In a prior column I wrote about how to teach self-control to a 4-year-old boy who constantly challenged his parents and gradually broke down their effectiveness. The key issue is how often parents feel defeated by very young, very challenging children. In that state of experiencing a loss of control and the resulting frustration, parents often resort to being increasingly punitive and do a lot of screaming as well as often resorting to spanking. There’s a better way.

This second article on the topic is in response to questions sent in by parents. Please note that this article does not focus on children with special emotional or neurological problems which would likely require additional strategies.

A key to a successful outcome to discipline is to recognize that there are viable options that will work if parents are persistent in applying consequences. Another key is that consequences need to be brief and repeated often rather than the one big punishment that is supposed to fix everything, for example, taking away something one night/day as opposed to several days. Frustrated parents being overly punitive typically results in a lack of follow-through as well as the child losing any connection to the original unacceptable behavior. By the time parents seek professional assistance, they nearly always are describing themselves as inconsistent, which ensures that the child’s behavior will not improve. It is amazing how quickly very young children learn that they can wear their parents down and get their way. Once that lesson is learned, it is very hard to teach them to change and actually respect the parents’ rules.

Time out is one of the most common strategies used with preschoolers. Many readers posed questions about using time out in certain situations where it is difficult to apply or the child is defiant. For example, one parent asked, “What do you do when a child is acting up in the car?”

First, do not try to discipline children while driving. It’s dangerous. You also need to examine the problem and decide what is really needed here. For example, if you are trying to talk on the phone, something strongly advised against in general, but especially when you have children in the car, the screaming child or fighting children in the back may really be seeking attention. Or, the noise is actually not that bad if you’re not trying to talk on the phone. So sometimes it’s best to realize this is not a good time to talk and refocus on driving and interacting with your child.

But if the child is really creating a problem, such as climbing out of the car seat (amazing how quickly some children learn to do this), the best thing to do is to pull over and stop the car. Children are usually surprised when you do this. If you were headed somewhere that the child was looking forward to going, give one warning that the next time you have to stop, you are heading back home. Too often parents feel obliged to carry out a commitment to the child regardless of his behavior. This conveys the wrong message. So even if it means missing a birthday party, a soccer practice, or a play date, go back home if the child is acting inappropriately. Unless you place a higher value on reasonable behavior, why should the child do so?

It is more of a challenge if it’s an errand that you must complete, e.g., picking up another child or getting something for dinner. In this case you explain that the child is going to be punished when you get home. Often it will be a loss of a privilege, such as watching a video or TV show that is a pre-dinner favorite or it may be loss of the parent reading a bedtime story that evening. It may not make the rest of that trip any more pleasant, or even the next several trips, but if you consistently remember to follow through when you get home, the child will begin to take you seriously and the behavior will improve with your warning.

Another parent raised the problem of a 4-year-old brother constantly being mean or overly aggressive with his 2-year-old sister. She stated that she has tried sending him to his room and other consequences but nothing is working. Of course, you are always faced with the challenge of sorting out who is really the culprit here. Often the younger sibling has quickly learned that to annoy the older sibling to the point of being mean will get the older sib punished. So unless you have seen that this is really the older sibling acting inappropriately, it is best to send both children to their rooms and not listen to stories about who did what to whom.

But when you have seen that the older child has been unacceptably mean you need to try a different approach. The usual focus on punishing the older child often fails to work because that child is gaining extra attention. Children will accept negative attention as a substitute for no attention and this is especially a driving force in early sibling conflicts where the “baby” appears to be getting too much attention in the eyes of the older sibling.

So your strategy is to come in, ignore the offending child, and swoop up the “victim” and go off with her to provide soothing and some attention. This changes the rules of the game. The older child will begin to realize that the more he picks on his younger sister, the more attention she gets, and he’ll have to figure out something else to do!

Yes, there is the risk of the younger child, as mentioned above, learning to use this to her advantage, but you will likely spot this quickly and use the “both to your room” solution instead.

Sometimes the older child really ups the ante in order to try to keep his game going. This often takes the form of chasing after the parent and trying to intrude upon your attention to the younger child by practically forcing you to punish him and get his desired attention. In those situations, one strategy is to try a reverse time out. You and your daughter go into a room that can be locked and let the child bang on the door until he tires of not getting his attention and goes off to do something else. The risk here is that older sibling will make a mess somewhere else to punish you for not paying attention to him. That will have to be dealt with afterwards, again best done by a consequence in which you take away time spent with him in addition to his having to clean up or lose even more privileges. Parental attention is still one of the most powerful consequences you have at your disposal.

An alternative response to the older child who is chasing after you is to stop, kneel down so you are eye-to-eye, and explain that as long as he keeps doing this, you will continue spending time with his sister, if he wants your attention he needs to stop, go to his room and play quietly for a few minutes until you are done with his sister. The idea is to use the child’s negative behavior as the reason for continuing the very thing he wants to change while setting it up so the desired behavior will get the reward he would prefer.

This concept that continuing the undesirable behavior will result in loss of attention instead of parental meltdown is critical in teaching responsibility for behavior to young children (actually at any age). You need to keep the consequences in the child’s realm, not yours. For example, when a child keeps getting out of bed at night say, “I can’t make you stay in bed. [It is very important to admit the limits of what you can control. You cannot control behavior, only consequences.] But each time you get out of bed I am going to subtract 1 minute from our ten minute bedtime story tomorrow night. So it is up to you. We already had our reading time and snuggle time tonight and now I have some chores to do. If you keep interrupting me, then I will have to take the extra time tomorrow night instead of spending it with you.”

While a very young child may not grasp the time concept, you can make it visual and concrete by having a felt board, poster, or anything to hang up and write on, write out numbers 0-10, and begin to take away/cross out numbers each time you have to speak to the child. The next night you follow the rules and give only the time left showing on the board, even zero if that’s what it is. Again, very young children will not likely grasp this on first try, but if repeated they will learn it and you will avoid the development of a chronic, nightly problem.

In a similar vein, when a child keeps popping out of her room during a time-out or banging on the walls/door when she is supposed to be quiet during the time-out, use a timer to manage the process. Again, the message is that you can’t control the child’s behavior, only the consequences. So you tell the child that each time you need to reprimand her for leaving the room or making too much noise, you will reset the timer and the punishment will keep being extended until she has done her five minutes of down time. “It’s up to you if you want to keep making this punishment last longer.”

The main points here are that with very young children you need brief, frequently repeated consequences for learning to take place; parental attention should be given out judiciously for good behavior as it is one of the more powerful influences on a preschooler’s behavior; accept and emphasize that you cannot control behavior, only consequences. Once you have a good plan, then it is being persistent and patient that will make it work.