High-energy child resists discipline

Posted by Barbara F. Meltz  October 6, 2011 06:00 AM

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What's the best way to discipline a child who doesn't listen? My daughter is almost 6 and will not stay in 1 spot to do a time-out. She will not stay in her room when sent there (unless I lock the door from the outside). If I ask her to stop a certain behavior, she will often boldly keep doing it to see my reaction! She can be a great kid at times and other times she refuses to stop bad behavior. Another thing is that her father will take a favorite toy away if she is not being good. He will put it high up so she cannot get it (on top of kitchen cabinets). But this doesn't faze her. She will attempt to stack kitchen chairs on top of each other and climb up to reach whatever item was taken away. Not sure the best way to deal with this!I was thinking of a sticker chart with small rewards for good behavior, but that doesn't really fix the bad behavior. I still don't know what to do when she refuses to do as she is told.

Thanks!
From: Christine, Burlington, MA


Hi Christine,

When the experts say that time-out doesn't work for every child, they had your daughter in mind. She may be what St. Paul, Minn., psychologist Linda Budd would call an "active/alert child," a term she coined to describe a child with high energy, and "more creativity and more intensity than anyone you’ve ever known." She's the author of a book titled, not surprisingly, "Living with the Active-Alert Child." Her newest book is "The Journey of Parenting."

I emailed Linda to get her thoughts on your letter. Here's what she had to say:

"This family sounds as if they are stuck in a power struggle. This can be for many reasons, i.e. temperament, parenting style, trauma, etc. It is important to disengage from these struggles emotionally. Often parents stoke the child's fire by getting angry, sad, etc. There really is nothing wrong with holding a child's door while they are in their room until they show you they are ready to calm.... I know many parents who fear this is wrong. I believe you are simply helping the child learn that to be around people, they must learn self-discipline of anger. By the way, you are not in the room with the child; that just stokes anger."

Since time-out isn't working, Budd writes, she would "encourage time-in. Time-in involves noticing all the great things the child does." She also recommends having more one-on-one time with your child. Her books have lots of detail on these approaches and I hope you'll check them out: A high-energy, high-intensity child like yours can test your patience, your love and your marriage.

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8 comments so far...
  1. First of all, you don't ASK a child to stop doing something wrong, you TELL them.

    Secondly, make sure you don't react when she refuses to listen. Stay calm, and repeat 'Susie, I told you to do X. You need to stop, or you will lose Y privilege.' Then follow through. Figure out what affects her. My daughter doesn't care if we take away toys, but take away her precious half hour of tv time and she knows we mean business.

    I do agree with the suggestion to reinforce good behavior. It may feel goofy, but if you give her extra attention when she's behaving well, she'll probably enjoy it and be more inclined to behave better to get that extra attention.

    Good luck!

    Posted by akmom October 6, 11 06:48 AM
  1. I agree with akmom, above. My favorite little boy has acted like this since he was about four. I think his parents try all these things but they are so sympathetic to him (never want him to cry, suffer, be deprived) that there's not much follow-through or consistency. They have to find something he truly values and take that away to even get his attention. I also think that he's be the kind of kid who'd be proud to work toward a reward, as in "you can have a street hockey stick when you can........" but he just has everything he wants given to him.

    Posted by Favorite Auntie October 6, 11 09:55 AM
  1. This is my 3 year old through and through. We just haven't found the Thing to deprive her of yet. Nothing fazes her (and FTR: I've held her door shut before. It just enrages her more and the tantrum can go on for HOURS. I'm not holding a door shut that long!)

    Posted by Phe October 6, 11 11:10 AM
  1. I'd pick the top few behaviors you want to fix and start concentrating on them first--things that are dangerous, destructive, or really out of line. Then work your way onto the smaller things.

    And if you take something away, don't put it where she can see it and will be tempted to take it back. That's just asking for trouble. Put it out of sight and don't let her know where it is, and tell her she can have it back tomorrow.

    Posted by di October 6, 11 12:55 PM
  1. Here’s how I’ve dealt with clients with this very frustration problem during my forty year family counseling career.
    First, consider four possible causations. (1) She probably has a strong temperament trait of intensity (Chess – 9 temperament traits.) (2) Need to control often comes along with strong intensity. (3) Oppositional and defiant behavior seems to be developing. (4) When parents are faced with these issues their daily interactions are mostly negative; usually in the75% negative to 25% positive range. It’s next to impossible to not be upset a lot of the time.
    Tips. (1) Drastically reduce what you ask her to stop doing. Do go to the mat on some things. Have a prepared consequence ready when the misbehavior happens; act, don’t lecture and don’t respond to her arguing. Do hold the door shut for several minutes. (2) Identify her anger and connect it to her behavior. “You’re really angry and handling it by not obeying me. I want you to tell me about your anger but not in a disrespectful way.” Do more listening to her anger with no interrupting. (Don’t we all want to be heard?) (3) Increase one-on-one time (both Dad and Mom) . This will decrease the high level of negative interaction. (4) Give her opportunities for healthy control whenever possible.
    If these tips don’t work, seek out a competent child therapist. Hope this helps. Gary M Unruh MSW, Author

    Posted by Gary M Unruh October 6, 11 04:03 PM
  1. I have a six year old with these tendencies, too. When he really gets going in defiance mode, it's as if he can't find the off ramp. He might know at some level that this is not an argument worth having, but he's too emotional to back down. When putting my foot down makes him ramp up even further, I sometimes find that a bit of humor can help him find the off ramp. For example, I might say, "Maybe if I add another couple of chairs to the pile, we'll be able to get down that boomerang that's been stuck on the roof since last summer." If the absurdity of that seems to tickle him at all (and it might if he's looking for the off ramp), I'll pick him up and hug him while removing him from the site of the misbehavior. When it works, he instantaneously regains enough to control to want to do the right thing without further comment. When it doesn't work, I can still use the "holding the door shut" technique. When he's that out of control, I could take away every privilege he has and he still wouldn't know how to find the off ramp without help. He's not deciding to be stubborn - his emotions are simply in control.

    It also strikes me that the passage of time may help. The letter writer says "she's six and does this", not "she's always done this and is now six". Both of my kids have done this at age six. Come to think of it, my younger brother did, too. (The good news: six year olds often want to try new things that require courage. The bad news: trying this hard to prevail over parents is appealing as a relatively new thing that requires courage!)

    Posted by Mom_of_two October 6, 11 04:44 PM
  1. Kids at the age often cannot "stop bad behavior" if you just ask them to. There are many reasons they may not want to or can't! You need to help them in a matter of fact way. Just say ONCE what you don't want, then if she keeps doing it say "I see you are having trouble stopping this" and remove her from the situation -- no lecturing, no negotiating, no despairing, no explaining, no shaming, no punishing. Just done. Once the situation is over, you can explain to her WHY the behavior is unacceptable and brainstorm with her how she could handle the situation differently. Self control is hard at this age, but think of yourself as helping give HER the tools to learn how to stop herself from doing things she knows she shouldn't or things you don't want her to do. You will be amazed at what a 6 year old can come up with, and how much putting her in charge of her behavior will do -- after all, you want her to behave well when you are not watching too. We always stayed away from punishments but made very sure our expectations were clear (worked through 3 kids, very different temperaments). Not saying of course they are perfect (!) but helping them learn self-control for themselves rather than as a reaction to you goes a long way to getting right out of power struggles. One series that I found helpful was Positive Discipline, talks about how things look from the child's perspective and also developmentally appropriate ways to handle discipline (meaning teaching/guiding)

    HTH! It can be a challenging age -- they are more capable and independent but without a whole lot of judgement to go with it! ;)

    Posted by Cathie Q October 7, 11 11:12 AM
  1. so many words spent on this issue, and the most important were these:

    "She also recommends having more one-on-one time with your child."

    The child is craving attention. Give her some, in the positive variety.

    Posted by bob October 14, 11 09:39 PM
 
8 comments so far...
  1. First of all, you don't ASK a child to stop doing something wrong, you TELL them.

    Secondly, make sure you don't react when she refuses to listen. Stay calm, and repeat 'Susie, I told you to do X. You need to stop, or you will lose Y privilege.' Then follow through. Figure out what affects her. My daughter doesn't care if we take away toys, but take away her precious half hour of tv time and she knows we mean business.

    I do agree with the suggestion to reinforce good behavior. It may feel goofy, but if you give her extra attention when she's behaving well, she'll probably enjoy it and be more inclined to behave better to get that extra attention.

    Good luck!

    Posted by akmom October 6, 11 06:48 AM
  1. I agree with akmom, above. My favorite little boy has acted like this since he was about four. I think his parents try all these things but they are so sympathetic to him (never want him to cry, suffer, be deprived) that there's not much follow-through or consistency. They have to find something he truly values and take that away to even get his attention. I also think that he's be the kind of kid who'd be proud to work toward a reward, as in "you can have a street hockey stick when you can........" but he just has everything he wants given to him.

    Posted by Favorite Auntie October 6, 11 09:55 AM
  1. This is my 3 year old through and through. We just haven't found the Thing to deprive her of yet. Nothing fazes her (and FTR: I've held her door shut before. It just enrages her more and the tantrum can go on for HOURS. I'm not holding a door shut that long!)

    Posted by Phe October 6, 11 11:10 AM
  1. I'd pick the top few behaviors you want to fix and start concentrating on them first--things that are dangerous, destructive, or really out of line. Then work your way onto the smaller things.

    And if you take something away, don't put it where she can see it and will be tempted to take it back. That's just asking for trouble. Put it out of sight and don't let her know where it is, and tell her she can have it back tomorrow.

    Posted by di October 6, 11 12:55 PM
  1. Here’s how I’ve dealt with clients with this very frustration problem during my forty year family counseling career.
    First, consider four possible causations. (1) She probably has a strong temperament trait of intensity (Chess – 9 temperament traits.) (2) Need to control often comes along with strong intensity. (3) Oppositional and defiant behavior seems to be developing. (4) When parents are faced with these issues their daily interactions are mostly negative; usually in the75% negative to 25% positive range. It’s next to impossible to not be upset a lot of the time.
    Tips. (1) Drastically reduce what you ask her to stop doing. Do go to the mat on some things. Have a prepared consequence ready when the misbehavior happens; act, don’t lecture and don’t respond to her arguing. Do hold the door shut for several minutes. (2) Identify her anger and connect it to her behavior. “You’re really angry and handling it by not obeying me. I want you to tell me about your anger but not in a disrespectful way.” Do more listening to her anger with no interrupting. (Don’t we all want to be heard?) (3) Increase one-on-one time (both Dad and Mom) . This will decrease the high level of negative interaction. (4) Give her opportunities for healthy control whenever possible.
    If these tips don’t work, seek out a competent child therapist. Hope this helps. Gary M Unruh MSW, Author

    Posted by Gary M Unruh October 6, 11 04:03 PM
  1. I have a six year old with these tendencies, too. When he really gets going in defiance mode, it's as if he can't find the off ramp. He might know at some level that this is not an argument worth having, but he's too emotional to back down. When putting my foot down makes him ramp up even further, I sometimes find that a bit of humor can help him find the off ramp. For example, I might say, "Maybe if I add another couple of chairs to the pile, we'll be able to get down that boomerang that's been stuck on the roof since last summer." If the absurdity of that seems to tickle him at all (and it might if he's looking for the off ramp), I'll pick him up and hug him while removing him from the site of the misbehavior. When it works, he instantaneously regains enough to control to want to do the right thing without further comment. When it doesn't work, I can still use the "holding the door shut" technique. When he's that out of control, I could take away every privilege he has and he still wouldn't know how to find the off ramp without help. He's not deciding to be stubborn - his emotions are simply in control.

    It also strikes me that the passage of time may help. The letter writer says "she's six and does this", not "she's always done this and is now six". Both of my kids have done this at age six. Come to think of it, my younger brother did, too. (The good news: six year olds often want to try new things that require courage. The bad news: trying this hard to prevail over parents is appealing as a relatively new thing that requires courage!)

    Posted by Mom_of_two October 6, 11 04:44 PM
  1. Kids at the age often cannot "stop bad behavior" if you just ask them to. There are many reasons they may not want to or can't! You need to help them in a matter of fact way. Just say ONCE what you don't want, then if she keeps doing it say "I see you are having trouble stopping this" and remove her from the situation -- no lecturing, no negotiating, no despairing, no explaining, no shaming, no punishing. Just done. Once the situation is over, you can explain to her WHY the behavior is unacceptable and brainstorm with her how she could handle the situation differently. Self control is hard at this age, but think of yourself as helping give HER the tools to learn how to stop herself from doing things she knows she shouldn't or things you don't want her to do. You will be amazed at what a 6 year old can come up with, and how much putting her in charge of her behavior will do -- after all, you want her to behave well when you are not watching too. We always stayed away from punishments but made very sure our expectations were clear (worked through 3 kids, very different temperaments). Not saying of course they are perfect (!) but helping them learn self-control for themselves rather than as a reaction to you goes a long way to getting right out of power struggles. One series that I found helpful was Positive Discipline, talks about how things look from the child's perspective and also developmentally appropriate ways to handle discipline (meaning teaching/guiding)

    HTH! It can be a challenging age -- they are more capable and independent but without a whole lot of judgement to go with it! ;)

    Posted by Cathie Q October 7, 11 11:12 AM
  1. so many words spent on this issue, and the most important were these:

    "She also recommends having more one-on-one time with your child."

    The child is craving attention. Give her some, in the positive variety.

    Posted by bob October 14, 11 09:39 PM
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About the author

Barbara F. Meltz is a freelance writer, parenting consultant, and author of "Put Yourself in Their Shoes: Understanding How Your Children See the World." She won several awards for her weekly "Child Caring" column in the Globe, including the 2008 American Psychological Association Print Excellence award. Barbara is available as a speaker for parent groups.

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