Tag Archives: punishment

Disciplining the Spirited Child

This post features the third scenario I have chosen for my series on spirited children. To view the rest of the series, please visit the following links:


You know that old saying, if you pray for peace God will give you opportunities to practice peacefulness, if you pray for humility God will give you opportunities to practice being humble, and so on? I think that applies to writing blog posts too. This morning I looked at my marker board with ideas for posts written on it, and I thought I should start working on the sixth post in my series on spirited children. The topic happened to be discipline, and now I’m thinking maybe it was a dumb idea to start writing it. Since 7am this morning I have had opportunity after opportunity to teach discipline to Buddy, Girlie, and Pal.

To be truthful, it really started five days ago when each of the kids had extra car rides, overnighters, and Easter events. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean we shouldn’t have done any of that, I’m glad they have so much family nearby to learn from, play with, and enjoy their friendship, but on the other hand we have learned a valuable lesson: Overscheduling is the #1 destructor of discipline and order in the home. It was a wonderful weekend for all of us, but now we are paying for it with tantrum, after tantrum, after tantrum. Just watch what happened when I put kid tattoos on Buddy and Girlie…

Nothing like a day like today to remind me how much I have to learn myself. On that note, here are some things I have picked up from The Difficult Child by Stanley Turecki and Raising Your Spirited Child by Mary Sheedy Kurcinka about disciplining spirited children.

Before anything can be done about difficult behavior in a child, parents must realize that whatever disipline techniques they are using (and I’m not talking about punishment) are not working. Says Stanley Turecki:

Difficult children tend to get locked into certain behavioral patterns, but so do parents in response to the behavior. This kind of repeated negative interaction causes the difficult pattern to worsen… this is very common with children who are demanding and stubborn because of their negative persistence, and whose parents reason and explain too much.”  (emphasis mine)

Okay, like, just slap me in the face why don’t you?! Papa sometimes has to tell me to just stop talking because when the kids get into a rut of disobedience, I fall into a rut of whining. Not exactly your kodak moment! Turecki also says:

The constant battling arises for the most part from an established habit pattern (editor’s note: remember that phrase) between the child and the mother… Not only is the child repeatedly misbehaving; it is very important for the mother to realize that her ineffective response has also become habitual, and is in fact reinforcing the bad behavior.”

The solution to the parents’ ineffective response pattern?

“Try to aim for an attitude that is kind, yet firm; absolute when dealing with truly relevant misbehavior, yet flexible with minor annoyances, friendly and very much on your child’s side, yet very clear about who’s in charge.”

Easier said than done, and obviously it will take time to develop an effective response pattern. Thankfully, Turecki and Kurcinka offer specific tips on how to prevent and intervene during episodes of bad behavior in our spirited children.


First, learn to recognize environments, behaviors, or other triggers that set your child off on the wrong foot. Many of them you can avoid, and those you can’t you may be able to prepare your child to handle them ahead of time. Help them to notice their growing intensity before it overwhelms them. Some things proven by parents to head off an outbreak before it becomes hard to manage include: calming activities, humor, exercise, extra sleep, and teaching them that time-outs are a good way to calm themselves.

Teach them how to find yes, to reach a win-win solution. If you understand what is bothering your child, you may be able to come to a conclusion that suits both your needs, without “giving in” to their fancies. Instead of saying “no” to something, try offering a “yes” solution. For example, instead of “stop jumping on the couch!” try “come down here and dance to the music”.

Protect them from overstimulation. As I described at the beginning of this post, sometimes too much change, organized activity, or electronic equipment winds kids up without giving them a chance to vent. Give them words to describe their feelings, teach them to recognize when their getting overstimulated, and try some of the parent-solutions listed above.

When you want to get an important message to your child and it doesn’t seem like their paying attention, try sending your message in different ways; touching them while giving directions, maintain eye contact, keep the message simple, and avoid asking a question if their isn’t a choice. Tell them what they can do, and limit the number of distractions you give at one time.


Sometimes you just can’t stop the tantrums from happening. You miss the cue, you weren’t present when they got wound up, however it happened, you find yourself face to face with a wild child. What to do? Here is the six step process Kurcinka suggests:

  1. Ask, can I deal with it now? If you can’t handle it, disengage quickly. Leave the room, compose yourself, then come back.
  2. Become the leader. Stand back, become neutral, think.
  3. “Frame” the behavior. Recognize the behavior.
  4. Is it temperment? If yes, try to manage it, not punish it. Be sympathetic, use eye contact, label the behavior, offer a solution.
  5. Is it important? if it’s not temperment, is it important? If not, disengage.  A child throwing a tantrum because he is trying to get his way needs to understand he won’t get attention for his selfishness.
  6. Effective reaction. Respond sternly and briefly to tantrums that may bring harm to themself, to someone else or their environment, or they are in an environment that is not appropriate for expressing feelings.

There is a differenece between “temperment” tantrums and “manipulative” tantrums. If the child is throwing a tantrum as a result of temperment, it will seem like he can’t help it. They need to hear from you that they are overwhelmed by their emotions, that you will help them stop, that it’s alright to cry but not to kick, bite, or hit, and that you will help them to stop what is overwhelming them. Stay with them during the tantrum, touch them gently, and try to identify the source. Potential solutions to prevent tantrums include:  reducing the demands on them during peak tantrum times, ensure good sleep, offer pacing as a way to release energy, make sure rules and consequences are clear, and (outside of a tantrum) talk with them about what happened and what strategies you can develop together to prevent tantrums.

In the next, and last post of this series, I will address how you can link specific behavioral problems to specific temperment traits, but for now you should remember that the key to a happy child is prevention of bad behavior and early intervention of tantrums. Spot the danger signs, get neutral, label, then intervene. Think “cool off”: when the child is about to get wild, stay calm, look into their eyes, say “you’re getting too excited”, then tell him/her it’s time to cool off and find a time-out distraction, a change of activities. If this becomes a pattern, your child may eventually tell you him/herself when a “cool off” is needed.

There is one more specific example I wanted to share, and that is for the child who gets “locked-in”. If they get locked onto something, you must bring it to an end or the struggle will be perpetuated and increase in intensity for both you and your child. Again, be neutral (I am talking to myself too!), firm, label, and take an early stand. Say “you have asked for ____ three times already. You are not going to get it so stop asking.” If they ask why, say “there is nothing more to discuss” and stop responding, leave the room if you must and explain later that whenever you say no you mean it.

How to punish 

You’ll notice I have spent a lot of time focusing on active prevention, but there does come a point when punishment is appropriate. This is what Kurcinka recommends when it is clear punishment is in order:

  1. Be brief. “You’ve done this, it’s not allowed, your punishment is this.” Never say more.
  2. Don’t negotiate. If the child asks why, answer with, “becuase that’s the rule”.
  3. Be firm. Don’t sweet-talk or end with “okay?” (I do that all the time, just so you know)
  4. Don’t warn too much. One reminder is fine, but after that act. Follow through on consequences.
  5. Be practical. Try to relate the consequence to the action, and consider the age of the child. Some parents use spanking as a punishment, and while we do support this, it doesn’t work either every child all the time. Distraction, time-outs, and grounding are also effective options.
  6. Be single-minded. Ignore the child’s attitude, the message of punishment still gets through.

Remember the phrase I asked you to remember at the beginning of the post? Established habit pattern. This is something I really want to start working on as a family; developing good habits. I recently read Smooth and Easy Days, a free ebook by Sonya Shafer with Charlotte Mason on how developing specific good habits makes the days with your children easier. Doesn’t that sound nice?? I’m still debating which habit I want to focus on first, but whichever it is, it will be a family effort.

Stay tuned for the last post of this series, Planning for Success! How you can make those smooth and easy days a family team effort.