A few years ago, my 3 year old daughter ripped her brothers’ picture. She did it on purpose and with the intent to get back at her brother.
Many parents believe that such “acting out” needs to be managed with swift discipline. A punishment like time out or some kind of consequence to teach a lesson. In the moments when I feel my buttons getting pushed, sometimes I fall into thinking about that too. I’ve seen over the years with my children and working with so many families that such measures simply don’t help children behave better. But there positive strategies that do. Instead of putting my daughter into time out, we did something else.
Control and disconnected consequences tend to make a child’s behavior worse. Because children don’t respond positively to negative experiences and rigid punishments. When children begin to feel controlled they either retreat or act out even more.
What Happens When we Choose Control over Guidance
When we respond in ways that disconnect, shame or hurt we are much more likely to see our child:
- shut down (look away, freeze)
- feel ashamed
- get angry (retaliate, hit, spit)
- startle (cry, scream)
- withdraw (avert the eyes, hide)
- become nervous (giggle, try to run away, tap fingers or bang things together)
Guidance Helps Children Thrive In A Way That Punishment Simply Can’t.
When children misbehave, what you likely wish is for them to learn how to do behave in a different or better way. The end goal isn’t just to make the misbehavior stop. It’s also to help your child learn to do better. This doing better may be a more socially acceptable behavior or a choice that is in line with your family values and boundaries.
What your child needs, no matter how she is behaving is your positive, kind and clear guidance.
Are these some of the behaviors you are expecting from your child?
- How to handle being bored without whining for attention
- How to get through a conflict without hitting or biting
- Knowing how to share and take turns without resorting to grabbing
- Managing anger and frustration without melting down
- Following simple requests such as “please get ready for bed” or “please put your toys away?”
All of these behaviors are linked to “self-regulation” which means being capable of responding appropriately to difficult situations ( a.k.a. behave “better”) make good choices and solve their own problems.
Here is a big truth about self-regulation:
Adults struggle with self-regulation quite a bit. Because it’s actually not so easy to do…especially under stress. If you have ever yelled out of frustration, slammed a door, hung up a phone in a haste or said something you later regretted you have been challenged with self-regulating. So Why do we hold our kids to such a high standard when they are so much younger and still growing?
What does and does not help children learn to Self-Regulate
Punishments and disconnected consequences simply don’t encourage self-regulation. For example, when my daughter ripped her brother’s picture I knew time out would not help anything. Sitting in the corner feeling angry and possibly ashamed was not going to make her feelings or that picture whole again. It also was not going to teach her how to manage her frustrations or how to make amends with her brother.
While positive parenting has many parenting tools that encourage cooperation and reduce conflict, the basics for helping children behave better can be summed up in these four principles:
- Provide guidance that encourages learning.
- Allow the child to be part of the solution.
- Accept all feelings and emotions as valid.
- Lead with respect and unconditional love.
If we consistently approach our children with these principles in mind, as they grow, they learn. They learn to cooperate, problem solve, accept responsibility for their feelings, emotions and decisions. The learning is a process and it’s true, it is not as quick as counting 1,2,3 or placing them in the corner, but it is a process that honors our developing child’s needs, one that models qualities we wish to see as our children grow and most of all it is a process that facilitates the development of self-regulation – a.k.a. the ability to choose to behave well.
So when that picture got ripped I sat by my children. I sat there to signal trust in their ability to work things out. And then there was this conversation between my 3 year old and soon to be six year old son:
“You ripped my picture.” my son said to his sister.
“I so angry!” my daughter said to her brother. “You bothering me at my table.” (I believe she meant his things were piled on her art table and these were in her way)
“Ok, sorry I bothered you but…but my picture?! I just made it today.” my son said.
“Wait…I know!” my daughter offered, running to our box of tape & glue. “This will fix it!”
My son smiled as my daughter took some duct tape and said “can you help me cut it, it’s sticky tape.”
“Oh, cool, the silver will look awesome. I mean, I wish you hadn’t ripped my picture, but this is cool too.” my son said.
“There…all fixed. I really sorry I did that.” my daughter said once the duct tape was firmly holding the picture back together.
Days later, my son brought another picture home and forgot it on his sister play table again. She took it off the table and handed it to him. “Here you go. I not ripped it this time even if you bothered me with it again!!!”
Of course, this learning didn’t happen from one day to the next. It’s a process of offering guidance, using tools like time in, reflective listening, validating feelings and encouraging problem solving and accepting imperfection.
Some behaviors and choices are simpler to address. Other unwanted behaviors are puzzling, difficult, even annoying. These do take more patience, practice and then more practice and more patience. But it really is worth that effort. It does take trusting and believing that your child is willing and capable of learning and growing.
Better behavior without punishment really is possible.
Peace & Be Well,
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