Discipline with Love and Limits

Practical Solutions to Over 100 Common Childhood Behavior Problems


By Barbara C. Unell

By Jerry Wyckoff

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“The tools in this beloved book change everyday struggles into teachable moments.” — Wendy Webb, Mother, Grandmother, and National Trainer, Parents as Teachers

Filled with parent-tested advice for over 100 asked-for behaviors, including:

Screen Addiction – Bullying – Temper Tantrums – Won’t Listen – Whining – Not Eating – Jealousy – Biting – Lying – Talking Back – Testing Limits – Won’t Go to Bed – Clinging – Interrupting – Won’t Do Homework – Sibling Rivalry…and more!

With over 1 million copies sold, this updated and completely revised bestseller is the only pediatrician-recommended guide for what to do and what not to do in encouraging, respectful ways when responding to everyday behavior challenges of toddlers to teens. Practical solutions on each page teach empathy and inclusiveness, reduce stress and anxiety, build positive relationships, and empower children to thrive emotionally and physically.


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Dear Reader,

What if you knew of prescriptions that you could give your children that would reduce their lifetime risk of mental and physical health problems, including obesity; depression; anxiety; suicide; substance abuse; attention and impulse control; sexual, physical, and psychological abuse; heart disease; diabetes; lung cancer; and more?

And what if these prescriptions could be given hundreds of times a day and could be FREE—no pharmacy needed? And on top of everything else that is good about them, what if they could be healthy for children of all ages and for you when you use them?

Well, we wrote this book to give you these very “prescriptions”—what we call “What to Dos” and “What Not to Dos”—with evidence-based outcomes. And now they are yours!

New research indicates that building the capabilities of adult caregivers can help strengthen the environment of relationships essential to children’s lifelong learning, health, and behavior, according to the Center on the Developing Child at Harvard University. Supportive, responsive relationships with caring adults as early in life as possible can mitigate stress so it does not become toxic and lowers the lifetime risk of learning health and behavior problems.

This information is the game changer for everyone who supports parents in the most important job they will ever do—parenting. That’s why we reshaped our best-selling book, Discipline Without Shouting or Spanking, into this book, which is twice the size, with four times the number of prescriptions—“What to Dos” and “What Not to Dos.” We translated the research to help parents build supportive, responsive relationships with their children every day.

With unending gratitude to all the researchers, scientists, educators, parents, and children who taught us these lessons, we pass them along with immeasurable admiration and anticipation.

Looking forward,

Barbara and Jerry


Why Is Parenting So Stressful?

Friendly and always in motion, almost three-year-old Jack and his happy-go-lucky sister, five-year-old Ellie, loved swim lessons at their community pool until one fateful day in July. On that particular day, Jack decided that he didn’t want to get in the water. Or even near it.

Their veteran swimming teacher, Sally, coached all the kids to sit down poolside, get their goggles on, and jump in, just as she had for the past four lessons.

“No!” Jack screamed, throwing his goggles with all his strength away from him toward his mom, Sara, and Grandma Wendy, a longtime early childhood education professional, who both came to every lesson.

And then he proceeded to start crying… and crying… and crying. He broke into a major temper tantrum and ran away from the pool.

Sara and Wendy looked at each other in horror. Usually Jack thinks swimming is fun! Why is he so mad? Their hearts started pounding in their chests. They could feel a hot mixture of shock, embarrassment, worry, and panic.

Such is the crazy-making, stressful, everyday experience of parenting—a thousand times a day—feeling lost, embarrassed, and worried, and absolutely not knowing the right thing to do to get our child’s behavior back on track. Sara and Wendy faced split-second questions: What do we do now? Will the coach do something, or is it our job to run after him? And then what? Do we make him go into the pool? Go home? And what about Ellie? Just leave her here? HELP!

Just writing this story made our own heart rates go up, as we remembered these times as parents ourselves. We empathized with the stress Sara and Wendy must have felt.

Yes, it is a fact of life that young children are in the prime physical, emotional, and independence-loving years of life—curious, inventive, eager to spread their wings with every breath they take. Likewise, when children are mad, sad, or frustrated, they are obstinate, inhibited, clingy, and demanding. Children discover every day that the world is challenging, exciting, and confusing, which makes teaching them sometimes like working with fertile ground and sometimes like gardening in rock!

Our children’s chameleon-like personalities and inability to use adult logic sometimes make them tough customers for discipline. That includes setting limits and routines and teaching them to clean up their rooms, use good manners, and treat others kindly and with respect. Our children need these lessons and want them from infancy forward.

Why? Because when they learn what the rules are and how to follow routines, they feel more secure and know what to expect. That makes life more predictable and less stressful. And when children are not stressed, they are less likely to be anxious or depressed, or choose to abuse alcohol and drugs. Lower stress allows children to develop emotional strength, self-control, self-discipline, and the ability to tolerate frustration.

On the other hand, children who don’t have rules and routines, and are allowed to do whatever they want, live by impulse and are not sure what to expect in the world and how to manage themselves. They are therefore more likely to have frequent tantrums, make unreasonable demands, use poor judgment, and be fearful because they are consistently under stress. They can’t self-regulate and don’t have executive functioning skills. In short, they don’t know what to do because they have not developed the ability to do so. And when they go outside the house and into a world of rules and structure, they won’t know what to do and how to respond because they have never had to follow rules or structure. This creates an even higher level of stress for them.

That’s how meaningful these teachable moments of discipline are.

So how do we keep the stress of parenting in the “good stress” category—where it motivates us to respond in caring, supportive, and protective teaching ways to children’s misbehavior? We will show you how, in the heat of the moment, to remember that discipline means teaching a child the behavior you want her to learn, leading to self-discipline, self-reliance, self-confidence, and personal responsibility for what she says and does.

We all try other stress-relieving responses—by giving in when children nag, complain, and whine; bribing them; and shouting or spanking. (See Chapter 2.) These discipline methods may temporarily stop children’s behavior we don’t like. But they don’t work for the long haul. They don’t lower our stress, and they also can create a toxic stress response in children. In addition, they don’t teach our children life skills and how to reason, problem-solve, and cope with frustration—the ultimate goals of parenting. These ultimate goals that we have for our children are the immediate goals we have for ourselves—being emotionally strong problem-solvers who can cope when life gets messy.

Teachable Moments

In this book, you will learn how to turn tantrums into teachable moments. In fact, you’ll learn how to turn all kinds of normal but frustrating behaviors your child does every day into teachable, positive moments that guide her to becoming responsible, resilient, respectful, and resourceful. However, it is predictable, normal, and absolutely understandable that your child will sometimes feel sad, mad, or worried—and sometimes direct that anger or disappointment at you for not letting him do what he wants when he wants to. As the late Fred Rogers, of the award-winning television program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, said, “What’s mentionable is manageable.” He wanted children to know that all feelings are natural and normal, and that happy times and sad times are part of everyone’s life. So he made sure that his work on television and in other settings with children communicated that children have deep feelings that their parents need to understand and respond to. Fears, anxieties, and feelings all make a child feel vulnerable, he believed, so the most important thing is to listen.

He said, “I’m convinced that when we help our children find healthy ways of dealing with their feelings—in ways that don’t hurt them or anyone else—we’re helping to make our world a safer, better place.” We heartily agree. As Rogers did through his work with children, we embrace listening to our children and helping them learn how to calm themselves when their lives are stressful.

Children can’t pull themselves up by their “bootie straps,” says Jack Shonkoff, MD, the director of Harvard University’s Center on the Developing Child. So when we help our child learn how to soothe himself back to sleep, how to clean up his milk when he spills it, and how to problem-solve when he is bullied at school, these are all teachable moments. We love that. And we love that you are reading this book to learn how to make them positive moments for you both.

The takeaway here is this very simple fact: children will behave like children, and although that behavior is often upsetting and annoying, that’s not the challenge. The challenge lies in how to respond when they whine, talk back, climb up on furniture, won’t eat or go to sleep, and ignore us, so that our responses become teachable moments that help them learn the behavior we want, instead of those we want to stop.

So let’s review. When we deal with our child’s temper tantrums, we are at our best when we not only attempt to restore calm but also teach our child how to cope with frustration and anger in a more appropriate way. And as our children’s first teachers, we are their most important role models. We communicate our personal values every day in how we parent, particularly in how we respond to children’s normal but frustrating misbehavior.

At the heart of this book is the advice one of our friends likes to give every day, “Everyone, stay calm.” In truth, this is actually his own self-talk when he needs to calm down!

When we calm ourselves when stressed, we can think more clearly and respond to others—children and adults—with more patient self-talk, empathy, and teaching. And we can ask for help when we need advice and support, without feeling judged, embarrassed, or that we’re bad parents for not having all the answers. We all experience “on the job” learning!

So we hope you think of this book as a sort of GPS to get you where you want to go, with easy directions so you don’t get lost. You’ll learn how to become a teaching parent who can stay calm when your children seem to be anything but calm—even if you feel unsure of what to do next. As we discuss in the next chapter, by staying calm and remembering a healthy Mind S.E.T. when you are stressed, you can avoid responding using unhealthy discipline.

1 What to Do: How a Healthy Mind S.E.T.® Prevents Toxic Stress

There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.

—William Shakespeare

Let’s assume that you’ve just told your child to hurry because you’re running late to take her to school. But “hurry” is not part of her vocabulary, so she just takes her time getting shoes on, stopping to sing a song to herself, and then just staring off into space. Her usual pace.

By now you are looking at this situation as potentially catastrophic. You are probably saying to yourself, “We’ll never get there on time. Everybody there will think I’m not a good parent. My daughter is always dawdling and making us late. I can’t stand this.” So, given this self-talk, how are you feeling right now? Stressed? Anxious? Depressed? Oh, and let’s not forget angry?

Note the key words that exaggerate the situation: “never,” “everybody,” “always,” and “can’t stand this.” When we use logic, we can see that the word “never,” which means “no time in the past or future,” is not accurate. In the same way, the word “always” means for “all the past and future or forever.” That’s not true, is it? See how this kind of exaggeration works?

Let’s now change your negative self-talk words to something milder by using positive self-talk. “My daughter dawdles, but we can manage. If we’re late, so be it. It doesn’t mean that I’m a bad parent. I’m doing the best I can. And I can stand it. It doesn’t mean that I’m a bad parent. I should ask her doctor if her behavior is normal and if there’s something I can do about it.”

Now how do you feel? Maybe a little stressed, but not overwhelmed, and you are far less likely to yell, threaten, or hit your daughter out of frustration, the unhealthy discipline we discuss in Chapter 2.

In the over fifty years that we have been working with children and families and from the scientific research that has been conducted during those years on stress, it has become obvious that the mind is the key player. In the Introduction, we described why it is stressful for us to care for and nurture a young child. In this chapter, we will look at what happens when a child is consistently under harmful stress and how to prevent that stress from becoming toxic to a child.

To understand this fundamental biological process of a toxic stress response, imagine that you’ve just climbed up on a stool to get something from a top shelf and you start to lose your balance. Your brain screams, “Danger!,” and your body mobilizes to protect you from that danger. The physical changes that are associated with your brain’s response to danger are well understood. When your brain senses danger, adrenaline and cortisol, two hormones that increase alertness, flood the body. These hormones increase your heart rate, dump acid into your stomach, and constrict blood vessels, restricting blood flow to your hands and feet. These physical changes are needed to prepare your body for fighting or fleeing from the danger—in your case, falling off the stool.

If your adrenaline and cortisol levels get high enough or flood your brain and body frequently enough (you keep being exposed to danger), thinking becomes difficult. Problem-solving becomes narrowed to a very few options.

The same process happens in children’s brains. Extensive research on the biology of stress now shows that children’s healthy development can be derailed by toxic stress—excessive or prolonged activation of the stress response systems in their body and brain. Such toxic stress can have permanently damaging effects, causing a lifetime of learning, behavior, and health problems.

The part of our brain most affected by stress is the prefrontal cortex, which is the decision-making part of the brain. As a result, children who grow up in consistently adverse, stressful environments—including environments in which they are consistently spanked, threatened, or ignored—experience toxic stress. This toxic stress generally makes it harder to concentrate, sit still, rebound from disappointment, and follow directions. And above all, children who experience toxic stress find it harder to self-regulate—that is, exercise self-control. Their brain is always on high alert, not knowing if someone will be there to provide consistent, caring adult support.

Research has demonstrated that supportive, responsive relationships with caring adults to buffer a child’s stress as early in life as possible can prevent or reverse the damaging effects of toxic stress. This is one critical reason why it is so important for parents to focus on being caring, supportive, and protective, to consistently and positively teach children what they want them to learn. That way parents can prevent their children from experiencing toxic stress. (We give you the tools to do so, in real time, in Behavior Problems and Solutions, beginning here.) Parents can lay a good foundation for this approach by taking the three steps to a healthy Mind S.E.T.: Self-Talk, Empathy, and Teaching.

Self-Talk, Empathy, and Teaching: Mind S.E.T.

S Is for Self-Talk

It has long been known by cognitive behavior researchers that our words create our emotions. Therefore, to change our feelings, we must first discover the words that drive our feelings and change those words. This sounds simple enough, but it is more difficult than one would think. We lapse into habits that end up making us feel in ways we don’t like.

We can divide the words we use into two basic groups: positive self-talk or negative self-talk. Positive self-talk keeps our stress down, keeps depression away, and helps us make clear decisions. Negative self-talk, on the other hand, increases our stress and drives our anxiety and depression.

Here’s an example of how we can turn negative self-talk into positive: If our child spills his milk and our self-talk automatically goes to “This is awful! What a mess!,” we can shift to positive self-talk and say aloud, “No big deal. Let’s get the sponge and clean it up.”

Keeping our self-talk calm and constructive will provide a model to help our child avoid the bad habit of exaggerating events as awful disasters instead of treating them realistically as tolerable and fixable. It’s bad enough having to deal with problems without making them worse through self-talk that raises our stress, drives our anxiety and depression, and can lead us to make parenting decisions that are unhealthy to our child.

E Is for Empathy

Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in somebody else’s position so we can see the world as that other person sees it. Feeling what our child feels, taking on our child’s perspective, can help us understand why he is behaving as he is.

When your child hits another child, for example, first put yourself in your child’s shoes. How would you feel in your child’s position? Would you act in the same way? This is the time for some empathy, so say, “I’m sorry you chose to hit Eric. I know it’s frustrating when you want something somebody else has.” In this way, we convey understanding and sympathy for the child’s position and provide a model for him to use in the future. Then continue the lesson by focusing on the victim, asking, “How do you think Eric felt when you hit him? How would you feel if Eric hit you?” These questions can help the aggressive child understand what it must be like to be on the receiving end of an aggressive act.

Unfortunately, we can also provide a poor role model of empathy when we say such things as, “How could you do that? You know better. That was a mean thing to do.” This is not very empathetic language, and it doesn’t teach your child how to have empathy for others. By putting yourself in your child’s shoes, you can understand how he might feel if you were to respond in such nonempathetic ways.

T Is for Teaching

You want to teach a new behavior that replaces the behavior that isn’t good for your child. The teaching strategies in this book are based on applied behavior analysis, the science that is used to identify what is responsible for behavior change. The teaching steps are very simple. First, you show the behavior you want, then you show your child how to do the behavior, and finally you make doing the behavior worthwhile.

The teaching model is the opposite of the punishment model, which is the fallback position most of us think of when we want behavior to change. We have come to believe that if we punish a behavior, it will go away and never return. There are some basic fallacies in this belief. First of all, punishment is only focused on getting rid of a behavior but not on new, replacement behavior. We’ve all experienced the admonition, “Don’t do that!,” and we’ve asked the question, “If I can’t do that, what am I supposed to do?” Teaching says, “Instead of doing that, do this.”

Behavioral research in punishment has consistently demonstrated that when punishment is used, the behavior often goes underground. In other words, it doesn’t go away; it just goes out of sight. Behavior changes only to avoid the punisher seeing the behavior. The thriving business of manufacturing and selling radar detectors is testament to this fact.

Finally, punishment strategies often involve bullying methods and rely on the threat of pain to discourage the unwanted behavior. What happens, however, is an increased stress level that may become toxic to the child, as we discuss at the beginning of this chapter.

Everyone Can Use Mind S.E.T.

Here are some special questions we are often asked concerning whether Mind S.E.T® can be used by single parents, grandparents, and early childhood and preschool programs. We say yes! The more caring, supportive, protective adults, the better.


Q. What if my spouse or ex-spouse or co-parent doesn’t use teaching discipline?

Parenting a young child alone—as sole caregiver for a certain number of days a week or all the time—is a difficult job for even the most skilled parent. Not only is parenting a twenty-four-hour, seven-day-a-week job that demands attention and requires patience, but it’s also designed to be a team effort. So if parents are separated, divorced, or otherwise living apart, even for a few days at a time because of work or travel, it is best if they work together to plan strategies, share duties, and decide on rules that will let them build independent, self-sufficient, loving, empathetic children. And instead of focusing on trying to control what the other parent does or doesn’t do, each parent is best advised to use the strategies that we have outlined in this book.

Keep in mind that children are capable of understanding and following different rules in different settings because the rules are attached to the settings. It is important to note, however, that going to war with the other parent over child-rearing practices will result in the child becoming collateral damage. No one escapes war without damage, so when parents cannot agree on rules, each needs to help the child understand that house rules may be different depending on which parent’s house the child is living in at the time—and that is okay.


Q. How can grandparents use Mind S.E.T. when emotions run high between grandparents and the parents of their grandchildren?

The strength of the emotional relationships among grandparents, parents, and grandchildren can lead to conflicts around power and control over who’s in charge when it comes to making decisions about discipline and parenting.

Grandparents may think that they should be “the boss” because they were always in that role with their children. They also may believe that their adult children should follow their lead when making parenting decisions because they are “older and wiser.”

Conflicts can arise between generations over cultural changes, as well, including what constitutes “healthy eating,” for example. Parents may be tuned into the health issues associated with diet by demanding that their children eat only organic foods, non-GMO foods, local farm-raised meat and produce, or gluten-free or dairy-free foods. They may require anything from paleo to vegan diets for their children.

Conversely, grandparents may be following different nutritional guidelines (low-fat, low-sugar, and so forth). Either way, for the grandparents to meet their grandchildren’s needs without alienating the parents requires a spirit of respectful compromise, conversation, and empathy to bridge the knowledge gap and keep mealtimes from becoming meltdown time.

Jealousy and competition can also cause friction between grandparents and their adult children, as well as between sets of grandparents. Although grandparents may not even realize that they have self-centered expectations about how their adult children should treat them, many keep score regarding how much time and what kinds of presents their grandchildren give to them and to their other grandparents.

They may tell themselves things like, “My son should ask me to come over more. His wife asks her mom to babysit, but not me.” “It’s awful that my daughter never calls me anymore since she had her baby.” “Why do my son and his wife leave and expect me to babysit every time I come over to be with their kids?”

So if you are a grandparent who is upsetting yourself about your relationship with your adult children and your grandchildren, consider what this jealousy and scorekeeping are doing to your relationship with them—not to mention your own stress levels.

Ask yourself these questions:

How is this helping me?

How is this helping my children?

What is my stress level when I say these hurtful things to myself?

How is this helping my relationships with my children and grandchildren?

Is this helping me be happy or miserable?

What is the purpose of playing the “poor me” game?

Is this the path to being the best grandparent I can be?

It’s the messages that grandparents say to themselves that upset them. But when they change their self-talk to say that grandparenting and parenting adult children are not competitive games, they shift their mindset from a negative one to a positive one. They go from “I want to be the favorite!” to “I am happy that my grandchildren have lots of relationships with caring adults.”


On Sale
Jul 9, 2019
Page Count
288 pages

Barbara C. Unell

About the Author

Jerry L. Wyckoff, PhD, is a child psychologist who has helped parents and their children for more than 40 years and has co-authored five books on parenting with Barbara Unell.

Barbara C. Unell is a parent-educator and journalist who co-founded TWINS Magazine and Kansas City Parent, and has co-authored over a dozen books on parenting. She has also helped launch social-emotional development programs.

Learn more about this author

Jerry Wyckoff

About the Author

Jerry L. Wyckoff, PhD, is a child psychologist who has helped parents and their children for more than forty years and has co-authored five books on parenting with Barbara Unell.

Barbara C. Unell is a parent-educator and journalist who co-founded TWINS Magazine and Kansas City Parent, and has co-authored over a dozen books on parenting. She has also helped launch social-emotional development programs.

Learn more about this author