How I Helped My Son Understand His Misbehavior Without Relying on Punishments

How I Helped My Son Understand His Misbehavior Without Relying on Punishments

When my son was four,  I took him on a day trip to sled and play in the snow.  It was a beautiful cold yet sunny day.  Up on a mountain,  with the alps in the background we climbed up and sled down a hill some 25 times in a row. When I was a feeling cold and tired, I let my son know I would be sitting down for a break.

Within seconds I felt a sharp,  freezing blow to my face. My eye hurt terribly. There was a strange mixture of cold and burning pain going on and I was totally dazed.

As I processed what had happened,  I came to understand that my son had thrown a chunk of snow covered ice right into my face.

Except he had no idea it was a chunk of ice.  

He had made a mistake.

He had no idea it would hurt me.

He just wanted the fun to continue.

But this wasn’t fun anymore. At all.  I was doubled down in pain.

While I was hurt, my little four year old was scared. 

I learned a lot from that painful moment that has helped me be a better, calmer mother over the years:

  • Children make mistakes.  
  • Children misbehave.
  • Misbehavior isn’t always what is seems.
  • Parents and children have disagreements and disconnect. 

How we choose to address the disconnection, misbehavior and mistakes makes a big difference.  When misbehavior shows up we can help the child feel capable of doing better. And this means the child can change their behavior for the better. Because children are very willing to learn when they feel safe and loved.

Helping Children Learn from Mistakes

What I learned that day, once the pain had subsided, is that my child needed me to help him understand his mistake.  He needed me to forgive him, to love him and to help him get back to feeling safe and secure. 

“That was ice. The ice feels harsh and cold on my skin. It actually burns. It hurt me a lot. I bet my painful yelp scared you too.”  

We hugged for a long time and we both cried. 

Eventually I said something about what had happend…”If you don’t like it when I say we need to stop playing, I want you to tell me, not throw something at me. Do you understand?”  I added. “Yes, mom, I do.”  Came a reply. “I wanted to play, not hurt you.”

 And so we were both ready to play again.  “Hey, do you see how heavy the ice is? Snow feels light and fluffy, it’s easier to throw. Want to try again?” we continued. Me offering some guidance, my son willing to listen and trusting me. 

That was it. No time out, no consequences, no punishments.  

My son did not need me to make him feel bad, just because he had mistakenly made me feel pain. He needed to know I have faith in his ability to do better, to learn, to make amends. He needed to know that the right thing to do about making mistakes is to apologize wholeheartedly. He needed to understand what he could have done differently. 

That night, before falling asleep, my son reached up and kissed my cheek, exactly on the red spot the ice had burned. “I am sorry I hurt you with the ice mamma.” he said. “I am sorry I scared you when I yelled.” I said back.

Is It Really Misbehavior or Just Mistakes and Unmet Needs? 

We will all have moments when we will receive messages from our children in a totally different way than they mean it. They will throw what seems like ice our way even if they intend to throw snow.  And if we can make the choice to see our child’s mistakes as opportunities to offer guidance we can help them grow well.  This positive road isn’t always clear or easy but it does make a world of difference to your bond with your child.  It often helps me to remember that misbehavior isn’t always what it seems. 

 

“Children don’t misbehave, they simply behave to get their needs met.” – Dr. Thomas Gordon

 

Even now, many years later, when my son and I aren’t seeing eye-to-eye I might ask myself, is he looking for ways to connect with me but totally missing the mark?  Do we need to pause and reconnect? What kind of guidance is missing here?  Is pain or fear clouding my judgement or thoughts?

The amazing thing about this approach to misbehavior is that it works in the toddler years and now it’s working in our pre-teen adventures…At age ten, my son knows that sometimes we need to pause and start over.

“This feels like an ice ball situation” I said to my son recently sensing a potential power struggle in the making…

He was trying to argue his way into something with less than nice words…“I think we need to find a better way to talk about this” I continued. “Oh, mom, Ok. I don’t think you are understanding me. Wait, I will try again.” My son answered.  Then he took a deep breath and we smiled at each other. Because of that pause (and about six years of practice, imperfect moments and willingness to reconnect) we were able to continue our argument in a respectful and helpful way. “I’m worried.  That is how I feel right now, worried…” he went on trusting me with his needs and feelings. And we worked things out. 

helping child change misbehavior without punishment

The Power of Choosing Guidance Instead of Punishment

This process of offering guidance, listening for needs and trusting that children are capable of learning is what is at the core of parenting with respect, love and kindness. Positive Parenting is not at all about getting children to behave perfectly all the time. It’s about seeing mistakes (ours and theirs) as part of the journey.  Guidance and trust replaces punishment and consequences, and as a result children want to do better, because they believe, rightfully so, that they can.

There is no doubt that as your child grows, they will make choices that turn out to be mistakes.  Misbehavior in childhood is guaranteed to happen.  Being willing to accept, validate, listen and offer guidance instead of punishment is sure to make a positive difference in their life. 

Peace & Be Well,

Ariadne


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Ariadne is a happy and busy mama to three children. She practices peaceful, playful, responsive parenting and is passionate about all things parenting and chocolate. Ariadne has a B.S. in Communication, is a certified Positive Discipline Parenting Educator, and has completed several graduate courses in child development, psychology and family counseling. She lives on top of a beautiful mountain with her family, one cuddly dog and "bluey" the fish.

23 Responses to How I Helped My Son Understand His Misbehavior Without Relying on Punishments

  1. I agree with this and have read many articles with the same sentiment. I just find it hard to look at this bigger picture from their point of view when I’m so frustrated or in this case, falling over in pain.

  2. I agree with this and have read many articles with the same sentiment. I just find it hard to look at this bigger picture from their point of view when I’m so frustrated or in this case, falling over in pain. Any thoughts on this, counting 10 I don’t think would suffice.

    • Hi Shan,
      Thank you for sharing your experience. I hear you, it’s not always easy to pause, especially through pain to make a choice that will be helpful. In one of my workshops I work with parents on understanding their anger triggers (sensations in their body, thoughts that lead to yelling etc…) and I find that the more you can understand that thread, where the anger begins and how it unravels, the more likely you are to be able to keep yourself calm, even in the face of pain, anger or discomfort. Hopefully there are very few incidents where pain is involved so I would focus on how to answer to your own frustrations and have a plan of action that you practice and then put into place when you need it. For children we call it a calm down plan, but I find that parents benefit from them very much too!!

    • Hi Shan,
      Thank you for sharing your experience. I hear you, it’s not always easy to pause, especially through pain to make a choice that will be helpful. In one of my workshops I work with parents on understanding their anger triggers (sensations in their body, thoughts that lead to yelling etc…) and I find that the more you can understand that thread, where the anger begins and how it unravels, the more likely you are to be able to keep yourself calm, even in the face of pain, anger or discomfort. Hopefully there are very few incidents where pain is involved so I would focus on how to answer to your own frustrations and have a plan of action that you practice and then put into place when you need it. For children we call it a calm down plan, but I find that parents benefit from them very much too simply because you can focus on that plan instead of allowing the frustrations to take over.

  3. Exactly what I needed to hear now. My always well behaved 5 yr old had difficult period and I know she had hard time dealing with me not being able to meet her needs same way I used to. Now we start with the 1 yr old and he is much more challenging than she ever was.

  4. […] “How I Helped My Son Understand His Misbehavior Without Relying on Punishments” by Ariadne Brill on  Positive Parenting Connection. I love this article. The author shows how a parent can make connection instead of distance when a child exhibits “problem behavior”. Rather than punishing her child, she uses his mistake as an opportunity to teach empathy. The main takeaway: How we choose to address disconnection, misbehavior and mistakes makes a big difference. […]

  5. Thank you so much for sharing these graceful examples. I really appreciate hearing about how parents are living positive parenting as it helps me grow in it also. Lots of love to you and your family.

  6. So true, our children don’t need to feel pain and separation to know that they did something wrong. I am slowly coming around to these moments of not automatically resorting to punishment. It is so woven into my fabric and I have been working to undo all of that and build it back up with these philosophies that encourage connection. Great story.

    • Tara,
      I hear you so much when you say “woven into my fabric.” I had to do so much work on that. At times I am still working on it!! On really, really challenging days I have an underlying, little tiny voice that says “punish/ consequences / don’t let them get away with that…” and then I pull on with all my strength into new, more helpful beliefs “have faith in your child’s abilities” “help them feel better” “work towards solutions” “pause!!!!” The best part is that I never regret doing that extra step of pausing, being mindful and choosing connection. Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts.

  7. I really appreciate this story and sentiment. I have a little boy who is an absolute fighter and it seems that no matter what approach I take in a positive light, it is just met with a fight- i.e. In your example I would say how much he hurt me and he would respond with “ha, ha”. No matter if I respond negatively or positively, it is all met its a fight and eventually we are so far down a line that the initial indiscretion is forgotten. It is extremely difficult to keep a level head especially bc I have a husband who has to travel for months at a time so I am exhausted. My child pushes everything to the absolute max and I know in long run it will get him far in life but right now it feels very difficult.

  8. What happens when the misbehavior is done with intent to cause pain, emotional or physical (from a 5 year old)? Especially to a younger sibling (twins, 2.5 years old). I understand it probably boils down to an attention thing. I’ll read the disciple toddler years too…

    Chris

    • Hi Chris,

      Your instinct is probably spot on, in that your five year old is learning to manage his feelings and behaviors in relation to sharing attention and resources with the twins. I’m willing to guess there is quite the positive attention when you are out and about (maybe many people say things like “oh! twins!!”) and even if not, the 2.5 age range is still full of first moments and we sometimes forget that at age 5 our children are still actually quite little too! How quickly we may expect so much more from a 5 year old than from a 2.5 year old because they are very capable – but still emotionally very immature and in need of reassurance and guidance. I would encourage you to see those moments of misbehavior as a request for help and a time to set a clear and kind limit “I will not allow you to hurt your sister (use their name if possible). Can I help you with something?” You can also introduce a calming kit (http://www.positiveparentingconnection.net/encouraging-better-behavior-by-creating-a-calming-kit-for-kids/) or a calm down corner – the child would go there by choice or with you to process. I know this is sometimes tricky with 3 kids! Most of all, approach the misbehavior with the intent to keep everyone safe and get back to feeling well and try to leave any anger or frustration out of the equation. Your five year old needs someone to confidently and calmly help them find a BETTER way of behaving. does that help you?

      • I would say your son received lots of great natural consequences from the “ice ball” moment: that what he does matters, that when he hurts someone he loves he hurts too, that people should apologize for hurting others (physically or emotionally) and that they deserve forgiveness for mistakes–all good things. What he didn’t get was punished, but punishment wasn’t necessary. Beautiful article.

  9. I would say your son received lots of great natural consequences from the “ice ball” moment: that what he does matters, that when he hurts someone he loves he hurts too, that people should apologize for hurting others (physically or emotionally) and that they deserve forgiveness for mistakes–all good things. What he didn’t get was punished, but punishment wasn’t necessary. Beautiful article.

  10. I have a 6.5 yr old granddaughter who is constantly having “accidents” She knows its wrong and has been to the dr. to rule out any physical problem. I never had this type of problem when my children were growing up so I’m really at my wits end as to how to help we have tried reminding her every 5 min to try and go and yet 2 min later she’ll be wet or worse tried using the good role model for her younger sister and everything but nothing is working. She’ll say “I know” and still go in her pants any suggestions

    • Hello Clara,

      This can be a delicate issue for a child and for the caregiver because frustration and a sense of defeat can lead to a lot of power struggles. This is usually the kind of situation that I prefer to trouble shoot in person so as to understand the full picture…that being said a few things I can suggest are to work towards eliminating the fact that this has become a control and power struggle, that means that you would explain to the child where the bathroom is and ask her to use it when she feels ready, and let her know there are clean clothes in the bathroom for her to change out of and where to put the soiled clothing. This is explained with kindness and respect so that all involved are treated with dignity. If an accident happens, the child is simply reminded of the arrangement and asked to change herself. The idea is that it becomes a non issue and something that doesn-t get fussed over, instead the child is given trust and responsibility for her elimination and cleaning needs. It-s important that the child has mastered getting dressed and clean on her own, which at age 6.5 should be no problems in terms of expected developmental milestones. If the child needs help, she is given the help without any reprimands for the accident. You may want to calmly explain to the child that she needs to eliminate in the bathroom and ask if she has questions. Has she been asked if she knows what it feels like to need to eliminate? Additionally, it may be helpful to talk to a pediatric urologist or a pediatrician to rule out physiological issues such as constipation that may be interfering in the child-s ability to feel when she needs to go. Punishments in such cases are more likely to delay independence and only create more apprehension in young children. I hope that is helpful to you.

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