“My kids are driving me crazy,” a young mother with toddlers said to me. “My discipline methods don’t seem to work. My children are so strong-willed. I am frustrated. They are frustrated. Some days I don’t even like my children!”

These are honest emotions from a very normal mother. We’ve all felt this way at many different points, particularly in the toddler years. Having raised five strong-willed toddlers to adulthood myself, and now watching them raise their kids, I’ve learned a few things I hope might encourage you.

1.  Husbands and wives need to agree on a discipline philosophy, otherwise you will confuse the child and the child will learn (especially later) how to play one parent against the other.

2.  Discipline must be immediate (particularly with the young), needs to hurt (it has to hurt or it doesn’t mean anything), and should be over quickly (give your child a hug after the punishment is finished and tell the child you love him or her).

3.  It must be consistent. This can be the hardest, but the deeper lesson you are communicating to your child is that you are reliable. He can count on you. You mean what you say. This gives him security. He has to know you are in control and not him.

4.  Don’t over negotiate with small kids. Clearly explain actions and consequences. Then follow through. Do not threaten or say the same thing over and over. They don’t need clarification; they need action, otherwise they are manipulating you: “I can get out of this; she won’t really punish me.” Translated: “I am the boss, not my parent.” This breeds insecurity in children.

5.  Use the word “obey.” It will help your child to know you mean it. You can say, “If you do not obey now, I will have to discipline you.” And then if she doesn’t do what you are asking, follow through immediately with punishment. Remember, your child is learning that you are reliable. With small children, you can try diversion to avoid conflict as much as possible, but there comes a time when diversion will not work and the child has to obey immediately just because you say so. (There is no time for diversion when your child heads toward the street. She needs to have learned to obey you immediately so that when you say “stop,” she stops.)

6. Determine specific consequences for disobedience. Explain the plan to the child as best you can. Follow through. Any time you institute a new plan, expect it to take at least three times of enforcement before your child will believe what you say and realize that you will follow through with punishment. Make sure all caregivers are on the same page with the plan.

7. Take action when your child misbehaves in public. Kids are smart. They learn they can get away with bad behavior in public, at the grocery store, etc. If they disobey, immediately go some place and discipline them in private. The principle you are teaching is “right behavior is the same no matter where I am or who I am with.”

8. Distinguish between whines and intentional disobedience. Whereas disobedience requires immediate consequences, whining kids are usually exhausted and need to go to their room to play quietly. Usually they fall asleep or just need some solitude. It’s not punishment; it’s alone time. As moms, we’d love to be sent to our rooms!

9. Keep in mind the goal of discipline. We want to teach our kids to obey us—their earthly parents whose voices they hear say, “I love you,” and whose arms they feel hug them. Teach them to obey because as they grow up, they’ll be weaned from us, their earthly parents who they can hear and feel, and they’ll need to obey a heavenly Father whose voice they might not audibly hear and whose arms they will feel mainly through the body of Christ. But remember that this Father loves them even more than we do. How can we expect them to want to obey Him if they have not been taught to obey us?

10. Keep a long-range perspective. We expect our kids to “get it” after a few days, weeks, or months, but sometimes it takes years. Yes, years. That’s why training is exhausting! But it is also why God gives us more time. Remember that you are building for the future, and God is patient.

Feelings of failure and frustration are normal. No mom feels like she’s got the discipline thing down pat. As soon as she does, a child will throw a kink into her plans.

Copyright © 2011 by Susan Alexander Yates. All rights reserved. Used with permission.