Disciplining spirited kids

 He bares his teeth. Juts his jaw. Flashes his eyes at you. It’s like a warning from an enraged grizzly bear. And then he dives into the maelstrom of your battle of wills. And eventually, he wins. Reducing you to a broken, exhausted emotional blob

But he’s only four.

This is what it can be like to parent what I euphemistically call a ‘spirited child’ (and what my co-parent unapologetically titles ‘terrorist’, ‘thug’ or ‘whelp’).

She doesn’t respond to a warning look. Doesn’t retreat from a threat. Doesn’t flinch at an angry yell. And doesn’t fear a short, sharp smack. She’s largely unmoved by punishment. But she doesn’t like Time Out. And she loves swimming.

So how do we punish? Time Out and banning her daily swim. That’s her currency. It’s taken us years to find it, and we’re still largely clueless. As my husband has said:

“I’m a big guy. I’m six feet tall. I weigh 100 kilos. I have broad shoulders, a heavy beard, and I know 17 ways to kill a man with my bare hands – and four ways to do it with a rolled-up magazine. But all of it pales away to nothing when my 20kg four-year-old daughter looks me in the eye and decides to go to war… I am out-thunk every time by my tiny, obstinate girl-child.” (You can read more here.)

Find their currency and try to figure out their triggers

All this is well and good, though you may be enjoying my recital of woe. But you want advice, right? I’m no expert, so I asked around and this is what I have to offer:

  1. Find their currency. We went through smacking, time-outs, star charts… Nothing worked, until I was forced to bargain with what she loved most. It also helped us to figure out her triggers so we can try to catch her before we have to discipline.” – Laura-Kim
  1. “We use removal of privileges as our strategy (much as I hate doing that, because most privileges benefit me and I don’t like taking away someone’s stuff – but that’s what we’re left with since it’s frowned upon to beat them with a wrench).” – Georgi
  1. “I’m trying the ‘pick your battles’ strategy: limiting my Nos and keeping the positive to negative ratio in our household at 80:20. I’ll go to the ends of the earth to get him the green spoon to avoid a meltdown, so that if we have to have a showdown later about too many sweets, I haven’t wrecked my positive to negative ratio.” – Danielle
  1. “Let them know that you love them just the way they are and that their strong spirit is a beautiful thing. Then make the boundaries very clear and act on infractions quickly and decisively.” – Carri
  1. “After any kind of ‘disciplinary hearing’, remember to try to catch him/her doing something positive and shower him/her with love and affection.” – Kerri
  1. “We use SuperNanny’s ‘Naughty Step’ technique with great effect.” – Dominic
  1. “Spirited kids are usually smart and will use any opportunity to play you up. For me, the main thing is to separate the strong-minded child. Go for isolation (no matter where you are or what the situation is). Once alone, kneel down to his level and ask why he’s having a meltdown or what’s causing him to behave like this. I try to repeat back what he’s said to me, so that he knows I’ve heard and understood him.” – Romy
  1. “I think that the Attitude-Adjusting Snot-Klap (AASK) school of discipline never fails. As told to me by a highly respected child psychiatrist ;)” – Peter

Joni Edelman, parenting blogger, reminds us that, “Some of what [children] are is how you raise them, and some of what they are is what is born in them.” And here’s some more of Joni’s advice, especially if your child has a sensory issue.

Bottom line? I really like this little nugget from Georgi: “Keep in mind that discipline is a long game. Your strategy doesn’t work in days or weeks – it can take years.” I also like the way my husband put it (if you’ll pardon another bit of blatant nepotism):

“If you’re at war in your home like I am in mine, you’re not alone. We’re not the first, and won’t be the last, to have spawned fierce creatures. This too shall pass. And at the other end we’ll have confident, tough-as-nails children who’ll know their own minds and have no fear of the world, be it ever so cruel and hard. Perhaps we’re lucky. I’ve seen the other kind. The meek children. The soft ones. And while I’m hollowed out with envy for their pliancy, I’d not swap mine in a million years.”

Click here to find a list of therapeutic services to help us with issues like these.

This article was originally written for Jozikids by Tiffany Markman in 2016.

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Tiffany Markman

Tiffany Markman

Tiffany Markman is a copywriter, speaker, trainer and mom. She was South Africa’s Freelance Copywriter of the Year in 2020 and one of the world’s ‘Top 50 Female Content Marketers’ in 2021, but she's still working on securing an award for her Mommying. She likes her coffee strong and black, her paragraphing short and tight, and her apostrophes in all the right places. Visit her website.

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