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.