How to stop your toddler's tantrums
Is Junior playing up? Shane Dunphy on the 10 ways parents can keep their kids in check
Published 20/06/2008 | 00:00
We've all seen it: an over-stressed mother with a trolley piled high with groceries, the queue at the checkout interminably long, and to top it all off, her toddler in mid-tantrum.
The casual observer can usually detect the moment of critical mass several minutes in advance -- the cries of the child get more and more shrill, and the face of the woman grows a darker shade of puce.
Finally, the besieged mother snaps, and a sound slap is delivered to the wailing child. The results of this form of discipline may vary -- some children will immediately be silenced, while others will shriek all the louder.
One thing, though, is certain: slapping has become deeply politically incorrect, and has in fact been criminalised in many countries in the EU. A colleague of mine, on a visit to Sweden last week, witnessed an incident just like the one described above, with one crucial difference -- a member of staff in the supermarket called the police, who promptly arrived and hauled mother and child down to the station.
Slapping children under three is against the law in Scotland, and there has long been a campaign to outlaw it here.
Many parents feel their options are becoming more and more limited: shouting at children is often perceived as being cruel, and withholding affection can allegedly cause emotional trauma -- what, then, are parents and carers supposed to do to establish any degree of control over children who veer from being little angels to miniature hooligans in the blink of an eye? Here are 10 ways to manage your kids -- without violence or shouting.
1. Time Out
Or 'the bold corner' as they called it when most of us were in school. The theory behind this is simple: children become over-excited and wound up, which causes them to get tired and cross. Taking them out of the situation for a short period of time allows them to relax, think about what has just happened, and prepare themselves for re-entering the group in a more peaceable manner.
Time out is the behaviour management method of choice in most crèches and pre-schools. "In my experience, time out works around 90pc of the time if it's used properly," says Karen, an early years worker.
"Children need to know that it's not a punishment, that you are just giving them time to wind down, and that they will be rejoining the group very shortly."
2. Positive Reinforcement
Why punish negative behaviour when you can praise and reward good acts? This method works on the premise that children need to be shown the difference between right and wrong, and that the best way of doing that is by always reinforcing correct actions through reward and verbal signals.
In other words, if your child puts his toys away after playing, make a fuss of him: tell him how good he is, hug him, and allow him a treat after dinner. He will see that these good experiences followed his tidying, but did not happen when he left his toys lying about, and will wish to repeat the desired behaviour. "This can work so long as you are really consistent," says Anne-Marie, a mother of five. "If you don't praise positive behaviour every time, the children stop expecting it, and simply won't bother."
3. Star charts
Probably better known to many adults in their darker incarnation -- black mark charts. Star charts are organised forms of positive reinforcement, and are usually used to target specific behaviours, such as biting or bed-wetting.
Every time a child wakes up with a dry sheet, a star is applied to the chart. A week with seven stars means a reward or treat. "These are becoming hugely popular now, in crèches and in the junior classes in schools," Jamie Lawlor of the Childcare Directory says.
"They are a great way for children to learn about earning rewards, and there is a fun aspect to them as well.
"The pitfall, of course, is that they can become competitive, with one child often ending the week with no stars -- teachers or crèche workers need to be mindful of this, and ensure that these kids get rewarded for something, otherwise it can be a very harmful experience that could ruin their self-esteem."
4. Voucher System
Not unlike star charts, but here the children win vouchers for treats through their good behaviour, that they can cash in at their leisure. So, tidying your bedroom could gain a story or an extra half-hour added onto your bedtime. "The key here is that vouchers can be earned, but not lost," Jamie says. "Otherwise it becomes a stick to beat the child with."
Children copy what they see, so the best way of teaching appropriate, responsible behaviour is to act in that way ourselves. Be calm, soft-spoken, gentle and courteous in your dealings with your child, and they will repay you by treating you accordingly.
"I visit crèches all the time," Ailish, a childcare tutor says, "and the settings that have happy, well-behaved children are the ones that have well-organised, motivated, happy staff."
6. Non-Verbal Cues
Remember Arnie in the movie Kindergarten Cop, with that police whistle? He developed a system of whistles, the sound of which would send the children in his class scurrying to carry out various tasks. As funny as it might appear, childcare experts suggest that signals like this are actually ideal for young children, and can help them to integrate all the complex everyday comings and goings into a manageable world-view.
Cues do not have to be aural, of course -- let your child know that bed-time is approaching by closing the curtains, turning down the lights and making a soothing drink or snack. "The age-old struggle of 'it's time to go to bed' doesn't have to be so stressful," says Marian, a mother of a two-year-old.
7. Assertive Discipline
Laying down some ground-rules, in other words. Children need to know what the limits on their behaviour are. Rules need to be clear, easily understood and, most importantly, always adhered to: blurring the lines leads to confusion and upset.
"I use two rules, and I have found that these can be applied to pre-school children as well as teenagers," Marcus, a childcare worker says. "Rule one: you always try your best. This means that every situation must be seen as a learning opportunity. It also means that there is no such thing as failure -- if you've given it your best shot, whatever you achieve is success.
"Rule two: you never hurt anyone, including yourself. This presupposes respectful, kind treatment of one another.
"When I start working with a child, I remind them of those two rules fairly regularly. Within a month, the kids are discussing them themselves -- thinking about them and using them in their day-to-day lives."
Personality clashes are unavoidable -- there will always be children who just don't get on, and can't seem to be in the same room without squabbling. One way of harnessing this energy is to get the children working together on a particular job. It distracts them from their fighting, and keeps them occupied.
"This is a dodgy one, to be honest," Karen says. "Some kids get wise to you, and will behave until your back is turned, and then get right back to fighting. I have found that giving them jobs to do does work, but you need to have them at opposite ends of the room!"
9. Selling Forward
Also known as "the 10- minute warning". Identify a series of landmarks within each day, fun activities or treats that the child won't want to miss. As each treat approaches, remind your little darling what is on the horizon, and that good behaviour will ensure that it all goes off without a hitch.
Bad behaviour could cause the treat to be delayed or cancelled. "The great thing about selling forward is that if one treat is missed, there is always the next one, so it's not devastating," Marian says. "But losing one lets the kids know you mean business."
10. The Kindness Box
Or "Kobold's Box" - in America, a Kobold is a kind of gremlin. Take an ordinary shoebox, and make a hole in the top.
The original idea was to tell children that a Kobold lived in the box, and was watching their behaviour. When he saw a child doing something kind, he would write what he saw down on a piece of paper. At the end of each day, the box is opened, and the acts of kindness read out to the group.
After a week or so, the children are told that the Kobold is getting writer's cramp, and they will have to take up the job, watching one another's good deeds and placing notes describing them in the box. "This is a powerful tool," Marcus says. "If you use the box properly, the children will end up policing themselves, falling over one another to perform kind acts."
Shane Dunphy is a child protection expert