Getting small kids to behave can be a delicate science for parents. Some worry about being too harsh; others are left exasperated by children who seem out of control. Many try to avoid yelling or spanking, and even time-outs are seen as too strict in some parenting circles.
But parents shouldn't be afraid to punish: techniques like timeouts can be effective if done correctly, researchers at the American Psychological Association's annual convention in Toronto said on Thursday.
Parents should pick and choose the right discipline, rather than avoiding any consequences at all or acting too firmly, noted Robert Larzelere, a professor of human development and family science at Oklahoma State University.
"What parents need to do depends upon the kind of non-compliance that the child is showing," Larzelere told TODAY Parents. "All other parenting theories come across as one-size fits all."
His study looked at the most effective way to deal with misbehaving toddlers. Based on detailed interviews with 102 mothers, Larzelere divided the kids into two categories, depending on their behavior, and found each type responded best to a specific approach.
These are toddlers who whine or try to negotiate with you when you ask them to do something they'd rather not do. But they're not very aggressive or disruptive.
Best way to immediately improve behavior: Offer compromises. If a child acts out because there is a conflict over toys, for example, a parent might say 'You play with this toy and let your sister play with that toy," Larzelere explained. Or if the child is upset about ending their play time, you might say, "Yes, you can wait for five minutes before it's time for bed."
Reasoning was the next most effective response.
Best response for long-term behavior improvement: Keep offering compromises. Parents who came up with alternatives whenever possible for easy-to-manage toddlers saw improvements in their behavior months down the road.
Least effective response: Punishment or threats of it. "For (these kids), you do not want to use warnings and time outs. They don't need it," Larzelere said.
These toddlers are much more aggressive: They may act defiantly, ignore you or hit a sibling. "If a parent says one thing, like 'Time for bed,' they not only say no, they run in the other direction or they have a temper tantrum," Larzelere said.
Best way to immediately improve behavior: Offer compromises. Just like their more behaved counterparts, these kids also responded quickest to this tactic, the study found. But reasoning was the least effective approach for a quick fix.
Best response for long-term behavior improvement: Frequent reasoning and occasional punishment or threats of it. The consequences can include a timeout or taking away a privilege, but it's important parents don't overuse punishment, Larzelere said. For best results, use it one-sixth of the time or less, according to the study.
Least effective response: Offering compromises too often. These kids behaved worse over the next months if parents regularly used this approach.
When kids need to be punished, timeouts can be helpful if used consistently and properly, said Ennio Cipani, an education professor at National University in California, at the conference.
Don't just make an impromptu decision to discipline your kids this way. For best effect, make sure they know exactly which bad behaviors will put them in timeout ahead of time and always follow through, he said.
And one more tip: It may be helpful to give a child a second chance to obey you by warning them first, said Mark Roberts, a psychology professor at Idaho State University, at the meeting. Over time, your instructions and warnings will become more effective, he noted.