Taming Trouble: Discipline and Manners for Your Preschooler

7 tips for parents to help preschoolers master manners.

Medically Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on October 05, 2010
5 min read

When her 4-year-old daughter is acting sassy or disrespectful, Angela Mackey, a mother of three in Fort Smith, Ark., reminds herself to take a deep breath. She knows that if she yells, then her daughter "is being met with disrespect as well."

You have to accept a certain amount of drama queen behavior, says Gary Unruh, MSW LCSW, family mental health counselor in Colorado Springs, Colo., and author of Unleashing the Power of Parental Love.

Preschoolers (ages 3-5) are reveling in their newfound independence. "Accept that a preschooler will say 'no' a lot," Unruh says. "It's not disrespectful. It's part of learning who they are."

There are many times a child's discovery process can seem at odds with a parent's job. Like when they are hoarding toys on a play date, kicking and screaming to protest bedtime, or having a meltdown in the middle of a supermarket.

So how can you encourage your child's social development while curbing bad behavior? Here's your to-do list for taming preschoolers without losing your sanity.

Know your child's developmental stage. As a parent, you may want your child to share their toys with friends, sit still during church and say "please" and "thank you." But you have to consider what's age appropriate when it comes to behavior -- and gauge your expectations accordingly.

"Kids are not born with social skills," says Ari Brown, MD, an Austin, Texas pediatrician and author of Toddler 411. "We're born with a survival-of-the-fittest mentality."

If you understand where your child falls on the developmental milestone chart, you will feel less frustrated when your child can't sit still for five minutes.

And keep in mind that there's a lot of variability in maturation from one child to the next. Although some kids are done with temper tantrums at age 3, others aren't done at age 5

Patience is key, Brown says. She often hears parents complaining about how they tried a discipline strategy, like timeout, again and again, but it didn't work.

"You are planting the seeds of discipline," she says. "Don't expect a tree to grow overnight."

Say, for example, you don't want your child digging up plants in the garden. Understand that it takes time for your child to test out if you really mean it. Then it takes awhile to understand why it's a bad idea.

"Just because you say it's a bad idea doesn't mean they necessarily believe you," she says. "So sometimes they just have to play out the necessary consequence for the behavior."

Some behaviors may go away within a matter of days or weeks, but others may take longer to change.

When it comes to discipline, parents need to be warm but firm, says Unruh. Listen to your child and validate the feelings causing the problem and then set firm limits when they are behaving inappropriately.

For example, if Maya hits her sibling, let her know what the consequences are, like a timeout. Then take her into another room to stop the behavior and give her a chance to calm down. You can say to her: “I see you’re upset and you handled your upset by hitting. What are you upset about?”

"Children can say what they're feeling if you give them that training," he says. "A huge side benefit is teaching the child empathy. A child learns through experience what it's like and ends up being very empathetic and compassionate to others."

Parents tend to focus strictly on the behavior and that's just the tip of the iceberg for the child's identity, Unruh says.

"Parents will say, 'How many times did I tell you to stop? Go to your room right now.' But there's no teaching or learning involved," he says. "You're just telling them to stop it because you want them to stop it."

Unruh suggests a 75/25 rule, which calls for listening 75% of the time and talking 25% of the time. And don't lecture.

"Autonomy and self-confidence flourish when parents are asking the child things instead of telling them all the time," he says.

For teaching manners, it's important to model the behavior you want to see, says Jane Nelsen, EDD, author of the Positive Discipline book series.

Teach them without expecting results right away, like teaching language, she says. Don't get mad at them if they don't do it every time. By the time they're school age, they'll take hold like the way language does.

If a child has had modeling for apologizing, they may be able to come up with "saying sorry" on their own to make another child feel better in the right situation.

"It's so much more effective when it comes from them rather than telling them what they should do," she says.

Get your children involved with family meetings to come up with solutions together. For example, you and your child can create a bedtime routine chart that includes teeth brushing, bath time, putting on pajamas, and storytime.

"Positive discipline is about helping children develop their thinking skills, social and life skills, and the belief that they're capable," Nelsen says. "You can't tell them they're capable. You have to let them experience it."

If it's bedtime and your child isn't responding to the routine, give them choices. You can say, "I know you don't want to brush your teeth but it's time to brush your teeth. Do you want to do it with me or by yourself?

Temper tantrums are a child's way of blowing off steam and communicating their frustration, Brown says.

If you respond to them, then you validate that behavior. Because the child learns that if they have a tantrum, then they'll get mom and dad's attention or what they want. But if you ignore them, you will see them gradually subside.

And don't engage if you feel like your child is pushing your buttons.

"If you're feeling frustrated, walk away," Brown says. "You want to show your child that even when you're frustrated or upset, you can respond calmly. That speaks volumes for teaching them appropriate behaviors."