Discipline in early childhood

The formative years are the first years of formation which are 0-6 years. These are the years where behavior or a child’s character are formed. These are the years that shape a child’s perspective of the world.

The formative years form the foundation of health or dysfunctionality of the individual in adulthood. As such, these years need to be handled with patience, care and a lot of understanding in order to shape healthy individuals.

The foundation of a well-adjusted child lays in a well-adjusted parent. A parent cannot offer health if they are devoid of it. Part of individuals’ health is the ability to set limits and allow consequences when the set limits are not followed as opposed to expecting results from behavior one has not defined. This is what discipline is.

People who are not healthy protect loved ones from the consequences of their actions which leads to indiscipline and irresponsibility.

Methods of discipline for children

The methods discussed below apply to parenting of children with no mental health issues and with no special needs.

If a child portrays behavior that causes the parents unnecessary concern such as excessive aggression, fear, anger, defiance or anything that is too excessive, it is advisable to have the child assessed by a professional.

Professional assistance to equip parents of children with special needs and childhood mental illnesses on methods of discipline that will work best for their children is essential. Handling such children the same way one would handle a child with no such condition could damage the child further.

Clearly define the limits and set consequences

This means that a parent needs to communicate what is acceptable and what is not. This is the first level of discipline across all ages. Communicating means helping a child understand using age appropriate methods. Communicating expectations with a child is not a one-off thing but needs to be repeated until the child learns.

In the first year, this is easy to implement. If a child for example bites a mother’s breast, a mother can separate the child from the breast, say no, and put the child down or just push and put the child down.

Children learn through repetition

When this is repeated, the child understands it. Why? Because it acts as punishment. Punishment of being separated from what gives the child pleasure and punishment of being separated from their comfort. The child will internalize that and act appropriately.

At the age of one year, babies tend to experiment a lot with their mouths.  A mother needs not get angry at the baby. Appropriate discipline helps a child to adjust behavior and remain healthy.

In the second year, children typically test limits. They are even referred to as “terrible two”. Notably, it is at this stage that a child is trying to assert their independence, and this is characterized by throwing tantrums and rebellion.

While a parent needs to allow a child to make their own decisions (basic ones such as trying to wear their own clothes, allowing children to feed themselves etc), the parent needs to ensure that limits are clear.

Terrible twos and tantrums

A good example is when you walk into a shop or supermarket, and the child wants to pick all kind of toys, sweets, chocolates and such things as are available. If restrained, they throw tantrums, cry or even roll on the floor.

There is nothing abnormal about the tantrums. The child is just testing how far they can be allowed as individuals. To correct that, there needs to be clear communication between the parent and child on how many items the child can pick from the shelves and the consequences for non-adherence.

Teach the child to communicate properly. Let them know that they cannot be understood if they cry and speak at the same time. Allow them to cry and only listen when they stop crying. That way they can clearly communicate what it is that they want and even if they cannot talk, then they can point. Do not feel obligated to do it all but stick to your initial agreement.

Remind yourself and teach the child that they cannot have their way all the time in life. However, should they do the obvious like crying, rolling on the floor or screaming, ensure they are in a safe place and let them roll some more, let them cry all they can. In fact, encourage them to cry their all, as you stand and observe.

Take a deep breath and observe them without shame or guilt. There is nothing shameful about being a responsible parent by training your child.

The challenge with most parents is they feel ashamed, mindful of what the society thinks about them and their competence as parents. Many observers would expect to have you spank the child or judge you a failed parent if you do not punish the child for the tantrums.

Some will rubbish you as a poor example of a parent. Others will shout all vulgarities at you. Just keep your cool. You choose either the longer healthier, and most appropriate way or the shortcut of spanking.

Take deep breaths and remind yourself that those who are judging you will not live with the consequences of having your child untrained. That will give you the strength to not give in to pressure.

If the tantrums happen in a safe place such as at home, it is okay to walk out of the room briefly in order to calm yourself. As much as possible, avoid scheduling outings around your child’s nap time or meal time, which could increase the chances of becoming irritable.

3 to 6 years old

3-6 years old is the school going age and these children understand things verbally. Talk to them of what is expected of them and confirm that they have understood. Allow them to ask questions. Set the limits and the consequences should they violate the set standards.

Be sure to effect the consequences set when limits are violated. Doing what you promised to do is what effective discipline is. At this stage, other additional discipline methods can be used such as:

1.    Being a good example

This models the required discipline in Children. You cannot use insulting words or shout if you have already set that as a limit. If putting legs on the table is wrong for children, then it needs to be wrong for you.

Unless you want the children to shout when angry then avoid shouting. Discipline is learnt through observation and not just through words.

2.    Being present and available for the children

Children react to seek attention when they feel abandoned by the parents and care givers. The best way to instill discipline in regard to attention seeking behavior is through presence, availability and readiness to listen to your children. Beating and punishing the child for attention seeking behavior is destructive.

3.    Reward system for good behavior

Parents communicate the expected behavior, an example of expected acceptable behavior for the child is to arrange their play items in their designated area each day after play, and if they do it consistently for a month, then the children can be rewarded by being taken for a trip, to a favorite eating joint, have some luxury item purchased etc.

Chose a reward that you can comfortably afford and that which you intend to fulfil. Reward can be a play day together in the fields. It does not have to be something that will cost money, it needs to be something children value. Using rewards is a good way of improving discipline.

4.    Using punishment

Used correctly, occasional punishment is helpful in molding a well-balanced child. Punishment should be used in moderation so do not fight your child over each and every bad behavior.

When children display unpleasant behavior, a parent needs to let them know that continuing in such behavior may cost some of their treasured privileges. for example; instead of watching cartoon, they will be in their room alone, facing the wall for 30 minutes, they will not do outdoor play for a week etc.

The defined consequences need to be effected if discipline has to be maintained. Punishing a child for something the child had no idea was not acceptable does not train a child. It might make the child stop doing it out of fear but no lesson is learned.

5.    Verbal appreciation

We bring up children with low self-esteem when we only point what they do wrong and never what they do right. Children who are never appreciated and praised grow up with so much self-doubt that they fail to take initiative at every step of life.

Raising children’s self-confidence is possible even as parents’ discipline. Giving positive affirmation teaches children the right behavior and also enhances it since all human beings thrive in validation.

To bring up healthy individuals, the parents needs to be healthy. Both rewards and punishment need to be used to bring up healthy children. No single method of discipline can produce well adjusted individuals.

By Joan Kirera-family therapist. For more visit www.joankirera.com: Facebook: joan kirera, YouTube: joan kirera