How do I discipline a child who is dealing with developmental delays?

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Answered by: Eleanor, An Expert in the Coping With Special Needs Category
The key to parenting a child who is dealing with developmental delays is to tap in to how much of an understanding of the world that child has. For example, a child who has no sense of danger may need to be taught the dangers of running out in to a road, or of strangers, in a way that engages them safely and appropriately. This may mean developing disciplinary measures which are non-verbal, or are appropriate for children much younger than the child who is being disciplined.

Rituals, routine and habit are all very important in achieving this; ensuring your child always holds your hand before crossing the street, for example, will help them learn not to run out in front of traffic even when there are no cars about. Disciplining a child dealing with developmental delays should use the same approach. A child who has not yet learned language skills cannot be reasoned with and instructed not to empty out the toy box at bedtime, or eat their dinner without throwing it on the floor, without some creativity.

One approach is to give them physical cues that their behavior is unacceptable: try tapping the back of their hand with two fingers when they have behaved inappropriately. If they continue to make the same poor decisions, tap their hand again. It is important that you not slap or hit the child hard enough to hurt them; this will only upset and confuse them, and is likely to affect your relationship with them more than it will dissuade them not to behave in the same way again. After a period of time, where a parent or caregiver is consistently tapping the back of the end every time a child misbehaves, eventually that child will come to associate the tap as a punishment. No language is needed, although if the child is developed enough to understand and respond to tone of voice or facial expressions, saying "No" and giving them a stern look at their eye level can play an effective supporting role.

It is important that all parents and caregivers of the child are consistent with this form of discipline, and use it whenever possible so that the child understands the meaning and intention behind the hand tap as quickly as possible. Other useful devices when dealing with developmental delays are to physically remove the child from the area where they are misbehaving; breaking the pattern before it begins; to distract the child with another, more suitable activity; or to use time-outs if their level of understanding permits it.

It is extremely challenging to parent a child dealing with developmental delays, and discipline is often an area of confusion. The best approach is to get to know what works and what doesn't, and to stay consistent. Evaluate your disciplinary measures periodically, too; if your child goes through a growth spurt developmentally, what worked in the past may not work anymore. You know your child best, so experiment with different techniques and find one that is most suitable.

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