It turns out, she’s also a Psychology Professor at the University of New Orleans. As a Developmental Psychologist who studies parenting in early childhood, we thought she might be able to offer some insight into our most recent parenting challenge: “Punishing a Kid Who Just Doesn’t Care.” Below, are her thoughts.
To answer your question, if punishment isn’t working, then don’t do it. The hardest thing about parenting toddlers, and there are a LOT of very hard things, is that you can’t make them do anything. I repeat, you can’t make them do anything they don’t want to do. So what’s the secret? Figure out what is rewarding for your child.
Evanthia isn’t alone. Many of us have temperamentally willful children. They’re called all sorts of names: difficult, stubborn, defiant, spoiled, strong-willed, spirited…you get the idea. Whatever the name, though, temperamental characteristics can challenge even the most patient parent.
Temperament reflects inherited characteristics that affect how children react emotionally to the world around them. Temperamental characteristics are most obvious in the face of novelty. Observing your children’s reactions to novelty will help you learn a lot about their temperament. Take a play date with a new child, for instance.
- Children with more fearful temperaments may approach a new situation cautiously and cling tightly to mom until they’re comfortable joining in the play.
- Impulsive children often dive right into the play situation and want the very toy another child is playing with.
- Easy children often observe a situation and join in once an opportunity presents itself.
- Difficult children are less predictable. They may enter the play situation with wariness or impulsivity, or sometimes they’ll behave like an easy child. Typically, difficult children struggle with transitions more than novel situations. These children like to be in control and call the shots, so when someone else is telling them it is time to go or to stop play when they’re having fun, the transition is met with resistance, or “passive resistance” in the form of ignoring.
One Strategy: Routines
After the play date, when it’s time to clean up, most children will resist. But this resistance is often short-lived, and most children will comply and clean up. Having a clean-up routine, like using the “Clean Up” song, can really help to get children to comply.
Routines and rituals are generally very good ways to get children to comply: bedtime routines help promote sleep; clean-up routines help with compliance; morning routines help get children out of the house in the morning…for most children. Temperamentally difficult children may become less responsive to the same routine over time and therefore need routines to vary. For instance, I have twin girls who fall more into the impulsive and strong-willed category. My girls love novelty and while the basic structure of our routines is the same, elements of the routines need to vary.
During our bedtime routine, the girls go upstairs, put on jammies, and play. We brush teeth, use the bathroom, pick out sleep friends and go to bed. Here’s where the challenge starts: getting them to stay in their beds and go to sleep! For a very long time, I would lay down with them, they each snuggled up with me and I’d make up stories. When that became too stimulating, we did music on the CD player. When that stopped working, we did children’s stories. So the routine was the same, but I mixed things up where the challenges were.
Tips for Parenting Challenging Children
So, you have a challenging child? How do you get the child to listen? Remember that you are smarter than your 2-year-old (or 3-, 4- or 15-year-old). The answer is not always obvious, but here are some tips:
1. Don’t be afraid to change up a situation.
So A isn’t cleaning up at the play date? Don’t put yourself in a power situation. When you’re at a friend’s house, it’s easy to feel like you’re being judged. And, it’s impossible to punish your child in front of other people, so don’t put yourself in that situation. Try a new strategy.
Instead of asking A to clean up the toys, turn the clean up into a game. “A, let’s see if we can clean up more toys than [friend’s name and her mommy’s name]. Hurry, hurry, hurry!!” Who cares if you end up cleaning up most of the toys? You set up the situation so that you were involved, and you got your child to help. You win!
2. Avoid situations that result in a power struggle.
OK, so I know conventional wisdom says avoidance is bad. I don’t agree. If something isn’t working, all that you’re doing is reinforcing the struggle. If you’re having the same struggle over and over with bedtime, change it. Having the same fight each night just makes the fight more automatic. If every time you tell your child to put on their jammies it turns into a fight, then do something different. What about sleeping in clothes one night? Sweat pants and t-shirts are great jammies, and it’s unexpected.
3. Use rewards instead of timeout.
I hate timeout. I’ve watched Supernanny, I know daycare can do it, but I can’t. When I use timeout, it turns into a huge power struggle (see point #2). So, I rarely use timeout. Punishment doesn’t work at all for my kids. They don’t take me seriously, or they know that they’ve upset me and it seems to escalate any situation.
So, what can you do when punishment doesn’t work? Use rewards. What?? My child was just bad, and I’m supposed to reward behavior? One of my children is more willful than the other. I have labeled her “Mommy’s Big Helper,” which she loves. So when things start to get out of control, I give her a new job to do that is a “big job.” It’s completely unexpected, and I have her help me make dinner or set the table or carry my bag.
4. When things escalate and emotions are flying…
Take a joint timeout. Sometimes my child needs my help to settle down. I hold her until she stops crying. When she’s calm, briefly explain that behavior is not acceptable. Children do not listen to long, drawn-out explanations. Remember Charlie Brown cartoons? Remember what Snoopy hears? Waaa, waaa, waaa. Then, set up a situation so you can reward positive behavior.
Remember that this too shall pass! The good stuff and the bad stuff are phases that will pass. You are NOT a terrible mother, and no one has all the answers. Your husband, mother, and/or friends are sources of support, so use them! Oh, and talk to your mommy friends. You’d be surprised to find how many people (me included) lose it on a daily basis!
Laura Scaramella is a Professor of Psychology at the University of New Orleans. Laura received her Ph.D. from the University of Arizona, Department of Child and Family Studies. She worked as a Research Scientist at the Iowa State University before moving to the University of New Orleans. Her primary area of study is the relationships among parenting styles, children’s temperamental characteristics and children’s adjustment during early childhood.
Laura is married and lives in New Orleans with her husband and twin daughters. Despite being an “expert” in parenting during early childhood, Laura often finds practicing what she preaches to be very challenging.