lot often take it out on smaller children.

Make provisions for play. If you're over 40, maybe you remember a time in your childhood when you were kept in bed and then indoors for a week because you were sick. That would rarely keep a child under house arrest today, but safety or space issues often do. If your child is one of the millions who can't go outside with her friends after school and who has nowhere to play the spontaneous, unstructured games that leave muscles tired and brains flowering, consider this: Better play opportunities may improve her physical and mental health and your family life too. A backyard that's too small for ball games may fit a treehouse or gym set, and the time you spend driving to an art class or soccer practice might be better spent loading the children and bikes in the car and heading for the neighborhood park.

Furthermore, when you're at home, try not to use the TV, computer games, or the Internet to keep your child busy in his room and out of your hair. Those are some of the influences that are most likely to be overstimulating and worrying him, and they certainly won't help him learn the social skills and self-regulation that will improve his behavior. Confine high-tech activities to the family room, where you can monitor them and talk about what your child sees. And how about some low-tech stuff? How many card games does your 8-year-old know? When was the last time your family played a board game?

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Copyright © 2002. Reprinted with permission from the June/July 2002 issue of Child 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.