Common discipline problems and solutions

While each child is unique, the challenges they pose vary. Backtalking, biting, and bossiness are fairly universal. Discipline is a learning process wherein parents teach children how to make good choices. In the form of positive parenting, children freely express themselves while learning how to behave appropriately, be considerate of others, and respect rules and regulations. (Get tips and techniques on positive parenting discipline here.) Discipline can effectively improve your child’s behavior, but only, according to the AAP, if it includes a supportive environment, positive reinforcement strategies, and appropriate reactive strategies. Before you can correct misbehaviors, however, you need to understand why they’re happening. Here are 10 common discipline issues parents face and strategies for coping with them.

Problem 1: Biting 

Infants biting while breastfeeding is an issue we discuss in a video here.

Toddlers, who sometimes turn their teeth on unsuspecting parents, siblings and playmates, are probably biting out of frustration. For children who haven’t yet developed the language skills needed to express their feelings, biting is a form of communication. More often than not, it is not a sign of aggression or intent to harm, but a child who hasn't learned it's not a good way to express their discontent. 

Solution: Biting is a normal part of childhood (learn more here). The most natural response is usually the most effective, according to Elizabeth Pantley, author of The No Cry Discipline Solution: Gentle Ways to Encourage Good Behavior Without Whining, Tantrums & Tears. When parents respond with an “ouch!” or “that hurts!” a child is quickly sent the message that biting is not okay. Pantley suggests moving away from the biter to communicate that this behavior will not produce positive attention. When a child bites another child, firmly stating, “We don’t bite” and then tending to the one bitten, not the biter, reinforces the message that this behavior will not result in the attention the child seeks. Encouraging the child who bites to apologize and offer another form of physical contact, such as a hug, shows him the difference between acceptable and unacceptable forms of communication. 

If a child exhibits routine biting, try to prevent another episode by being on the lookout for triggers. Once a child is visibly frustrated, help him find the words to express himself (“I can see that you don’t want your hair brushed, but we need to get ready to leave the house, and I need your cooperation.”) or intervene during a heated playtime moment (“Your friend is playing with that toy right now; you can have a turn when she is done.”)

Problem 2: Hitting & Kicking

Like biting, hitting or kicking a parent or playmate is what a child does when frustrated, angry, sad, or simply unable to get his point across. As with other acts of physical aggression, a child who hits or kicks shouldn’t be labeled aggressive, but instead needs to be taught an acceptable way to communicate frustration. 

Solution: Similar to the response for biting, the first reaction is the most powerful one; an “ouch!” followed by, “It’s not okay to hit” or “We don’t hit” sends an immediate message that physical attacks are not acceptable ways to communicate. It’s best to intervene immediately to stop the aggression, says Dr. Sal Severe, school psychologist and author of How To Behave So Your Children Will, Too! Redirect the child and explain that while it’s okay to be upset, it’s not okay to physically strike out. Encourage children to use their words instead of their feet or fists. Pantley suggests teaching a child to clap her hands together when she’s angry and feels the urge to hit or to put her hands in her pockets. The clearest way to send the message that hitting is not okay is to never hit your child. It’s difficult for children to refrain from hitting if they see a trusted adult strike someone.

Problem 3: Lying 

Children, like many adults, are guilty of stretching the truth from time to time. Children lie when they feel trapped, threatened, or scared of punishment or rejection, according to authors Jane Nelsen, Lynn Lott, and Dr. H. Stephen Glenn in their book Positive Discipline A-Z: 1001 Solutions to Everyday Parenting Problems. While habitual lying may be concerning and can sometimes be a sign of low self-esteem, there’s usually a reason behind the occasional lie that’s discovered once parents dig a little under the surface for the truth. 

Solution: When dealing with lying it’s best to be honest! The co-authors of Positive Discipline A-Z: 1001 Solutions to Everyday Parenting Problems suggest responding with, “That doesn’t sound like the truth to me,” and encourage your child to share the true story. Because there is usually a reason why children lie, it’s important to investigate what motive your child might have to tell something other than the truth. Children often lie to avoid disappointing parents, so Pantley suggests parents examine their typical response to a child’s mistakes and make sure the message sent is that imperfection is acceptable. In addition to modeling honesty yourself (yes, that means avoiding even those little white lies), celebrate the truth by thanking a child for being honest and teaching the importance of telling the truth, even in difficult situations. 

On the other hand, fabricating (the merging of fantasy and reality) is a normal part of early childhood. When a young child fabricates a tall tale, it certainly won’t hurt to play along, experts say. Ask him how big the stegosaurus he saw on the playground was or if he had fun visiting that erupting volcano last night when you thought he was sleeping. The ability to fabricate stories is often a sign of a good imagination and needn’t be discouraged.

Problem 4: Temper Tantrums 

Becky Bailey, author of Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline: The 7 Basic Skills for Turning Conflict into Cooperation, describes the common outburst of anger as “a child’s thwarted efforts to control a situation.” Young children, often caught in a constant struggle between dependence and independence, are easily frustrated. These tearful explosions often exhaust (and sometimes embarrass) parents but can actually be quite terrifying for the child as she loses control of her emotions with little ability to regain composure on her own. With limited words to express her feelings, a young child’s frustration can quickly turn to fury. 

Solution: While making an effort to prevent tantrums is always a good idea (staying consistent, keeping expectations realistic, avoiding over protectiveness or overindulgence), helping a child move through a tantrum is the best approach. Some parents find it difficult to stay cool while their child has an outburst but the best solution is to be a calming presence in their storm of fury. If necessary, temporarily separate the child from the situation to help her regain her composure; remain calm and compassionate. Rather than cave into a child’s demands (easier said than done) help your child identify her emotions and label her feelings. By saying, “You seem angry” or “Can I help you rebuild that Lego tower?” parents aid their children in finding the words they need to express themselves. Click here for more tips on taming temper tantrums.

Problem 5: Backtalking

Often it seems a child is capable of talking back before they’re actually proficient at talking. Once they find their words, children are quick to protest when they are requested to do something they don’t want to do. “No” seems to echo throughout every household. Although the opposition might be expected, the tone taken is usually what’s most displeasing to parents. 

Solution: It’s best to address backtalk immediately after it occurs. Jamie Martin, author of Steady Days: A Journey Toward Intentional, Professional Motherhood shares one of her favorite responses to backtalk on her popular blog, "Steady Mom". When her children talk back, Martin’s first response is, “Let’s try that again.” Giving children a chance to try again, before enforcing a consequence, she says, is a gentle form of training and reminding. Because backtalk is usually just a blunt, honest reaction, children often benefit from another chance to deliver their opinion in a better way.

Problem 6: Interrupting

A phone at your ear or a visitor at the door is often all it takes for children to immediately need to share pressing news or concerns and demand attention. Children have little ability to see the needs of others and often feel their sense of belonging and significance is threatened when your attention focuses elsewhere, according to co-authors Nelsen, Lott, and Glenn. 

Solution: While the initial reaction of most parents is frustration and a sternly barked, “Don’t interrupt,” prevention is the better option. Prepare children before making a phone call or visiting with a friend. Make a suggestion about how they can occupy themselves while you’re busy, or turn them loose with an activity designed especially for times when you need to focus your attention elsewhere. By setting aside, promising, and delivering time with your child after the phone call or visit, you send a clear message that there’s enough time and attention to go around. Remind children that unless it’s an emergency, most announcements can wait and teach them how to recognize pauses in conversation for an appropriately timed “excuse me.”

Problem 7: Bossiness

Playing well with others is a learned skill for many kids. Some children prefer to lead the way while others are content to follow. And while most parents delight in having a natural born leader, it’s easy for some little leaders to become overly bossy and demanding, sending even the most accommodating playmates packing. 

Solution: Often managing the playground boss is just a matter of teaching the child more cooperative ways to communicate. Children usually don’t realize there is a subtle yet important difference between a bossy statement and one that’s assertive but respectful, says Pantley. Suggesting better ways to phrase things often helps kids recognize that there is a noticeable difference between, “We’re going to play cars now,” and, “How about we play cars?” Often children just model what they hear; older siblings and parents can be the bossy example. Teaching by example (refraining from barking orders and keeping a respectful tone) is often the best way for children to learn a better way to communicate.

Problem 8: Tattling

“She took my doll!” “He won’t share!” “I was playing with it first!” These protests are a regular product of playtime. “Children regularly struggle to establish boundaries with other children,” says Bailey. As much as parents would like to encourage children to work it out themselves, kids don’t possess the skills to do so. Bailey insists tattling is an excellent opportunity for parents to teach children how to manage conflict on their own, assertively and effectively. 

Solution: Bailey notes that when a child resorts to tattling, she is admitting, “I’m clueless about how to handle this. Help me.” She recommends first asking the child if she liked how she was treated. This turns the child’s focus inward to her own feelings, not the actions of the other person. Bailey suggests parents clearly advise the child how to respond: a simple “stop” is a good place to start for young kids while a more explanatory, “I don’t like it when you take my toy. You need to wait for your turn,” is more effective for older children. Some children are naturally more assertive than others, and Bailey adds that passive kids need help finding their “big voice.” By teaching children how to establish boundaries and resolve conflict, they gain the necessary skills and confidence to assert themselves, becoming better able to work out future disagreements on their own.

Problem 9: Sibling Conflicts

More than one child in the home inevitably means there will be sibling squabbles. This leaves parents feeling like referees. Children prefer everything to go their way, and when they don’t get what they want, they often get angry. “It should not be surprising,” says Severe, “that anytime you put two or three people who think this way into the same confined space and tell them to play and have fun, you are likely to get some conflict.” 

Solution: Similar to taming other natural but not exactly acceptable reactions, parents can use sibling conflicts as teaching opportunities. Children don’t always have the ability to solve conflicts on their own and need help identifying their feelings and finding words to express them. You can affirm your child’s right to be angry, while discouraging him from slugging his brother and helping him think of a better way to respond. Often it’s a matter of helping a child see his sibling’s point of view. 

While conflict amongst siblings is inevitable, rivalry doesn’t need to be. Parents can help alleviate jealousy by recognizing each child’s special gifts, instead of comparing siblings. Encouraging teamwork, scheduling one-on-one time with each child, and never assuming one child is always at fault and another the perpetual victim are ways parents can minimize resentment between siblings. Be sure to notice those blissful moments when children are playing together peacefully. Children crave attention—good or bad—from their parents. Behavior that receives attention is behavior that is strengthened and repeated. Instead of only intervening when children argue, intervene when you see them cooperating and sharing by offering positive feedback and encouragement. In other words, recognize and acknowledge both the bad and good behaviors.

Problem 10: Whining

It can happen anywhere (the store, the car, the kitchen) and often at the most challenging times of the day (when you’re trying to get out the door, put dinner on the table, or usher everyone into bath). Whining typically is a request for attention when children feel insignificant or ignored, but it can also be a response to hunger, fatigue, or frustration. 

Solution: While you can calmly let your child know that you will not listen to whining, that you cannot understand a whiny voice, and only when he stops whining will you be able to respond, often a more effective approach is one that might surprise you. “Every time your child whines,” say Nelsen, Lott, and Glenn, “take him on your lap and say, ‘I bet you need a big hug.’” Often just a few moments of positive and physical attention are the cure. In addition to keeping kids well-fed, well-rested, and well-prepared to help prevent whininess, Dr. Laura Markham, clinical psychologist and author of the popular website, Aha! Parenting, suggests a few minutes of physical play can lift your child’s mood (and yours). She suggests taking the time to “get the giggles going” with a game of chase, a playful tackle, or a good old-fashioned pillow fight. “After fifteen minutes of play,” says Markham, “you’ll be amazed how your child cooperates for the rest of the evening. And how much sweeter parenting feels to you.” 

When children misbehave, it’s easy for parents to get discouraged. And all too often a delayed or inconsistent response only makes matters worse the next time the misbehavior occurs. Calm, confident, and consistent reactions from you will go a long way in teaching your children how to control themselves and, more immediately, will allow you to get the day back on track. 

Is discipline all that bad? Read this to understand why appropriate discipline is important and how parents can set limits and teach right from wrong with positive parenting tactics.

Last updated October 17, 2020

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