Improving Parent’s Behavior

Parenting advice is usually focused on what parents can do to improve or moderate their children’s behavior.  But sometimes it is the parent who needs to change.  You might need to learn how to stay calm in difficult situations, or create better habits about spending quality time with your child.  This can be a painful process, to evaluate your parenting and realize there are some places you are lacking.  It takes insight to see the areas for improvement, and humility to admit that you need to work on something.  But once you are able to focus on these areas and make changes, you will be happier as a parent and a person.  If anger is controlling your responses to your children, you can find more peace when you learn to control that anger.  If you’re being reactive as a parent and blowing things out of proportion, you probably regret it later and resolve to do better.

If you have seen a need for change and are ready to work on some aspect of your parenting, I want to applaud your efforts.  It takes maturity and strength to improve yourself.

Parenting is overwhelming – for everyone! So if you’re ready to make some changes, start small.  Realize that changing thoughts, feelings and responses takes time.  Go easy on yourself as you make progress.  Here is my formula for how to change.   It sounds easy and straight-forward as I type it, but we all know it is not.  You will have to repeat this process over and over to see progress.

First, assess what needs to be changed.  Just like when you are writing those New Year’s resolutions, try to be specific and reasonable. There may be many areas you want to work on, but just start with one.  Even a goal such as “I’ve got to be more patient” is too broad and overwhelming.  Focus in on one time frame, for example, “I want to be more patient at bedtime.”

Next, figure out the better way.  What will the new and improved behavior look like and sound like?  Make a list of specific ways you are going to respond or specific things you are going to do to improve.  Write notes to yourself and place them in the bathroom, kitchen, anywhere you will see them often.  Continuing with the ‘patient at bedtime’ example, try to identify what moments or interactions cause your frustration and what your usual response is.  If you know those moments are coming, you can make a plan for how to respond more positively.

Finally, implement the better way.  Each time that situation comes up, try to remember what you practiced and planned.  Over time these purposeful, proactive responses will become your normal, replacing the negative automatic reactions that come so quickly in the heat of the moment.

Sometimes the change you need to make has to do with your own issues.  Here are a few emotional issues that get in the way of effective parenting.

Your parents. Most people respond to their children in the same way their parents did. You may have never thought about it before, but it’s a good idea to reflect on this.  Ask yourself if you’re doing the same things your parents did, and if that is how you want to parent or not.  This is part of intentional parenting, instead of doing whatever comes naturally.  Your answer may be that yes, you want to be like your parents and follow their example.  On the other hand, you may realize there are some things they did that you want to do differently.

The first step is to identify exactly what habits and family patterns work for you and your family and those that don’t.  It can be hard to do something different from your parents because they might be hurt that you chose a different path, or be disapproving of your choices.  It’s also hard to do something different because your automatic habits will be to follow their example.  Sometimes these reactions are so ingrained we don’t realize what we’re doing or it seems impossible to change.  But following the formula above is a good place to start.

You must also be aware of the risk of overreacting.  If you didn’t like something your parents did, like forbidding sleep overs, you might do the extreme opposite without really thinking it through.  You might be very lax in your rules about sleep overs and not realize the possible detriments to your children.  Allowing sleep overs or not is not the point, of course.  The point is you should make purposeful decisions based on you and your spouse’s examination of your feelings and the information about the situation. If parenting differently than your parents did is one of your emotional “issues,” than work through that and be aware of its effect on you.

Your pride.  I wrote about this in the Parenting without Irritation post. In a situation where you feel watched, where people might be observing (and maybe even judging) how your children look and act, you can’t help but feel a little more anxious, a little more easily annoyed.  And this feeling affects your parenting – you are short with your children, less patient and more on edge.  The “observers” might be your parents or in-laws, co-workers or friends.  Special occasions or places with certain expectations of behavior can be potential traps for pride flare-ups.  This is a natural reaction.  If you realize it and even anticipate it, you can modulate your own feelings and be ready for the situation.

You might do a little self talk, like this, “I know you want the kids to look and act their best today, and you will feel like people are watching what they do, but they are just kids and won’t be perfect.  I can talk to them beforehand and explain my expectations of them, but if and when they misbehave I can still be patient and calm, and speak kindly to them as I try to get them to obey.  Most people there have kids and know what they are like, and most people won’t be paying as much attention as I imagine that they are. My overreaction is worse/more embarrassing than their misbehavior.”

If you find that your pride is creeping up regularly, take a look at it and see what you can do to keep it in check.

Your marriage. I think we are all aware that the quality of your marriage can greatly affect your children. The most obvious way this affects your parenting is if you and your spouse are not on the same page regarding parenting principles. When spouses have differing parenting styles it can be confusing for children, and they sometimes play off of each parent to get what they want.   You might have to put extra effort into communicating about how to raise your children and find a way to compromise and work together.  There are many arbitrary decisions and rules in parenting, and therefore many areas of compromise that won’t have lasting effects on the children.  There are some important basic principles, though, that you will hopefully agree on.

Even if you and your spouse agree on parenting principles, if there are other trouble spots in the marriage it can affect your children.  It takes emotional energy to deal with marital difficulties, and that takes away from the emotional energy you have available for your children.  If this is a problem for you, do whatever you can to address those issues and strengthen your marriage.  Talk to your spouse, read a marriage-improvement book, or get counseling together.  Any effort you put into your marriage will directly benefit your children and make you a better parent.

Your self-image. In your child’s world, the boundary between self and parent is very blurred, maybe even nonexistent. Children see themselves as one with you.  Separating from you is part of the growing up process.  Therefore everything you say about yourself, you might as well be saying about them.  Hopefully you already have a positive self-image, but if not you should try to find out why and work on it.  Even if you don’t say negative comments out loud, your child can pick up on subtle cues exposing your dislike of yourself (and he internalizes them to dislike of himself).

But one thing you can absolutely control (though it may be difficult) is those comments – what you say out loud about yourself.  You should never put yourself down in front of your children.  In fact, do the opposite.  Make a point of saying comments like, “I’m having a good hair day today!”  or “Wow!  I made a really good dinner tonight.”  It feels silly at first, but you’ll get used to it.  And it is as beneficial to your child as giving him or her a compliment.  Don’t you want your child to feel and say those same things about herself?  Then you must model it.

When you get home from work say, “I really helped someone at work today; let me tell you about it . . .” Another example: “I’ve always thought I have a really nice smile.”  It sounds crazy because who would really say that out loud?  But again, it’s powerful modeling.  Keep these comments coming, both about superficial things (looks, hair, clothes) and deeper things like solving difficult problems or working on relationships.  Give your children an insight into your (positive) world.

This goes for eating issues, also.  Daughters especially pick up on their mother’s eating habits and body issues.  I try not to ever mention I’m on a diet or talk in depth about the calories or fat grams of any food. Don’t demonize food or fat; just have a neutral attitude toward all food.   I try to have the attitude of ‘I eat in moderation and I enjoy whatever food I’m eating.’  This may not be what is really going on inside, but having this attitude for your children’s sake can change your internal dialogue permanently and give you healthier self-talk.  It will be better for your own health and self-image to speak positively about your body and not negatively.  Making a point to say positive things in front of your children will force you to focus on the positive!

All these difficulties and issues are a part of everyone’s life; no one is immune.  But we need to be aware of how they are affecting our parenting.  Once the effects are identified we can be proactive, making choices that are purposeful and best for our families.

Improving Children’s Behavior

When you hear parenting advice that says, “When a child has such-and-such problem, here’s what you should do”, it implies that the problem will go away.  It sounds as if now you have the answer; all you have to do it follow that advice, and your problems will be solved.  Most parenting books or blogs don’t emphasize the slow nature of changing behavior.  It takes a long time to change!  When is the last time you accomplished your New Year’s resolutions in the first month?  More likely you are working on the same resolutions year after year!  When you try to do the right things as a parent and don’t see rapid improvement, don’t lose heart.  Have confidence in what you are doing and remember, it takes time for children to change and improve their behavior.

Think of your efforts as an investment in good behavior in the future.   And remember that as the child gets older, his behavior will naturally improve.  While you are waiting for that time, be kind; be patient with him.  Look at behavior in large, overall sweeps; don’t inspect each behavior or each day with a microscope.  Don’t get too bent out of shape about infrequent misbehaviors, or too worried about how to handle or fix one specific situation.  You won’t know exactly what to do in every situation, and that’s ok.

Raising children is like painting a landscape of a wheat field.  The individually painted stalks of wheat can be compared to interactions with a child or days spent parenting.  They don’t look like much on their own.  Even a few of them together look scraggly and small.  It takes many, many stalks of wheat to make a beautiful painting.  If a few of the stalks don’t turn out great, that’s all right.  The overall look of the painting is what matters.  It can take a long time to feel like your child’s behavior is improving, to see that big picture, but all your efforts count and help in the overall product.

Remember that a child’s behavior is molded more by positive reinforcement (noticing the good) than by negative reinforcement (reprimanding, punishments).  If there is a specific behavior you want to change in your child, sit down and write out the problem behavior and its opposite.  Then focus on complimenting the opposite! Reinforce the behavior you want.  Another strategy is to make a list of anticipated problems (things you know go wrong daily or often) and write your proactive responses to them.  Then practice them! These and other principles outlined in this blog will help guide you in your parenting.  Your child’s behavior will eventually improve, and you will have a positive relationship with him all along the way.

Parenting without Irritation

The more I learn about effective parenting (from observation and from study), the more I realize parenting without irritation is a key principle.  I used to joke with my husband that this would be the title of my parenting book, were I to write one.  As I have watched other moms that I admire, and as I’ve “experimented” with my own children, I’ve found that the most successful parents are the ones who enforce the rules, but don’t get irritated by the misbehavior. Let’s be honest, a lot of children’s behavior IS irritating.  They whine and cry and say the same things over and over and want to do things on their own and tell you that other kids have it better.  The list is endless!  But you’re not going to be an effective parent if you are consistently irritated.  So, take a deep breath and pretend you aren’t irritated.  Learn to tune out the annoying stuff and focus on the cute and good stuff. It’s really a tricky thing, though because you can disengage and not care what they are doing and not “toe the line” or enforce your rules – then you are not irritated, but you’re also not parenting effectively.  So the trick is to monitor and correct their behavior WITHOUT becoming irritated!  You say what needs to be said, “You may not drink fruit punch over the carpet,” “You need to finish your chores before playing with friends,” etc., without going on and on. Here are some tips for staying patient and not getting irritated.  See also Practice Patience.

How to Avoid Becoming Irritated

1. Ignore inconsequential behavior. The majority of annoying behavior is not really “misbehavior”.  It may not be your favorite behavior, but it’s not worth it to draw attention to it (and possibly reinforce it in the process).  Let these behaviors serve as a reminder to give Positive Reinforcement.  A classic example is nose picking.  No parent wants to view this, but many have found that asking them to stop doesn’t work, or sometimes makes it worse.  The best thing to do is say nothing when he is doing it; then find a time when he is not doing it and say, “Thanks for not picking your nose while we talked!  Mommy likes that.”  This may sound a little ridiculous, but do this a few times, without sarcasm and without making a big deal of it, and you will see the behavior change. On the other hand, if you’re asking him to stop all the time you’re not only drawing his attention to it, but yours, and then you feel irritated because “he picks his nose all day long!”  Tune out the unimportant but annoying behaviors and choose to focus instead on the things the child does right.

2.Understand the child’s developmental level and have appropriate expectations. This is one of many places where my favorite phrase needs to be repeated over and over, “That’s just how kids are.”  Kids take a long time to get ready for bed; they have to try to do things themselves; they have to see things or know the answer; they aren’t very patient; they hit others easily and often; they can’t stop talking.  These are normal behaviors for kids, but yes, they can be irritating.  But knowing that these behaviors are part of their developmental process can help.  You have to take the bad with the good, and just get over it.  Certain things are too much to ask of children.  Be familiar with what to expect at each age and what they are capable of. If you’re feeling frustrated repeatedly with a child over a task such as not cleaning up or not eating by himself or not dressing herself, you are probably expecting too much! She may not be ready for that task, and you have to take your expectations down a notch, which can be frustrating, I know.  You really think the child should be able to do this task, and you want to hold on to that and make her do it, but the end result is you’re getting frustrated over and over.  So it’s better to tell yourself, “That’s just how kids are,” “It’s too much to expect.”  And let it go. Sometimes the child will have performed that task last week, but that still doesn’t mean that he can necessarily do it this week.  Children’s progression is not linear; it’s not a straight line up the graph, getting better and better each day at responsibilities.  It’s an up and down line, which is so maddening to adults!  They will be doing something for a while (making their bed, playing on their own, sharing their toys, etc.) and a few weeks or months later they’ve gone back to the old, less desirable behavior.    You always have to remember that what a child can do one day or month he can’t necessarily do the next, and don’t be irritated by this fact!  If he is progressing or focusing more on large motor skills (climbing, riding a bike) then his attention skills may suffer during that time, or vice versa.  This is not a conscious choice for the child, it just happens.  Lots of progress in speech can accompany a slide in a child’s ability to unload the dishwasher without a fuss.

3. Set up the environment for success. This has a lot to do with having appropriate expectations of your child, but takes it one step further  – reminding you to arrange your home and your day so he can be successful.  Look at the situation you are repeatedly angry about and see what you can do to fix it.  Maybe you are not allowing enough time for the child to get ready for bed or ready to leave the house.  Maybe you need to spend more time and attention with him to help him through that process.  Maybe you’re expecting him to not get into things that are at his level, your make-up or cereal boxes, for instance.  You might need to rearrange the environment so he can make good choices.  Maybe you’re expecting him to get along with his brother for long stretches of time.  You have to remember there’s only so long that will last. Be proactive – not reactive! Think about situations ahead of time and how you are going to handle them.  If you’re going on a long car ride or an extra long church meeting, think through what you can do or bring to help the child get through it with good behavior.  What often happens is the parent hasn’t thought through the situation, and the child starts to misbehave, and then gets in trouble or frustrates the parent.  It’s on us as parents to be prepared for what the situation will entail. A quote from The Power of Positive Parenting:

When we see frequent inappropriate behavior, we should ask, “What are the consequences that are shaping and maintaining that behavior? What must we do to arrange the environment so that the behaviors that are in the children’s best interest are properly taught and reinforced?”

4, Reframe the behavior. If you try to understand the motivation behind an annoying behavior it can become easier to take.  A child who swears is trying out those words to see how it feels to say them (not that this behavior should be ignored, just dealt with in a teaching manner rather than a punishing manner).  The child who insists on putting on his own shoes is trying to be independent (and we all want independent children eventually!).  You can also reframe to “Looks like I haven’t taught him the correct behavior yet.”  Then you’re not annoyed by the misbehavior but reminded to teach him the right way to act.  A stubborn child who must get her own way is going to be a very successful adult (studies have shown!).   Looking at the situation in a different, more positive light can help reduce the irritation.

In between writing and publishing this post I was able to apply this principle.  I’d purchased an online winter driver course for my almost-16-year-old daughter and wanted her to watch it.  She had expressed interest in it before I bought it, and it would expire in two weeks, but now she was being negative about it and putting it off.  I was getting irritated and starting to nag, when I realized that she’s nervous about driving in the winter, and that anxiety was behind the dawdling behavior.  Realizing this didn’t change the fact that she needed to watch it, but it greatly reduced my irritation and helped me empathize with her and help motivate her in a loving way.

5. Don’t give unrealistic consequences. If you give excessively long or unrelated consequences the child is not going to learn from them and chances are you will not follow through.  Then you become irritated because she doesn’t listen to you, she doesn’t obey what you say, she’s not made to obey by the threat of consequences.  You feel ineffective and like you have no tools to draw on.  All that can make you very irritated!  You have to remember to say few words, focus on the good, give consequences sparingly and that are close in time and related to the misbehavior and follow through on them.  See Stop and Redirect.

6. Create positive interactions with your child. When your child is having a particularly hard time obeying (a phase over a few days or weeks) this is the time to spend a little extra time with him.  Give him your love and attention and he will feel comforted, but you will feel more positive about him also!  Many days all we do is critique – point out the negative behaviors.  That does not build positive relationships.  That can become a relationship that the child wants to get away from when he can (in adolescence).  You have to point out the good and take extra time to create positive interactions.  Do something that both of you enjoy.  Then you will see and feel the good in your child and not be as annoyed in the hard times.  See Stay Close to Your Child.

7. Identify what is behind or causing your irritation. Sometimes your own issues get in the way of enjoying your children and disciplining/teaching them appropriately.  It takes some insight to realize this, but when I examined my feelings I often found the following factors were at the heart of my irritation.

  • My pride. I am extra irritated when my pride is on the line. If we are at a public event where specific behaviors are expected, I am extra irritated with misbehavior.  When my parents are around and “observing” my parenting, I am extra irritable.  These are different moments for each individual person, depending on what matters to you.  But when your pride is on the line you have to stop and realize that.  Have some insight into the fact that this is YOUR issue, not the kids’.  The kids are being the same as they always are!  They’re just kids, sometimes behaving, sometimes not.  But if I have extra hyped up expectations of them, I’m likely to be extra irritated.
  • My indecision. There are many times when I’m not sure what the right answer is. Should I let her quit piano?  Should I make her sit right by me at the function or let her run around? Should I let her spend all her allowance on silly trinkets?  These are tough parenting decisions, and I feel like I get more irritated with my children when I don’t know what my right answer is.  They keep asking and I can’t decide, or I decide one thing and then question it.  Again, it’s okay to struggle through these times, but I just have to remember the reason my irritation is heightened.  The child’s behavior hasn’t changed.  They are always going to beg for what they want and ask for things that probably are not in their best interest.  I’ve found that I’m less irritated if I just make a decision and stick with it.  Many of these decisions are arbitrary anyway!  Just decide and follow through, and that reduces irritation.
  • My lack of follow through. When I say, “It’s time to go,” and then talk and talk, I can not be irritated that they are not waiting at my heels, coats and shoes on. Of course they are off playing!  They know that “It’s time to go” means “You can play for 5-10 minutes while I talk”!  The more I say things I don’t really mean (I’m going to take that away, it’s time for bed, etc.) the less the children will behave.  And that causes me to be irritated: “Why don’t they listen to me?!” I must remember to only say what I mean and follow through with what I say.
  • Parenting books. Parenting books cause me frustration. They say, “If child is doing X, you should do Y,” and infer that doing Y will make the behavior will go away. They set you up for disappointment!  I’m not saying don’t read them (I am addicted to reading them!) but I just have to keep in mind that any change takes time.  There is no magic cure. And kids are going to be irritating and misbehave no matter what you do.

I want to reiterate that the best thing I did as a parent was identify an overall philosophy (which is what this blog is trying to give you) and not get caught up in the small, frustrating interactions.  When I had a clear vision of parenting principles and things I was trying to accomplish (stay close to your child, have positive interactions, stay calm, etc.) then I could get through the tough times without overanalyzing or getting caught up in the emotions.  Before I had my core parenting principles I felt like each day I was judging myself and my child based on current, minute-to-minute actions.  It was maddening to have to worry so much about what the right choice was.  Once I developed my core principles I could relax a little and avoid getting overly irritated.

Practice Patience

Patience is a commonly sought-after virtue among parents.  Children are exasperating and can quickly extinguish any intentions you had of being patient that day.  Some people may think patience is not part of their personality, but it is in fact a skill, something that can be practiced and improved.  It takes a long time, and the progress is slow and steady, but don’t give up on yourself or get discouraged.  Just know that the more you work at it the easier it will get.  Do the hard work in the beginning, and it will pay off in the long run. If you’re having a rough day just think you’re laying the ground work for a better future.  Here are some ideas and suggestions to help you keep your cool.

*Count how long it takes.  This is a technique I developed around the time my toddler wanted to put on her own shoes (“I do it myself!”).  It seemed to take forever, and it’s SO boring just standing there waiting for them to do something that I could do in a jiffy.  And actually it’s the standing there part that takes the most patience. Even if I completed the task in the same amount of time, it would feel better because at least I was doing something.  So, I decided to start counting to see how long it actually takes her to put on her shoes, or complete whatever task she insisted on doing herself.  If nothing else, it gives you something to do while you stand there waiting!  Guess how long . . . about 30 seconds!  I rarely got to 30 before she was done.  I decided I can wait 30 seconds for her to have her way, learn independence, and have my approval for a task completed.  It’s important for children to do things on their own, of course, and this technique helped me get through those tiresome moments.

*Take it down a notch.  When I was in training as a social worker I learned about de-escalating tense situations.  When people are angry or in an argument tensions can get high, and if one person starts yelling or getting physical, the others will follow or even go one step more.  One of the techniques to de-escalation is speaking calmly and slowly.  Others will be influenced by your speech volume and pattern, and everything will start to calm down.  This is an excellent way to stay patient with frustrating children.

When you feel yourself getting worked up, think “take it down a notch.”  Visualize a peg being taken out of a high hole and moved down to a lower one.  Slow down your actions, lower your voice.  Pretend you’ve been given a sedative, and everything is slowing down.  This gives you time to think before you speak and will help you avoid doing anything you will regret. Sometimes you have to “act” like you don’t care as much as you do (about the dirt tracked on the carpet, or the hit to the sister, or the tantrum occurring before you) because caring will just make you mad, and there’s no benefit to that.  What would someone who didn’t care look like and act like?  Think about that and be like that, just for the time being. You can decide how you’re going to deal with the problem behavior later, when you are calmer.  When you’re getting angry and upset all your blood rushes to your heart and limbs (fight or flight mode) so it’s not the time to problem solve or react with a punishment.  Just take it down a notch.

*Visualize your body melting.  This is related to the above technique, but a different visualization.  For a few seconds try to relax your muscles – starting with your head and face, down through your shoulders and arms, down your legs, finally to your feet. Feel yourself getting calmer.  Try to let go of the anxiety that is building in your core.  It’s not helping anything!  It’s not productive.  Take a deep breath, maybe close your eyes if that helps, and picture your body melting.  Again, realize that you’ve just got to get through this situation without doing or saying anything you regret, and then you can deal with the problem behavior when you are calmer.  You will deal with the behavior by reviewing the other principles in this blog: assess the situation to see if you are expecting too much, if the environment is setting him up for success, if you are complimenting the desired behavior, if you’re spending enough quality time with him, and make a plan for what behavior is expected and what you’re going to do if that doesn’t happen.  When you have a plan in place (and a general parenting philosophy) there is less reason to get upset.  Yes, it’s frustrating that he is misbehaving (AGAIN!) but you know what to do about it.

*It’s better to forget and smile than remember and hurt.  I kind of hate this saying, because it’s so true.  I want to remember; I want to tell everyone how bad my child is and how she makes me suffer!  I want my husband to know how hard staying home is, so I’m going to hold on to the anger and the hurt until he gets home!  But who is that helping?  No one.  It’s only hurting myself.  I’m the one who carries around that dark baggage all day (or week or year!).  For the little things, it’s better to get over them quickly.  I had this saying taped up on my wall for over a year.  It’s a hard habit to break, but just let the happiness in!  Move on!  Now we’re in the next moment, and there’s a chance the child will behave, and you’ll have a great interaction.  Forgive her and smile!

*“That’s just how kids are.”  Another phrase to repeat or hang on your wall!  I have to tell myself this one all the time.  Sometimes children are SO exasperating, SO frustrating that you are sure this can’t be normal!  I used to always think to myself, “Either there is something wrong with her or there is something wrong with me!”   I actually made an appointment with the pediatrician when my oldest was about 6.  I had had it.  I just felt like nothing I was doing was working, and I was getting so angry and frustrated.  I started to wonder if there was in fact something wrong.  He was so kind and patient with me.  He started out by going through a long checklist of behavior problems, and to almost all of them I said no, she doesn’t have or do that.  It was a real eye-opener to me.  There are a lot worse problems out there than what I was dealing with!  In the end, he said, “I feel like I could be talking to my wife – she has the same worries and concerns – but your child is absolutely normal.”  As you can imagine, I was about in tears!  It was so relieving, but also a little scary.  You mean, that’s just how kids are?!  Who came up with this idea?!  Who ever thought that we, weak, flawed parents could deal with this?! Sometimes I turn comedian and say to myself, “Have you heard what they say about parenting? It’s hard – yeah, that’s what people say, so I guess I must be parenting!”  Everyone knows parenting is hard, but it’s so very, very hard when you are the one doing it!  But you can take comfort in the fact that everyone is in the same boat.  That’s just how kids are – pestering, inquisitive, non-stop talkative, stubborn, resistant to sleep, picky eaters, bad friends, at times violent, impatient, and without manners!  But, knowing this truth can help us be more patient.  Understanding what is reasonable to expect and what isn’t can help us set up the situation for success – for both us and our children!

*Now is not forever. This follows nicely after “that’s just how kids are” because here’s another truth about children: They will change!  They will grow!  They will learn (eventually)! The saying ‘now is not forever’ is true in many parts of our lives; our problems, feelings, relationships, even health issues ebb and flow.  But it’s especially true with parenting because our children are getting older every day.  They are maturing and developing greater capacities to modulate their emotions and use their words.  They are becoming more independent and reliable (don’t expect too much too fast though!).  Just repeat this mantra over and over, and imagine the day when you will miss the messes and the noise.

*Don’t lose your cool.  I know this is obvious, and you are thinking – if I could do this I would be a patient person!  But I want to say this to remind you that it’s not worth it.  It feels  good for a moment to yell and get really angry and maybe even spank, but it does not have any positive benefits.  It’s easy to give in to speaking harshly and to negativity.  I’m sure you’re like me and have thought of saying some terrible things (and some hilarious, sarcastic remarks, too!) but you must control your words and not speak them.  To say mean and harsh things to children is to show that you have as little control over your actions as they do.  It does not show the example you want to be of controlling words and actions, even in times of strong emotion.  Isn’t that what we ask of them all the time?!  When you lose it with a child, her behavior will worsen, not improve.  She will use those same words and tones with her siblings.  It’s just a negative cycle.  It is so, so, so hard to control your tongue in these super angry situations, but you must keep trying.

If you fail, forgive yourself quickly and move on!  You can apologize to your child, if appropriate.  You could say, “Mommy felt very angry and said some unkind things.  We are supposed to use our calm words, even when we’re angry, and mommy is going to try to do better in the future.”  It’s not going to be the end of the world, just review the principles in this post and start again tomorrow!

Use Your Words

You’ve all heard this phrase, “Use your words,” and most likely you’ve said it to your children.  But I’m going to show you a specific technique that really teaches children what words to use and how.  The goal is to teach them to problem solve on their own and help them express their feelings.  As I’ve said before, words are very powerful and this simple tool can help diffuse many emotional situations and solve problems so easily – you’ll be amazed!  The foundation for the technique is that people, including children, want to be listened to and validated, more than they want the thing they are fighting for.

So, it works like this.  Say one child has a toy truck and another comes over and tries to take it.  The first child cries or fusses and the second does also.  I walk over and say, “Use your words.” Now if that’s all I say, the child doesn’t know what words to use or how to navigate this situation.  They may learn over time or get a little better at it as they get older, but what I have found is so effective is to teach the child the exact words to use.  Like this:

“Use your words, Tommy.  Say, ‘Can I have that truck?’” Hopefully Tommy says this phrase.  If he refuses or is too young to really say it, then I turn to Sally and say, “Tommy says, can I have that truck?’”

I look at Sally for a response.  She might say, “Sure” and give it to Tommy.  Often this happens because, as I said, the words diffuse the emotions.  But just as often Sally looks upset, thinking you’re going to make her give the truck to Tommy and she doesn’t want to.  So I say to Sally, “You don’t have to say yes.  You could say, ‘I’ll give it to you in 5 minutes’ or ‘I’m playing with it now’.”  Sometimes I might ask her straight out, “Do you want to give the truck to Tommy?” and if she shakes her head no then I give her some suggestions of what to say.

Or Sally might flat out say ‘no’ and then I turn to Tommy and give him some suggested phrases.  “Tommy, you could say, ‘Can I have it in five minutes?’ or ‘How long do you want to play with it?’”

The “How long do you want to play with it” is a useful phrase because it gives the child a sense of power – she gets to choose.  Most often she will choose a reasonable amount of time (3 or 5 minutes).

If Sally is really not wanting to give up the toy, I would say to Sally, “Tell Tommy, ‘I just got this truck and want to play with it for a while.’”  You teach them to say whatever fits the circumstances.  Maybe, “I brought this toy from home because it is my favorite, and I want to play with it.”  Or “I want this spot on the couch because I like being next to mom.” Or “I don’t want you to borrow my clothes because sometimes you don’t return them.”  You have to teach them EXACTLY what to say to solve the problem.

The point is not to get them to share or be nice or do any specific behavior.  It’s mostly to use specific words to solve the problem.  The problem can be solved by keeping the toy!  Using words in this way helps everyone in the situation feel good about the solution, whatever it is.  As soon as a child is old enough to take away another child’s toy (or care if her toy is taken) this technique can work.  She may not be able to say it, but you can model it and she can start to understand the meaning.  You tell her what to say, and then say it for her, if needed.

When kids are older and get in more heated arguments we do the same thing but even more involved and more words.  First I ask each child to tell their side of the story, without being interrupted by the other child, and then I start to mediate.  I say, “Tell Shelly, say ‘I don’t want you to play with me and my friends because I just want some time with them to myself.’”  I make her repeat those words, even though I just said them standing right there.  If she doesn’t want to say it or feels silly, I remind her that she needs to practice these words so that she can do it on her own next time.  She says the sentence, and then I coach the sister on what to say in response.  After a while they know what to say or how to express themselves and don’t need as much coaching.

Sometimes they get sick of the whole process and don’t want to participate, so I remind them, “The more words you use the more likely you are to get what you want.”  I really believe this is a life-lesson truth.  Whatever situation you are in if you can ask for what you want, express yourself clearly, stay unemotional and use your words, you will get what you want.

I use this same technique when my kids are asking me for something.  The more words they use describing why they need it and what it’s for, the more likely I am to get it for them.  Sometimes they are too frustrated with me to go to the effort of explaining all that, and in that case, they don’t get the thing they want.  I don’t just say, “Use your words!” but I teach them just what to say.  For example, “If you wanted to stay longer you can ask me, you could say, ‘Mom, I’m having a lot of fun playing with my friend.  Is there any way I could stay a little longer?’”  You can have them repeat that back, if the moment is right, but even if they don’t they start to learn the words/phrases.  There are hundreds of different applications of this, and the more you take advantage of a problem situation and teach them the words – the exact words – in this way, the more words they will know to form their requests and solve their problems using words instead of whining/hitting/etc.

One of our family mottos is “ask for what you want.”  My kids know that means use your words, and use lots of them.  As you know, it’s more natural for children to say, “I need more milk” than to ask, “Can I have more milk?”.  Whenever this comes up I say, “That’s a statement.”  I explain (in a nice way) that they are stating what they need, not asking me to do something.  Again, I give them suggestions of words and phrases they can use. “If you would like more milk you could say, ‘Will you get me some milk?’ or ‘Can I have more milk?’ Adding a ‘please’ on there helps too!”

Mostly I wait to get them the thing until they have asked, but if the moment is tense and it will become a control battle, I won’t make them.  I do try giving them an option, “You can either say ‘please’ or ‘will you’.  You don’t have to say both.”  You probably know that kids like options, it gives them power, and it’s an effective tool for eliciting cooperation.  So, they have that option and usually they will comply with one or the other.

I’ve been through this scenario many times with my kids, as you can imagine, so by now I just need to say, “That’s a statement,” and they know to re-phrase!

This mediation and teaching process can take some time, but it’s worth the effort because it teaches your child how to express himself, helps him feel validated and listened to, and solves the problem peacefully rather than contentiously.  If you leave these arguments up to the children they will escalate and you will get mad and send them all away and no one will be happy.  Using this technique greatly reduces the contention in the home and the need for “discipline” or punishing.  It also teaches the children to ask for what they want in a calm and specific way, which will be a great asset to them in life.

Stay Close to Your Children

You can work all day long at being “consistent” in your discipline and following through on consequences, but if you don’t have a bond with your child, you will not be effective. The stronger your relationship the more effective your other parenting efforts will be.  This relationship takes work and effort, but will be so worth it.  You’re going to have to be around and deal with this child anyway!  You might as well make it as enjoyable a relationship as you can.

The best way to work on your relationship with your child is to spend quality time with him.  I recommend shooting for 10-15 minutes of one-on-one time each day.  During this time there are no expectations and no disciplining, just hanging out.  There are also no checking the phone or working on the computer.  Put your phone on airplane mode if you must, but take a break from it and give your child your undivided attention!  You could play Barbies or trucks, memory match games or just sing and talk together.  It’s just a time to “be”.  It’s really a relief and can become quite an enjoyable time to just hang out with your child.  So much of parenting interactions are centered on telling the child what’s right and what’s wrong.  It can get exhausting for both of you.  This is a nice break from that.  I’m not saying it’s easy to do – it can be hard to put aside other things that need to get done and just hang out.  It helps if you make it a habit or connect it to something else that happens daily.  For example, as soon as you put the baby down for afternoon nap you spend 10 minutes with the 3-year-old before doing anything else.

I try to revamp my schedule and find a reliable time to do this with each changing phase of life – when the kids go back to school, in summer, after a baby is born, etc.  Last year I made a goal at the beginning of summer to spend a certain amount of time with my kids each day, because I knew that if I didn’t really focus on that I would just do my computer work and errands all day and never stop to be with them (other than taking them places, which is not the same).  I told myself, this is my job – a stay-at-home mom – so make time to actually spend time with the kids!

If you feel like your child is having a particularly hard time, misbehaving more than usual or regressing, it’s a good idea to focus even more one-on-one time with him.  He needs that extra attention and love, and a dedicated time with you when he is not getting in trouble. This can be a key part of the solution to improving his behavior.

Another important part of staying close to your child is listening to him.  Listening is the kindest thing we can do, for anyone.  It is putting aside our thoughts and needs and words to give our undivided attention to someone else.  It is a great act of love.  And the child will feel loved the more we listen to him.  He will feel like he matters to you and is important to you.

Beyond showing your child you care and that he is important, listening can have a very healing effect on him.  Problems can seem less overwhelming if someone has listened to them and validated the feelings.  Everyone wants to be heard and validated.  It is essential to being human.  If you don’t allow your child to speak or express his feelings, those feelings will be pushed down and will fester and grow into bitterness.  When your child is upset, even if you feel like there’s nothing to be upset about, listen to him and help him express himself.  It will calm him down and help him figure out the solution on his own.

This all sounds great until you actually hear what your child has to say!  It’s often not that interesting, and likely not even that coherent!  It takes a lot of patience to listen to a child.  But, as often as you can (there are some situations where it’s not possible), try to really listen to what he has to tell you.  Act interested as he tells you all the details about the last Disney show he watched or how his Pokemons are fighting.  Listen and answer respectfully when he asks for something, and listen when he wants to tell you something you already know.  Many parents will cut off their child and finish the sentence or idea for them.  I feel like this shows disrespect, a sense of “I already know everything you know”.  Your child might be telling you a joke or story you know the ending to, still listen and let him finish and be proud of telling the whole thing.  Don’t contradict him off-hand.  If he says, “My teacher doesn’t like me,” don’t say, “That’s not true.”  This statement shuts down the conversation.  Instead say, “Why do you think that?”  This prompts the child to tell you more.

As often as you can, listen more than you talk.  Don’t lecture and go on and on about things.  Listen to their side of the story.  Another exasperating but crucial example of this is when the children are arguing with each other or have a disagreement.  In Use Your Words I talk more about how to handle these conflicts, but it’s important to listen to both sides of the story, in-depth, before helping them solve the problem.  People really feel empowered when they get to say their piece.

While you’re listening, empathize with them, also.  Use phrases like, “That must be hard” and “I can see why you’re upset” to let them know you understand the importance of what they are saying.  You don’t have to go on and on with your empathy, just some quick phrases to let them know you’re listening and you’re on their side.  Sometimes you can help them move on with a “Things will be better tomorrow” or “I’m sure you’ll remember next time.”

Don’t use “I told you so” phrases.  Let the consequences teach the lesson and you empathize with the sadness/disappointment.  This can be so hard because you want to point out that you knew the right way from the beginning, and maybe she should listen to you next time!  But I promise this truth will be communicated more clearly and forcefully if you DON’T say it, just let it sink in on its own.

Listen when they want to talk.  This gets to be more important the older they get.  Little kids want to talk all day long; they don’t need prompting.  But the older kids get the less they talk (which is good and appropriate), and when they become teens it’s even harder to get them to talk.  You have to be ready to listen when they’re ready to talk.  This is usually at 10:30 at night when you’re about to go to bed!  But if you want to be close to your child, you have to put aside your needs and listen to them.  If you know something is going on and they don’t want to talk, say, “I’d love to hear about … when you’re ready to talk.”  If you’ve established a habit of listening to your child, from the time she was little and didn’t say very interesting things, you will have a close relationship and your teen will open up to you from time to time.

In general, take every opportunity you can to have frequent positive interactions with your children.  Smile a lot; laugh often; make chores and other household duties fun and enjoyable; touch and hug and talk a lot!  Overall, kids need more time and attention than most people think.  When you give it to them, and parent in a way that you can stay emotionally close to your child, you will be greatly rewarded – with positive, loving feelings toward your child and with good behavior from your child!

Stop and Redirect

When there is inappropriate behavior that cannot be ignored you’ll need to stop and redirect.  This post will explain how to do that.

Many of these posts contain overlapping principles, and this one especially can’t stand on its own.  It’s important to also read Positive Ways to Speak to Your Child (Parts I, II, and III), and Positive Reinforcement.

As you probably can tell, I’m a much bigger fan of proactive parenting than reactive.  I’d much rather think of misbehavior as an opportunity to teach good behavior.  As in, “Obviously he hasn’t learned how to do all his chores by himself, so what am I going to do to teach him?”  (Keep in mind it can take many repetitions to teach him.) Also misbehavior reminds me to express my expectations: “I expect you to pick up your toys when you’re done playing”; “I expect you to talk nicely to your family”; “I expect you to listen when I talk”; etc.  This concept is explained more in depth in Explain Expectations.

I use punishments or rewards sparingly because they are external motivators, and kids need to create and build internal motivation to be well-behaved over the long-term.  So when I say stop and redirect inappropriate behaviors that cannot be ignored, it’s not a euphemism for punishment or “consequences” (although that is a last resort).  It’s simply some strategies for how to respond when your positive reinforcement hasn’t kicked in and you need to address some misbehavior right then.

There are a few layers to this response.  First is just a simple reprimand, asking the child to stop the behavior.  Sometimes this does the trick.  Next would be trying to redirect the child. And lastly, you would need to administer some consequences.  Let’s look at each of these in more detail.

*First – Reprimand.  As you know, I’m a big believer in choosing the correct words and believe there’s a “better way to say it.”  So I have quite a bit to say about the reprimand – what to say and what not to say, and how to say it.

Just as in “How to give instructions“, it’s important to go over to where the child is, look her in the eye for 2-3 seconds, and calmly say something simple and to the point.  Try to include what TO DO also (explain the behavior you do want).  “We do not jump on the couch.  Your feet need to stay on the floor.”

Be direct, unemotional, and precise.  Don’t talk too much. Save words for the happy times.  This can be really hard!  But again, make it a game with yourself, tell yourself it’s good to learn new things/try hard things, and you are up to the challenge!  It’s important to get your message across using only a few words, with as little time spent as it is possible. Don’t lecture or try to drive home the point. The more words you use the more you dilute your meaning, and the less effective you become.  Again, you might want to write out some sentences for potential misbehavior situations and practice them.

Don’t keep reminding, saying it over and over. This just gives the child the message that you don’t think they hear you or remember.  Say it once (or twice) and expect them to remember and they will live up to that expectation.

Don’t ask a lot of questions about inappropriate behavior: “Why did you do that?” Sometimes you do want to know what the situation was or what might have prompted the action.  It’s okay to talk about it a little, asking, “What was happening here?” or “What happened right before you threw the toy?”  You’re trying to elicit information in a non-judgmental, compassionate, listening way.  And the point is to LISTEN more than talk.  However, if you’re not in an emotional state to do this, just skip that whole part of the conversation!

Give her the benefit of the doubt: “That’s not like you.” And when she balks at some instruction or reprimand, you can say something like, “I’m sorry you’re upset.  Something surely must have gone wrong, otherwise you would not have behaved in this way. You’ll feel better in a moment.” Or, “You’ll be happier and feel a lot better after you’ve calmed down.  Things happen that can really upset us.  I know the feeling.  Let’s talk about it in 10-15 minutes.”

All these sentences and many more can be found here.  Print them out – practice them!  You’ll feel dumb at first, but soon this style of speaking becomes second nature to you, and will improve your interactions with your child and your child’s behavior.

Side Note: If your child’s behavior is disruptive to someone else (guests are over, you’re out in public, he’s thrashing around and hurting you or a sibling), you’re not going to continue this “talking” phase for long.  Just like many things in parenting, the spoken reprimand is the ideal, the first step in attempting to change his behavior, but many times it takes more than that.  Many difficult behavior situations don’t have one “right” way to deal with them.   The goal is just to get through that situation without getting overly angry and saying or doing something you’ll regret.  Stay calm and deal with it through talking, or when necessary, removing the child from the situation.  Don’t worry too much about the particulars of how to handle this extreme situation.  If, for the most part, you are following all the other principles I’ve outlined (in this and other posts), you’ll have an overall parenting vision or plan and a framework of skills to fall back on.

*Then – Redirect. If the spoken reprimand is not working and the misbehavior continues, your next step is trying to redirect the child.  The point of this is to redirect the child’s attention to something positive, either something different to do or something else to think about.  Then, hopefully, she will forget about the problem at hand, and stop the problem behavior.  “Let’s play with this toy instead.”  “Did you know that daddy will be home soon?”  “Have you tried the purple crayon?  That’s mommy’s favorite color.”  “After dinner let’s play a game together.”

You don’t have to worry about “teaching the lesson” or letting the child know that the behavior was wrong.  If you’ve said a sentence or two about what not to do and what to do (“When you take her crayon she feels sad.  Let’s just color with these crayons.”), that’s one step to teaching the correct behavior.  The other step comes later, when you catch her doing the correct behavior and comment on it.  You don’t have to make the child perform the correct behavior right then, like share the toy or say “I’m sorry.”  That just puts you in a power struggle, and you have a good chance of losing!

Redirecting a child is a skill that can be difficult to master, but brings so much satisfaction when you find just the thing that gets the child’s attention and helps them forget the problem/misbehavior.  Experiment with different distractions and be creative!  Point to a bird out the window and start talking about where the bird is going and how they make their nest and how they teach their babies to fly.  Or talk about a time when your brother hurt you and how you felt and what you said to your mom and what she said in response, etc.   It takes a lot of emotional energy on your part, and it doesn’t always succeed, but it’s worth the effort and it can be fun!

*As a last resort – Administer consequences. Most misbehaviors can be addressed using the above two strategies. You want to administer consequences sparingly because the more often you give consequences, the less powerful they become. If you are always saying, “No computer time for you today!” it will lose its force.  I recommend the book Love and Logic for a more in-depth look at these principles.  They coined the terms “natural and logical consequences”.  Natural consequences are those you don’t have to say much about, i.e. if they don’t take their coat, they are cold – and you let the cold teach the lesson, instead of you telling the child what a mistake it was to not bring a coat.  Logical consequences are the ones that you think up to fit the misbehavior.  Your consequences must fit the misbehavior and be immediate. One example is taking away a toy that was used to hurt someone else.  Or removing the child from the table at snack time if she was making a mess with her food (and, obviously, you’ve tried the reprimand and the redirect FIRST).  It is ineffective to say, “No TV when we get home!”  That is taking away a privilege (watching TV), but doesn’t really have anything to do with the current misbehavior AND is so far away in the child’s time reference that it will not change his behavior next time.  (Plus, there’s a great temptation to go back on your word and let the child watch TV anyway because you realize you’re only punishing yourself!).

When you need to administer consequences be kind and calm.  You can empathize with them, “I know it’s hard when you can’t play with that toy you want.  I know you will remember next time to use it appropriately.”  You don’t have to be angry at them.  If you are, that focuses the child’s attention on you and how mean you are, rather than her own behavior getting her into this situation.  Administer consequences with compassionate sadness.  Empathy with consequences communicates that we’re in their corner, we accept them and love them, and they’re okay.