The right way to discipline your preschooler

What kind of punishment is developmentally appropriate—and effective—for a preschooler? Here's how to discipline your child in an age-appropriate way.

Photo: Stocky United

You’re at the grocery store when your three-year-old spies the bins of bulk candy. You deny her request for jelly beans, and then? Cue the epic meltdown. You start to sweat, sure everyone is watching your child flailing about on the floor as you consider your options. Should you loudly announce a firm punishment that shows you mean business? Redirect her attention to something else? Or scoop her up and high-tail it to the car?

Daniel Chorney, a child psychologist in Halifax, offers the following suggestions to parents in the tantrum trenches.

It’s normal
First, know that children between ages three and five should be asserting their independence and testing boundaries. While this doesn’t make emotional outbursts or defiant episodes any easier to manage, remind yourself that this challenging behaviour is right on track, developmentally.

Ignore, ignore, ignore
From your kid’s perspective, any action that gets attention—positive or negative—is worth repeating, so capitulating or scolding may result in an encore performance. Instead, pretend the bad behaviour isn’t bothering you. “Stand next to her and wait for her to have it out, or if you’re in a store, continue shopping nearby so you know your child is safe,” says Chorney. This shows that you won’t react to tantrums.

Don’t worry about perception
While onlookers or family members might wonder why you’re not punishing your child firmly and immediately, ignoring the antics and moving on is actually the expert-approved method of managing behaviour at this age.

“I know parents worry about what other parents think when their child is acting out, but when I see a mom or dad ignoring a freak-out, I want to high-five them,” says Chorney. You’re doing the best thing for your child in that moment.

The right way to give a time out
A display of aggressive behaviour is the only exception to the ignoring rule, says Chorney. Profanity or violence, for example, should result in the removal of the child from the situation—also known as a time out. A 2016 study by Andrew Riley, an assistant professor of paediatrics at the OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, Ore., reported that more than 30 percent of the parents surveyed found time outs to be mostly ineffective. Riley’s team discovered that there is significant variation in how a time out is implemented, including sending your kid to his room or a designated “naughty spot.”

“Time out periods should be boring,” said Riley. “While many parents want to provide real-time explanation for the punishment, the best thing you can do is stop talking and wait to discuss the situation after the time out.”

Chorney agrees it’s important to keep talking to a minimum: “Sometimes silence speaks volumes. The message needs to be, ‘You have my attention when your behaviour is positive, but you lose me when the behaviour becomes negative.’” He says time outs longer than three minutes typically aren’t very effective at this age.

Taking away privileges
The experts call this discipline tactic “response cost,” and it’s not recommended for preschoolers. Consequences such as taking away screen time or telling your four-year-old he can’t have dessert if he doesn’t eat dinner will work better for older kids who can truly understand the notion of losing something they want.

Label positive behaviour
Shower your kids with praise when they act appropriately, but be sure to name the good behaviour specifically: “I love it when you put your shoes on the first time I ask,” or “I love it when you hold my hand crossing the street.” If you’re too general with your commendations, small children may not understand what they’ve done well. Naming the praise is more likely to lead to repetition of that specific positive conduct. You might feel silly saying, “I love it when you colour on the paper and not all over yourself,” but trust us, it works.

In the red zone
Child psychologist Daniel Chorney suggests using stoplight colours and the “red light, green light” game to help label emotions. To help a tantrumming child calm down, you can say, “You’re in the red zone right now. You may come and talk to me when you feel you’re in the yellow,” or “You’re in the yellow; take some deep breaths and try to get back to green.” Children will learn to recognize how emotions escalate, and why it’s important to breathe, diffuse and talk it out.

A version of this article appeared in our March/April 2017 issue with the headline, “Crime and Punishment,” on p. 48.

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