We are having a hard time disciplining our preschooler. He is constantly running away from us. We have to chase him down just to talk to him, let alone correct his behavior. Is this normal? How should we respond?
It would be helpful to have some more detailed information about your relationship with your child and your methods of disciplining him. It’s possible that his habit of running away is nothing more than a gimmick designed to get your attention. Preschoolers crave attention from their parents, and if your boy isn’t getting it in response to hispositive behavior, he’ll do whatever it takes to get you to notice him. With that in mind, we’d suggest that you try to head this problem off at the pass by making an intentional effort to “catch” your son being good. In other words, whenever he is the least bit helpful, cooperative, or respectful, praise and reward him for his behavior. You’ll be amazed at how quickly he will respond to this type of positive attention.
With specific reference to the “running away” issue, we’d suggest that you can extinguish this behavior by learning to use consequences effectively. Consequences constitute the basis of all effective discipline, and there are three important guidelines you should follow when implementing them.
First, consequences must be immediate. Don’t wait until after your son runs away and you’ve had an opportunity to chase him down. Before the fact, spell out clearly what is expected of him and what will happen if he doesn’t obey. Make sure he knows what the consequences of his negative behavior are likely to be. For example, you could say, “If you don’t put your toys away in five minutes, you won’t be able to play with them tomorrow.” Given his proclivity for running away, you might add, “If you run away from me, you won’t simply lose the privilege of playing with your toys. You also won’t be able to watch TV tonight.”
Second, consequences must be consistent. If you don’t follow through on your promises – and do it consistently, every time the situation requires disciplinary action – your child will learn that you don’t really mean what you say. He’ll come to the conclusion that your words are nothing but idle threats. So don’t disappoint him. Stick to your guns and do what you’ve said you would do, even when you’re tired and don’t feel like it. If you say, “No toys and no TV,” you will completely undermine your authority if you later give in and allow him to enjoy either of these privileges.
Third and last, consequences must be powerful. If the consequence you’ve chosen to implement doesn’t mean anything to your son, it won’t have any impact on his behavior. What’s more, something that represents a powerful reward or consequence for him today won’t necessarily affect him in the same way a year from now – that is to say, taking away toys or TV privileges won’t work if he’s decided that he’s more interested in riding his bike or playing online games. So you’re going to have to stay on top of the situation if you want your discipline to remain effective. Know your child well enough to understand what motivates him and what doesn’t. You might want to write out the behaviors that need discipline and list their appropriate consequences. It’s helpful for children to have these guidelines in black and white. That’s not to mention that busy moms and dads sometimes have tendency to forget exactly what they said in the past.
One last thought: consequences must always be delivered with love. Explanations can be provided after the consequences have been applied. In other words, when in doubt,act – don’t yak!
Copyright © 2010, Focus on the Family. Used by permission.