Whether you’re rushing out the door to daycare or hanging at home as a family on a rainy Sunday, a mundane moment with your child can quickly morph into a full-on power struggle. Instead of yelling, punishing or issuing time-outs, tap into positive discipline, suggests Jane Nelsen, Ed.D., author of Positive Discipline: The Classic Guide to Helping Children Develop Self-Discipline, Responsibility, Cooperation and Problem-Solving Skills. Its goal: "to help children develop the belief that they are capable and give them the skills that help them do the right thing," she says.
To get there, try these 10 expert-approved strategies that work on toddlers through school-age kids.
1. Treat the cause, not the symptoms.
If your child is hitting her sibling, jealousy may be to blame. "When we know the root cause, we can eliminate the child’s need to act this way," says Naomi Aldort, author of Raising Our Children, Raising Ourselves. "She might be suffering heartbreak since the loss of her life as, 'Me, Mommy and Daddy.'" If she’s constantly vying for your attention in an unhealthy way, she may need more time with you. Whatever the cause, positive discipline requires zooming out and taking a look at the big picture.
2. Instead of saying, 'no,' redirect your child.
You might repeatedly tell a toddler who frequently bites, "No!" or "Don’t!" But a little one might see this as a game, Aldort points out. "Daddy says, 'No,' and I do it and he says, 'No,' again," she explains. Besides, "'No'" is not giving them anything to feel more capable; it’s a command," Dr. Nelsen says. "Show them what they can do rather than what they can’t." Focusing on solutions as opposed to punishment is a key tool in positive discipline.
3. Come from a place of empathy and logic.
Jim Fay, founder of Love and Logic, a philosophy that aims to "make parenting fun and rewarding, instead of stressful and chaotic," suggests meeting misbehavior with empathy, not anger or an irritated lecture. For example, when your toddler throws something, rather than raising your voice, Fay recommends singing something like, "Uh-oh! That’s sad that you threw your toy. Looks like it will have to go back in its bin." If an older child, say, breaks a glass in anger, you can respond with, "That was a bad decision. I’m going to have to do something about that, but not right now," Fay says. Present a consequence later, once he’s out of fight-or-flight mode and has had a chance to absorb what he did wrong. That way, he doesn’t repeat the mistake.
4. Offer them productive ways to seek attention.
Young kids only feel emotionally secure if they have your attention. So tell your child, 'I need your help." "Little kids feel significant when they can contribute," says Dr. Nelsen. She also points out that when they’re given a task to complete—whether it’s getting themselves dressed or clearing the dishes—they feel capable. In turn, they’ll be more apt to use their personal power in constructive ways, as opposed to acting out.
5. Dole out "energy" consequences.
If your child’s teacher calls about her classroom misbehavior, Fay recommends telling your kid, "How upsetting. Your teacher had me on the phone for 20 minutes. I was going to be raking the lawn then. Once you get that done, we’ll be square." "You can also get energy back by not doing something the child wants you to do," Fay notes. For instance, if your 4-year-old has been throwing an epic tantrum, you can wait until he’s calm and then say, "That fit you threw caused an energy drain. I don’t think I’ll be able to take you to the park this afternoon."
6. Set loving limits.
"As kids turn 3, establish that arguing doesn’t fly in your house," Fay says. "That’s when kids test those limits to find out if we love them enough to make them safe." The next time your child attempts to argue, perhaps by stomping her foot and saying, "But it’s not fair!" you can respond with, "I know" or an empathetic sigh—and then walk away. You’re holding a boundary by refusing to argue—and your child will learn "when my parents say something, you can take it to the bank," Fay says.
7. Give them a voice.
Although there’s no arguing, children need to feel heard. "It’s healthy for kids to have time each week for them to say what they think is unfair about how the house runs," Fay explains. You can set aside 20 minutes a week for 4-year-olds and up during which they can "present their case," and parents will listen without arguing. The opportunity allows everyone in the family to air their concerns and brainstorm solutions together.
8. Remove shame around making mistakes.
Just like the family meetings, positive discipline experts encourage open conversation about mistakes, teaching kids that they’re "opportunities to learn," says Dr. Nelsen. "At dinnertime, go around the table and have everyone share a mistake they experienced and what they learned from it," she advises. Children will feel encouraged and respected, which will ultimately create a positive shift in their thinking and behavior.
9. Prioritize quality time.
Maybe you devote 15 minutes before bedtime with your toddler to read a book together. Or once a month, you and your tween go out to eat. Either way, regular screen-free one-on-one time with your child gives them a sense of belonging and significance. "A child’s behavior is mostly a reflection of her self-esteem and of knowing that she is loved, worthy and autonomous," Aldort notes. "A confident, loved and happy child has nothing that drives her to act out."
10. Be the leader, not the controller.
Naomi Aldort explains that good leaders don't control others; they set up others for success. "Instead of a command like, 'Go brush your teeth,' which invites resistance, you can ask, 'What do you need to do so your teeth will be squeaky clean?' In turn, your child feels respected, and that respect makes them feel like cooperating," says Dr. Nelson. By relinquishing the need to control a situation in which your child is acting out, you pave the way for them to be healthier, happier adults. "To be angry or punitive means to use fear as a way to get them to obey," Aldort says. "The child acting well out of intimidation is not doing so because he is learning a good behavior, but only in self-preservation when the threat exists. It brings temporary unsustainable compliance and often causes aggression and defiance. Children behave well of their own free will when they see us as their allies—not policing them. "