Do you have any advice for disciplining and training uncooperative school‐age children? I hear a lot about dealing with strong‐willed toddlers, but not so much about older kids. My child is now in the elementary grades and life in our household is still an ongoing battle. Can you help us?
We often hear from weary parents who have nearly reached the end of their rope with a strong‐willed elementary‐age child. While most materials on the strong‐willed child tend to focus upon toddlers and preschoolers, it’s simply because most authorities believe that early childhood is the time for parents to establish their authority and set definite Family Boundaries (Asset #11). Parents who neglect to take these steps at that stage are almost certain to face a more difficult task as their child grows older. Nevertheless, many of the same basic principles still apply, and it is of the utmost importance that you begin now to put them into practice.
Perhaps it would be helpful to start with a few general observations. In dealing with a strong‐willed child, it is essential to stay calm, maintain a sense of confidence, and have a carefully conceived plan of action in mind. It’s imperative that you keep your cool in all circumstances and model Peaceful Conflict Resolution (Asset #36). Make sure that you’re eating healthy meals, getting enough sleep and taking care of your own emotional health. You need every ounce of strength, poise, and self‐control you can muster to handle a challenge like this.
Next, it’s critical that you lay out your boundaries and expectations of behavior in advance and make sure that everyone in the household understands them (Asset #11: Family Boundaries). The consequences for rebellious or disobedient behavior should also be spelled out beforehand, and the implementation of those consequences should be prompt and consistent. You can be sure that your strong‐willed child will challenge these standards at every opportunity, but it’s crucial to keep your cool in the face of his defiance. Don’t give him an opportunity to seize control of the situation.
Sometimes this will mean casting your fear of embarrassment aside and confronting unacceptable behavior in public places or in front of other people. For example, if your child starts acting up when you’re at the grocery store, don’t hesitate to cut the shopping trip short. Leave your cart in the aisle, escort your child to the car and head home. Then make it clear that he will not be joining you on any further outings of this nature until his behavior improves.
It’s also crucial to watch out for strategies designed to drive a wedge between you and your spouse. Most strong‐willed kids have a special talent for pitting the “softer” parent against the “stricter” one. You and your spouse must take steps to ensure that you’re on the same page if you’re to foil these “divide‐and‐conquer” tactics. Take care to match disobedient behaviors with appropriate consequences. Keep in mind that as a child matures, spankings generally don’t work as well as in earlier stages of development, and that their ineffectiveness can actually escalate the situation. As alternatives to corporal punishment, we recommend time‐outs, the suspension of privileges (such as computer‐ or TV‐time) or the temporary confiscation of a favorite game or toy. It’s also possible to arrange “real‐life” consequences for willfully defiant or irresponsible actions – for example, clothes or toys that aren’t picked up before bedtime can be locked away in a cupboard for a pre‐determined period of time.
On the other side of the coin, it’s equally important to “catch your child being good” and to recognize any attempt on his part to cooperate and observe the rules of the household. We’re not thinking here in terms of rewards, which can promote selfishness if offered in excess, but rather of family celebrations. A good way to do this is to place a glass jar in a prominent place and allow your child to put a marble in the jar every time he does something you want him to do. Then, when the jar is full, you can celebrate by planning a family outing or devising a creative way to get involved in serving friends and neighbors as a parent‐child team.
You should also make an effort to stay in touch with your child’s feelings and cultivate an awareness of the day‐to‐day details of his life at home and at school. Take time to talk about any fears and anxieties that may be hiding behind his defiant exterior. See if you can gain any insight into circumstances that may be driving the disobedient behavior. You can let your child know that you’re on his team if you simply express concern for his well‐being and teach him some basic skills for managing negative emotions and maintaining positive relationships with other people.