Every parent has been there - your child is throwing a temper tantrum or otherwise misbehaving, and all you want to do is send her to her room for a time-out. While the temptation can be strong, there are more constructive solutions that will not only calm your child down, but can strengthen your relationship and reduce the likelihood of repeat behavior.
The first step is to remember that all behavior is a form of communication, says Dr. Nancy Ulrich, a licensed clinical psychologist at the Taconic Counseling Group in Fishkill. "As parents, our job is to try to look at all the factors that could be leading kids to communicate with a tantrum: organic (hunger, exhaustion), environmental (overstimulated or feeling discomfort), or an interpersonal situation that the child doesn't know how to navigate," she says.
READ MORE: Should parents punish kids for lying?
Once you have a sense of what your child is trying to communicate, you can determine whether it's a healthy need - like food or sleep - or an unhealthy need, and if it's the latter, decide what natural and logical consequences make sense. If they're misusing a toy, for example, you may decide they must save up allowance money to earn back the right to play with the toy. If they're refusing to eat a vegetable, they may not be allowed to eat dessert until they've finished their broccoli.
It's important that consequences feel logical rather than like a power struggle, Dr. Ulrich says. "Children want their parents to teach them and guide them," she adds. "They'll feel relieved when the situation becomes less of a power struggle and more of a conversation."
For young children who don't yet understand logical consequences, sending them to their room for a time-out can be frightening, says Dr. Andrea Grunblatt, a licensed psychologist at Grunblatt Psychology and Counseling Offices in Kingston. "They won't know how to soothe themselves, and will be left with the anger from the tantrum," she says.
READ MORE: Dr. Paul Schwartz discusses praising kids
A better alternative for some children is to sit and hold them while you talk about what's upsetting them, she says. Often, physical movement can help kids work out their feelings, so having them jump up and down and stretch out their arms, squeeze a stress ball, or manipulate Play-Doh can help them show the feelings they are struggling to express.
"It's really important that parents focus not on the behavior but on what caused the behavior," Dr. Grunblatt says. "You should be curious rather than reactive, and help your children understand how to tolerate their feelings."
Truth and consequences
If you decide to implement a time-out, it should be coupled with "time-in," says Dr. Joy Dryer, a psychologist/ psychoanalyst and president of the Hudson Valley Psychological Association. "Adults need to pay attention when a child behaves well," she says. Smiles, hugs, pats on the head, and verbal praise all encourage positive behavior.
Dr. Dryer also recommends using warning and reward systems with clearly predetermined consequences. "You can warn: 'You can't hit your sister. That's one.' When you get to 'three,' enforce whatever consequence you agreed upon earlier," she says. Implementing a reward system for good behavior can be anything from earning stars on a chart (signifying parental approval) to earning a small toy or an extra half hour of a TV program.
READ MORE: Why preschoolers lie
A time-out itself, if you choose to use it, should be custom fit to each child depending on what helps her the most. "The purpose of time-out is to reduce negative, bad, or destructive behavior by removing [your child] from your attention," Dr. Dryer says. "The goal is not to scare or shame or make them miserable."
She says the time-out should be fair (the punishment fits the crime), firm (the adult needs clearly to state what consequence will happen when a particular behavior occurs), and friendly (express your love for your child even when you dislike the behavior).
Cool, calm & collected
When it comes to you as a parent, all three psychologists agree: It is crucial that parents stay calm when dealing with a misbehaving child and regularly carve out time to take care of themselves. "It's really important for parents to notice their tone of voice," Dr. Ulrich says. "If they're expressing tension through their voice, that's a sign that they themselves are feeling out of control."
When that happens - and it will - parental time-outs are key, she says. Taking a deep breath and a moment to center yourself can calm you down and remind you of the person you want to be. It's also crucial to take time for yourself when you can. "Whether you take 10 minutes to listen to music, or longer to read a book, talk to friends, go out with a partner, or exercise, self-care is essential for being the best parent you can be," Dr. Ulrich says.
Elora Tocci is a freelance writer born and raised in Newburgh. She is a public affairs associate at Citizens' Committee for Children in New York City.