How to Teach Children to Manage Their Own Behavior

February 4, 2013 at 7:22 am (Positive Discipline)

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As with any “big picture concept” in parenting, the follow-up question is always how? I love this idea, but how does it work? I agree with this, but how am I supposed to put it into practice? I’m on board with this philosophy; can you give some examples of how it works? Last week, I wrote about the concept of teaching kids to manage their own behavior, rather than trying to manage it ourselves. Nice idea, right? Lofty aspirations. But how?

How do you work through a situation in which a child needs to behave in a way that is teaching them to manage their own behavior rather than a parent’s attempt to manage the child’s behavior in the moment? Try these steps for turning punitive moments into teachable ones:

1. Connection
Always touch base on your relationship. Establish with a child the sense of, “I care about you and I’m here to help.”  The reason a child will follow a parent’s direction is because they feel connected. So start there. Start by reminding your child that you’re on the same side and you care about helping her. It could be with an embrace, a gentle touch, eye contact, or maybe even a positive time out (aka “time in”). Connecting is about regrouping and reminding yourselves that the most important thing is your relationship with each other.

2. Thoughts
Find out what’s going through his mind. What led to the behavior you’re seeing? Walk a child through the thought process behind his actions, tyring to ellicit the story, the facts, the order of events. This helps him find a starting point for being able to process the feelings and actions that follow. Remain neutral and try some questions to draw out the thoughts that are foremost on his mind. What’s going on? What’s going through your mind? What just happened? What are you thinking about right now? Help him by recapping along with him. When a child tells you, “I don’t want to go to bed!” you can help by rephrasing, “You’d rather stay down here and keep playing.” Listen only with the intent to understand.

3. Feelings
Once you’ve established what happened or what the child is thinking, move on to feelings. It’s tempting to skip this step–it is often easy for us to jump to conclusions or offer rational solutions–but it is important in helping a child learn self control. Help your child understand that there are feelings behind her actions. This is easier to do after you’ve already talked about what happened. Explore more deeply by asking, How was that for you? How did you feel? What do you feel now? You probably felt ___. What is your body telling you? This doesn’t have to be in depth. One or two feelings is all you need to articulate. “You’re very angry to have to stop what you’re doing.”

4. Solutions
Now comes the part where you problem solve. You’ve established a connection, you’ve listened to the story, and you’ve acknowledged and validated the child’s feelings. Essentially, you’ve communicated I understand, and I accept. Finding a solution may mean asking the child her thoughts on fixing a mistake, or maybe offering her some choices about what to do next. Sometimes the best solution is to decide what you will do (non-punitively, of course) and follow through. I will start driving when you are in your seat with your seat belt buckled…I will put my laundry away and meet you in the living room for a game after you put your laundry away…

If this sounds like a lot of steps to do every time your child has a conflict, it isn’t. With practice, this process becomes second nature, and may take only a minute or two. The best part is, by going through these steps, you’re helping your child’s brain form new connections–the connections he’ll need later in life for managing his own emotions and behavior.

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Examples help, so I’ll share a few. Here was my response to when my son did not want to get ready for bed:

Me: OK, it’s time to go upstairs and get ready for bed.
JJ: No! You can’t make me!
Me: [Walk over and put my arms around him] (connection) You had a very fun evening playing our game, didn’t you? (thoughts) It’s hard to stop, and you probably wish you could play all night! I loved it, too. (feelings) Next, I’m looking forward to our snuggle and reading together in your bed. I’ll meet you up there. (solutions)

A brief connection and acknowledgement of his thoughts and feelings, and he was much more willing to work with me on the bedtime issue. Here’s another example on leaving the park:

Parent: Time to go home!
Child: Aw I don’t want to!
Parent: [pulling child in for a hug] It looks like you’re having a great time here. I see you’ve made some new friends. (connection)
Child: Yeah! I just wanna stay!
Parent: The kids seem so friendly and I bet you could stay and play with them all day if we had the time. What’s your favorite thing you played today?
Child: We all were putting sticks on the bottom of the slide and  taking turns sliding through them. (thoughts)
Parent: That sounds so fun! It’s hard to stop and go home after that. Are you mad about it?
Child: Yes, and sad. I don’t want to go. (feelings)
Parent: I understand. And we’re still going to head home soon…would you like to play one more game with your friends or have me push you on the swing for 5 more minutes?
Child: Play one more game with my friends. (solutions)
Parent: OK, I’ll pack up the car and come get you in 5 minutes.

And one more on hitting:

Parent: I won’t let you hit your brother! He is hurt, and you seem very upset, too; what’s going on?
Child: [tears] Well he knocked over my stuff!
Parent: [moves to a quiet spot and sits on the floor with child] So you were building something? (connection)
Child: Yes and he just comes over and wrecks it! And he was smiling!!
Parent: You were working hard. Your little brother doesn’t understand what you’re doing and thinks it’s a fun game to knock things down. Now you have to do it all again. (thoughts)
Child: Yes! It’s not fair! [crying]
Parent: This is really hard for you–to play with a toddler around. You feel very frustrated that he doesn’t play like you.
Child: Yes! I hate it! (feelings)
Parent: It’s OK to be angry. That’s very normal.
Parent: [sits with child for a while while he calms down] I wonder what we can do about this?
Child: Tell him to leave me alone.
Parent: That’s one idea. What if he just can’t make his body do that yet?
Child: I could play in the living rom and he could not be allowed in.
Parent: That’s another idea. Maybe an enclosed area for your building space?
Child: OK. Let’s do that. (solutions)
Parent: Your feelings were hurt when your brother destroyed your project. And he was hurt when you hit him. Right now he needs help feeling better. Let’s find out if he is doing OK. And what else can you do to help him feel better?
Child: He can have these toys while I play over there.

Taking time for connection, thoughts, feelings, and solutions–even later, after an incident has occurred–helps a child. They are small steps to take towards a long-term goal of helping a child learn to understand his feelings and solve problems. Lots of these small moments added up over the course of childhood have a tremendous impact on a child’s brain development and thought processing. Instead of imposing consequences, if we substitute this kind of empathetic connection and problem solving, in the long run, children will learn how to process their own thoughts, feelings and decisions without help.

18 Comments

  1. darcycoates@facebook.com said,

    Question with the last scenario: if the little brother was uncontrollable crying too (from being hit) who do you connect with 1st? I’m parenting alone most of the time.

    • Kelly said,

      I would touch base with the hurt child first…briefly, to make sure there is no immediate wounds to be tended to. But realize that both children are hurt in different ways and tend to the other hurt child (hurt feelings) more deeply as soon as I could.

  2. Desiree said,

    I have a child, whom is 5 that all of the above scenarios would and do totally work. But my younger son who is 4…no chance. Ok the bedtime one works…but the leaving the playground…no chance. He would pull a 2 year olds tantrum and not even stop to hear a word from my mouth :P

  3. contactflora said,

    This is a great post, and great examples. I will definitely share it with parents. Thanks!-Parent Coach, FLORA (sustainable parenting)

  4. Melissa Guth said,

    I have a 5 year old step son with ADHD and Oppositional Defiant Disorder who lives with his dad and me full time and visits his mom on the weekends. Communicating and connecting with him is more difficult because of these disorders and the fact that his mom won’t let us properly medicate him. Any tips for helping him own his behavior when he has a difficult time slowing down enough to process what’s going on and what we are trying to teach him?

    • Michael said,

      A five year olds brain is still evolving, getting a diagnosis of ADHD with ODD seems extreme upon initial read. Did he have a full blood panel and nutrition screen done, if so and his chem levels are truly out of whack – then I have seen nature therapy and behavioral therapy really benefit kids who have ADHD and ODD. The familial system and being away from his bio mother are huge stressors as well, good luck to you and the entire family!

  5. beth trapani said,

    Love the philosophy but most of the time my 4 year old is far too upset to have any kind of discussion or answer me at all. And after he has calmed down he doesn’t want to talk about it and gets upset if I try to… help!

    • Kelly said,

      It sounds like he needs plenty of time to calm down, which is very normal. You can still touch base on his feelings later, and keep the conversations as brief as possible. “You were really sad this morning. It was a hard time wasn’t it?” Sometimes the follow-up can be more effective in bit and pieces throughout the day, evening, dinner time, bedtime…Just try to touch base when you can!

  6. Michelle Hay said,

    My 5 year old is difficult to connect with when he is struggling with his emotions….he pulls away and says I’m not listening/I don’t want to talk to you…..etc. He doesn’t like anyone in his space until he is ready. He usually comes to me after a while, so I have accepted thats the way he is and I respect his need for space. Am I doing the right thing here?

    • Kelly said,

      It sounds like you are very respectful of his needs! The “order of events” is less important than the communication you have when he is ready for it and the connection it fosters. :)

      • beth trapani said,

        Thanks very much!

  7. Ryan W. Gates said,

    Love the approach and I think variations of it absolutely work! We had issues with our 2-year-old hitting and implemented a process like this and it has worked wonders. He was getting frustrated around transitioning. I know a couple of people have said maybe it wouldn’t work for some scenarios with their kids but like anything with children establishing a ritual takes time but has rewards. If your kid rebels against this process and still throws temper tantrums…keep trying and eventually they will get it that this is how you are going to interact with them. Well said – great post.

    • Kelly said,

      Thank you, Ryan…I appreciate you sharing your example!

  8. rashmi said,

    My child cries for every matter eating food, going off to bed and so on n on…..she lost the whole interest in studies also that is not paying attention and forgetting things taught in school please suggest me …..

    • Kelly said,

      Rashmi, I think I would need to know a bit more about your situation to answer your question effectively. For instance, how old is your daughter? WHat are the circumstances surrounding the incidents in which she cries? She might need more opportunity for autonomy and choice in her life…being able to give her input about decisions that affect her usually have an impact on her willingness to carry them out. Are there ways you could brainstorm together and problem solve with her on finding solutions to these problems? Remember that behavior is really just the tip of the iceberg, and we need to get below the surface to find the bulk of the problem.

  9. Janene Sutton said,

    I really like the process you have described. Any further ideas to help my darling introvert express her feelings – she can’t put into words what she is feeling and will pull away when ever we try to discuss things with her. We try expressing the feelings by putting it into words like you describe, but there are times we don’t know what is bothering her and we know she is upset but she finds it so difficult to get it out!!

    • Kelly said,

      You can help her find the words by providing some for her…When you’re ready to touch base with her about something, instead of asking questions about how she feels (because you’re right, it’s hard for kids to find the words! And it can also feel like an interrogation), offer up some of your ideas. “You know, it seems like you are really frustrated/ angry/ sad (etc) about something.” This give her an opportunity to correct you. Even just a ‘uh-huh,’ or a ‘no, not really,’ may help you both find some direction. She has the opportunity to elaborate and say, “No, I’m just…” Even if she doesn’t elaborate, you can aim for connecting with her by sitting close with her, putting your arms around her, giving a foot rub, or talking about other things about your day. When she feels comfortable, she might open up a bit more.

      The other thing is, introverts can take a LONG time to process what they’re feeling, as that is the nature of an introvert. She just might not be done processing her thoughts herself, much less ready to verbalize them with anyone else. The key is to give her some time, provide a supportive environment through your relationship, and follow her lead on communicating.

      You may also be interested in this post on understanding introverted kids:
      http://parentingfromscratch.wordpress.com/2012/07/12/things-to-know-about-introverted-children/

  10. Jane said,

    I would really love to hear further examples on the bed routine if your child had continued to refuse. Sometimes even trying to entice my 4-year-old with something positive to look forward to (such as a book) doesn’t get him to budge an inch and a battle ensues that usually results in things being taken away (like toys) rather than working through a solution together.

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