Without a second parent to share the burden or provide emotional backup, there may be times when you feel overwhelmed or at a loss as a parent. All children test limits—that's their job—so be prepared by coming up with some age-appropriate disciplinary measures and be ready to apply them consistently and firmly.
• Don't back down on discipline because you feel your child is already "punished" by not having another parent. Giving in to whining, whims, or tantrums does not replace an absent parent and only reinforces these negative behaviors.
• Set clear rules, enforce them consistently, and use logical consequences for breaking the rules. Handing down a punishment that isn't logically connected to a misdeed will only make your child resent you for being "mean." Decide beforehand what the consequence of a particular action or behavior will be, and be sure to follow through.
For example, the rule in your home should be that everyone wears a helmet when biking. Failure to wear a helmet may result in the loss of riding privileges for a week. (Bike helmets save lives, and the most common reason children don't wear them is because parents don't insist that they do.) Reinforce the importance of rules by following the rules yourself. In this case, that means wearing a helmet every time you get on a bicycle.
• With older children, seek their input when setting consequences for rule breaking. Your children will be more motivated to obey the rules if they helped decide on the consequences for breaking them. You might use a family meeting to decide on consequences. You could say, "You left your bicycle outside twice this week. It could get rusty or even stolen if you don't put it away at night. How shall we handle it if you leave it outside again?"
• Give choices whenever possible. Children often feel the need to have some control, especially when they have very little control in many areas of their lives. Instead of saying that she has to brush her teeth right now, give your child the choice of getting dressed for bed first or brushing her teeth first. Both work toward getting your child to bed.
• Build trust from the start. Extend boundaries gradually so that your child learns more independence. A 7-year-old may be able to walk to a neighbor's house three doors down the street without you walking him there. It also may be appropriate for a 12-year-old to walk to the next block (although not through woods or isolated areas) to visit a friend.
• Avoid threats and comparisons. Calling a child names, blaming, or comparing her with "good" friends or siblings doesn't help your child understand how she should behave; it just confirms her feelings that she's bad. Be encouraging. Instead of saying, "You are so messy! Your cousin always puts her things away," you might say, "I know you can pick up your clothes. If you need help, I'll help you." Instead of saying, "If you don't get ready for bed right now, you'll never get a bedtime story!" try, "As soon as you get your pajamas on and get your teeth brushed, we can have a bedtime story." Positive statements always work better for children.
• Use diversion rather than confrontation. If you see yourself beginning to lock horns with your young child, try breaking the cycle by suggesting alternatives—a new activity or a different toy—or by doing something silly. Cluck like a chicken. Say something outrageous. Have a code word to use when either of you feels out of control, to help divert the attention away from the conflict at hand. Pretend the dog or cat is asking your child to cooperate. Humor can be a wonderful tool for diverting a young child from a stubborn position.
• Give yourself a time-out when you need it. When you start to boil over, lock yourself in the bathroom to cool down.
• Acknowledge when you need to start a conversation over. If you find yourself getting into a heated argument, you can say, "Stop! How about we start fresh, from the beginning?"
• When your child does misbehave, be specific about the behavior you don't like. Use clear, firm words and gestures. Instead of saying, "You're so mean! Leave that cat alone!" you might say, "It hurts the cat when you pull her tail that way. Try patting her on the back gently, like this."
• Separate emotions from behavior. Let your child know it's OK to be angry or frustrated, but it's not OK to act on those feelings in hurtful, destructive ways. "It's OK to be angry with the baby for tearing your book, but it's never OK to hit him." Give your child a pillow to punch, or supply him with crayons and paper to draw a picture of how he feels. Older children may find relief in writing, shooting baskets, or hitting baseballs.
• Choose your battles. It can be very frustrating when your child says or does something you don't like or you don't approve of. But it's a normal, healthy part of growing up. When you and your child are heading for conflict, try to put things in perspective. It may help to ask yourself, "Is this really important? Will it matter a week from now?" If your 4-year-old refuses to take off her superhero T-shirt, for instance, or your teenager wants to dye her hair green, you may decide it's better to say OK and save your energy for more important battles.
• Give yourself time to cool off before talking with your child about his behavior. Your message isn't likely to get through to your child if you're yelling it. Giving yourself time to collect your thoughts and calm your emotions will allow you to construct a clear statement about the importance of following rules and cooperating. So if you start up the car and find the fuel gauge pointing to "E"—again— drive to the nearest gas station and fill up. By the time you return home from work, you should be able to have a calm, rational discussion with your teenager about the importance of filling the tank before returning the car.
• Seek help if you encounter a very difficult discipline problem. Help is available through the program that sent you this publication. Resources may also be available through your faith community or your health care provider. A qualified professional can offer advice and support if you are facing a discipline problem you can't manage alone. Children go through rebellious periods. Don't be afraid to ask for help.
• Praise your child's good behavior. Everyone learns more from being praised than from being criticized. Letting your child know when she has done something right is one of the best ways to help her understand what kind of behavior you expect. Honest, specific praise generally works best. "You must feel proud—you put your toys away all by yourself!" or "It was so nice to come home from work this evening and find the dishes done and you working on your homework."
"Many single parents say that they feel they have to be both a mother and a father to the child. This is impossible, so you may as well rule out that idea. . . . As a single parent, you cannot be both a man and a woman. Who you are is a parent."
—Lawrence Balter, Who's in Control: Dr. Balter's Guide to Discipline Without Combat
• Understand what underlies your child's behavior. Maybe your child isn't clear about your expectations. If you are frustrated with the way he cleans his room, maybe his idea of clean is different from yours. He may be satisfied to pull the covers over the bed and straighten the pillow, while you expect the room to be dusted and vacuumed, too. Sometimes children will misbehave to get back at a parent for something she did, or to get attention. If your child is consistently breaking rules, acknowledge the problem and ask yourself why it is happening.
• Don't expect perfection. Your child will make mistakes—and so will you. You will get angry sometimes and say things you wish you hadn't. Your child will forget the rules sometimes and there will be days when she tests your patience. Be forgiving. And never be too proud to apologize. The good news is that parents do get second chances. Lots of them.
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