Is Your Family Out of Control?

Experts say bringing back discipline is key to getting well-behaved kids.

Watching prime-time TV may give the impression that today's parents are getting desperate -- the shows Supernanny, Nanny 911 and, yes, even Desperate Housewives feature overwhelmed moms and dads struggling to get their kids under control.

Cynthia Goodman can relate. On the boardwalk near her home in Hallandale Beach, Fla., her 2-year-old daughter once threw a tantrum so violent that bystanders called the police. "Lailee has always wanted her way, and I made the mistake of always going her way," Goodman tells WebMD. Like many parents, she finds it easier to give in than to watch her little girl kick, scream and bang her head on the ground. So Goodman's day revolves around avoiding tantrums, a strategy that has made her virtually housebound. "Lailee often doesn't want to get dressed, so we don't go out … I just stay inside with her watching videos rather than enjoying the beautiful day."

Goodman's experience illustrates a trend, according to clinical psychologist Ruth Peters, PhD, author of Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control. "I think kids are harder to manage today because so many parents are afraid to discipline," Peters tells WebMD. This is especially true of working parents who want the limited time they spend with their children to be positive. But in the long run, Peters says, letting kids rule the roost doesn't do them any favors. If they always get their way, they can't learn how to handle disappointment or frustration. "The price these kids are ultimately going to pay is tremendous. Teachers won't like them, peers won't like them, and they'll have trouble dealing with failure successfully."

When Is It Time for a New Approach to Discipline?

After the debut of her reality series on ABC, Supernanny Jo Frost told reporters, "I think this is a situation we got ourselves into … that parents want to be their children's friends and they don't discipline." Frost is trying to change that one family at a time. In each episode of Supernanny she restores order to a chaotic household by showing parents the benefits of structure, consistency, and disciplinary techniques such as the "naughty step" -- also known as "time out." "At the end of the day, a parent is a parent and not a friend," she says.

Peters says programs like Supernanny and Fox's Nanny 911 are doing a public service by putting discipline back in vogue. "I think those shows offer quite a bit to parents who don't have a clue how to discipline."

Nicholas Long, PhD, co-author of Parenting the Strong-Willed Child, agrees. "I think so many parents are struggling with how to best manage their children's behavior and these nannies are offering concrete advice."

So how do you know whether your own disciplinary style is in need of a makeover? Long, who is the director of the Center for Effective Parenting and a professor of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, says it's time to make a change if you feel your kids have control of you instead of vice versa, or if you're getting complaints about your children's behavior from other adults, such as teachers or caregivers. If this applies to your family -- and you can't hire a miracle nanny to come to the rescue -- you can still try some of the nannies' techniques to help get your children back on track.

Set Clear Limits

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, toddlers begin purposefully testing the limits of acceptable behavior at about 18 months of age. It's up to you to set and communicate those limits. You can't expect your children to behave if they have no idea what the rules are. Long suggests making the rules very clear and specific. "If we tell our kids, 'be good' or 'be careful' it can mean so many different things. Be concrete, such as 'be gentle with your sister.'"

Set Clear Consequences

Just as your children need to know the rules, they need to be aware of the consequences of breaking those rules. Whether you use the "time out" technique or take away a child's favorite toy, there must be something tangible at stake. It's fine to explain the reasoning behind your rules, but don't expect that to be enough to make your kids cooperate. "Nagging and lecturing are ridiculous," Peters says. "You're wasting your time. There must be clear consequences."

Be Consistent and Predictable

Once you make a rule and tell your kids what's at stake, you must follow through. If you don't, they won't take the rule seriously. And if the rules keep changing, your kids may end up confused and frustrated. "If they can jump on the furniture one day and the parents don't do anything, and the next day the parents yell about it, the children won't know what the limits are," Long tells WebMD. Some children will test the limits again and again just to figure out what they are.

Parents Can Be a Good Example

You may tell your kids, "Do as I say, not as I do," but children learn by watching their parents. If you don't want your children throwing tantrums, set an example by keeping your cool -- even when your toddler has just redecorated the family room couch with finger paints. "Parents should punish their children in a matter-of-fact manner without getting too angry or upset," Long says.

Avoid Reinforcing Undesirable Behavior

When children whine or throw tantrums, it's tempting to give them anything they want so they'll stop wearing down your already frazzled nerves. But rewarding a tantrum with candy or anything else is a sure-fire way to inspire more tantrums.

Praise Good Behavior

"Discipline is not just punishment but includes positive feedback," Long says. Don't take good behavior for granted, or your kids may feel they get more attention when they behave badly. Just as praise from a teacher can motivate kids at school, praise from mom or dad can encourage good behavior at home.

Show Sources

Published Feb. 14, 2005.

SOURCES: Cynthia Goodman, Hallandale Beach, Florida. Ruth Peters, PhD, clinical psychologist; and author, Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control. Supernanny, ABC Winter 2005 TCA Press Tour transcript, Jan. 23, 2005. Nicholas Long, PhD, director, Center for Effective Parenting; and professor of pediatrics, University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences; and co-author, Parenting the Strong-Willed Child: The Clinically Proven Five-Week Program for Parents of Two- to Six-Year-Olds. The American Academy of Pediatrics.
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