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Mark Hutten, M.A.
Re: How to Handle a Difficult Child

What is the best way to handle a "difficult" child?

Here are some general strategies and solutions to help you live with a son/daughter with difficult temperament traits:

1.   Anticipate impending high-risk situations, and try to avoid or minimize them. Accept the possibility that this may be
a difficult day or circumstance, and be prepared to make the best of it.

2.   Consider your own temperament and behavior, and how they might also be difficult. Think how you might need to
adjust yourself a bit to encourage a better fit with your youngster.

3.   Don't take your youngster's behavior personally. Temperament is innate, and your youngster probably is not
purposely trying to be difficult or irritating. Don't blame him or yourself.

4.   Establish a neutral or objective emotional climate in which to deal with your youngster. Try not to respond in an
emotional and instinctive manner, which is unproductive.

5.   Find a way to get some relief for yourself and your youngster by scheduling some time apart.

6.   First, recognize that much of your youngster's behavior reflects his temperament.

7.   Focus on the issues of the moment. Do not project into the future.

8.   Review your expectations of your youngster, your preferences and your values. Are they realistic and appropriate?
When your youngster does something right, praise him and reinforce the specific behaviors that you like.

9.   Seek professional help, when needed, from your pediatrician or another expert in child behavior.

10.    Try to prioritize the issues and problems surrounding your youngster. Some are more important and deserve
greater attention. Others are not as relevant and can be either ignored or put "way down the list."
Disciplining Your Child—

While behavior management can take time, try not to
get frustrated when your youngster does not behave.
Instead, learn effective ways to discipline your child.
When your youngster does not listen, try the following:

•   Natural Consequences- These are the times when
you let your youngster see what will happen if she does
not behave (as long as it does not place her in any
danger). For example, if your youngster keeps dropping
her cookies on purpose, she will soon have no more
cookies left to eat. If she throws and breaks her toy, she
will not be able to play with it. It will not be long before
she learns not to drop her cookies and to play carefully
with her toys. When you use this method, don't give in
and rescue your youngster (by giving her more cookies,
for example). Your youngster will learn best when she
learns for herself.
•   Withholding privileges is when you tell your youngster that if she does not cooperate, she will have to give
something up she likes. The following are a few things to keep in mind when you use this technique:

  • Be sure you can follow through on your promise.
  • Choose something that your youngster values that is related to the misbehavior.
  • For kids younger than 6 or 7 years, withholding privileges works best if done right away. For example, if your
    youngster misbehaves in the morning, do not tell her she can't watch TV that evening. There is too much time in
    between, and she probably will not connect the behavior with the consequence.
  • Never take away something your youngster truly needs, such as a meal.

•   Logical Consequences- These are the times when you will need to step in and create a consequence. For example,
tell her that if she does not pick up her toys, you will put them away for the rest of the day. When you use this method,
it is important that you mean what you say. Be prepared to follow through right away. You do not have to yell and
scream. Be firm and respond in a calm way.

•   Time-Out- This is a technique that works well when a specific rule has been broken. It works best for kids from 2 to 5
years of age, but can be used throughout childhood. Follow these steps to make a time-out work:

  1. Choose A Time-Out Spot- This should be a boring place with no distractions, such as a chair. Remember, the
    main goal is to separate the youngster and allow her to pause and cool off. (Keep in mind that bathrooms can
    be dangerous and bedrooms may become playgrounds.)
  2. Resume Activity- When the time is up, help your youngster return to play. Your youngster has "served her time."
    Do not lecture or ask for apologies. Remind her that you love her. If you need to discuss her behavior, wait until
    later to do so.
  3. Set A Time Limit- Once your youngster can sit quietly, set a timer so that she will know when the time-out is over.
    A rule of thumb is 1 minute of time-out for every year of your youngster's age (for example, a 4-year-old would
    get a 4-minute time-out). But even 15 seconds will often work. If fussing starts, restart the timer. Wait until your
    youngster is quiet before you set the timer again.
  4. Set The Rules Ahead of Time- Decide which 2 or 3 behaviors will cause you to implement time-out and explain
    this to your youngster. You may have to repeat this often.
  5. Start The Time-Out- Give your youngster one warning (unless it is aggression). If it happens again, send her to
    the time-out spot right away. Tell her what she did wrong in as few words and with as little emotion as possible. If
    your youngster will not go to the spot on her own, pick her up and carry her there. If she will not stay, stand
    behind her and hold her gently but firmly. Then, without eye contact, say, "I am holding you here because you
    have to have a time-out." Do not discuss it any further. Do not respond to pleas, promises, questions, excuses,
    or outbursts (such as foul language). It should only take a couple of time-outs before she learns to cooperate
    and will choose to sit quietly rather than be held down.

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Tips to Make Discipline More Effective—

You will have days when it seems impossible to get your
youngster to behave. But there are ways to ease
frustration and avoid unnecessary conflict with your
youngster:

•   Be Aware of What Your Child Can and Cannot Do- Kids
develop at different rates. They have different strengths
and weaknesses. When your youngster misbehaves, it
may be that he simply cannot do what you are asking or he
does not understand what you are asking.

•   Don't Give In- If your youngster throws a temper tantrum
because he can't have a piece of candy and you give it to
him so he will stop, he will learn that this is a way to get
what he wants. Don't encourage bad behavior by giving in.
•   Learn From Mistakes—Including Your Own- If you do not handle a situation well the first time, try not to worry about
it. Think about what you could have done differently, and try to do it the next time. If you feel you have made a real
mistake in the heat of the moment, wait to cool down, apologize to your youngster, and explain how you will handle the
situation in the future. Be sure to keep your promise. This gives your youngster a good model of how to recover from
mistakes.

•   Pay Attention To Your Child's Feelings- For example tell your youngster, "I know you are feeling sad that your friend
is leaving, but you still have to pick up your toys." Watch for times when misbehavior has a pattern, like if your
youngster is feeling jealous. Talk with your youngster about this rather than just giving consequences.

•   Think Before You Speak- Once you make a rule or promise, stick to it. So be sure you are being realistic. Think if it
is really necessary before saying no.

•   Work Toward Consistency- Try to make sure that your rules stay the same from day to day. Kids find frequent
changes confusing and may push the limits just to find out what the limits are.

Why Spanking Is Not the Best Choice—

The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend spanking. Although most Americans were spanked as kids,
we now know that it has several important side effects:

  • Because most moms and dads do not want to spank, they are less likely to be consistent.
  • Even though spanking may seem to "work" at first, it loses its impact after a while.
  • Moms and dads may intend to stay calm but often do not, and then regret their actions later.
  • Spanking can lead to physical struggles and even grow to the point of harming the youngster.
  • Spanking increases aggression and anger instead of teaching responsibility.

It is true that many adults who were spanked as kids may be well-adjusted and caring people today. However, research
has shown that, when compared with kids who are not spanked, kids who are spanked are more likely to become
adults who are depressed, use alcohol, have more anger, hit their own kids, hit their spouses, and engage in crime
and violence. These adult outcomes make sense because spanking teaches a youngster that causing others pain is
OK if you're frustrated or want to maintain control—even with those you love. A youngster is not likely to see the
difference between getting spanked from his parents and hitting a sibling or another youngster when he doesn't get
what he wants.