Discipline for Back-Talk

It can feel like a real kick to the groin when your youngster speaks to you in a nasty tone of voice. For all you've done for her, it would be nice to get some respect in return! But responding with your own rude comment (though satisfying) isn't the best strategy, no matter your youngster's age. Bite your tongue while you pinpoint what's prompting the sassiness.

Ages 3 to 6: You're witnessing the first signs of autonomy. He's figured out that he's different from you — and he's letting you know it. At this age, he doesn't know that those defiant comments aren't so nice (after all, people on TV call each other "stupid" all the time – and maybe those words have also slipped from your lips). Don't overreact, but do let him know that he's hurt your feelings. Keep cool, and then move on.

Ages 7 to 11: Now, she's talking back to test your rules and reactions. Instead of stooping to her level, model respect so she learns how to express her needs and thoughtfully negotiate for what she wants. Call her immediately on offensive behavior (e.g., "Telling me to 'shut up' in that rude manner is unacceptable"). Humor can tickle the funny bone of school-age children (e.g., "Okay, would you like to try saying that another way?"). If the insulting behavior continues, ignoring it is the surest route to ending it. She's trying to get a rise out of you. If you don't engage, she'll get bored and stop.

Ages 12 to 17: Insolence peaks at this age, and you need a thick skin to resist the temptation to fight fire with fire. That smart mouth he has is exactly that — he's more articulate and aware. And your opinions, once viewed as the absolute truth, are now highly debatable. One way to figure out who he is and what he stands for is to challenge you on just about everything. But at this age, back-talk may also be a cover-up for feelings of inadequacy, anxiety, or fear. Perhaps he flunked an algebra test, had a fight with his girlfriend, or didn't get a part in the school play. So he takes it out on you. Surrounded by critical, sarcastic schoolmates, he may simply be treating you the way his peers treat each other. Instead of dwelling on his disrespectful attitude, try something similar to the following statement: "You seem really mad lately. I'd like to find out what's bothering you and how I can help." Children this age respond to genuineness.

What if he's consistently disrespectful? Refuse to respond until he changes his attitude. Ground him or take away privileges (e.g., no cell phone, no TV, an early curfew, missing an important social event, etc.). That will tend to get his attention fairly quickly.

Discipline for Defiant Teens: Parenting Course

Discipline for Sibling Abuse

Sibling abuse is the physical, emotional or sexual abuse of one sibling by another. The physical abuse can range from more mild forms of aggression between siblings (e.g., pushing and shoving) to very violent behavior (e.g., using weapons). Often moms and dads don’t see the abuse for what it is. As a rule, parents and society expect fights and aggression among brothers and sisters. Because of this, parents often don’t see sibling abuse as a problem until serious harm occurs. Besides the direct dangers of sibling abuse, the abuse can cause all kinds of long-term problems on into adulthood.

Research shows that violence between siblings is quite common. In fact, it is probably even more common than child abuse (by parents) or spouse abuse. The most violent members of American families are the kids.  Experts estimate that three kids in 100 are dangerously violent toward a brother or sister. One study puts the number of assaults each year to kids by a sibling at about 35 per 100 children.  The same study found the rate to be similar across income levels and racial and ethnic groups. Likewise, many researchers have estimated sibling incest to be much more common than parent-child incest. It seems that when abusive acts occur between siblings, family members often don’t see it as abuse.

At times, all siblings squabble and call each other mean names, and some younger siblings may play “doctor.” But here is the difference between typical sibling behavior and abuse:  If one youngster is always the victim and the other youngster is always the aggressor, it is an abusive situation.

Some possible signs of sibling abuse are:

•    A youngster acts out abuse in play
•    A youngster acts out sexually in inappropriate ways
•    A youngster has changes in behavior, sleep patterns, eating habits, or has nightmares
•    One youngster always avoids their sibling
•    The kid’s roles are rigid (i.e., one youngster is always the aggressor, the other, the victim)
•    The roughness or violence between siblings is increasing over time

We need more research to find out exactly how and why sibling abuse happens. Experts think there are a number of possible risk factors.

The kids:
  • are exposed to violence (a) among their peers or in their neighborhoods (e.g., bullying); (b) in the media (e.g., in TV shows or video games); (c) in their family (i.e., domestic violence)
  • have access to pornography 
  • have been sexually abused or witnessed sexual abuse 
  • have inappropriate family roles (e.g., they are burdened with too much care-taking for a younger sibling)

The parents:
  • accept sibling rivalry and fights as part of family life, rather than working to minimize them
  • are in denial that there is a problem 
  • are not around much at home 
  • are not very involved in their kid's lives, or are emotionally distant 
  • do not stop kids when they are violent
  • may assume the violence was an accident (i.e., part of a two-way fight or normal horseplay) 
  • have not taught kids about sexuality and about personal safety 
  • have not taught children how to handle conflicts in a healthy way from early on 
  • increase competition among kids by comparing kids, labeling or type-casting kids, and playing favorites

How can you prevent abuse from taking place between your kids?

1.    Create a family atmosphere where everyone feels at ease talking about sexual issues and problems.

2.    Don't give your older kids too much responsibility for your younger children. Instead, use after-school care programs, rather than leaving older kids in charge of younger ones after school.

3.    Keep an eye on your children’ media choices (e.g., TV, video games, and Internet surfing), and either join in and then discuss the media messages or ban the poor choices.

4.    Know when to intervene in your children’ conflicts, to prevent an escalation to abuse.

5.    Learn to mediate conflicts.

6.    Model good conflict-solving skills for your kids.

7.    Model non-violence for your kids.

8.    Reduce the rivalries between your kids.

9.    Set aside time regularly to talk with your kids one-on-one, especially after they've been alone together.

10.    Set ground rules to prevent emotional abuse, and stick to them (e.g., make it clear you will not put up with name-calling, teasing, belittling, intimidating, provoking, etc.).

11.    Teach them to say “no” to unwanted physical contact.

12.    Teach your kids to "own" their own bodies.

When one sibling hits, bites, or physically tortures his/her sibling, the normal rivalry has become abuse. You can't let this dangerous behavior continue. Here's what to do:


1.    After a cooling off period, bring all the children involved into a family meeting.

2.    Brainstorm many possible solutions to the problem, and ways to reach the goal.

3.    Continue to watch closely your children' contacts in the future.

4.    Gather information on facts and feelings.

5.    Help the children work together to set a positive goal (e.g., they will separate themselves and take time to cool off when they start arguing).

6.    Help your children learn how to manage their anger.

7.    Make sure you don't ignore, blame, or punish the victim—while at the same time, not playing favorites.

8.    Make your expectations and the family rules very clear.

9.    State the problem as you understand it.

10.    Talk together about the list of solutions and pick the ones that are best for everyone.

11.    Whenever violence occurs between kids, separate them.

12.    Write up a contract together that states the rights and responsibilities of each youngster. Include a list of expected behavior, and consequences for breaking the code of conduct.

In the last few years, more researchers have looked at the lasting effects of early experiences with siblings. Brothers and sisters can have strong, long-lasting effects on one another's emotional development as grown-ups. 

Research indicates that the long-term effects of surviving sibling abuse can include:

•    Alcohol and drug addiction
•    Depression, anxiety, and low self-esteem
•    Eating disorders
•    Inability to trust; relationship difficulties
•    Learned helplessness

Even less extreme, sibling rivalry during childhood can create insecurity and poor self-image in adulthood. Sibling conflict does not have to be physically violent to take a long-lasting emotional toll. Emotional abuse, which includes teasing, name-calling, and isolation can also do long-term damage. The abuser is also at risk for future violent or abusive relationships (e.g., dating violence, domestic violence, etc.).


How to Discipline Bipolar Children and Teens

Discipline is difficult when a youngster has any type of mental or neurological illness. Not only do the old rules not always apply, you have to be flexible about behaviors that are due to your youngster's illness. Because bipolar disorder waxes and wanes, this is particularly hard to do if you want to maintain consistency. If your youngster is a rapid cycler, the challenge of responding properly is even bigger.

Here are some important tips for disciplining a child or teenager with bipolar:

1.    Avoid physical fights: Physical punishments (e.g., hitting, spanking, pushing, etc.) really have no place in managing the behavior of a child with bipolar, regardless of age. They simply teach that pain and force are a good way to impose your will on others, and that's not a lesson you want to teach someone who already has problems with impulsivity, limit-setting, and aggression. If you're having a hard time managing your youngster's behavior without getting physical, you're not alone. Almost every parent of a youngster with a bipolar has crossed the line sometime (and felt tempted to do so many more times). Reach out for help to increase your repertoire of techniques through consultation with a behavior expert, or with parenting training that is geared toward working with mentally ill kids. You should be able to access help through your school district, a government mental health agency, a hospital with a psychiatric care department, or private programs.

2.    Avoid power struggles: Verbal abuse is very common during depressed or manic phases, and may occur at other times as well due to the increased impulsivity and thought errors that characterize bipolar. To the best of your ability, simply end the conversation, and refuse to react to taunts and insults. Realize that these words are coming out unbidden, and that your youngster will probably be shocked at what he has said later. Don't demand an apology on the spot, as it will only escalate the situation. Wait to discuss the verbal abuse later, when your youngster is well and calm. Don't be accusatory. Simply let him know that your feelings were hurt and that you love him anyway.

3.    Be an example: Moms and dads of a bipolar youngster may occasionally find themselves about to "break" because of stress. These times of stress are prime opportunities for moms and dads to set a good example for the bipolar youngster. Hearing a parent say, "I am feeling angry and about to lose control of my thoughts and words, so I am going to go to my room and count to 10," demonstrates to the youngster that stress-relieving techniques are effective for everybody.

4.    Build a support system: Try to build a personal support system made up of friends and family members, an online or in-person support group, or even a telephone crisis line for moms and dads. It's tough to discipline any strong-willed youngster, and having someone to talk to can really help you keep up the struggle without resorting to violence. This advice goes double for single moms and dads.

5.    Choose battles wisely: The moms and dads of a bipolar youngster shouldn't completely stay away from disciplining the youngster's misbehavior, but the response to misbehavior may need to vary based on the cause. Moms and dads can become educated enough about bipolar to eventually be able to distinguish the difference between symptomatic behaviors and intentional bad behavior. Consequences for the outcome (e.g., going to "time out" for hitting) may still be the same, but moms and dads who know that their youngster's behavior is probably due to a manic episode should hold back on immediate lectures, or else the behavior may escalate instead of cease.

6.    Be prepared for change: Disciplining teens is difficult under the best of circumstances, but it's doubly so when your child has mood swings and the other behavioral challenges associated with bipolar. The techniques that worked when your son or daughter was younger may seem babyish now, and physical control is tougher when your youngster is larger and more crafty about telling lies, slipping out of the house at night, and acting independently in the world.

7.    Seek outside assistance: Don't be afraid to call in reinforcements (e.g., the parents of your youngster's friends, your neighbors, educators and other school personnel, mental health professionals, sometimes even the juvenile authorities) if your child’s behavior is bringing him into conflict with the law.

8.    Establish rules: Standard discipline methods (e.g., time outs, grounding, taking away privileges, earning privileges, spanking, etc.) often do not work with bipolar kids. Nevertheless it is important to establish rules and abide by them. As with any youngster, stability is important, but for a bipolar youngster, stability is essential. Bipolar kids thrive on routine; however, for a parent of a bipolar youngster, providing that stability requires creativity and flexibility.

9.    Protect yourself: Kids and teenagers with bipolar may themselves be physically abusive when in a depressed, manic, or mixed state, or even when a regular confrontation escalates into a tantrum or rage. Your first duty is to protect yourself and others from harm. This can mean removing the youngster to a time-out area, sending a teen to her room (and possibly locking her inside), using protective physical holds, and in some cases seeking emergency medical and/or law enforcement help.

10.    Provide written rules: Write the rules down on paper so that when rules are broken, the argument of injustice is not valid. The agreed upon rules are simply being enforced. If rules are questioned after they have been written down, set up a family time to discuss them and perhaps change them. Remind a youngster that you are the parent and you will listen to their concerns, but ultimately it is your role and job to make the final decision. Expect a bipolar youngster to occasionally throw a tantrum after hearing “no.” It is not the time to enforce discipline when a youngster is in the middle of a tantrum. During a tantrum help him/her to get out of it. Hold him, make sure he is safe, restrain him if necessary, and help him choose wise ways of displaying his anger. Once he has calmed down, explain the rules that you had established on paper and enforce them with love.

11.    Teach responsibility: Since bipolar is an illness, it causes a youngster to exhibit behaviors that are direct symptoms of that illness. Moms and dads of a bipolar youngster should take special care to separate the youngster from the disorder and its symptoms, instilling in the youngster that he isn't to blame for having those symptoms. On the other hand, moms and dads should expect that youngster to have some responsibility for the illness. Just as a diabetic youngster or asthmatic youngster would be expected to monitor behaviors and medication to some degree, a bipolar youngster should be expected to do what he can to curb his own behavior. Taking responsibility may include eating healthy foods, taking medication, and learning to recognize symptoms (e.g., rapid cycling thoughts or feelings of invincibility) before he gets out of hand and hurts himself or others

12.    Use natural and logical consequences: Make sure that consequences you apply for misbehavior, willful or otherwise, fit the description of "natural and logical consequences." Bipolar kids have a passion for fairness that often escalates into yet another battle if the punishment does not fit the crime. Parent Effectiveness Training (PET) and similar programs for helping moms and dads of nondisabled kids improve their discipline strategies won't fit your needs entirely, but they can help you learn more about identifying natural and logical consequences.

13.    Use positive reinforcement: Rather than punishing a bipolar youngster for bad behavior, focus on responding to good behavior with positive praise as well as some rewards. One example of a positive reinforcement system for moms and dads to use is a behavior chart that rewards the youngster with stickers for behaving well, with the ultimate goal of obtaining enough stickers to earn a prize such as a favorite dessert or a small desired toy.

14.    Use proactive discipline: Moms and dads of bipolar kids shouldn't wait for behaviors to erupt before trying to employ discipline methods. Instead, they should consistently use preventative techniques (e.g., writing in a behavior diary to log and anticipate mood patterns, getting the youngster medical care on a regular basis, setting up a clear daily routine, etc.) in order to reduce instances of moodiness and misbehavior.

15.    Use proper restraint procedures when needed: Knowing how to physically control your youngster safely is a must. Improper physical restraint can injure. Ineffective holds only end up causing harm to you or others in the vicinity. Surprisingly, your relative size doesn't make much difference if you know the right techniques. Call the nearest colleges and find one that offers a psychiatric nursing program. Ask them about Professional Assault Response Training (PART) or similar programs that teach psychiatric nurses how to protect themselves from violent patients. The PART program is usually a two-day course, and can teach you several physical control techniques that will be both effective and safe for your youngster or teen. You may also be able to access PART training or a similar course through your local mental health department, a hospital that has a psychiatric staff, or even a police department. Your youngster's teacher or classroom aide may also need to have this training. However, if you are using physical holds or locking your youngster in a room for protection, you do run the risk of being investigated by child protective services. In fact, some troubled young people use allegations of child abuse to get revenge on their moms and dads. Your best strategy is to be proactive. Consult with your youngster's medical team, and have them put their emergency recommendations in writing. Get training, be careful, stay calm and kind, and if you are contacted by the authorities, bring in your experts to help.

16.    Use a signal: Another preventative measure may be teaching a youngster a signal that can help parents and educators recognize when he needs to take a "self time-out" (e.g., he may be allowed to leave something on his school desk that discreetly says, "I'm going to an agreed upon safe place to take a breather for a few minutes").

17.    Use medication: Moms and dads may also decide to obtain preventative emergency tranquilizing medications from their youngster's doctor.

The methods above sound so simple – though it is anything but. The road of parenting a bipolar youngster is difficult. There is no set way that works for every youngster. It is a game of trial and error. Flexibility is essential as a bipolar youngster is an individual whose personality is constantly changing. One method may work one day – and the very next day – the same method will not.