Discipline: Finding My Parenting Mojo

After Jack was born, I had a really difficult time breastfeeding. It was painful and I was stressed and sleep deprived for months on end, a viscous cocktail that finally lead to a bout of post-partum depression. That was a very difficult time.

When Zoe came along, things were much easier though learning how to juggle two babies virtually on my own was not something I had prepared for (I mean, how can you?). Then around her fourth month she came down with a virus that gave her a super high fever resulting in febrile seizures. That was a very difficult and scary time, too.

We moved to New York City in the fall of 2009 and Justin and I had to basically re-learn how to function with a small family, away from our relatives and everything that was familiar. That was extremely challenging, but in a different way.

The following summer, Jack developed Reactive Airway Disease (Asthma) and a severe allergy to tree nuts and pollen. It was during those times, sequestered with my little boy behind a drape in a packed, emergency room in Manhattan that I remember the fear coursing through my veins. If it doesn’t kill me, it will only make me stronger. That was my mantra during that period of time while we tried to live with these new limitations and his precarious physical condition. That was a turning point for me: It was no longer difficult, it was life altering.

My pregnancy with Beau pushed my mental envelope as well: Constant and terrible morning sickness and fatigue. Not a great combination when juggling two older children in the city, but I really did enjoy it despite. When he came along, I struggled and am still struggling to find a semblance of balance in my life with three children, this blog, and my job at RedRover. With the constant worry over finances and playing musical chairs with my husband around our schedules, life hasn’t been running exactly like a well greased machine. But it was manageable.

Manageable that is, until Kindergarten started.

The first week of Kindergarten was hard on me, but Jack sailed through it like a Professional Big Kid. I could tell that he was tired, though. This is a child that, up until the beginning of his full days at school, would still take a (mostly) regular nap. At 5 and a half, most if not all of his friends had shed the daily sleep regimen and he was beginning to show that he was ready to leave it, too. The first week was pretty eye-opening, now that BOTH kids are not napping for the entire week due to school. I was thrilled that they were actually going to bed and sleeping by 7:30PM. This is where it ended though. Jack started seriously acting out at home starting at about the second week of school: Hitting, spitting, yelling, screaming, being destructive and almost totally unmanageable. Mostly this behavior was directed at his little sister, though sometimes at Beau, and even his father. I called an appointment with his teacher, who told me what I suspected: He is a model student and popular boy in his class of 28 children. He’s one of the only ones reading, and he is often a leader.


Of course, I am thrilled that Jack is doing perfect in school and comfortable enough to act out at home when he needs a release.

This side of parenting has stripped me, raked me over the coals, completely eclipsed any other behavior difficulties we’ve encountered since becoming parents. This is just something I thought I would KNOW, and it appears as though I am not equipped with the correct parenting tools for managing him when he becomes so totally unhinged every single day and physically harming his sister. We tried everything in our arsenal: Privilege removal, time outs, alone time, incentive charts, positive reinforcement, calm reasoning (ha), threats, pleading, screaming and even a few tears on my part. It’s been utterly heartbreaking.

The one suffering the most is Jack though, so at some point during my exasperation I texted my sister and mom (both educators, both with Master Degrees in Child Development) asking for help. The weekend is no time to research therapists, but the email that I received has helped by leaps and bounds already. The key to getting children to respond: Being calm, supportive, and loving.

A little goldmine of info for any of you going through something similar-and there are more than a few of you based on the incredibly helpful twitter conversation I got into on a particularly exasperating night.

This is a list from an incredible email I received from my sister, Brianna, who is a preschool teacher and is simply amazing.

Reasons children misbehave

1. Attention– When children believe they belong only when they have your complete attention.
2. Power– When children believe they belong only when they are in control and are proving that no one can boss them around.
3. Revenge- When children believe they belong only by hurting others, since they feel hurt themselves. {This is where empathy comes in handy. Rather than resorting to negative attention/punishment, calmly give them some space in their bedroom. If you stay calm, he will eventually calm down and then you can talk with him. Calmly, in a neutral tone, ask him for suggestions of ways he could have handled the situation differently and why he behaved the way he did.}
4. Inadequacy- When children believe they belong only when they convince others not to expect anything of them since they are helpless or unable.

Discipline Techniques

• Fix-up– When they act up, expect them to fix their problem or help them fix their behavior. {At school, for example, when a child tattles on another child, I often tell them, calmly, that I cannot help them at the moment. Then, I give them suggestions of ways that they could fix the problem themselves. If that doesn’t work- for example, if they continue fighting over a toy- I will set a timer for 3-5 minutes. When the timer goes off, the other child gets the toy. Remind them every 2 minutes or so that they have so many minutes left to play with the toy.}
• Ignore– Ignore bad behavior aimed at getting your attention. Do not make eye contact. Completely ignore it.
• Be firm– Clearly and firmly state, in a kind tone, that the child do what needs to be done. Try gasping in shock (the key to to success with this tool is to use in moderation).
• Separation– When children irritate one another, hit or kick, have them rest or play apart for a time. Do not yell. Again, in a firm, yet kind, neutral tone, tell them it is not ok. Then move them to another room. Let them cool down. And talk about what has happened AFTER the child has calmed down. Talking to them while they’re in an angry state will only increase the negative behaviors. Think about it, how much do you listen when you are angry about something?
• Behavior Management– Talk with them calmly (and probably at separate times if in a sibling tussle) to learn what caused a disagreement. Then talk about ways to deal with it. The child is responsible for his/her own behavior.
• Redirection– When children get rowdy, stop them, and calmly explain why you are stopping them. Suggest another activity.
• Praise– Show more attention to positive behaviors and let children know that you appreciate good behavior.

These are simply some strategies and reminders, some will work for some children, others will not. Every child responds differently to things, but for me this was an incredibly helpful go-to list for when I’m at my wits end.


We’ve since screwed our heads back into place and implemented many of these suggestions and reminders and have seen a huge improvement. I honestly think that he may be overwhelmed with the responsibility of being a Kindergartener, but mostly he’s likely simply exhausted. I’ve been making lists so that he knows exactly what to expect out of each day, including rest time once we get home from school before we leave to get Zoe. I’m sure it doesn’t help that our walk to and from school is nearly a mile, but that’s city life and that is our life for the time being.

Jack is an amazing child. He is so smart, so kind and respectful, and very emotional. For me, learning how to communicate with him in a way that he will respond positively has been either extraordinarily simple and lovely or positively frustrating. There’s rarely a middle ground with this boy, but we’re learning and he’s learning. Of all the challenges I’ve faced as a parent, this one really seemed to affect me in a way that I didn’t expect (but really, is parenting ever predictable?! If there’s one thing I’ve learned…).

It’s all a part growing up. And he is doing that far, far too quickly.


Join the Conversation


  • I am going through the EXACT same thing with my five and a half year old. Finn is the most cerebral, well balanced kid ever and then kindergarten happened and I swear he lost his damn mind. His teacher says he’s great at school, but it’s craziness at home. My husband and I were just talking about this with other parents and it is so much more common than we had thought. Not that it makes you feel any better to know that you’re not the only one tearing your hair out.

  • I need this soooo bad! We are sort of all of sudden having issues with molly. the last couple of weeks have been awful– I am going to try all of these!! xo

  • I am going through the same thing with my “middle” child. I don’t know if it’s the new baby, school or what. Instead of taking it out on his siblings he shuts down and either goes to his room on his own or just sits there with a pouty face and stares (or with his eyes closed). He has developed this ability to completely shut down when he either doesn’t get his way, is told NO or after repeat attempts to ask him to do something.
    After talking to his teacher he too is a model student in his class and has zero disciplinary issues (go figure) but at home is another story. I do one on one time, praise, we have the chart…etc. but still… nada. I can totally relate.

  • Wow, reading this really helped me. We have been going through something similar with our almost 2 year-old. She quickly went into a tailspin of bad behavior and lots of hitting and it was really too much for me. She has always been so sweet and laid back, but she was desperate to really get back on schedule. I think not knowing what was going to happen next (while on vacation, etc.) was really making her angry.
    It was particularly hard on me because I’m pregnant with our second girl due in January and my energy level seems to be nonexistent. Sounds like you and your hubby are on the right track and doing a great job with all three!

  • Discipline is such a challenging thing to figure out from child to child. What works for one child might not work for the next. I’m in the process of finding my mojo in this area with Moo. She’s almost 4 and I can see signs of her starting to head down a stubborn streak coming on.

    I’m working really hard to iron that fire out now before it gets out of control when she starts school next year. So far a little time out or no tv followed by a conversation of what she did wrong and what she needs to do in the future seem to be helping. Keeping my fingers crossed that this will continue to to be the case as we progress.

    Glad to hear though that Jack is doing better. Exhaustion and kids do not mix. So him having that time to nap or relax is really good.

  • Jessica I loved this post so much. I think it is one of your best- open, from the heart, intelligent, impassioned and clear. I think Jack is lucky to have you as a mother.

    I’ve got four kids, oldest being 18 and youngest being not quite 2, and I know that there are phases that I feel like the shit, and phases where I feel like shit. Sometimes you are at a loss- but you did what you do when you love, you keep looking for a solution. You keep seeing the best in your child even if no one else can.

    I wanted to say that when my older son went through a very fit prone stage, and was hitting me as a little boy, the things that worked wonders were a half hour a day of ‘floor time’ where it was simply me and him playing, whatever he wanted to play. It was a time he was in control, where I was totally focused on him. I let other things slide, the house was messier, or emails went unanswered, etc., and it was a really great tool as well as just being awesome to spend time with him like that.

    I also found that nutritional regulation was really important for him. I made sure he wasn’t eating too much white anything, no food dyes, lots of whole foods and protien veggie based diet, along with fish oil capsules every day, which have shown to have amazing benefits for IQ as well as emotional development for children.

  • Love this post…discipline is so different for each child responds to it uniquely. I am finding the empathy for their actual feelings at the time works well. Dr. Harvey Karp’s tantrum management “Fast Food Response” in the “Happiest Toddler on the Block” really helped us.
    I also find…”Regarding Baby” by Janet Lansbury helpful as well she uses Magda Gerber theories.
    Just some thoughts on working with children on behavior issues.

  • Great tips! Hang in there girl…it gets better (I’ve been told). xoxo

  • I’ve been having a tough go lately with my four and a half year old. Little D is amazing… smart, kind, funny, and SO SO loving and caring. But, oh… when he’s bad… he doesn’t listen… he snaps… he screams… he swears… I have NO IDEA how to handle this… NO IDEA.

  • I’m so happy you wrote this.

    We went through this with Lucy & Edie. We found that after school Lucy needed to unwind, relax, veg, watch TV with a sippy cup full of milk, just be, and do nothing. She had been good all day and would just spin out after school. She needed time – not playdates, or the park, or trips to the store, or an after school activity. She needed to simply recuperate from the day. When we gave her that time, she could recover and join the family in a saner way.

    With Edie it was about food. She was hungry at the end of the day, and her blood sugar dropped. She could barely hold it together, after being good all day. Now, I bring a meal to pick-up. Literally a meal – chicken, sushi, milk, edemame, whatever she wants. Once she eats, she’s fine.

    The great thing is that whatever the trigger is, by the time they get to be six, they can tell you what they need. We just have to listen.

    Thanks for sharing this. It’s important we all know we’re not alone. You are a good mom.

    xo Kim

  • thank you for this post! I have twin (almost) 4year olds and I am constantly strugling with discipline. I come from a strong home of Irish yellers and I want to stop this but I find myself yelling constantly and I hate it.
    I’m printing out you sisters suggestions and posting on my fridge for a reminder. I will definitely be posting about this.
    Thanks and you are doing a great job!

  • I experienced the same kind of personality change in my four-year-old son after I gave birth to his sister then went back to work following maternity leave. I was not only at my wit’s end, I was mourning the loss of my son. I read all kinds of websites and checked out books from the library on different discipline styles. Everything ended up feeling like coercive power plays masking behavior that was screaming “I NEED SOMETHING FROM YOU”.

    The one piece of advice that stood out more than any other: play one-on-one with your child on their level (as in get on the floor) for an hour every day. Follow their lead and set a timer to keep yourself honest.

    I’ve only made it to one hour once, but a daily 15-30 minute block of playtime has literally brought my son back to me. It sounds melodramatic, but the difference has been huge. Before, the discipline strategies I was using involved me moving farther away from my confused son, putting distance between us (ignoring, time outs, lectures) after the damage was already done. The simple act of playing and laughing together immediately brings us back together as a team unit. I am more attuned to him and he is naturally softer and wants to make me happy, so on the rare occasion I do lecture or have him go to his room to calm down, a power play doesn’t result and things no longer escalate.

    *sigh* It’s a scary place to be, realizing you don’t know what you’re doing, after all. I hope your son and you continue to grow closer and happier.

  • THANK YOU! My first child – also a sweet, very sensitive, emotional little boy (peanut and tree nut allergic with environmental allergies), has also started Kindergarten this year, and is a MESS when he gets home each day. I feel like you were describing him with your very honest post. He too should still be napping, and does still on the weekends – so his exhaustion, and being so good all day at school, leaves nothing in the way of patience when he gets home. He spirals out of control over the simplest things and throws screaming fits like a 2 year old. I have a 3 year old little girl who does get in harms way when he can’t control his temper, and he will hit or kick her at times out of frustration. I thank you so much for letting me know I am not the only one at a loss at what to do, and your sister’s suggestions are so very helpful! This post could not have come at a better time! I will share this with my husband as well. I follow you on twitter too, and have been a “lurker” thus far, but I want you to know how much I appreciate your blog! Good luck with your little buddy. 🙂

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