Book Excerpt: How to Discipline a Defiant Child

In 1989, I took a position at Yale University and moved my clinic there. It continues as the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic, which I direct. I am also the John M. Musser Professor of Psychology and Child Psychiatry, and for four years I directed a large research and clinical operation at the Child Study Center at the Yale Medical School. At the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic, the most hands-on of these responsibilities, my staff and I see families of children from ages two to sixteen and apply programs to change child behavior in the home and community. Five days a week, every week, we work with parents who need help with their children. Some families bring us children who are referred by the schools, other mental health services, or law enforcement agencies. These are children with severe problems. But at least half of the parents who come to us face less severe difficulties. They just want our help in stopping their children from arguing or teasing so much, or in getting their children to do homework, to take more responsibility, or to not melt down so often. And we know how to help them. We can help families break the cycle that pits defiant child against exhausted parent until one or both gives way.

Getting the Word Out

Discovery has been my job, and I love it. I've spent more than three decades refining my method — thirty-plus years of research, grants, scholarly conferences, clinical applications, follow-up studies, all the routines of scientific scholarship. I've written or coauthored forty-four books and almost six hundred articles, chapters, and papers. But they were addressed almost exclusively to other professionals in my field. Now it's time to get the word out as widely as possible to the people who need it most.

The scientific evidence that demonstrates what works best in changing children's behavior is overwhelming. That wasn't true when I first began working with children, but it is now. There's always more vital research to be done, but scientists have to think beyond research, too. How do we get this technology — because that's what a scientifically supported method that produces reliable results amounts to, a technology — into the hands of people so that they can put it to use? I'm both sobered and motivated by recalling that children are still being crippled and killed by polio half a century after researchers discovered a vaccine for it. Research must go hand in hand with dissemination if it's going to help people. Misbehavior isn't as scary as polio, but it's far more pervasive than polio ever was. (And sometimes it's pretty scary in its own right. Children's misbehavior at its worst — conduct disorder, a psychiatric diagnosis for extreme aggressive and antisocial behaviors — is a fantastically expensive, widespread, persistent problem affecting millions of families.) Scientists, including me, have not worked hard enough to ensure that their relevant findings reach beleaguered parents. I wrote this book to distill that scientific expertise in the form of practical help you can use to address behavior problems in your own home.

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