Let’s Talk to Each Other about Children’s Misbehavior

When I first became a mom, my neighbor across the street also had just become a mom. Our boys were one month apart. She stayed at home and I worked. I would come home from work and they would often be out on their driveway. We would walk over and play. I miss those driveway days!

Anyway, I vividly remember a conversation we had once where I said something to the effect, “I’m really confident in parenting one child. But when I have two, I am worried over all the ‘who did it’ fights. I don’t know how to handle it.” It was like an inner truth had been released. It was clear she had similar questions. We talked about different approaches. I had read one approach where you ask a child to put away all the toys they don’t want to share before the other child comes over. She told me about some of her friends and what they did. We likely didn’t have all the answers of every situation that could come up, but we were talking about it, and that’s what was important.

This really is the problem with parenting, right? If children were “well-behaved” at all times, it would be easy to get along harmoniously. If they were mostly pleasant and undemanding throughout their youth, it would not be a huge decision to have a child. I venture to guess that many personality disorders are exacerbated if not caused from a person’s inability to deal with how irritating children can be–or just the general not quite refined, clumsy, mistake making, has-huge-emotions nature of children.

My work has been focused on documenting this exact behavior. On this site, you will see the tab “Child Development,” which has the summaries of my work. Working within a community of parents, I have been documenting age-related difficult behavior. Working off the theory of many, I also document what seems to be new, emerging abilities at these age-related difficult times. The thought is that children tend to fall apart before they grow. These stages are the mental equivalent of a growth spurt.

The more I get into it, the more I realize I’m documenting what can be the worst of the worst of parenting. It’s often the times when children are screaming, whining, or hitting. It’s stuff that, for most families doesn’t often happen but sometimes happens and can really shake a parent to their core. What did I just do? What did I just say? What did I just think? It most often happens in the privacy of home. And it’s often super easy to instantly forget all of the behaviors and actions. (Looking at you veteran moms who “always had things under control!”) If we can bring more of this to light, we can get much better tools to deal with some of the worst of the worst. And we can get along and understand each other and our kids so much better. The benefits that I envision are many and huge.

I find the conversations between moms are easy. Moms instantly understand it. You might talk to another mom and she says, “It’s all of a sudden! She just started whining a lot and wanting to be near me all the time!” That’s what these stages look like. When you talk to another mom or parent (dad are very interested in this work too!), it’s so easy to explain the developmental stages. They are in the trenches. They can see it live.

What is harder is when you are dealing with another caregiver who may or may not understand the stages. I can say I have talked to educators, doctors, parents, and others, and many respond really well to the work and want to know the details. However, I talk to others and even I sometimes get the response, “Oh everything is a stage isn’t it?” with an eye roll. While out, if my child is having a huge meltdown over something, and I know she’s in an irritable period, I still get arrogant comments like, “That child needs a nap.” I read countless stories of a child dropped off at a relative’s house and something goes bad and everyone ends up in tears.

Even people with ample experience with children and understand the stages still don’t always deal with the stages effectively. I had an experienced daycare worker, who verbally stated that she understands that they go through stages, snap at my 3-year-old for not saying “please,” which is a totally age appropriate behavior for a 3 year old.

This is the issue. It’s easy to say “go to them with love and comfort even when they are bad.” That’s what I advocate. But I want you to imagine what it looks like. Your 4-1/2 year old just threw something against a wall or he stomped on his sister. Your 3 year old just yelled at someone, “I don’t want to be your best friend anymore!” Your toddler is biting at daycare. Your 6 year old refuses to do any school work. Your 7 year old is climbing a tree at a private business (the horror!) and everyone is fretful that this will be seen as disrespect. (I watched a mother publicly spank her child for this.) A fight breaks out at an indoor playground and no one has any idea what happened. (I’ve seen this happen and I won’t go to indoor playgrounds during peak hours anymore.) How you respond in these situations is what I want to talk more about.

Parenting can take a lot of stamina.

I asked some people if they had success stories with this issue and talking to other caregivers about it. Several said they get resistance to the idea. At least one person had a success story with spreading information about the cycles. This is what she said:

My Wonder Weeks book is currently being passed around my daycare. One of our amazing teachers has figured out that every time he sucks his thumb and climbs on her for hugs, that something is “up” with him. I shared some of the info from your webpage with her bc he was really struggling with the milestone that peaks in intensity both at 2 y 4m and 2 y 5m. She used some of the tips to help him during the day at school. His behavior improved with it. — Laura LaBianca Puente

On my website, right in the summaries about the milestones, I now offer a Surviving and Thriving section. The Surviving section is meant to give tools to help during the difficult times. I just put it up recently, and I have already gotten many comments that it’s helping people. I’m very glad for that. I’m especially glad to hear that it helped improve the behavior! I can tell you that I’ve personally seen people’s parenting improve dramatically after reading my book about this, Misbehavior is Growth. I have especially seen fathers respond well to the work. This is the conversation I want to get started: acknowledging this “misbehavior” and getting good at dealing with it; moving away from blame and towards solutions, knowing children aren’t bad, parents aren’t bad–this is just a really difficult life problem.

Further, I want to show that this misbehavior is not just random, it’s growth. I talked with a woman from Korea once about these developmental milestones. She told me there is a folk lore in her country that when a child gets sick to be prepared for better things to come, almost like it’s a sign of good luck. I love it. That’s a very similar sentiment I want to see. Imagine if a child is acting out and instead of hearing, “Oh it’s a stage, ignore it,” or worse “Get that kid in line,” you were to hear, “Hey his brain is probably going a mile a minute right now and soon to grow! I wonder what new abilities await. I can’t wait to see his unique talents unfold and understand how we can nurture it.” Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Or even further, “Oh you know if he is really good at music, I love to play piano with children. Have him come over!” These moments of extreme frustration could potentially be turned into moments of great connection. We just need to lay down any super judgmental, frustrated thoughts and inclinations that we have about children and roll up our sleeves to have the emotional fortitude, clarity of mind, and loving presence that it requires to deal with children effectively. There is no doubt about it: this is super hero work!

This is the idea behind my book series about this, Misbehavior is Growth. The first one about toddler is already out. I have many ideas to help with the difficult behavior and activity ideas to nurture the new growth. It’s not just about not seeing children as bad, it’s about diving right into it, rolling with it, and using it to help their growth and your family dynamic. Please check it out here: Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years.

If you would like to see more of this kind of understanding and loving handling of children, please share this blog post! Thank you! Come see mas “The Observant Mom” on Facebook too.

Misbehavior is Growth


When Caregivers Just Don’t Understand

I document age-related childhood difficult behavior and probably the #1 question I get is how to deal with caregivers who deal with a person’s children during a difficult stage. A child might start biting at school or hits their grandparent. Parents usually understand it’s a stage and work with a child, but the child just did something harmful to someone else, now what?

This issue is near and dear to me. It’s the main point of my work: I want people to understand childhood “misbehavior.” The idea behind my book series about this, Misbehavior is Growth, is that children are mentally growing during these difficult times. Therefore, go to them with love and comfort. Further, these times are developmentally critical. We can use them to teach them skills and give guidance. Each milestone is an opportunity. Children leave no doubt about their presence and their need for us!

The problem is real. I read once (an article which I can’t find but I’ll continue to look for) that when children who were punished the most in kindergarten were analyzed, it was found that they were all born in the same birth month. The authors concluded that this means they were likely in an age-related stage at the time of punishment. It actually infuriates me to think that children are punished for what is normal development. (I am opposed to punishment anyway and this especially infuriates me.) But it adds confirmation to what my work says: that even one month matters, especially around those kindergarten years.

I want to work on it on my end and reach out to daycares and schools and show them how my work can help them and their customers. I asked a group of people once if they would like to send their child to a school that understood the milestones. My work documents both age-related difficulty and the new mental advancements following this age-related difficulty. The idea is that the difficult stages are when the brain is growing and everything goes bonkers inside a child at those times. In such a school, the staff would be prepared to deal with this “misbehavior” in loving ways. And they would also be ready with activities to feed the new mental growth. People’s answer was a resounding “Yes!” they would want to send their children to such a school.

If you are in the position, please send my work to interested in schools. It is found here at my website, TheObservantMom.com, under “Child Development.” Please see my first book about this Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years, in which I outline the milestones from 18 months to 3 years and describe activities you can do with children at that age, including a reading program. I have many other ideas for the preschool and early elementary years. I am working on those books now, but in the mean time, my website has a “Thriving” section for each milestone in which I am slowly building educational activities attached to each milestone. If you want to design a school around this, I am, at this time, happy to give a free phone consultation of my work in the effort to get it up and running.

I also want to help work it from the other end, which is the interface parents have with other caregivers. I like to tell success stories here on my blog. The thing is that I homeschool and so I don’t have many stories to tell about dealing with other caregivers. So I’m reaching out: would you tell me of a success story in this area? I’d love to include it in this blog to help others.

Thanks. Happy parenting (<–I mean that!) and stay strong!

See my book Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years


Misbehavior is Growth

When You Can’t Communicate with Your Preschooler

Around 3 years, 10 months, I had so many communication issues with my preschooler. She kept saying “That one! That one!” when asking me to look at something or pick a movie, and I had no idea what she was pointing at. It can be frustrating, especially with how whiny or aggressive they can get at these ages, not to mention trying to tend to your many other responsibilities. Of course we would say something like, “I need you to go point at it” or the like, which would sometimes make her cry harder.

I really thought about how she was trying to communicate and couldn’t and what I could do to help her. I thought about playing some kind of game, such as hot/cold, where she has to try to correctly point out something to me.

In the moment one day, while I was pondering what kind of game to make up, she started doing this. We were outside and she pointed to some shrubs saying, “Look at that!” Me, “What?” Her, upset, “THAT!” I turned it into an “I Spy” game. I said, “Emily, could you do an I Spy question for what I am supposed to look at?” She loves I Spy games. She said, “I spy a bug!” Well as it turns out, the bug had flown away. She would have never been able to point at it. Whatever was going on in her mind, she was unable to articulate, “I saw a bug but it flew away. What happened to it?” or “When can I see it again?” or whatever was going on in her mind.

We had other similar communication errors at this age. At nearly 3 years, 11 months, we were going to Walmart one day. She started whining, “Are we going to the orange one or the gray one?” I had no idea what this meant. I said, “Gray? I don’t know what that means.”  And she kept whining and whining about the orange/gray thing while I was trying to drive. I wish I could articulate my emotions better, but as I type this out, it is hard to describe how annoyed and frustrated I was to be trying to drive with a whiny preschooler and have no idea what “the gray one” was.

As it turns out, at Walmart, the grocery pickup area is colored orange. The door to walk in to Walmart is colored gray. She loves to go in to the store. She doesn’t like when we do grocery pickup, because we pull up to the bay and get our groceries and leave. She was asking if we were doing pickup or going in the store. I didn’t figure this out until we were at the store. Now I know.

I’m not sure how much I can help you in these moments, other than to say that how they categorize things in their mind or what they are dealing with are things that make no sense to us or is something they can’t articulate well. It really doesn’t matter how educated they are or articulate or mature. When they go through new mental growth, they notice new things and often don’t have the words to describe it at first. Or when they play around with a new skill, such as categorizing more things, they do it in a way different than adults typically do it. Dr. Gordon describes in Parent Effectiveness Training that children “encode” their messages. Sometimes we need to decode those messages.

See my book Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years

Misbehavior is Growth


Staying Patient by Eliminating Any Propensity for Anger

Patience. It’s the #1 thing parents say they struggle with. Most books, including my own, focus on helping people stay patient in the moment. This is a valuable skill and something parents need, because parents need to stay in the moment. But what is even more powerful than this is eliminating any propensity towards anger.

The following formula for anger is from Surviving a Borderline Parent. It has a brilliant analysis of how anger works.

How Anger Works

Although anger seems like a volatile, unpredictable emotion, its generation actually has a predictable cause-and-effect dynamic, as you can see from this formula we created, using concepts from When Anger Hurts (McKay, Rogers, and McKay 1989).

Antecedent Stress + Current Stress + Indirect Stressors + Trigger Thoughts = Anger

Antecedent stresses include your childhood experiences with your parent or other experiences you’ve stored away that influence your interpretation of current events.

Current stresses are painful emotions, unmet needs, or threats that you’re experiencing in the present.

Think of indirect stressors as aggravating factors not directly related to the stimulus or current stress, but still influencing your reaction to it: extreme heat or cold, hunger or low-blood sugar, lack of sleep, hormonal fluctuations, pain, lack of physical activity, frustration, or overstimulation (too much noise, too large a crowd, and so on).

Add trigger thoughts, that is, cognitive sparks that act as a catalyst, to the mix and your stressors combine into a hostile affect (McKay, Rogers, and McKay 1989).

This formula is brilliant and worth repeating:

Antecedent Stress + Current Stress + Indirect Stressors + Trigger Thoughts = Anger

Most professional books about anger focus on the trigger thoughts and, moving backwards, sometimes the indirect stressors. A trigger might be a child screaming; an indirect stressor might be you didn’t get enough sleep. If you ask advice from anyone about anger, they are likely to talk to you about one of these two things. They might tell you, wisely, to take a deep breath to relieve a trigger. They might tell you, also wisely, to get better sleep. But if you keep going deeper than that, you can get to an even deeper level for staying patient.

If a person say had a traumatic childhood, to any degree (an antecedent stress), it creates an internal static in a person. Fight or flight gets turned on and doesn’t ever really get turned off. They are in an angered state at all times (and it may be slight or great). If you can resolve this stressor and move from an angered state to an inner peace, you will be a master at containing anger.

It will in fact and without doubt help with in the moment anger enormously. When something triggers a constantly angry person, it feels simply like everything is spinning out of control. It just feels extra bad. And the anger ends up being unproductive, because the person does not then use that energy for any useful thing (like they should). They live day in and day out with anger and so it’s now rendered useless as a signal about harm. Extra anger only results in extra blind reactivity.

For a person with inner peace, when something triggers anger, it is a much different feeling. The feeling is both one of hurt (say you stepped on a sharp toy) but also one of exhilaration as a person instantly moves, happily, quickly, and even a little madly, into action. And in that action, a person might let out a nice healthy exasperation due to the situation, but they are quickly returned to that inner peace–perhaps even with a laugh at what happened after the flurry is over. This inner peace is your greatest ally and protector.

So how can you do this? Well it’s a process. My best recommendation is to download samples from books that may describe any trauma you went through and see which one speaks to you the best. Read that book. I have found two fundamental approaches both which have value.

1. Cognitive Approach

With this approach, a problem you had is fully described so you can identify it. Knowing what it was and what happened give clarity and feels liberating. Typical problems and negative thought patterns are identified. You can then be on the lookout for such negative thought patterns and rewire your thinking. This can lead to a feeling of acceptance and personhood.

2. Visceral Approach

In a visceral approach, you feel something as a way to change. For instance, a traumatic experience such as dealing with a difficult or negligent parent is reenacted first how it happened. After this, it is reenacted again but this time going in a way that is healthy. Another example of visceral therapy is getting a massage to help a person frightened of touch become agreeable to it. Another example is dance or yoga to put a person back in touch with their body.

I hate to say “everyone deals with some low level anger.” This cannot possibly be true and I hate when people project problems onto the world at large. However, over and over and over again I hear about how much people struggle with staying patient. Over and over I hear about most parenting styles, especially older ones, are in some ways abusive or negligent to the child. The odds and evidence are there that this a really big problem. So … just know that you are not alone! If you are someone with inner peace, and there are certainly lots of people like this, perhaps join the effort by sharing knowledge and understanding with others. Trauma is real and the quicker and better we are at identifying it, the more it will get resolved, in what I think may be a snowball effect.

The process of healing may be much quicker than you think! Go one level deeper; the inner peace is worth it.

See my book Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years

Sometimes Children Need Rescued: Know When to Rescue and When to Challenge

Responsibility. That’s what adults are supposed to teach children, right? Our goal is to socialize them into independent adults? I’m right there with you to raise an independent adult but in this blog post I am going to challenge the idea that children “need to learn responsibility” or as some put it “should not be rescued.”

A friend of mine’s daughter forgot an orange for school. The orange was meant for a class experiment that day. When she went to bring it to school, she was met with a rude secretary who explained the school policy was that parents could not drop off items for their children anymore. This was especially frustrating on top of the lack of communication from the school, full voice mail boxes, etc. This policy was put in place to supposedly teach students responsibility and to stop parents from rescuing their children.

I have been documenting the age-related developmental cycles children go through, and one of my main goals is to rework people’s attitude’s about children’s “misbehavior.” Children are not developmentally ready to take on the full responsibilities of an adult. Further, they go through stages where they become absent-minded. Consider this from What Every Parent Needs From Their Parent about 11 year olds:

As puberty takes center stage, tweens can actually slip backward in some basic skills. Spatial learning and certain kinds of reasoning may decline at this stage, studies show. Parts of the brain responsible for prospective memory, or remembering what you are supposed to do in the future, are still maturing. This may be why a teen may seem clueless if asked to give the teacher a note before school.

Consider this policy at the school. Why did they put in place? The truth is they did it because so many parents kept coming in. It got to be overwhelming for the school staff. It does not have to do with what is healthiest for the students. Why would it become so overwhelming? Because it’s unreasonable to ask teens to remember stuff like this on a consistent basis. When something is this big of a problem, the issue is not the individual laziness of a person (also, this is never  the real issue) but some bigger issue that is yet to be understood. If it’s this big of a problem, a totally new approach is needed. Reduce the number of notes and objects a child must remember. The article linked suggests being like a buddy and leaving visual cue reminders for your children.

It is very common in some parenting books for the authors to promise that they don’t advocate to “referee or rescue” children. They create the idea that there are two parenting styles: one that is too authoritarian (referee) and one that coddles too much (rescues) and they are the happy middle. I’m challenging that. There are some responsibilities that should not be in the child’s lap. When things are going wrong and the child is failing–floundering more like–a new approach is needed. This is especially true for issues that directly affect the well being of the child, such as clothing, money, and food and during developmental stages. My personal experience  is that extending too much freedom to the child in these areas, without proper mentorship often causes the child to fail and they don’t learn a lesson from it; they instead learn to live with failure. Children are not adults. They don’t learn entirely from their experiences; the experiences are absorbed by them, meaning they form their very character. As the subtitle of the article linked says, “they need coaching, support, good examples, and most of all understanding.”

Further, an understanding of childhood development can help immensely with fostering the very independence that people want to foster. The thing about the slip backwards in their basic skills is that soon after there will be a great advancement in their skills. The brain is temporarily “under construction” during these stages. After, not only will they remember the note, they might astound you with what they can do. After this construction phase, you might give them an extra challenging activity that you previously thought impossible for an 11 year old. Maybe they could plan your next camping trip? I don’t know the answer to that yet. This is the type of question I ask in relation to my work which I hope to spur discussion. There is an enormous, untapped potential there, and if you give them an activity in high alignment with their development and interest, they will do with joy and dedication. It won’t be a frustrating fight.  Come see the group Misbehavior is Growth — The Discussion if interested in thinking creatively about this issue.

Sometimes they need rescued. Sometimes they need challenged. Let’s take a hard look at child development to know when to do which.

See my first book in this series, Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years.


“Would You Rather?” Questions May Help During Meltdowns

“Would you rather?” questions are fun with children just as fun. They are questions like, “Would you rather live on a castle or a pirate ship?” I use them at dinner and before bedtime. I found they can also help with meltdowns.

Close to 3 years, 10 months is Preschool Milestone 13 which I called “Tests and Compares Complex Theories and Systems.” Children start to compare themes: who is faster, what rocket flies higher, etc. Their favorite “theme” is themselves: are they the fastest and best compared to others? If anything suggests they aren’t, prepare, because they will not like finding this out. You may be dealing with a lot of whining or aggression, depending on the type of emotional release your child prefers.

The “Would you rather?” question can help in these situations. I use this tool of distraction but in a more involved way in the preschool years. In the early 3s, around 3 years, 3 months, which is Preschool Milestone 4, if my child is having a meltdown or is scared, I find if I start telling them their favorite story, they calm down and become so engrossed in the story, they forget what they were scared of or defiant about.

I often use this “tell a story” trick but one time it didn’t work. My daughter, who was 3 years, 10 months, had just got done being upset because she wasn’t the first to get to the van. She was fighting me to be buckled in the car seat. She was playing a game where she kept trying to close the door instead of letting me in to buckle her. I at first tried calm, quick action to resolve this, but when she was wildly upset about what I was doing, I thought a new tool would probably be needed. I tried telling her favorite story but it didn’t work. I then asked a “Would you rather” question. In this case, it was “Would you rather be on the swing or slide?” as we were just leaving the playground. She calmed down instantly and became engrossed in the question. Lost in her thoughts, she said, “ummmm, both.” While she was calm, I buckled her and all was happy afterwards.

Car seat fights, yo.


I think this may work so well at 3 years, 10 months because of how much they like to compare things, although it may work at many other ages (one mom told me she was going to try it on her 11 year old). Some other “Would you rather?” questions might be, “Would you rather be able to fly or swim underwater without having to breathe?” “Would you rather have a lake in your backyard or a forest?” “Would you rather be a cheetah or a dolphin?”

See my book Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years

When Children Whine: Be Like a Firefighter on a Mission to Heal Their Emotions

I was really struggling with my 3 year old daughter’s whining. I made it through her toddler years; I did. She became very clumsy and out of control  at times. That took a lot of emotional fortitude to get through, but I got through it. At 3 years, 5 months, Preschool Milestone 8, her whining started to get really intense.

I want to impress upon you that I am very much for validating a child’s emotions and letting them express emotion, including anger. But there was a certain level of whining that just crawled right up into my skull and rattled me big time. It did not happen with her brother (though he became aggressive in his 4s), only my daughter.

The first bout at 3 years, 5 months only lasted about 2 weeks. My husband dealt with most of it for me. When she got to be 3 years, 9 months and older, especially by 3 years, 10 months, it got to be terrible. The frequency and intensity got to me big time. I found myself not being the parent I wanted to be such as yelling, “Stop. WHINING.”

I want to further impress upon you how hard it can be when dealing with more than one child. Much of the advice given about this is “Give the child your undivided attention,” or “Get on their level” or “Validate their emotion.” You see, I try to do all of that. I want to do all of that. If I had just one child and just a few chores on my plate, I’d do all of that. It would be magic. Someone could take a picture of me on my knee with my arm around my sobbing child and use it in the next parenting class that they teach.

But I had trouble doing this or rather, trouble keeping up, given the very, very frequent and intense number of times she whined. A typical scenario is that my daughter, my middle child, would get into a fight with her older brother, typically because she was upset that she “lost” at something, and I’d be holding a bin of laundry or my toddler (my third) while also trying to remember what I was even in the room for. Both my brain and my arms, at seeming all times, were full. It was also giving me terrible “de ja vu” when listening to my daughter whine, because it reminded me of me as a youth. There was a lot to deal with.

What helped me is a friend who said that the child, from her experience, really wants someone to come to them and say “Oh you poor thing. Here, here, mommy is here.” This helped me because instead of seeing it as I was just trying to validate my child’s emotions, it was more I was on a rescue mission to help them. Instead of just applying some gauze on a cut, I was like a fire fighter on a fire engine with a tall ladder and flashing lights going down the street at blazing speed to help heal her emotions. When I did turn my attention to her, I had stronger, better words. I would say, “Oh you sweet girl! You are so upset! Mommy is here. Let’s all help Emily right now. Big hugs!”


The very first time I tried it, it worked beautifully. She had gone potty and let out her typical whine, “I’m alllll done!” I came to her, “Oh baby girl! You need help!” She argued with me that she’s not a “baby” so I switched it to “sweet girl.” Riding on this train, I thought I’d try this upbeat, heroic approach to get her to practice wiping. I said, “Let’s practice wiping! I’ll be your cheerleader! Emily! Emily!” and I started clapping. Her toddler brother also started bouncing and clapping too. It was a happy, joyous moment AND it worked.

Now instead of letting myself get annoyed by the whining, I see it as a cue that she needs me to fill her up with courage and support by being her fire fighter and cheerleader. I do notice a decrease in her whining. And I remember when she was young, she loved to pretend she was a damsel in distress and have people come help her. She fundamentally needs this and that’s OK.

I also decided I probably need to do some work to work through my past, so I picked up a book on it, after reading through the free sample of several and picking the best one. I also intend to recruit my husband’s help more. He does excellent with her but I may ask him to help her use better words and tone of voice to express herself.

Please share this post with someone who might benefit! This will be put on some of the latter Preschool Milestones on my work in the “Surviving” section, as I think that’s when it will be most needed.

See my book Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years

The Shortest Explanation Possible of How to Deal with Children Without Using Punishment

A friend asked me once to put together a very short, one-page explanation, with tools, to explain to people how to deal with children without punitive measures. Well that’s hard to do but here is my attempt.

In my opinion, the number one determining factor is attitude. How do you see the child? Are they constantly annoying you and bound to mess everything up? Or do you see them as a delightful creature who probably wants to do what is right and cooperate but just needs some guidance? If you have the latter attitude, you are bound to succeed. It changes the tone of your voice in your requests. It will help your child do as asked on a level you might previously thought was impossible.

The second most important thing are emotions. Yours and theirs. Yours need to be under control (see the first point). If a child is wildly upset, nothing can be taught or learned while they are in this distress. If a child is upset, the emotion must be dealt with first.

Now with everyone calm and optimistic, you can think of ways to teach, coach, and mentor your child. The goal always is to raise their understanding, not gain obedience. What can you do to make it utterly clear what it is you want your child to do? For example, I once had a problem that my child kept running away from me when getting to the van, and I couldn’t chase him, because I had too many bags and an infant. I brought chalk and wrote a big “X” where I wanted him to stand. It worked. They need very clear, strong guidance like this if you want them to cooperate. Your job is more coach than drill sergeant. You teach and coach and teach and coach and engage and forgive and pick them up when they fall and teach and coach some more.

But what about when they are wild and out of control? When a child is out of control, you do something immediate and hands on. If they are hitting, you immediately stop them. You don’t nag or beg. It has all of the “effectiveness” of spanking because it is hands on, but you embrace them in a hug rather than hitting them. And you deal with the emotion, in a big, exaggerated way. This approach is far from passive or negligent. After they are calm, you go back to teaching and coaching.

At all times, you go towards the child not away. You love them instead of turning your back on them. It is about presence. If we accept that we have to be a constant loving presence, we can accept our role and do it more joyfully.

It’s true this doesn’t cover every situation possible. I added “Surviving” and “Thriving” sections to the milestones at my website, TheObservantMom.com. They are targeted tools by age attached to the developmental stages that children go through. My goal is to write a tool that takes 30 seconds to read that is targeted to the age your child is and the problem they are going through. Please check them out!

This was my attempt at a flow chart of what tool to use when for the preschool years. This applies from around 3 years, 3 months until 5, and summarizes the essence of what I am trying to say in this article. Bits and parts of it become possible during the toddler years. Bits and parts become ineffective some time in the late 4s. By 5, a child can be quite reasonable and such “tools” aren’t as needed.

This chart does have on flaw though. Can you spot it? I will add what it is in the comments.

Flow Chart Positive Discipline Tools for Preschoolers



Redirection is an Effective, Hands-On Way to Say “No” Without Saying “No”

When you don’t want a young child to do something, redirection is an effective way to get them to stop doing that thing. If a verbal request (hopefully a polite one) to ask them to stop doing something works, then that is wonderful. That is the easiest way to get them to stop. If not, redirection, or some other hands-on method may work.

If a child is banging on something, say near the TV, and you are worried they’ll hit the TV, you physically move them away from the TV or take away the thing they are using to bang. For a young child (under 3) especially, being hands-on like this sends a much, much stronger message than shouting or yelling. Ideally, you would get them doing something similar to satisfy their need to bang on something. You might let them bang on a pillow or soft couch or give them something soft to use to hit with.

Some people worry this method isn’t strong enough. I found it was very strong. Once my son was hitting a toy that I didn’t want him to hit. I gave him blocks instead, which he could build and knock over. He stated, “It’s Ok to hit block but not toys.” He totally got it, and I didn’t say a word. Although it requires a bit more effort to be hands-on and to come up with a clever solution, in the long run it helps with behavior.


The most important thing to implement this is to keep your emotions under control and to keep your wits about you. It can be maddening to deal with children but please adopt the attitude that the child is not bad, they are just doing what they need to do developmentally, and if we have this attitude that they are probably good, if we know our job as caregivers is to stay engaged with them, and if we treat them as delightful little people who will probably do what is right, we can keep a more cheery and optimistic disposition with them. This is far more effective at gaining their cooperation than getting sucked into the frustration and negativity of yelling. I think we all have it in us to do this but sometimes we need reminders and examples to restore and refuel us. I aim to provide stories, tools, and tips here at The Observant Mom to do just that.

I have a tool for staying patient here (see it as TheObservantMom.com -> Toddler Summaries if reading the print version), “Emotional Responsibility: Staying Patient as a Parent.” I have other tools also listed in the summaries, matched to the age of the child on a nearly month by month basis. Other tools you may consider are to design the environment: put away things you are worried about being broken or which might be used to hit things.

See my book Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years for more.

3-1/2 Year Olds: They Are a Meltdowny Mess and Love Science Experiments

I have been doing work, done in a community of parents, to characterize the typical age-related behaviors of children. I have focused on the times when they fall apart, often becoming whiny, aggressive, clumsy, or confused, and then describing the new abilities that cluster around this age-related irritable behavior.

The late 3s can be very difficult for parents and 3 years, 9 months marks a time that the frustrating behavior typically increases. I called Preschool Milestone 12, which gets to be at its worst around 3 years, 9 months, “Thematic Thinking.” Children at this age notice and create more themes, such as drawing a highly organized piece of artwork (perhaps of a train with stunning detail), arrange their food in an artistic way, play games such as checkers better, and notice the moral themes of a story better, for instance, “Such and such character has to decide to be good or bad.” All of this is new perceptual awareness and it seems to feel scary and overwhelming at first. As they grow noticeably in their desire to create things, they become very possessive and possibly even aggressive about protecting their work. You might expect that no one else will be allowed to have the ball if you play a game of catch. You might be also dealing with extreme nighttime battles.

At closer to 3 years, 10 months is Preschool Milestone 13 which I called “Tests and Compares Complex Theories and Systems.” They start to compare themes: who is faster, what rocket flies higher, etc. Their favorite “theme” is themselves: are they the fastest and best compared to others? If anything suggests they aren’t, prepare, because they will not like finding this out. You may be dealing with a lot of whining or aggression, depending on the type of emotional release your child prefers.

Here is one tip for dealing with the meltdowns at these sometimes volatile ages: play a “would you rather?” game. I use this tool of distraction but in a more involved way in the preschool years. In the early 3s, around 3 years, 3 months, if my child is having a meltdown or is scared, I find if I start telling them their favorite story, they calm down and become so engrossed in the story, they forget what they were scared of or defiant about.

I have used the “would you rather?” question at Preschool Milestone 13, 3 years, 10 months, successfully. My daughter was once fighting me to be buckled in the car seat. She was playing a game where she kept trying to close the door instead of letting me in to buckle her. I at first tried calm, quick action, but when she was wildly upset about what I was doing, I thought a new tool would probably be needed. I tried telling her favorite story but it didn’t work. I then asked a “would you rather” question. In this case, it was “would you rather be on the swing or slide?” as we were just leaving the playground. She calmed down instantly and became engrossed in the question. Lost in her thoughts, she said, “ummmm, both.” While she was calm, I buckled her and all was happy afterwards.

I think this may work so well at 3 years, 10 months because of how much they like to compare things, although it may work at many other ages (one mom told me she was going to try it on her 11 year old). Some other “would you rather?” questions might be, “Would you rather live in a castle or on a pirate ship?” “Would you rather have a lake in your backyard or a forest?” “Would you rather be a cheetah or a dolphin?” “Would you rather go to Paris or London?”

The idea behind my first book about these milestones, Misbehavior is Growth: An Observant Parent’s Guide to the Toddler Years, is that these rocky developmental stages are a child’s brain growing. We can help them by coming to them with love and comfort. And by understanding the cycles, we can be ready with great, highly age appropriate brain building activities. The activities can help unleash the enormous potential in them. The activities can also help calm them down and give you a chance to connect and find your new flow with them as they change in dramatic ways.

Something children in their late 3s absolutely love are science experiments. In the early 3s, I do easy ones where there is only one element or step, such as watching ice melt. In the late 3s, I start to do more complex ones. With as much as the child likes to race or compare things, here is one example of a plant experiment that they might like, something great for the summer months.

In this lesson, you are testing the water retention of different soil types and how well they grow a seed. Fill three clear cups with one of the following: sand, dirt, and dirt. Put several seeds in the dirt, on the side of the cup such that you can see them, fit snugly down into the sand or dirt. I like sunflower seeds due to how quickly they germinate. Water each such that the sand and first dirt cup are watered reasonably and the last dirt one is waterlogged such that water comes up over the dirt. Be careful to pour the water slowly as otherwise the seeds will start to float. Put a card or something else over the cups, with a small vent for air, such that the water does not evaporate. Then watch to see how well they do. For sunflower seeds, it will take 2 or 3 days to germinate.

At first the sand one and first dirt one will germinate and the sand one will even seem to do better. The water logged one will never germinate. However, the sand one will eventually collapse. It may look like this if you wait several days:



My 3 year old loved watching the plants germinate and seeing which one would “win.” You could take this much further, and this is still a great activity for older children (and adults!). My 6 year old thought for sure the one with a lot of water would win. You can feel the sand and dirt. The sand will feel dry on top. All of the water will sink to the bottom. The dirt will feel damp on top. I like to go outside and dump them out. You’ll see the sand spread apart easily and the dirt will stick together in a clump. A preschooler will love the sensory experience of playing with the sand and dirt that has been dumped. See my page on plant science, designed for elementary students but which will still delight preschoolers, for more ideas.

Come see the summaries of these milestones at www.TheObservantMom.com where I also include sections on Surviving and Thriving where I have tools to deal with meltdowns and ideas like this one to encourage their growing brain.


Amber has an Industrial Engineering degree from Penn State and worked in software in 10 years before becoming a stay at home mom who homeschools her 3 children. She has been documenting the developmental stages that children go through. Most of all she hopes the information helps others on their parenting journey.