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Gentle Discipline for the Young Child

By Marté J. Matthews, LMFT

“The children who need love the most will always ask for it in the most unloving ways,” from Russell Barkley, clinical professor of psychiatry at the Medical University of South Carolina and author of numerous books for parents. Does this sound familiar? As a parent, are you startled by how angry you can become when your young child is being obnoxious? We expect it from a teenager, but a preschooler? Really?!?

A mother of two boys recently complained to me that her four-year-old is nothing like her six-year-old. Her six-year-old is eager to please, cooperative and loving, but her four-year-old? Parenting felt like an endless series of mealtime struggles, followed by potty battles and clean-up arguments that left everyone exhausted and frustrated.

As a therapist, I know a developmental job of the four-year-old is to figure out “who has the control here, mommy or me?” At four, they will refuse certain foods, but demand their favorite foods with an air of entitlement that can set a parent's teeth on edge. Any four-year-old will argue they don't need to use the bathroom before getting in the car because “I don't have to go!” Then at clean-up time, they push toys around the room looking miserable as parents nag and criticize. The most unloving of ways, indeed! But I also know that reassuring this mom that all of this unpleasant behavior is “totally normal” would be totally unhelpful.

So instead, I acknowledged that four-year-old children can be as fun and wonderful, but completely obnoxious and unpleasant to be with...sometimes only a few moments later! When she could tell I really do get it, how hard this really is, we could talk about what else she could do. I reflected that in this situation, she is engaging in the struggle at her four-year-old's level... “Eat your dinner...” was followed by “I don't like it,” was followed by “You'd better eat it, since I'm not making you something else,” was followed by a tantrum or tears or silence...but not eating dinner.

Then we talked about parenting approaches. Some parents give in, turning into short order cooks in a desperate attempt to get their child to eat something. Some parents dig in their heels and issue orders. Dinner is on the table. The child will eat it. The tension builds. These are two extremes, and the path to calmer parenting lies between them. These more moderate parenting approaches are known as “authoritative” or “consultant” styles of parenting.

As we talked, this mom found language she could use, without sarcasm or resentment. As she served him only one scoop of salad and one small scoop of spaghetti and sauce that night, she explained, “This is dinner for the family. Please sit with us here at the table while we eat. You don't have to eat it if you don't want to. Next time I will make more food is at breakfast tomorrow morning.” And she meant it, so she could hold the line. She was surprised her child ate a little, but more than usual, and didn't argue.

Remaining calm is critical to this process: No sarcasm allowed! It won't work if you behave in a resentful way. You are a leader in your family. Lead by example.

Then later that night as bedtime approached, it was time clean up. She was pretty sure the dinner time success was just a coincidence, and was steeling herself for battle, when she stopped for a moment to think of a different approach. The next time I saw her, she beamed, “He did it! He cleaned up his Legos before bedtime!” How had she done it? “I sat down with him, and explained he had 10 minutes before brushing his teeth for bed. He looked up at me and said, 'I gotta clean up my Legos so nobody steps on 'em when I get my good night kiss.' I was so proud I gave him a kiss right there!”

If only it were that easy for every parent of a four-year-old! I can't promise this kind of success for everyone, but we will talk about ways this parenting job can be easier!

If you would like to make parenting a little bit easier, sing up for Gentle Discipline at the Campbell Library on February 4 at 7:30 pm. Sign up in advance:

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