By Kelly Wallace
Editor’s note: Kelly Wallace is CNN’s digital correspondent and editor-at-large covering family, career and life. She is a mom of two. Read her other columns and follow her reports at CNN Parents and on Twitter.
(CNN) — The father of the 9-year-old who infamously sneaked onto a flight from Minneapolis to Las Vegas last month broke down in tears during a press conference, distressed over his child’s behavior problems and his own efforts to correct them.
That frustrated dad’s tears drew national attention to a serious issue: overwhelmed parents at a loss over how to discipline their children who repeatedly act out.
“I’m a parent, I’m not perfect,” said the father, who wore a hooded sweatshirt and a ball cap to shield his identity.
Sometime before his son’s airline escapade, the father said, the boy had stolen a delivery van and was brought home by a police officer. The father asked the officer to come into his house to watch him discipline his son.
“I said, ‘Please, sir, can you go up with me and watch me whip his butt?'” the father told reporters. “The officer said, ‘If I see you hit your son, we’re going to have to lock you up.'”
“What can I do?” the visibly shaken father asked. “If I whip my son, I get locked up. If I let him keep doing what he is doing, I get into trouble. Someone please, please help me.”
In interviews with psychologists and social workers who work with parents and children on many issues including discipline, two things became clear: This dad is certainly not alone in feeling at a loss about what to do, and he has many more options at his disposal than he might realize.
Kids behaving badly need a “good talking to”
“A lot of times, parents … go straight to the grounding or they go straight to the spanking and they bypass the most important step, which is communication, for God’s sake,” said Carl Pickhardt, a psychologist in Austin, Texas, and author of 15 parenting books, including “Surviving Your Child’s Adolescence.”
“You’ve got to sit down and you’ve got to have a good talking to with this kid to help, in this case, help them hear about why (sneaking on a plane) wasn’t safe, why it was against the law and how other people were harmed, and then you take a look at the consequences.”
Devra Renner, a clinical social worker for a large school district in Northern Virginia, said that even if a kid has done something outrageous like the 18-year-old who flipped off a judge or the 7-year-old who went on a joy ride, parents should wait for a “cooling off period” if no one’s safety is at risk before talking with their kids about the bad behavior.
It could be waiting five minutes or five hours, depending on the circumstance, and if “emotions are running high,” said Renner, co-author of the book “Mommy Guilt: Learn to Worry Less, Focus on What Matters Most and Raise Happier Kids.”
“Try not to be in the power struggle moment, because I’ve always said there’s no rationalizing with screaming heads,” said the mother of two.
We tell our kids “Don’t do this” or “Don’t do that” after they’ve done something wrong, said Renner. “But ‘don’t’ doesn’t tell them where to go. It doesn’t move you forward. It tells you stop. So tell them what you want them to do.”
Communicate the consequences of their bad behavior, psychologists say.
“The best consequence is not deprivation, it’s reparation,” said Pickhardt, who writes a weekly column for “Psychology Today.” “As a function of what you did that you should not do, you are going to have to do some things around the place to work this off.”
For example, if an adolescent steals money from a younger sibling, the reparation could be doing extra housekeeping or yard work for the next couple of Saturday mornings, said Pickhardt.
“While they’re working it off, they’re thinking about why they’re working it off,” he said.
Pickhardt, whose other books include “The Everything Parent’s Guide to Positive Discipline,” also believes in having the child who behaved badly make amends. In the case of the adolescent who stole money from a sibling, that might mean listening to how hurt the sibling was, paying back what was stolen and spending quality time with the sibling to make up for the damage that has been done to the relationship.
Psychologist: “Out of control is not a problem, that’s a reality”
Like the father of the stowaway, so many parents whose kids continue to misbehave in big ways feel out of control.
“Out of control is not a problem, that’s a reality,” said Pickhardt. “What adolescence does is it disillusions parents,” he added. Parents think they have control over their child and then realize they do not. But they do have control over their own conduct, he said.
Renner says sometimes overwhelmed parents add to their burdens with an exhaustive search for the right answer to deal with their child’s behavior problems.
“One of the things we tend to do is we either hop on the Internet and research everything we can, or we ask 5 million people what we should do, and it becomes paralysis by analysis,” she said. “Then we become inundated and we don’t know where to turn. I tell parents try one thing and be consistent with it. Be calm with it. Be caring with it.”
To spank or not to spank?
If a parent’s first course of action to deal with their child’s behavior is not working, they should try something else, but probably not spanking, according to psychologists who say it hasn’t been shown to be good for kids.
A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics found that 5-year-olds who were spanked went on to have greater behavior problems in elementary school than kids who did not get spanked.
Despite the reporting over the years that spanking is for naught, many parents still seem to do it. More than half of the mothers questioned in the Pediatrics study reported spanking their kids at age 3 and at age 5.
“Spanking teaches hitting, it’s that simple,” said Pickhardt. “So that if you don’t get your way and you’re bigger than me, you can hit me to get your way. That’s the lesson of spanking.”
“I’m not going to demonize any parent who utilizes spanking,” said Renner. “Do I feel that that’s the most effective way? No, I don’t. … I think there are other tools that we can use.”
When to bring in experts
Sometimes correcting a child’s behavior takes outside intervention, but how do you know when to ask for help?
First, if a child is a danger to himself or herself, or to others, a parent must seek help immediately, said Renner.
If there is no immediate danger or threat, another way of determining whether it’s time to seek outside support is by looking at how much of your day-to-day life is being affected by what’s happening with your child, she added.
“Are you having to leave work early? Go in late? Is your child missing school? … If your child has had discipline referrals, grades are tanking or his/her friends are no longer coming over, those are all signs that your child’s world is changing,” said Renner. “Big changes in their world can indicate a need for an objective third party.”
Pickhardt’s advice for parents is to get counseling when “significant caring or communication or cooperation or compliance with their adolescent has been lost, and there is a need to get everyone better connected and the relationship back on track.”
Disciplining the bully
In light of the recent arrest of a 12-year-old and a 14-year-old in the Florida cyberbullying case of a young girl who jumped to her death, I asked both Pickhardt and Renner how a parent should discipline a child who is found to be bullying other kids.
“If you can get the victim to be willing to do it, have the bully get with the bullied kid and have the bully … listen to what it was like to be on the receiving end of treatment,” said Pickhardt. “See if there is some kind of amends that the bully can make to alter that relationship.”
Renner says parents should hold kids accountable, so if they are caught using the computer or the phone for bullying behavior, she says, parents should “cut them off.”
Modeling appropriate behavior is also key, she said. “We keep saying we’ve got to teach kids … but we also have to be aware as grown-ups that kids are watching us all the time.” (The mother of the 14-year-old arrested in the cyberbullying case was arrested on charges in a separate case after a video surfaced allegedly showing the mom punching two boys with her fist.)
The goal for a parent of a child who bullies or acts out in any major way — such as sneaking onto a plane, trashing a person’s home or disrespecting a judge — is understanding what motivated the behavior in the first place.
“I don’t think we need to concentrate on punishing a child for bullying. We have to figure out why that behavior is going on,” said Renner. “Are they communicating they don’t have a voice? Are they communicating they want to be popular? Are they communicating they feel powerless or overwhelmed, or are they just picking on somebody because they can?”
“They’re trying to tell you something,” she said.
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