Taking away screen time or sitting a child alone in time out when children are behaving in a way that is unacceptable can be tempting. Such a quick consequence or punishment can really seem to make the bad behaviors stop.
The problem? These negative consequences and punishments don’t help children learn how to change their behaviors.
Rethinking how we approach misbehavior is important, especially if going beyond just stopping that behavior and helping children learn to make better choices is our goal.
Why are punishments and consequences like time-out not helpful?
Have you ever tried to put a child into time out only to have them scream, yell or run away? Time outs and punishments, aside from not offering an opportunity to learn, are emotionally draining and frightening to children. When children misbehave, they are typically one or more of the following:
- missing important information
- feeling disconnected from their parent
Because of how the child is feeling punishments or consequences tends to make things worse and not better for the child.
What does help children behave better?
Children behave well when they feel encouraged, capable and emotionally well, so whatever we choose to do to influence our child’s behavior needs to address those needs. That saying that we should love children when they seem to deserve it least is really true. Children need guidance and acceptance, especially if we want to be able to influence their behavior and shape it into a positive one.
Children don’t come pre-wired to know what is right and wrong. They do come wired with a desire to experiment and learn. So, a big part of helping children feel capable of learning and changing their behavior is to make sure we provide a safe space in which they can feel confident to take risks, make mistakes but also know that they will have a chance to try again.
Here are 3 steps you can take to help children make better decisions in the future about unacceptable behaviors:
1. Stop & Explain: Stop the behavior by approaching the child. As much as possible, avoid correcting behavior from far away. Instead, use gentle physical touch such as a hand on the shoulders and a neutral, non threatening voice.
Harsh words, isolation, yelling, physical aggression all shuts down the child’s ability to learn.
Explain your reasons for not allowing something but keep it simple and clear. This will enhance the child’s decision-making capacities in the future. “I’m concerned you could get hurt.” “Yelling inside is too loud.” “The book shelf is for books, it is not for climbing.”
2. Avoid insisting your child tell you “WHY” they did something you find unacceptable. Instead, try to understand her motivation from her point of view. For example, if a child breaks something, instead of saying “Why did you break that?” or “Why would you do such a thing?” ask instead “Can you tell me what you were trying to do?”
Young children are not typically going to explain their choices in a way we expect them to. Sometimes we will never understand “why” anyways because to us spilling glue for instances is clearly unnecessary and yet to a child it is a perfect opportunity to see what will happen, how it will spill…remember children are hard wired to experiment – this is how they learn about their world. Inquiry, experimentation, or what we typically call pushing and testing boundaries is totally normal and appropriate.
3. Present an Alternative: If we listen for the underlying motivation in step 2 and take into to consideration the child’s need to experiment and learn, we can most often find a reasonable alternative so our child will know what they can do instead. In the example above it could be offering the child some tinkering toys or building blocks as something to play and investigate.
Whatever it may be, it is presenting the alternative or inviting the child to find one themselves that will help them really learn what behaviors they CAN do instead of sitting in a corner pouting about what they did badly.
Does skipping punishment actually work?
Using steps like these and other positive parenting tools really do work to change behavior. They work because they help children learn about our expectations while still feeling capable, encouraged and accepted instead of isolated, frustrated and disconnected.
Learn more about the trouble with time outs from Todd Sarner, MA, MFT, Director of Transformative Parenting
Read about children’s behavior problems being rooted in their scientific brain from Rick Ackerly.
Peace & Be Well,
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