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Alternatives to threats (ages 6 to 8)

We've all been there: Your grade-schooler does something you don't want her to, over and over again. Finally, you snap and threaten to ground her for life if it happens again. Here, tips for saying something you won't regret later:

You want your child to:Instead of this: Say this: Which is better because:
Go to bed and stay there"If you get out of bed one more time, I'll scream.""After you go to bed, I expect you to stay there."The expectation for the behavior is clear and unemotional.
Eat her peas and carrots"You're going to sit at the table until you finish your peas.""Remember — no snacks after dinner."It reminds her that the kitchen's closed, but she can still choose whether or not to eat.
Do her homework"You can't play until your homework's done.""I'll drive you to Ellie's as soon as you finish your work."It rewards instead of punishes.
Brush her teeth"No bedtime story if you don't brush your teeth.""It's time for bed. What do you do first to get ready?"It lets her know it's time for her bedtime routine without being punitive.
Behave in the grocery store"Stop running now or no TV when we get home.""Can you help me find the cereal you like?"It distracts from the negative behavior and offers a positive alternative.
Feed the dog"Feed the dog or we'll give him away.""The dog looks hungry. Here's his food."It reminds your child of her responsibility.
Ask without whining"If you whine once more, I'll take your Powerpuff Girls away.""I'd like to listen, but I can only understand your normal voice."It lets her know you're interested in what she's saying, but won't accept the tone.
Clean up her room"No dinner until your room is clean.""I'd like you to pick up your toys and put them in your toy chest. Do you want to do that before or after dinner?"It makes your expectations clear, but also gives your grade-schooler a choice.
Stop tattling"I'm not taking a tattletale to the playground.""It sounds like you're upset with your sister. You need to tell her why."It helps your youngster understand that kids have to work it out together.
Be quiet in the car"If you scream one more time, we'll turn around and go home.""I'm having a hard time driving. I need to pull over until you're settled."It lets your child know the effect, limits, and consequences of her behavior.

Dorothy Foltz-Gray is a freelance writer and mother of two in Knoxville, Tenn.

To share your thoughts and concerns about your child's behavior problems with other parents, see our bulletin boards.

Moving beyond threats (ages 6 to 8)

Why it happens

Sometimes an evil alien invades my body, pushing me to commit regrettable acts. I know this because last week I howled at my son Matthew: "If you don't keep the cedar shavings off the floor, the hamsters will have to go!" This broke his heart. It did nothing to clean up the cedar shavings.

Like most parents, when I'm feeling powerless or exasperated, I sometimes pepper my two sons with threats. I picture Matthew's room teeming with hamsters and sawdust, and my frustration erupts in cliches: Clean it up or...or...or else! There's got to be a better way.

There is. Although threats may be one of the most frequently used weapons in your discipline arsenal, they're hardly an effective or loving way to spur action or teach responsibility. Yet from time to time, we all fall back on threats, often absurd ones that leave us feeling foolish and the problem unresolved.

Getting out of the threat rut isn't easy. There are some creative alternatives, though. When you find yourself tempted to tyrannize, these six strategies may help turn threatening moments into nurturing ones.

What to do

Give choices. The biggest problem with threats is that they tatter self-esteem and inspire fear or rebellion. "Threats are a message of distrust," says Adele Faber, author of How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. "Your child hears, 'You can't be trusted to control yourself, so I'm going to control you.'"

Giving choices, on the other hand, puts your grade-schooler in charge, preventing fruitless and stressful stalemates. Instead of saying, "If you don't turn your boom box down, I'll take it away," say, "Hey, that hurts my ears. So would you rather listen to something a little less raucous, or take it in your room?" Participating in this type of decision-making teaches her to think for herself and to assume responsibility for her actions. Talk to your grade-schooler and say, "We have a problem. How can we solve it?" That way, the situation becomes you and your grade-schooler against a problem, instead of you against your grade-schooler.

Follow through. Another drawback of using threats is that they're often too extreme or inconvenient and therefore impossible to execute. "If you can't follow through," says St. Louis family therapist Evonne Weinhaus, coauthor of Stop Struggling With Your Child, "you're going to appear spineless, and your kid will trample you."

Suppose that night after night your grade-schooler can't tear herself away from her neighborhood buddies to come in for dinner. You tell her, "If you're late for dinner again, you can't play outside tomorrow night!" Chances are she won't take you seriously, and the nightly struggle will continue unabated. Instead, change your behavior. Say: "I'm going to close the kitchen at 6:30, so if you get hungry later, you'll have to eat your dinner cold." That's something you can follow through on, and when you do, she'll probably be at the table on time — at least for a week or two afterward.

Reverse a threat. Threats have a way of sneaking up on you. Often the words are already out of your mouth before you realize how ridiculous they sound. When this happens, there's nothing wrong with rewinding the tape and trying again. Imagine, for instance, you're grocery shopping when your grade-schooler starts throwing junk-food item after junk-food item in the cart, ignoring your requests to stop. Finally, you get so frustrated that you threaten to make her leave and sit in the car alone.

Think better of resorting to this kind of threat. If it's too late, tell your grade-schooler, "I made a mistake. If you can't follow my rules in the store, I better take you home where someone can watch you while I shop, and I'll give you a chance to try again soon." This response — to replace a hollow threat with a solution that gives your child a second chance — is a sensible approach. After all, every parent blows it once in a while. The important thing is to go back and talk about what happened. Use it as a learning opportunity between you and your grade-schooler.

Set clear expectations. Grocery trips are, of course, a classic stress-builder for parents, and threats fill the aisles like soup cans. To avoid this scenario, prepare your grade-schooler before you head to the store. Tell her how you expect her to behave. Explain, for instance, that you'd like her to help you track down the items you need. When you arrive at the store, ask her what you'd like her to do. When she answers, "Help you find things," congratulate her on her good memory. Then ask her to find an item or two in each aisle. This makes shopping seem like a treasure hunt and gives the errand a positive spin from the get-go.

Of course, it doesn't always work that way. You get to the store, and not only does your shopping companion refuse to help you find things, but she also has a fit when you won't buy the sugary cereal she's been begging for. What then? On the way there, when you tell your grade-schooler how you expect her to behave, also explain what'll happen if she doesn't cooperate. Tell her, "If you help me find the things we need, you can pick the cereal you like. If you don't help me, we'll have to go home without any cereal." If your grade-schooler still refuses to cooperate, stand firm and invoke the consequence you've talked about.

Keep cool, think positive. Staying calm and confident might sound like a tall order, but it can make a big difference. One reason threats often fail to control your grade-schooler is that they whip up emotions rather than defuse them. When Jennifer Chin-Alfers and Jay Alfers of Novi, Mich., used threats to discipline their daughter, Andi, 6, and son, Ian, 4, for instance, the friction only got worse. "If I asked them to do something and they didn't do it, I'd start yelling," Jay says. "Or we'd threaten to take away a privilege, like being with friends. But then a lot of the time we wouldn't follow through."

Your grade-schooler is more apt to learn how to behave if you give her constant, positive reinforcement. So consider using a reward system to help her overcome a major challenge. If she's in and out of bed like a jack-in-the-box every evening, for instance, put a star on a special calendar for each night that she stays put. When she's racked up a week's worth of stars, reward her with a small toy or a special outing. She may still struggle with sleeping alone, but this method is more likely to lead to success than you ranting and raving.

Reconsider the situation. As we all know, sometimes the best-laid plans fail miserably — and in that case, maybe it's your expectation, not your grade-schooler's behavior, that's out of line. You may need to examine what you're asking of her. If she's been cooped up all day and really needs a chance to unwind, for instance, it's not a good idea to take her to a restaurant where she has to sit still.

So maybe a mother who finds herself in a sea of hamster sawdust needs to rethink the menagerie instead of making threats. Is it possible for my son Matthew to take care of his cat, his rabbit, his turtle, and his eight hamsters without feeling overwhelmed? Well, once we both talked about it, Matthew and I agreed that maybe a pared-down household would be more fun than a grouchy Mama shouting, "Or else!"

And if I do threaten now and then, I try to cut myself some slack — after all, every parent goes over the top occasionally. It isn't one or two threats but your everyday approach to your grade-schooler that matters most. If you're always on a tirade, always critical, you're wasting chances to have gratifying interactions with her. You're faced with many challenges as a parent, but if you handle them gracefully, the majority of your interactions with your child will be positive ones.

Before a threat escapes your lips, click here to find a better alternative.

To share your thoughts and concerns about your child's behavior problems with other parents, see our bulletin boards.

What to do when time-outs don't work (ages 6 to 8)

Why it happens

Every once in a while, when you're at your wits' end, you give your misbehaving grade-schooler a time-out — removing him from the action for a little solitary quiet time. The problem is, it never seems to work. Maybe he throws a tantrum, maybe he runs off in the other direction, or maybe he teasingly ignores your request to stay in his time-out spot. Should you abandon this discipline method, or stick with it? Stick with it, but do a little time-out troubleshooting first — perhaps your technique could simply use a tune-up.

What to do if:

Your child doesn't take time-outs seriously. Consistency is the key here: Don't call a time-out today but skip it tomorrow for the same behavior because you're in a better mood. And always follow through on a warning if your child doesn't heed you.

It's also important to give the time-out on the spot. Don't wait 30 minutes — or even five — until it's more convenient. If you're out in public, give the time-out right where you are. At the supermarket, you might have your grade-schooler sit on the floor in an out-of-the-way corner, or take him to the car if he's out of control. If you wait until you get home, you lose the opportunity to use time-out in the way it's intended. As soon as a time-out is disconnected from the immediate behavior, it becomes a threat, and then a punishment, and doesn't teach your child much. Remember that the point of time-out is not to make your kid quake in his Keds. It's simply to help him (and you) cool off and regain self-control.

Your grade-schooler thinks it's a big game.Remember, your attitude cues your child: If you're serious about time-out, he'll have to be, too. A cool, matter-of-fact demeanor works best. If your facial expression or tone of voice betrays exasperation, your child is sure to pick up on it. And, of course, it's vital to keep a straight face, even if he's shamelessly kissing up to you or showing impressive negotiating skills in an attempt to wheedle his way out of a time-out.

Your child won't stay put. When your grade-schooler refuses to go to his time-out place and stay there, he needs your help. Walk him to the chosen spot, and calmly instruct him to sit down. If he springs up, gently sit him back down again. Don't let these jack-in-the-box pop-ups become a game, though. If your youngster gets up a third time, simply sit down with him and hold him in your arms for the duration of the time-out. Do this consistently and without scolding. And it goes without saying that you should never jerk or force your child to his time-out spot.

If your grade-schooler simply won't stay in a time-out, there's little you can do to force the issue (short of pinning him to the floor — hardly a dignified position for either of you). But do let him know that there will be a consequence. This might mean missing his favorite TV show that day, or temporarily losing access to whatever it was that set him off in the first place.

Your child cries and yells through the whole time-out. It's upsetting to listen to, but a dramatic show of tears doesn't mean the time-out isn't working. Kids this age do get very angry sometimes, and your child doesn't have to sit as quiet as a mouse to learn something from this suspension of activity. Your mission: To ignore the hubbub. Trying to get your grade-schooler to quiet down only introduces a new power struggle and distracts from the point you're trying to make. Most kids calm down eventually. Even if yours doesn't, the key issue is whether he continues to misbehave after the time-out. If his actions and composure improve, you've made your point.

It helps to begin a time-out before your child reaches the point of no return. Intervene with diversionary tactics at the first signs of an impending meltdown. If those don't work, go promptly to time-out.

After a time-out, your child continues to misbehave. Give it time. When you try a new (or long-neglected) approach, your grade-schooler's behavior may get worse before it gets better. He's testing you to see if you'll really stand fast. If the mischief persists, swiftly give your youngster another time-out. Use the technique consistently, even if it seems to have no effect, and keep your explanations short and sweet: "You need to think some more about what I said."

Time-outs make your grade-schooler angrier, not calmer. Say your child grows restless and resentful (and thus more likely to misbehave) when he feels a time-out's gone on too long. In that case, the tactic isn't doing what it's supposed to — interrupt negative behavior. Keep in mind that while a minute per year is a handy guideline in setting time-outs, it isn't an absolute. (In fact, more than a few minutes may seem like an eternity to many grade-schoolers.) As soon as he's calmed down and switched gears, the time-out has served its purpose.

It's also important to make time-out just one of many strategies you employ when your child misbehaves. It's easy to fall into the habit of automatically calling time-out when you could try less drastic tactics. Rather than responding to ball throwing in the house with a time-out, for instance, offer your child a couple of acceptable alternatives: "If you want to play catch, let's go outside. If you want to stay inside, you need to find another game." If the ball throwing continues, proceed to a warning: "If you don't stop throwing the ball in the house, I'm going to put it away and give you some time to think about what I said." This sets up two possible resolutions before you move to time-out.

You can't seem to pull off time-outs away from home. This is a portable tactic. Even if you've designated a special spot for time-outs at home, you can still use the basic idea when you're out and about as long as you can find a relatively quiet spot to take your child. It could be a park bench, your car, or one of the less-traveled aisles at the grocery store. Use a calm, quiet voice to avoid embarrassing your grade-schooler and riling him further. Try to shrug off any embarrassment you might feel yourself, too — remember, you're just doing your job as a parent.

Time-out worked for a while but doesn't anymore. When time-out loses its potency, it's often because the tactic has been overused. Your grade-schooler no longer views it as an opportunity to calm down and think. Instead, he thinks of it as a repressive response to every act of assertion on his part. In this case, remind yourself that time-out is not a punishment, but a break in the action designed to help your child get a grip on his emotions and behavior. Keep in mind, too, that your grade-schooler still needs plenty of "time-in," — including encouragement, hugs, and kisses — whether or not he's doing something you like. Time-outs will regain their power when you save them for times when you're certain nothing else will work.

Take our Poll: How do you handle a child who refuses stay in a time-out?

To share your thoughts and concerns about your child's behavior problems with other parents, see our bulletin boards.

Time-outs: How to make them work (ages 6 to 8)

What to expect at this age

Most of the time, your grade-schooler acts like a "big kid" who knows how to control herself. But, in fact, she's still hard at work learning to make her way in the world, and testing her own autonomy and the limits of your authority. That means from time to time she may flout your directives and push the limits you impose. And despite her seeming maturity, your child's emotions can still get the better of her, and she may turn on a dime from a happy-go-lucky kid to a pouting, defiant rebel.

When your child crosses the line or gets too worked up for her own good, sometimes the best way to nip the behavior in the bud is to remove her from the activity at hand and give her some quiet time alone, better known as a time-out. This discipline method is a great, non-punitive way to shape behavior. The key is knowing how and when to use the technique. Six strategies for making the most of time-outs:

What to do

Understand what a time-out is — and isn't. If you don't think of a time-out as punishment neither will your child, and that's as it should be. Instead, think of it as an opportunity to help your grade-schooler cope with common frustrations and modify her behavior. While your child is in a time-out, she's on her own, so don't check on her every few minutes or try to cajole her into drying her tears. And although at times it may require superhuman effort, try not to scold, yell, or speak angrily — the point is to just let her sit in solitude for a few minutes. Quiet time alone allows your child to switch gears and calm down if she's gotten worked up. Just as importantly, it gives you the chance to step aside and not get caught up in your child's struggle. The goal of a time-out is to defuse and redirect an escalating situation in an unemotional way, and to teach your grade-schooler to behave without setting a negative example, the way yelling does.

Time the time-out. When it's called for, impose a time-out swiftly — as immediately after the transgression as possible. In fact, if you sense that your child is winding up, call a time-out before she blows. By this point, your grade-schooler understands what time-outs are all about, so you might even ask her if she thinks she needs some time to calm down. Use an old-fashioned kitchen timer to track the minutes; most experts agree that a minute a year is a good rule of thumb (so a 7-year-old would serve seven minutes). If you leave your child in time-out longer than that, she's likely to shift her focus from calming down to being angry and resentful, which counteracts what the time-out is supposed to do. If your child's progressed to the point where she accepts time-outs without too much struggle, ask her how much time she thinks she needs and have her set the timer herself. This lessens the indignity she's probably feeling (something that matters a lot to an intense, "spirited" child) and gives her some measure of control over the situation. Eventually, she may even call her own time-outs (but don't hold your breath).

Choose the right place. Some experts recommend sending kids to their bedroom for time-outs, while others suggest a less entertaining environment (like a bottom step or a chair in a nearby room). Keep in mind that the purpose of a time-out is for your child to gather herself — you decide where she'll best do this. Whatever you choose, find a time-out spot removed from the activity that set your grade-schooler off. Don't put her somewhere frightening — if she continues to act out, it's okay to close her bedroom door, but locking her in her room or banishing her to a dark pantry or basement may well be fodder for future therapy. Remember: You want to calm her down, not scare her into submission.

No matter where she serves her time, encourage your child to experiment with self-calming techniques. One advantage of bedroom time-outs: If looking at a book, listening to some music, or drawing a picture of her feelings helps your grade-schooler wind down, she'll learn how to get her temper under control by herself — a skill that'll come in handy during school hours too.

Be consistent. Decide — when you're not angry yourself — what actions merit a time-out. If you use time-out too often, you'll dilute its effectiveness, so save it for the tougher problems — aggressive acts such as hitting and throwing toys, or open defiance. Then find a quiet moment to discuss with your child the time-out policy in your family, letting her know where you'll give time-outs, for what reasons, and for how long. Once you've outlined the rules, stick to them. Being wishy-washy, or offering lengthy explanations or third and fourth chances, will only invite protests. Your grade-schooler needs to know exactly what to expect, and she needs to know that she can't wheedle her way out of it. "You hit your brother, so you're going to have a seven-minute time-out right now," is all you need to say.

Follow up. When the time-out is over, address the transgression that put her there in the first place. If she tackled her brother when he declined to share a toy, for instance, have her tell you what she did wrong and apologize to her sibling. Also ask how she'll handle the situation next time. Don't yell at her, don't lecture her, and don't give her a big hug now that it's over. She may be remorseful (and you may even feel a little guilty for banishing her), but rewarding her with positive reinforcement at the end of the time-out may actually encourage future misbehavior.

Give your child plenty of time-in, too. Just as time-outs discourage bad behavior, "time-ins" reinforce good behavior. If you find yourself constantly imposing time-outs on your child for getting into scrapes with her little sister, for instance, make every effort to "catch" your grade-schooler getting along with her too. Then tell her, "What a great job you're doing playing with Zoe. I love it when you're kind to her!" The more effort you put into time-in, the less you may need to enforce time-out.

Take our poll: Does time-out work for you?

To share your thoughts and concerns about your child's behavior problems with other parents, see our bulletin boards.

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