Why is disciplining my child important?
Your preschooler needs to understand how she's expected to behave, as well as how you’re likely to react to her behavior. You can help her to learn by being consistent in the way you discipline her.
Consistency gives her the confidence to explore and learn, secure in the knowledge that certain things are allowed, and others aren't.
There's no need to be too rigid. It’s important to be responsive to your child. But frequently changing the way you discipline her, or only disciplining her some of the time, will confuse her. If she's confused about her boundaries, she won't be able to manage her behaviour as well.
It may feel as though giving in to whining or tantrums now and again makes life easier, but it can actually make things much more difficult in the long run. This is as it teaches your child that making a fuss is a good way to get what she wants.
Here are some useful tips on how to discipline your child consistently.
1. Set ground rules with your child
Set four or five basic rules around the issues that matter most to your family. Involve your child when you're coming up with the rules, so that she feels she has a say.
Try to make the rules as clear and specific as possible. For example, "Always be good" isn't a helpful rule, as it doesn't tell your child what counts as "good".
“We don’t hit” and, “We clear up our plates after eating" are more helpful. You can also set your own rules, based around your family life. For example, if you or your partner works shifts, you may want to introduce a rule such as, “Always be quiet in the morning.”
Your rules can also reflect behavior that your child particularly needs to work on. Choose one or two issues to focus on at any one time, such as refusing to go to bed, or whining when she wants sweets. When these situations come up, make sure that your child knows what’s expected of her every time.
Be sure to set a good example by following all the rules you make. Young children learn a lot from watching how their parents behave.
It's no good saying, "You're not allowed sweets", if she then sees you or your partner munching away on a chocolate bar.
Try to model good behaviour for your child whenever you can, and save your indulgences for when she's not around.
2. Ask for support
Once you’ve set some rules, and are ready to implement them, get as much support as you can. It can be invaluable to have backup when you feel frustrated or tired.
You and your partner need to agree on what the rules are, and how you’ll enforce them. Try to get the support of other people your child spends time with, too, such as grandparents.
If your child is at nursery or preschool, talk to her key worker about a particular behaviour you're working on. They may agree to help reinforce your rules.
There may be times when someone else disciplines your child and you don’t agree with them, or wish they’d handled it differently.
If this happens, try to wait until your child is out of earshot before talking it through with the adult involved.
Let them know that you’ve set certain rules, and that it’s important to you that they’re enforced consistently.
3. Time it right
It can be tempting to give your child a crash course in manners just before a birthday party or a trip to visit relatives.
However, you’ll be more successful if you start to enforce a new rule at a quiet time when there’s no pressure. This will give you both time to get used to the new expectations.
Your child may find any changes to her routine hard to handle at first. So don't try a new discipline technique just before a new baby arrives, or during a house move. Instead try to be as consistent as possible with established and existing rules during chaotic or stressful times.
4. Be patient
Repetition is the key to teaching young children anything. So carry on telling your child when her actions aren’t acceptable, even if it seems your words aren’t sinking in.
This may take some time, so try to stay calm while she's learning. Explain to your child why it’s a good idea to listen to you, giving her simple reasons that she can understand. “You have to wash your hands before you eat because they’re dirty and you could get sick” is a good example of this.
If you’re consistent over time, she should get the message eventually.
5. Don’t expect perfect behaviour
It’s completely natural for your child to challenge and even defy you at times. She's not trying to make you angry, she just wants to explore her world and test her boundaries.
Providing her with calm direction whenever she misbehaves will help her to feel supported and cared for, while teaching her how you'd like her to behave.
Don’t assume that your discipline tactics aren’t working if you have to use them every day. The more often you repeat the same tactic over time, the more likely your child is to grasp your message. Also, her behaviour will probably become more manageable naturally as she gets older.
6. Bend the rules - sometimes
Consistency is important, but it’s fine to make an exception to a rule if there's a good reason. After all, life isn't always predictable!
Being a little flexible will help your child begin to understand that there are sometimes different rules in different contexts.
The key to flexibility is to be honest with your child about why a rule doesn't apply in a particular situation.
For example, you could say, "We're going on a long car journey today, so you'll be able to play with the tablet for an extra hour." This lets your child know that the rules make sense, and are there for a reason.
Try to avoid bending the rules just because you’re too busy or stressed to enforce them, though. This teaches your child that rules aren’t really that important.
If you give in for no reason once or twice, your child will quickly learn that you'll give in again in future. So only bend the rules when you have a good reason that you can explain to your child.