Every parent has been there. Your usually angelic (or at least moderately well behaved) child is suddenly intractable, full of rage, or even engaged in a full-blown temper tantrum. Worse, your usual discipline measures don’t even make a dent in the attitude or anger. What to do?
First of all it is important to gain some modicum of control. If you can’t get your child under control and you are in a public place then remove yourselves from the public eye. If you are home send your child to their bedroom. If you are somewhere public then try to find some privacy in an empty room, bathroom, or even your car. Sometimes taking control and giving everyone some breathing room will defuse the situation, but if not then ask yourself three key questions:
First, is there a physical cause? Is your child tired or hungry or overstimulated? Children’s bodies do not have the same stamina as adults and if they are not given several small meals (or larger meals interspersed with small snacks) and a good night’s sleep as well as some down time during the day they simply lose the ability to cope. Some children simply shut down or fall down (asleep) but others act out instead. In addition, children have only the limited experience of their short lives and a day that is too full of emotion or activity can overwhelm them. Sometimes simply too much change or newness can be overwhelming to a child used to a specific routine or environment.
Second, is there anything else going on in your child’s life that might be causing stress or is there anything else going on in your life that might be causing stress to your child? Children are creatures of habit. While they enjoy the new they also crave routine. Sometimes they need more time to adjust to routine and sometimes they actually need the ritual of discipline to give them security. The familiar dynamic of discipline is comforting because at least that hasn’t changed.
Third, has your child matured or moved into a different phase of development since your last discipline strategy was developed? For example, when my son was three we suddenly discovered our traditional time-out method wasn’t working. However with a slight modification (changing the location) we were back in business. As he grows older the time-out is now longer and often comes with built-in penalties for continued misbehavior. As your child grows and develops so does your discipline strategy. Perhaps you can simply modify the existing method or perhaps you need to come up with a whole new plan.
After reviewing your answers to these three key questions hopefully it is time to release your child from their time out and to talk things through. Ask your child what is going on? Ask your child what their punishment (if further punishment is needed) should be? Younger children won’t always be able to express themselves fully but you may learn some surprising insights into your child’s mind. Then follow through with what you have decided as a punishment and make sure your child understands that while you love them you will not tolerate the behavior you just punished.