When your child is exhibiting challenging behaviors, it is easy to become frustrated and let your emotions show. Children feed into our emotions as caregivers and our attitude is often directly related to theirs. When children are upset, it is important to still show them genuine empathy and to help teach them what they CAN do when they are feeling strong emotions. Below are some simple steps to help work through your child’s behavior, but remember that children must learn these steps and it takes them time to adapt to new strategies.
Feelings: Calmly and kindly tell your child what feelings and/or behaviors you think you are seeing and hearing from them. Get to the root of the behavior to support emotional awareness. Focus on responding to the feeling, rather than the behavior. There is no acceptable reason why a child misbehaves, so don’t set them up to fail. When you ask a child why, they become defensive and it implies blame. It is ok to take a guess at what the child is feeling. You are still validating that you see strong emotions. They can help tell you what it is if you guess wrong. When more than one challenging behavior is occurring, start with identifying the feelings behind the most dangerous one.
Limits: Set your limit based on simple and concrete rules and expectations. Limits help surround children with a sense of safety and trust. Children need to explore to learn, but exploring so many options makes it hard to make good choices. Limits tell children what to expect and what is acceptable vs. unacceptable. When we get caught up in telling children what they can’t do, they don’t learn what they should do. The word “but” inserted after stating the child’s feeling, negates the feeling so we should avoid adding it in. When a child continues to be angry about limits, return to discussion about feelings, then move to inquiries/prompts.
Children get confused when adults give inconsistent, too many, or not enough limits.
Inquiries: Ask your child to think before they act by making simple inquiries that encourage problem solving. Open ended questions help lead children to better coping strategies and emotional control. Children have often not yet learned alternate ways to cope with their feelings. Learning to appropriately cope with feelings is key to emotional health. Inquiries help children think for themselves. When children have conflicts, we are often quick to help them or just try to make it stop. When we do this, children do not learn to cope on their own. Ask a question that will invite children to think of a solution. Your child will likely give you a blank stare the first several times that you make an inquiry. If there is not imminent danger, let them mull over it. Often children will provide fantasy solutions or self-centered ideas. Compliment them for trying and refine your question so they can try again. “What else could we try that would be more fair?”
Prompts: If your child has difficulties finding a solution, provide prompts in the form of cues and suggestions. Bright ideas lead the way to better problem solving skills. If your child comes up with a solution on their own, you do not need to prompt. Sometimes prompts can help the child see other possibilities for solving their problems. Sometimes we repeat the question over and over without adding tools. The child feels pressured, not empowered! Don’t be afraid to be silly. Sometimes the way out of a tough spot is humor. None of us want to be stuck and a silly idea may be just what we need to shift gears. Inquiries are open-ended questions that help children think without adult direction. Prompts are leading questions that help point children in a positive direction and still take ownership of the solution. One size does not fit all and you may need to keep trying. Often a child won’t like the possible solutions that differ from the negative choice- revert back to their feelings.