Ending the 5 most annoying behaviors
The real reasons why your child hits, whines, throws tantrums, refuses to go to bed, or acts defiant--and how to get him to stop.
by Irene Daria, MA
* Why kids do it: "Children who hit are either too young to be able to express their wants and feelings in words or they haven't learned how to do so," says Sal Severe, Ph.D., author of How to Behave So Your Preschooler Will Too.
* Are you handling it wrong? "Kids continue hitting because parents give them another chance," says Edward R. Christophersen, Ph.D., co-author of Parenting That Works: Building Skills that Last a Lifetime. "Parents say things like, `If you hit him again, we're leaving.' All that does is give the child permission to hit one more time before he gets in trouble." In a child's mind, saying this is the same as giving him the go-ahead—and that’s not the message you want to send.
* How to stop the hitting for good: Never let your child get away with it. When he whacks another child, or you, immediately say, "No hitting. Hitting hurts." and enforce a consequence. For example, if your child hit someone at the playground leave the playground immediately. If you're at home you can put him in a two-minute time-out. And be sure that hitting doesn’t pay off. "Often a child hits because he wants something, such as a toy," says Dr. Christophersen. Be sure to take the toy away. Once your child realizes hitting is no longer effective, he'll be much more likely to use words to get what he wants.
Why kids do it: Because it works! Research conducted by Tom Phelan, Ph.D., producer and creator of the DVD 1-2-3 Magic, Managing Difficult Behavior in Children 2-12 found that nothing sets parents teeth on edge as much as whining and that parents are more likely to give in to whining than to any other negative behavior.
* Are you handling it wrong? Admit it--our kids sometimes NEED to whine because often when they ask us for something nicely we ignore them or say no because we are too busy, or too tired, to deal with whatever they want at the moment. That irritating voice is supereffective—it gets us to turn around and focus on what she’s saying.
* How to stop the whining for good: As with all other negative behaviors, you must never, ever give in to whining. Simply tell your child, "I don't listen when you whine. If you speak in a normal voice I will help you get what you want." Then, keep your promise. Really listen when your daughter asks for something. Don’t say no automatically--think about whether there’s a valid reason to refuse her request. If there is, explain the reason. If she needs to wait until later to get what she wants, let her know that too. While she may not be happy with your decision, she'll stop whining.
Why kids do it: They don't feel heard. They think you're telling them they're wrong to want whatever they wanted before the tantrum happened. "Tantrums are a child's way of expressing immense frustration and powerlessness," says Denis Donovan, M.D., M.Ed., author of What Did I Just Say?
* Are you handling it wrong? Here's a very typical scene that often leads to tantrums. A little girl is happily playing with her toys when her mother comes and says it's time to go to the store. "I don't want to," the child says.
"Margie, I said it's time to go to the store," says Mom in an aggravated tone.
"Yeeesss!" This scene then escalates in a predictable way with the mother continuing to insist that it's time to go to the store, without ever acknowledging that the child doesn't want to. Result? "This will often end in a tantrum as the child makes more and more of an effort to get her parent to acknowledge her feelings," says school psychologist Charles Fay, Ph.D., co-author of Love and Logic Magic, When Kids Leave You Speechless.
The typical parent's response to a tantrum? "To have a tantrum themselves," says Dr. Christophersen. "The parents will yell at their kids, grab their arm and sometimes even spank them."
How to stop tantrums for good: Be empathetic when your child says he doesn't want to do something, or is upset because you've said no to a request he's made, such as a chocolate bar before dinner. The best way to express empathy is by saying "I know," as in "I know you wanted that chocolate bar. I know you're feeling upset. You can't have it now. You can have a chocolate bar on Saturday because that's your day to have a treat."
By saying, "I know," you will be acknowledging your child's feelings. Telling your child when he will be able to do, or have, what he wants at a later time (if that is indeed the case) gives your child back a sense of control and takes away his feeling of powerlessness. Even if your child can’t have what he wanted, feeing heard and understood will still put an end to the tantrum.
Also, make sure you remain "as unemotional, low key and matter-of-fact as possible," says Dr. Christophersen. "Remember you are modeling for your child how to deal with frustration and if you yell at your child when he starts having a tantrum you'll be teaching your child to do the same thing when he is frustrated or mad."
Why kids do it: It’s pretty simple. Kids don't go to bed when you ask them to because they’d rather keep playing, or stay up with you.
* Are you handling it wrong? "Bedtime battles tend to happen when the parent arbitrarily decides when to tell the child to go to sleep," says Dr. Phelan. "The child will be doing something enjoyable and the parent will come up and say, `Time to get ready for bed.' That's an automatic irritator. No adult would like it if they were doing something and their spouse came up to them and said, `Go to bed now.'"
Kids also resist going to bed if you don’t set consistent limits. If you sometimes let kids stay up late and fall asleep on the couch, or indulge their stalling techniques such as getting out of bed because they’re thirsty, or asking for yet another good night kiss, they’re going to keep on trying these techniques.
* To stop bedtime resistance for good: Set up a consistent bedtime routine, and enforce it. If kids know they're expected to go to bed every night at a certain time, after reading, brushing their teeth and going to the bathroom, they're much more likely to do it.
* Why kids do it: "It is perfectly natural for all kids to test whether or not their parents mean it when they tell them no," says Dr. Donovan.
* Are you handling it wrong? You may be saying no when you don't really mean it, or are ambivalent. "Kids instinctively pick up on ambivalence and will test until the parent reaches a firm decision," says Dr. Donovan. Or you may be mis-timing your requests. For example, no child wants to be told to go clean up his room when he’s happily playing on the computer.
* How to stop defiant behavior for good: Decide what's important enough for you to have a rule or a routine about it. "Rules and routines are important because they clearly tell the child what is expected of him," says Dr. Phelan. Some rules might be: no cookies before bed and no climbing on the furniture. A few routines might be: homework at 4 and set the table at 5:30. Then, tell your kids what the rules and routines are. If your child starts giving you an argument about, say, having a cookie before bed, you can simply reply, "That's the rule." No child can argue with that.