Disciplining a Six-Year-Old

My six-year-old son has been giving me problems when my husband and I ask him to do (or not do) something. He has begun talking back and is being disrespectful. We don't let him get away with it, but we are out of options for discipline because nothing we do is working. I have used time-outs, I've taken away the TV or video games, [we've restricted] friends from coming over ... I do not want to "over punish," but I am at a loss as to what else we can do. Any suggestions?

--A Parent Soup member

Robert Schwebel

Clinical psychologist Robert Schwebel, PhD, has been in private practice for almost 30 years, counseling children, couples and... Read more

Many six year olds are still struggling with issues of control. They find it hard to accept that they cannot do whatever they want to do, whenever they want to do it. But this is an important lesson we must teach them.

I think it is very important that parents not take this resistance to authority personally. It is not a matter of disrespect. It is simply children who have not yet learned to follow rules testing out different ways to be powerful.

Ironically, when parents take it personally and get all upset about the "disrespect," the children get something they like -- a sense of power. They have been able to control the feelings of their parents.

We don't want to give children that type of power. We want to give them real power when appropriate -- to make age-appropriate choices. At the same time, we want to deprive them of this type of emotional control. To do this, it's important to respond to our children's resistance in very calm, yet powerful, ways.

I recommend that parent de-focus on the disrespect. The important thing is to gain compliance. We should pick and choose our rules and then be firm about them. If children disobey us, we do not enter into long debates. We either swiftly impose a time-out (without showing great emotion, and without giving a lot of attention to the negative behavior), or we impose a consequence (if you do not get ready for bed on time, we won't have time to read a story; if you don't do your homework, you won't be able to watch television because work comes first).

In general we should try hard to encourage positive behavior in children and to reinforce it strongly. We should tell them what to do right more than we tell them what they are doing wrong. We need to "catch" our children behaving well and give them attention at these times.

Too often, parents get angry at their angry children and it is a vicious circle of resentment. It is better to be strong, firm, gentle, and strong. Parents have considerable power and can use it without getting all emotional and resorting to excessive anger.

Finally, and very important: be patient. Spirited children do not quickly learn this important life lesson about following rules and abiding by limits. You should expect slow but steady progress. If you try to rush it, you'll only get more resistance.

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