How to Handle Changes in Your Child’s Behavior
Has your child gone off the rails? Experts explain how to get him back on track.
Throwing Tantrums to Get What He Wants
The problem: A two-year-old who learned that a screaming fit usually resulted in a toy. “My son would let loose these truly bloodcurdling screams that would go on until one of us would give him whatever it took to make that awful noise stop,” says Rachel O’Connell of Ashland, Massachusetts. “One day he screamed so much he lost his voice.”
The fix: A nifty disappearing act. As soon as her son launched into one of his fits, O’Connell and her husband would calmly and promptly remove themselves from the action. “We’d go into another room right away, but we’d tell him he could come find us when he was finished,” she says. “Knowing that we weren’t going to get riled up or be around did the trick eventually. Within a week, the screaming sessions were down to less than a minute.”
The expert take: “When you say, ‘I’m not going to stay in the room with you for this,’ it’s removing attention from the tantrum, which says, ‘This is not acceptable,’ ” says Rex Forehand, a professor of psychology at the University of Vermont, in Burlington, and a coauthor of Parenting the Strong-Willed Child. “Toddlers might erupt like Mount Vesuvius, but then they have to vent and let go of upset feelings,” says Robert A. MacKenzie, a family therapist and the author of the Setting Limits book series (amazon.com). Stuck in Target? You can’t leave a screaming child in housewares. Forehand suggests picking up the child, leaving the store, and putting him in the backseat of the car―alone―while you stand outside with the keys. Wait a few minutes; if the tantrum stops, let him out and go back inside.
Taking Hours to Go to Bed
The fix: A photo-driven bedtime routine. “I took pictures of my daughter brushing her teeth, washing her face, and so on. We laminated them and taped them in order to a strip of paper. When each one was completed, she would say, ‘Check!’ ” says Eastham. “And if she asked for another drink of water, I’d show her the chart and say, ‘See? We already did that.’ It worked right away.”
The expert take: “Kids love clarity―they crave it,” says MacKenzie. “An approach like this answers all the questions: What’s next? How far can I go? How much is left?” To keep the novelty of the chart from wearing off, MacKenzie recommends updating it from time to time―which Eastham has done by subbing in new pictures (showing off new teeth or new pink pajamas) and adding in stickers that function as check marks (and peel off easily from the laminated photos).
Rushing Through Dinner to Get to Dessert
The problem: Using dessert as a reward for eating well eventually turned dinner into an afterthought. “My two boys would rush through dinner and eat the bare minimum to earn their ‘reward.’ There were constant negotiations and power struggles,” says Gia Blout of Pasadena, California.
The fix: Blout began to serve dinner family-style, with all the dishes―even dessert―presented at once. The boys were expected to serve themselves and make their own choices without any intervention from their parents. “The first night, my younger one grabbed a cookie and inhaled it. But then he relaxed and ate a complete meal,” says Blout. Eventually she began phasing out dessert at every meal―without protests.
The expert take: “It’s important to stop distinguishing between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods,” says Adele Faber, a coauthor of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk ($16, amazon.com). “Making food attractive, like arranging peas in the shape of a smiley face or cutting fruit into shapes, will make kids more likely to eat it.” Considering dessert as a part of the meal, rather than as an overvalued treat, eliminates it as a bargaining chip. And if your child does eat six cookies before serving himself any spinach, consider this: “In studies, when kids were allowed to eat whatever they wanted, they just ate dessert at first. But within a few weeks, they were back to a balanced meal,” says Kevin Leman, a psychologist and the author of Have a New Kid by Friday ($15, amazon.com).
Obsessing Over TV
The fix: Williams didn’t want her family to spend their waking hours glued to the tube or have television be the go-to source of entertainment, so she banned it during the week―for Mom and Dad, too. “Exceptions are made for presidential debates and speeches and baseball opening day,” she says. “It was clear-cut, and the rule applied fairly to everybody.” Williams subbed in plenty of card games (Uno was a favorite), kitchen science experiments, and even timed “drills.” “I would say, ‘How long will it take you to walk backward around the apartment three times? I’ll time you!’ He loved being timed,” she says.
The expert take: “The idea of limiting time in front of the set is great, but whether you need to cut it out altogether is up to you,” says Forehand. Even if you do allow your kids to watch during the week, there are ways to diversify the subject. Use your child’s interest in particular programs to create an educational experience. “Say, ‘Oh, you’re interested in ducks? Let’s learn more about them. We can go to the library and find books that tell us what they do,’ ” suggests Faber.
Melting Down When Left With a Babysitter
The fix: An earlier arrival and special activities. “If we were leaving at seven, I’d have the sitter come at 6:40 and set them up for a popcorn party or outside play time,” says Schwieters. Her daughter felt secure enough to get fully engaged in the thing she was doing, since Mom and Dad were still home, and she barely batted an eye when they left.
The expert take: “This is an excellent solution for three reasons,” says Forehand. “It takes the stress out of the parents’ leaving, it gives the child the opportunity to see that being with a sitter is fun, and it creates a distraction.” To make the tactic even more successful, “have fun activities that are reserved for times when the sitter is there,” says Nicholas Long, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Forehand’s coauthor on Parenting the Strong-Willed Child. Make up a new cookie recipe (Babysitter Butterscotch Bombs!) or let them build a fort your child can sleep in.
Refusing to Pick Up Her Bedroom
The fix: Top Secret Operation Heave-Ho. LeMasurier bagged all her daughter’s out-of-place belongings (clothes, books, papers, toiletries) and moved them to the garage while she was out one afternoon. “Wow, did that get her attention,” LeMasurier says. To get the items back, her daughter had to reorganize. “We reworked her closet area―she helped design it―and she arranged things the way she wanted to keep them in the future,” says LeMasurier. Now her daughter is proud of her room and keeps it spick-and-span to show it off.
The expert take: “Shock value definitely works,” says Leman. “Older kids don’t like their stuff touched.” The key to success is to remain unemotional (no giving in when she starts crying over her gymnastics trophy). “Just say, ‘I got tired of looking at it, and you’ll find your stuff out in the garage,’ ” he says. Don’t want to deal with the (literal) heavy lifting? Try skipping ahead to the second step. Get your child involved in the organization (shopping for new bookcases or cool baskets helps), and teach her about tidiness in the process.
Pushing Away All Healthy Food
The fix: Surprise! “Doing nothing at all,” she says. “We put different foods in front of him. If he didn’t eat them, we didn’t make a big deal about it.” (There was always one option they knew he would eat, like fries, in addition to the others.) It wasn’t always easy. Meiler says she would occasionally leave the room to avoid getting frustrated. But the patience paid off. About a month into the new approach, “he started trying things. Suddenly he was eating chicken, strawberries, raisins, apples, corn. We were diligent about exposing him to new foods, and one day he simply ate them,” she says. (Research shows that kids may need to be exposed to a food 15 times before they’ll readily eat it.)
The expert take: “Hunger becomes a teacher,” says Leman. “When a kid refuses to eat something, don’t fuss over it.” Many parents underestimate the downside of being too pushy, says Long: “Sometimes if we back off, they’ll try things on their own. When you’re more relaxed, their curiosity can take over.”