There were jeans and inside out t-shirts scattered between legos and nerf darts. It was almost the end of the day and my son hadn’t picked up his room. I had asked earlier (probably more than once!)
As I walked through the house looking for my son I thought to myself..If he is on his tablet, I am so taking it away for a week!!! I noticed I was really tense and annoyed and took a few breaths to calm down. That’s when I spotted him on the couch with his sister giggling up a storm.
“I noticed your room isn’t ready yet. Did you have a plan for getting it done as we agreed?”
“Oh…big ooops mom. You asked me and I didn’t do it. I can do it now, like right away” said my son. “Wait, I can help you!” Said my daughter.
I couldn’t help but smile hearing my son’s honesty and my daughter’s offer to be helpful.
I was so glad I hadn’t jumped to taking away screen time. Such quick consequences really don’t make unhelpful behaviors stop.
I have learned over the years that rethinking how to approach misbehavior is important, especially if helping children learn to make better choices is your goal.
Why are punishments and consequences not helpful?
Consequences and punishments, aside from not offering an opportunity to learn, are emotionally draining and often frightening to children.
When children misbehave, they are typically missing important information, feeling disconnected from their parent, frustrated, fearful or overwhelmed. Sometimes children are simply engaged in their own world of play and discovery to follow through with what we ask.
Consequences tend to create more tears and struggles instead of inviting real cooperation. What’s more, after dealing with consequences children typically feel resentful or frightened.
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. 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 change 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 your child’s 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.
- “I’m concerned you could get hurt.”
- “Yelling inside is too loud.”
- “The book shelf is for books, it is not for climbing.”
Communicating clearly helps your child develop good decision-making skills.
2. Focus on helping instead of blaming.
You may never fully understand “why” your child has done something unhelpful. Young children often misbehave even if they “know” better too, because they are still learning, are very impulsive and emotional. Healthy, growing children also choose to experiment and push limits. Blaming your child for bad behaviors is very discouraging. Being helpful and looking for solutions means you get back to working together. This is also an opportunity to be encouraging while still setting limits.
Helping may mean coaching your child through some feelings or simply setting clear and kind limits.
3. Present an YES! alternative: What if anything could your child do differently that is helpful, wanted and acceptable in the situation that you are in?
After focusing on being helpful and encouraging as you did in step 2, try to find something your child is ready and able to do. Can your child help fix something the broke or clean up a spill? Is there a quiet and interesting game your child can play instead of running wild and screaming?
In presenting alternatives you are actively encouraging your child to rethink and change her behavior choices while highlighting her capabilities. Because you took the time to be helpful and encouraging, chances are much higher that your child will be ready and able to cooperate with you now.
These three steps are a great way to start addressing unhelpful behaviors in a positive way.
Peace & Be Well,
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