Discipline with young children


Over the many years of my work with children, I’ve seen lots of children with ADHD symptoms and behavior issues. But the common thread that runs through the majority of these cases is not biological. It is social.

Behavior disorders, ADHD, conduct disorder, and other childhood diagnoses are more often the result of learning rather than something inherent within the child. While there is certainly a biological basis to some ADHD children, most have simply learned what they can get away with.

Recently, a parent asked me about a 4-year-old child. The boy has been exhibiting inattention, disrespect, and messiness. His seeming inability to follow instructions led his mother to seek a counselor, hence, my involvement.

She was a single mother when her child was born and being very young, she was limited in her maturity and energy. Being a single mom is hard and it should be no surprise that young, single mothers are more likely to have children diagnosed with ADHD or behavior disorders.

It makes sense. Older parents have more experience and patience with young children. Plus, help is more likely to be available in a two-parent home. Young, single moms often have neither experience nor help. Therefore, like almost all children, their kids learn to push buttons to get their way. Without parenting experience and with no help at home, it is very easy to give in to children when they whine, persist, or complain.

Fortunately, intervention doesn’t require medication or long-term therapy. Because most of these behaviors are learned, they can be unlearned and replaced with more socially acceptable behaviors.

As is so often the case, this very caring young mother had inadvertently created the child’s issues. So here are some tips to prevent, or reverse, such learned behaviors.

First, don’t try to change all your child’s annoying behaviors at once. Pick one or two behaviors that are creating the biggest battles and start there.

Next, develop sentence maps that you can use repeatedly. “I need you to remember to speak with your polite voice,” for example. One child I worked with was a habitual whiner. I repeatedly said, “I want to hear what you have to say, but I can’t understand you when you whine.” The sentence map never changes and with the repetition, your child will get it.

Next, you must be consistent. Be willing to invest in this process many times every day. Giving sporadic attention to this process dooms its success. When parents tell me an approach to discipline isn’t working, I ask about consistency. I almost always hear, “Well, sometimes we forget.” You MUST be consistent.

Utilizing behavior charts can be helpful. A visual representation of how a child is doing can help him/her to self-manage. These simple charts are available for free as downloads on the internet and can help children track their failures AND successes.

A critical piece of the puzzle that many parents forget is to catch their children succeeding. It is much easier and also more pleasant to encourage a child when he/she succeeds than to punish when the child fails.

“I’m so proud that you remembered to use your polite voice!” is an example of catching the child succeeding, but it means you have to be looking for it. Children want to please us and when we catch them doing so, that is a powerful reinforcer.

Finally, use reminders when you can. “I see that you are very excited. I am hoping you will remember to use your polite voice,” is an example of a reminder. Children are sometimes deliberately defiant, but often, distraction or forgetfulness is the more likely culprit.

When my children were little and were supposed to be getting ready for school, I’d often say in a loud voice, “I’m coming to see if Benjamin is remembering to get dressed for school.” Guess what I found when I walked in the room? He was predictably busy getting ready.

I’ve never seen a “bad” kid, but I’ve often seen children who have troubles they don’t know how to manage. These simple tools can address the majority of the problems parents have with young ones.

[Gregory K. Moffatt, Ph.D., is a college professor, published author, licensed counselor, certified professional counselor supervisor, newspaper columnist and public speaker. He holds an M.A. in Counseling and a Ph.D. in Psychology from Georgia State University and has taught at the college level for over 30 years. His website is gregmoffatt.com.]