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:
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.