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Dealing with naughty kids: Love or tough love?

Updated: Jul 25, 2018

Friday, February 9, 2018


You’re sitting there, swamped with guilt because you have just screamed at your kids for fighting with each other.


Does this sound familiar? There isn’t a day that goes by where you’re not losing your temper with your children.


And there isn’t a day that goes by when you don’t go to bed wondering, “How do I handle my children when they’re naughty?”


Here, we’ll try to answer your top three questions about misbehaving children:


#1: Is your child acting out in an age-appropriate manner, or is it something more serious?


All children are naughty at one point or another. Children’s behaviours do not occur in isolation – their naughtiness has to be looked at in the context of their age, character and environment.


What does “being naughty” really mean? At the toddler and preschool age, many so-called naughty behaviours actually fall within the vast range of ‘normal’.

Toddlers between the ages of 18 months and 4 years misbehave because they have not learnt to control their impulses and emotions. They are also testing limits to see if they can get their way by whining, throwing tantrums or ignoring you.


From the age of four onwards, children can learn to make simple judgements, understand the consequences of their behaviour, and rationalise their actions.

Therefore, chances are that your child is not being unusually naughty – certainly no more so than any other child his/her age.


However, misbehaviour is considered abnormal when it happens so consistently and to such extremes that it disrupts a child’s daily functioning. This is when your child is unable to function in school, or with family and friends, and faces a lot of personal distress over his/her behaviour.


Such disruptive behaviours are classified as disorders, but they are usually diagnosed in children aged 10-14 years and not any younger.


It is tempting to self-diagnose your child’s behaviour with the help of “Dr Google”, but it can also go disastrously wrong. If you have concerns that your primary-aged child is displaying disruptive behaviour that is affecting your family life, seek professional advice from your family doctor or your child’s paediatrician.


#2: Is it ok to smack my child?


“My parents used to whack me with a rotan (cane), and I grew up just fine.”

Many people use this kind of reasoning to justify their behaviours. However, people also used to drive without seat belts and while they may have survived, it is no longer acceptable to do that.


With the benefit of research by psychologists and other experts in child behaviour, we now know that all forms of corporal punishment have long-term negative effects on a child’s mental and emotional health.

Corporal punishment can include smacking, slapping, whipping and other physical actions such as tying up the child, beating with an implement or even rubbing chilli on the mouth.


Equally, verbal punishments like screaming or using derogatory language (e.g. stupid, idiot, useless) can be just as damaging to a child’s self-esteem.

However, if you are drowning in guilt because you smacked or shouted at your child several times, stop right now. There is no perfect parent who has never lost their temper with their child – kids have a way of pushing us to our absolute limits and of bringing out the worst in us.


Photo: While it is only human to feel angry, take a deep breath and take a step back. Nobody, including children wants to be yelled at.

The Guardian’s advice columnist Mariella Frostrup has this advice to offer parents: “Imagine what it would be like if all adults went around slapping each other when confronted with defiance. It would be mayhem. It may sound a ridiculous scenario but the way we handle children shouldn’t in principle differ from how we treat adults. They are as entitled to patience, the powers of reason and convincing evidence as any other generation.”


So while rage is a perfectly human reaction when your child misbehaves, you need to also take a deep breath and a step back from the cloud of emotions. If you respond with anger, you are teaching your child that it’s ok to behave without control – which defies the purpose of the lesson you are trying to teach (ever caught yourself shouting, “Stop shouting”?)


Think about how you would want to be reprimanded if you did something wrong at work or at home. Would you want your boss or your spouse screaming and slapping you? Or would it be more effective if someone explained why your actions were wrong and what you could have done differently?


#3: Love or discipline?


It doesn’t have to be one or the other. You can instil discipline in a loving manner, and you can love without being over-indulgent or spoiling your child.


As parents, we all have Bad Days with our children. Take some time to think about how it went wrong, and use that reflection to reshape your own behaviour the next time a Bad Day happens.

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