When children are toddlers, many parents learn to rely on a simple, short list of discipline strategies: redirect, distract, time-out (or "time-in"). But as kids grow and change, your disciplinary toolbox needs to grow with them.
"With older kids, there really isn't a blanket 'consequence' to use for problem behavior," says Amy McCready, founder of Positive Parenting Solutions. "You have to look at the specific behavior or problem, and then figure out what makes the most sense to solve it. Sometimes the solution is a 'consequence,' but most of the time it's not. Because they'll be out of your house sooner than you think, and if all they've ever been exposed to is 'consequences,' they're not going to be able to solve problems on their own."
Try these tactics:
Set aside quality time. Parents tend to think of little kids as needing more attention, but tweens and teens need what McCready calls their "attention basket" filled on a daily basis. "Older kids are busier and we spend less time with them," she says. "But time together has a direct relationship with behavior. You spend 10 minutes fully present with your child, and you'll get it back tenfold in good behavior."
Define your non-negotiables. What rules or behaviors are most important to you? Choose five big things, and make clear to your children what the rules are -- and the consequences of breaking them. "For example, you may have a rule that video games are only for certain times -- the weekend or after homework is done," McCready says. "If the child doesn't respect that rule, they lose video privileges for the next week."
Dig deeper. What if your child says, "I'm not going to do my homework, and you can't make me"? He's right --this is a power struggle you can't win. Instead, try to get at the underlying problem. Is he struggling with fractions? Does he need a different homework space?
Use "when, then." You could say to your child, "No TV time until your homework is finished." Or you could say, "When your homework is finished, then you can watch TV until dinner." Which do you think will get a better reaction?
Hold family meetings. Start with something fun, like a board game or a bike ride, then discuss things you need to solve. Talk about it as a family and let your kids help find solutions.
Q: "My daughter rarely threw tantrums. Suddenly, at almost 8, she's having a lot more emotional outbursts and reacting intensely to small things. What can I do?" -- Jennifer Metzger, Montclair, N.J.
A: These kinds of meltdowns in an older child may be the earliest signs of the heightened emotional sensitivity of adolescence. Try these strategies:
Keep a mood diary. Track when the meltdowns happen and look for patterns and things that stress them out.
Start a 'sidebar conversation.' Kids are often more willing to open up when they're doing something else with you, like walking the dog, riding in the car, or helping cook.
Use 'I notice' instead of 'Why?' Direct questions about their behavior can cause children to react with defensiveness or shame.
--Lisa Dungate, PsyD, psychologist and child and family counselor, Saratoga Springs, N.Y.
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