“I offered an ice cream to Lily, my three-year-old daughter, as an incentive for good behavior. I was hoping we could finish shopping in peace. But even after the ice cream, Lily threw a tantrum and insisted on going home,” Amy says with exasperation. “I told her it was not nice of her and that she had to learn to be less selfish. All she did was stare at me blankly.”
“Lily can be very charming with others. Her kindergarten teachers adore her. They praise her ability to epress herself,” Amy continues.
But Amy feels that Lily is getting more stubborn by the day. When she tries to reason with her daughter about her manners, Lily stops listening and puts her hands over her ears. She cries hysterically at the slightest upset, especially when she doesn't get her way. Amy fears Lily will become a spoiled child if she doesn't discipline her.
“I always pride myself on being a reasonable person, but I am running out of patience,” she says.
Dealing with a child's behavior is not just about discipline. Parents have to understand why their children act the way they do. Once they have a clear understanding, they will be better placed to teach their children.
Lily can express herself, but still has the mentality of a three-year-old. Parents should not relate to a child like an adult. Straight talk is not always the best way to make yourself understood. Lily's parents should not rely on a three-year-old's promises or tax her honesty.
Lily “promised” she would behave after the ice cream. But a child's point of reference regarding time is very different from that of an adult. For Amy, 30 minutes was the time period for the shopping and the behaving. She was thinking of a 30-minute intervaL But her daughter only took into account the length of time it took to finish her ice cream. This is not lying or stubbornness, but a difference in perception.
Amy felt the need to teach her on the spot: “I told her that if she wanted her favorite macaroni and cheese, she must let me finish shopping. Her answer was ‘yes’. Then I asked her why she screamed and whether she knew that it was naughty. Did she know we would delay going home even longer because Mom had to drop everything to deal with her screaming? She needs to say ‘sorry’ for not listening to Mom and for not keeping her promise.”
Many parents in similar situations think they can rely on adult logic. They try to point out the problem to the child, and explain and reason at the same time. They hope the child will recognise and admit their fault. This often turns into a lecture.
Teaching a child is important, yet the right timing is even more crucial. When Lily saw her mother become angry at her behavior she likely felt that Mom was not on her side. This makes a child feel a temporary sense of being unsafe. In such a state she will certainly not be receptive to listening to “teaching”.
Lily was put in an adversarial position in which she felt she had to defend herself. Staring or covering her ears were her way of escaping the perceived unpleasant, unsafe situation, in which she couldn't defend or explain herself in adult language.
A better way for Amy to respond would be to physically get down and embrace Lily to calm her. There may or may not be any genuine reason for Lily's tantrum. Her behavior could be due to tiredness, hunger or boredom.
Parents should not react to a child's tantrum with their own tantrum. It is important to limit the amount of talking, questioning or teaching. Teaching can be done more effectively later. When the child is calm, he or she will be more receptive.
It is crucial for parents not to assume their children are defiant just because they don't respond in ways they expect. When dealing with youngsters, parents need to be gentle and not react with anger, so their children will not be frightened into lying, or obliging out of fear.
Dr. Cathy Tsang-Feign is a Hong Kong-based psychologist and author of the book Keep Your Life, Family and Career Intact While Living Abroad. She is the former columnist for the South China Morning Post and American in Britain on topics of psychology and adjustment for expatriates and their families.