Book Excerpt: How to Discipline a Defiant Child

Should you be addressing these problems now, before they lead to more serious ones? Or should you wait to see if a particular problem resolves itself? Perhaps you've gone online, Googled "tantrum" or "defiant child," and found that your child's behavior fits a dire-sounding label. Perhaps you're more concerned than your spouse is, or vice versa, and it's becoming a bone of contention between you — two devoted parents who find themselves disagreeing about what's wrong, how serious it is, how to put it right, or whether to try to fix it at all.

The tangle of confusion, frustration, fear, and anger inside you turns spending time with your child into a wearisome, long-running confrontation, even a chore that you secretly dread, and that feels very wrong to you. You've become a character you don't really recognize, or recognize all too well as the kind of parent you never wanted to be: a frequently irate, sometimes out-of-control shouter who spends altogether too much time ineffectively nagging, threatening, punishing, and even hitting the very child you love as much as you have ever loved or could ever love anyone. You feel off-balance, strange to yourself. You need a better way to be a parent, but you haven't gotten much useful help from the models you may have turned to: the way your parents, bless their hearts, did it; the many ways the child- rearing manuals suggest you do it; the way Supernanny does it on TV. With professional experts of all kinds promising that their way works, with friends and friends of friends telling you stories about how so-and-so's kid was turned around by a new parental strategy or miracle diet or whatever, it's hard to figure out what actually will work for you and your child.

The Method

There is a way to establish what actually does work. It's called science. To most people as they go about their daily lives, "science" means subjects such as the discovery of water on Mars, how birds spread influenza, and what trans fats do to our bodies. All of these are important and consistently newsworthy, without doubt, but science has also been quietly pressing forward in the effort to understand child development, child-rearing, parent- child interaction, and all sorts of other matters that affect your child's social, emotional, and behavioral adjustment.

Within the extensive research on human behavior in general, a great deal tells us specifically about the behavior of children. You may be surprised to hear that scientists have studied the most effective way to give a command to a child, or that they have rigorously compared the effectiveness of rewarding good behavior and punishing misbehavior. There are even studies that tell us very specific things like, for instance, the most effective way to speak to a child when asking her to do something she'd prefer not to do: brush her teeth, wear a jacket, get off the phone, or go to bed on time. Obviously, very few parents have the time or training to get up to speed on the latest research in psychology, not to mention child development and neurobiology and all the many related fields. But they can benefit profoundly from what researchers have discovered.

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