The Tot Q & A: Positive Discipline Strategies
Tot Expert, Professional Counselor and Positive Discipline Educator, Andrea Baum answers your questions about positive parenting and discipline strategies.
Each time your child misbehaves, it is an opportunity for you to connect with them and teach them important life and social skills. Parenting doesn’t have to be filled with anger, punishment, or bribes. Shifting our perception of children as capable and wise beings can open up a world of possibilities to help them develop emotional intelligence, respect, and confidence. Have you been using punishment, bribes, and threats for certain behaviors? Would you like to find a different way to respond?
See below some of my conflict-free strategies for dealing with common issues that arise.
Q: My son is almost 13 months, and he will slap my face or my husband’s face and laugh. My husband and I will say “No hit, please,” and then my son will cry. Same thing goes for touching items we don’t want him to touch. Any advice? We don’t say “no touch” with anger or frustration.
A: It is wonderful that you aren’t saying the command with any anger and frustration. Being kind but firm is always best when trying to use positive discipline strategies. First, this is typical behavior of this age, he is curious, learning, and growing. Toddlers are testing their boundaries, exploring, and trying to understand their world at all times. Second, the word “no” is an abstract concept that children under three do not fully understand in the way that parents think they do or how we understand it. Third, I want you to NOT think about a purple elephant. See what happened there? You immediately thought about a purple elephant. This shows us that a better way to discipline an unwanted behavior would be to tell the child what TO DO, instead of what NOT to do. For example, when someone says “your hands are not for hitting”, the child may get frustrated and want to do it again because “hands” and “hitting” words are being repeated together. Instead, you can tell the child what you want them TO DO. “We use hands gently” or “Be gentle with your hands” and then show them with their hands and yours what that looks like and feels like. Show excitement while showing them and especially if they do it back. Keep repeating, and one day you’ll see them doing or saying the positive command you have been enforcing. At this young age, the best thing to do is a lot of redirecting and showing them what you want them to do. If they are getting a big reaction from something negative they are doing, they will find your reaction highly entertaining and do it again. It’s almost empowering to them that they have control over reactions. Give them the big reaction when they catch on to the positive thing you want them to do. Lastly, with hitting or pulling hair, try showing them randomly throughout the day what gentle touch is. Smile at them and rub their back or arm saying “gentle hands,”so that they can start associating the words and actions together. And remember, positive disciplining takes repetitive practice to start seeing the positive impact.
Q: Sometimes my 2-year-old does the exact things he knows he should not do. He seems to do it on purpose even when he has all my attention. What we do is send him to his room for about a minute if he doesn’t obey after two or three times of gently but firmly explaining why he shouldn’t do that action. After he gets his anger out for a minute in his room, we go in and talk to him again and explain again. We give him a hug and tell him we love him. I know there are lots of things we could do better, but I hope we’re on the right track!
A: You are doing a great job, it’s fantastic that you are being gentle and firm while giving love after he calms down. In Positive Discipline, there is something called “The Positive Time-Out” where kids learn how to regulate their emotions in a positive place in their room or the house. It seems like that is what you are doing and that is wonderful! It is similar to a time-out, but it doesn’t feel like punishment. The way you can think about it is, as adults if we have just become angry or frustrated and have said something we shouldn’t have, it would be best for us to go take a breather and do something to destress and collect ourselves. That way, we can then think how we could have handled the situation better after we are calm and rational. Getting punished would just make us feel worse causing us not to think clearly. That being said, a 2-year-old really doesn’t have the developmental ability to “think about what they have done” or “get calm.” It is usually closer to 3-years-old or after that they can start to use and understand a Positive Time-Out. Keep up what you are doing! You are setting a great foundation, it will click more for him when he gets a little older. Regulating attention seeking behavior and emotions takes practice. Use positive language on what you want him TO DO, as stated in the above answer. Two is an age where you will be seeing a lot of the behavior you are describing and the best you can do is help him to regulate his emotions in the ways that he can, which is not a lot at this age but eventually he will get better. If you feel he is trying to get your attention, redirect him by including him in something you are doing, this will also help him to feel useful and capable. Even if it’s just pretend. For example, if you are working on bills at the table, give him a pencil and paper to do “work with you.” This way you can keep doing what you need to do without him taking all your attention yet he still feels like he is doing something with you. All humans crave a sense of belonging and significance. Sometimes just getting on the ground with your kids at the beginning of the day and playing for 15 minutes with your undivided attention can make a huge difference in their morning.
Q: I’ve recently resorted to timeout for certain really bad behavior, like hitting (mostly). Usually it works and he fully understands what he did wrong and why I punished him. But every once in a while, he would pick up his timeout chair and ask me to set the timer for him, without him actually doing anything wrong. I honestly would just stare at him in awe. I don’t know what to do in this situation.
A: He is putting himself in time-out! One of the reasons he might be doing this is because a time-out feels good to him. It is a place where he calms down and regulates his emotions. In Positive Discipline, there is something called “The Positive Time-Out” where kids learn how to regulate their emotions in a positive place in their room or the house. They get to decide what things make them feel calm and good and those things are in their Positive Time-Out. They also name this spot any name they want to give it. It is similar to a time-out, but it doesn’t feel like punishment. The way you can think about it is, as adults if we have just become angry or frustrated and have said something we shouldn’t have, it would be best for us to go take a breather and do something to destress and collect ourselves. That way, we can then think how we could have handled the situation better after we are calm and rational. Getting punished would just make us feel worse causing us not to think clearly and it would do us no good to feel worse at the end of the day. Your son has been learning how to regulate his emotions and it feels good to him. Keep up the good work! Since he enjoys his time-out spot, you may want to implement the Positive Time-Out rules. When he wants to go to his chair, you might want to say things like, “You like getting calm, it feels good to get calm and you want to do that right now!” This will encourage him to regulate his emotions better and to want to go to his spot when he is asked to. Usually, any sort of time-out, is not age appropriate until they are 3. Developmentally, it is challenging for them to truly understand the concept until around that age.
Q: Our little girl is 22 months and likes to throw food off of her tray or spill her milk all over the tray. We tell her no and sometimes have her clean it up or we take her out of her high chair all together. We also have to bribe her to eat sometimes we tell her if she will take ‘x’ number of bites of something healthy she will get something she really likes (applesauce, cookies). That is how we have to get her to try new food too. What can we do instead of bribing her?
A: Toddlers can have all sorts of misbehaviors when it comes to food issues. This can be such a frustrating behavior, especially when you have just spent time and effort in preparing their food. When dealing with food, you want to try to stay away from power struggles that will create more misbehavior around food. First, I would recommend that you tell your child what TO do, instead of what NOT to do. Right now, your child is curious and learning. She may find it very fun to throw her food, watch is splatter all over your curtains, and then see all the reactions she is getting. That’s a lot of power! You may need to sit closely to her while she eats and give her small pieces at a time. Practice with her to say “all done” when she is finished and when she is finished take her food away. I know as parents we want our kids to keep eating even after they say they are all done because we don’t think they ate enough, but for now, follow her signals and take her away from her food when she is done. Practice saying positive commands like, “Your sippy cup stays on the table” instead of “Your cup isn’t for throwing!” or“Don’t throw your cup!”. When you say those phrases with negatives your daughter might be thinking “Oh, but mom, it IS for throwing! And I’ll show you again so you can see!” Make a fun game for her cup like putting a cut out flower on the table for her to place it on and when she puts it down she can say “boom!” Clap when she does it and show her that that gets attention when she does something good and not for throwing. Try and completely ignore the throwing for now, no eye contact, no facial expressions – nothing. With regard to bribing tastier food for the foods she doesn’t want to try, I would recommend to stop bribing and stop those favorite bribe foods all together for a little while. For a few weeks, try only offering foods you really want her to start trying. She will get hungry and she will start to eat those things. Keep everything about food positive and if she doesn’t want to try then don’t force it. When she tries something new, do a dance, sing a song, make it fun and rewarding.
Q: My 25-month-old who is not so verbal recently started throwing things when angry. I say ‘no’, give a stern look and walk away. I’m just wondering how you’re supposed to deal with the non-verbal aspect?
A: I would recommend to tell him what TO DO instead of “no”. If you will look at some of the questions and answers above, a lot of the answers apply to your situation. As for your son not being very verbal, you can still be very verbal with him. I would suggest telling him “This toy is for _____” and show him what that toy is used for. Even though he probably knows, you are redirecting and showing him it is to play with and not to throw. When he starts to approach three, I would also recommend a choice and a logical consequence for this behavior. A logical consequence is something that is directly related to the behavior like not getting to play with his toy. Always follow through with the consequence otherwise your child won’t take your disciplining seriously. Give two choices and their consequences. For example, “If you play with your toys the way they were made to play with, you can keep playing with them. If you throw your toys, they will be put away and you can’t play with them.” Establishing consequences and following through sets the tone that the child is responsible for their own actions.
Q: Our three-year-old middle daughter has been very physical lately since our third baby girl was born (8 months ago). She has zero empathy when she hurts her siblings and we’ve tried the “hitting hurts” and talking to her but it never gets through. Any suggestions?
A: This is a situation where you have to come from a place of compassion and step into her world rather than punishing or having too much sympathy. When a new baby arrives, other children may feel like they are being dethroned. Think about what it might feel like if your spouse brought another lover home, that’s how your child may be feeling. It is important to first explain that the baby is the family’s baby and that your love for the new baby is not something that takes away from the love you have from her.
A wonderful way to explain this to young children over three years old is with the Candle Exercise. Get the number of candles that is equivalent to the number of people in your family. Start by lighting one and explain that the fire is all the love you have in your heart. Then explain, when you met your spouse you gave him all the love in your heart, light the candle that represents your spouse and your love. Point out that you still have your same flame though, which represents all your love and that your love cannot get less and less, it is like the flame. Then tell a story and do this for each child that was born. Explain that you are able to give all your love to each person in your family and still have all the love in your heart. This way your child can understand that your love is not quantifiable. Try spending some quality alone time with your older daughter as well.
Next, try to avoid setting up a “bully/victim” cycle. When we punish or get upset when one sibling hurts another sibling, it sets this cycle to keep going and sets the tone for the older child always being at fault and the younger child being rescued by you and as the victim. Try and treat both kids equally with kindness and firmness, using positive language in what you want them TO DO (stated in the first answer). Treat kids equally. It may sound silly to do with a newborn or a baby, if your older child is hitting the baby, separate them and put the older child and the baby in different rooms, treating them equally. You can say something like “We use gentle touch with our siblings (show her what gentle touch is), if you hit you cannot play with each other and you will both have to go to separate rooms.” Then follow through. Lastly, try and give your older child positive activities to do with the baby to help out. This will help your daughter feel like she is an integral part of the family that makes it function as a whole while giving her attention and responsibility.
Q: I have to ask my 2-year-old to do everything five times! She hears and looks at me and then ignores me. It drives me insane. She then asks if I am happy, to which I say I am cross because she hasn’t done as she was asked. Sometimes I get angry and shout because I am fed up of hearing myself nagging her. I feel like all I do is moan at her.
A: Toddlers can cause parents a lot of frustration because they are learning, growing, and testing boundaries to understand their world. First, keeping your tone kind but firm will always get you further with toddlers. You don’t want to be too kind or too firm though. Think about how you might ask someone “I need that pen” in an only kind tone or an only firm tone. Now think about what it might sound like to be kind and firm. That is what you are aiming for. Next, I would again recommend positive language on what you want her TO DO instead of what you DON’T want her to do. You can find a more detailed understanding of that in the first question.
A fantastic technique to put into place with your toddler so that you are not telling them over and over again and losing your temper is to pair non-verbal actions with the command. You can make it into a game at first so they know which non-verbal cues go with which commands. For example, you set this up by telling your child that you are going to play a game, you are going to do an action without words, and they have to guess what it is. Then you act out brushing your teeth and have them guess, do this over and over again. Make it fun. After a game like this, you can start pairing a gesture with your command, like every time you say “I need you to ask that nicely” you point to your ear. Eventually, you will be able to just point to your ear and they will know exactly what that means.
Try to give logical consequences the first or second time something is not listened to and follow through. A logical consequence as stated above, is a consequence that directly correlates with the misbehavior. For example, “If you choose to ask nicely for the banana you can have it, If you scream for the banana you will not get the banana.” Eventually after repeating, pairing these gestures, and following through with consequences, your child will start to catch on. Since your child is two, verbal consequences may be hard to process and understand. I suggest to say what you want from them one time, pair with a gesture, and then follow through with a consequence. Try not to over explain and try to be completely silent when following through. You may encounter a meltdown, but feelings of disappointment and frustration are healthy to experience for your child and they will eventually calm down and start learning to listen. Build up your consequence history so they will take you seriously, choose your battles, you can do this!
Q: I would love ideas on how to leave a fun activity without having to resort to bribes or threats. We consistently give him a countdown. My son just turned four.
A: I think a countdown is great.Bribes/threats can be taken out of the equation without your son melting down. Kids get into a flow enjoying themselves and then someone tells them abruptly that they have to stop. It’s a recipe for anyone to meltdown. But as adults, we have to get on with our lives and we cannot allow them to keep playing or stay at that party until the sun goes down.Begin by telling your child on the way to the place or before he starts playing, what will happen. Set him up for success and explain that you will let him know when it will be time to start winding down and finish the things he wants to finish. Let him know exactly what will happen in a kind and firm way, and let him know that you would appreciate him to cooperate. Then have him repeat back what the plan is, be excited if he gets it and fill in any holes. Keep it positive. This is what I would suggest for a plan of action: In the moment you decide it is time to go, let him know that you will be giving him a two minute time frame soon. Two minutes is great because it is an amount of time they can really understand. Then let him know he has two minutes left, and then again let him know that he has 1 minute left. At that time, it is time to go and don’t budge.Pick him up if you need to and he may have a meltdown but eventually he will learn if you stick to this plan. Validate his feelings about leaving and let him know he will get to come back another time and have fun doing whatever it was that he was doing. Try to stay calm and have confidence in your plan. He will feed off your frustration and may try to manipulate with a bigger meltdown. It is important to really stick to your timing because children can grasp and learn timing at this age. If your two minute warning turns into 10 minutes because you got caught up, this will leave for confusion and meltdowns to stay longer the next time. When the parent is in complete control and has a history of being consistent, life feels more predictable and calm for the child. The child doesn’t feel the need to meltdown and control the situation as much.
Q: I’m surprised no one has brought up bedtime yet! Every night is a struggle. In and out of bed. It takes about an hour. I made a chart where she gets a sticker for each bedtime ritual (healthy snack, brushing teeth/potty, reading etc). When she listens and does well with each task she gets a sticker, with the treat being an ice cream or popsicle the next day. It’s rarely worked. She’s still using a pacifier at bedtime (I know…), so now we start without the pacifier and tell her if she stays in bed she will get it in a few minutes, which in reality is only ~1 minute. When this is all failing horribly we resort to yelling, standing in front of the door, taking away every fun activity under the sun, which doesn’t even seem to bother her. Help!
A: This seems so frustrating! You are doing so many great positive things to help this situation, I can see why it feels so hopeless when it’s not working and you resort to taking things away and anger. You are on the right track with a chart, great job mom! I recommend to change it up and make a completely new chart, let her know you are starting something new. Take out all frustration, anger, threats, and even rewards (yes, even the stickers!). Going to bed is something that we all have to learn to do without rewards. We can never force anyone to sleep, believe me I have tried with my 3 year old too! Sleeping is a natural occurrence that will happen on someone’s own time eventually.
Here is what I recommend: Set aside some time during the day and tell your child you are going to do an activity together to help with their night time routine (you can use this for morning routine or any other routine).
- Ask your child what they need to do to get ready for bed, write down everything that they say on a notepad or flipchart.
- If the child forgets anything say “what about picking your clothes out for tomorrow?” Even add things like read 3 books, put blankie in bed, etc. Meet in the middle for things if they say things like “read 17 books”, bring it down to what you would be comfortable with.
- After getting all the items down, ask child to rank-order what needs to be done until all the tasks have a number.
- Ask child if they would like to draw pictures or take pictures of them doing each task that can be posted on the routine chart later.
Then, let the routine chart be boss always. Instead of nagging your child; say “what is next on your routine chart?” Each time she comes out of the room when she should be in bed; say nothing and calmly walk her back into her room and into her bed. It’s important that you aren’t ever in the room with your child when they fall asleep. Children need to learn that they can sleep on their own. Use encouraging statements like “I love you and I know you can do this” at the beginning of the night time routine. Give that a week and you may see it forms a new habit!
Q: Our 5 year old gets very anxious over certain things like going to the doctor to get a shot and he screams and cries uncontrollably and nothing we say or do helps him calm down. He also being overly dramatic like crying and it’s gotten so frustrating that my husband has at times scolded him to stop crying. Any tips on how to deal with this?
A: It’s so hard to hear our children cry and be scared. Sometimes, as parents, we try to avoid validating feelings because we think this will enforce that that thing they are crying about is indeed scary or reason to be upset. I encourage you to shift your thinking from this, getting him to feel better about the situation, or getting upset at him when he cries. What can be most helpful for anyone when they are scared, upset, angry, is to acknowledge these emotions. Tell them that you are going to be there with them, that you love them and even though it doesn’t feel like they will be ok–you know they will be ok. If a child gets scolded for crying, that can resort in more crying. The reason for this is because when we don’t feel heard our emotions intensify to gain understanding from the people around us. A child being scolded for crying when scared could also lead him to believe that he shouldn’t have emotions and should keep them all in. I would recommend developing a plan with your son for the next time he goes to the doctor. Talk about the doctor with him when he isn’t there, validate his scared feelings, tell him about a time you were scared and overcame it. Make a plan for the next time he goes. He could watch his favorite movie while focusing on his breathing. He could listen to his favorite song while his eyes are closed and he focuses on breathing in and out slowly. I highly recommend practicing something called “Sensory Grounding” with him a few times beforehand and then doing it at the doctor. It’s called the “5-4-3-2-1” technique. This is when you name 5 things you see, 4 things you can touch, 3 things that you can hear, 2 things that you can smell, and 1 thing that you can taste. Have him look away from the needle when doing this. What this does is it gives his brain data about the room that there is no threat and his brain can then turn off his fight/flight response. It seems like this is a lot, however it is very common to have a needle phobia, even in adults. If you can work with him on this at a young age, he will less likely have this issue in the future. These are also great ways to teach children how to regulate their emotions in general, not just at the doctor or when they are scared.
Q: I want my child to be sensitive and caring about himself and others’ needs while being strong and being able to stand up for himself and others. What is a good way to instill this into him?
A: Great question! We are in a time where this is so important, parents have the ability to shape our future. This really ties into the above question and many of the other questions listed. First, validating your child’s emotions and not trying to tell them they are wrong for feeling a particular way is a wonderful way to encourage emotional intelligence. Validating feelings throughout the day and letting our children have emotions can help them to become more aware of their emotions and the emotions of other’s, while expressing themselves in healthy ways. Second, parents are their child’s role model. The way we speak to our children is the way they will speak to others. The way we speak about our children is the way they will think of themselves. If we want our children to be loving and kind to others, we must practice this with ourselves and with our children. Parents are not perfect, we say things we don’t mean and act in anger. When this happens, we can talk to with our children about our own behavior and we can even apologize to our children; letting them know we are not happy with the way we acted. This models wonderful behavior to our children. You also pointed out that it is important that our children stand up for themselves, but we don’t want them to get themselves into trouble while doing so. We can also model this behavior to our children. For example; let’s say your child says something disrespectful and mean to you and like “I hate you!” What if instead of getting angry, lecturing, and punishing you expressed to them that their words hurt and you were going to walk away from the situation. Then you come back when you are calm and talk to your child about why what they said was hurtful. If we as parents can model this type of behavior, our children are more likely to model this behavior on the playground when they are in a hurtful situation. This can instill an authentic confidence, self-esteem, and control of a situation that could otherwise go awry.
Q: I use two choices for situations like mealtime or getting ready or when my toddler does not want to stop playing (doing what he’s doing), and that helps. However, sometimes he will tell me I choose this or that and then not do it… what is the best way to handle this?
A: I love that you give choices! This is a great way to empower children. Keep doing what you are doing and add one more little thing: Let your son know before you give him the choices that the choice he chooses is the one he will get or nothing at all and that he should think carefully about his choice. Or if it is about an action he is choosing, let him know that you will decide for him if he doesn’t follow through. You can help him think carefully by guiding him to close his eyes and think about what each choice would be like and then to decide. Stick with what you have told him. Give a logical consequence if appropriate and stick to it. There are also some answers above about logical consequences and how to leave fun activities. You may get a meltdown, but eventually he will learn. The bigger picture is that this instills a sense of responsibility and ownership of our choices.