When it comes to children’s behavior, a parent’s first question is usually, “What should I do?” We tend to want to fix it or get it under control. But it’s important to understand that the behaviors we see in our children are merely the tip of the iceberg; the bulk of behavior issues stem from below the surface. What we see on the surface is a natural extension of the development that’s occurring underneath. Rather than fight against it, parents will find more success in working with a child’s development to teach behavior.
Take a look at these four examples of the earliest stages of child development to understand a ‘working with’ approach rather than a ‘doing to’ approach to discipline.
Age one: My baby doesn’t listen to “No!”
Development – From birth to age two is a child’s sensorimotor stage of development. During this age, children are hard-wired to explore their environment using all of their senses. This means they will touch, pick up, grab, bite, pinch, throw, smear and put absolutely everything they can into their mouths in an effort to understand the world around them. This exploration may mean that someone gets hurt, property is destroyed or the child’s own safety is compromised. It’s not purposeful, and it’s not malicious. It’s simply a baby’s underdeveloped instinct to learn.
It’s tempting to think that the more often or more firmly you tell a young child “no”, the more they will remember it and behave differently next time. But a one-year-old child does not have mature enough brain development to stop themselves from adhering to “no”. So, no matter how many times you tell your child, they simply do not have the neural connection to stop, remember your words, think through the options and decide not to act. It’s not that babies don’t listen; it’s that they lack sufficient brain development to acknowledge, comprehend and think logically about a “no”.
‘Working with’ tips
• Try working with your baby’s natural inclination to explore and learn by being proactive. Create a ‘yes’ environment in which there are no ‘nos’. Babyproof, block, pad, raise and lock away all of the nos so you’re left only with yesses. Yes, you can climb on this furniture. Yes, you can explore these cabinets. Yes, you can throw any of these soft balls. Yes, you can roll around this room. Support their learning while keeping them safe.
• There will be times when keeping your young child in a ‘yes’ environment is not possible. In those cases, stay close to your child to physically prevent them from unsafe behavior. Knowing that they cannot logically understand why they shouldn’t throw a rock, ensure that you are close enough to step in and physically remove the rock from their hand. Gently undo their grip from their sister’s hair. Move your child to another area to prevent them from touching Grandma’s knick-knacks.
• Be available to redirect your child’s energy when necessary. If they’re focused on throwing, give them something safe to throw. If they really want to clang glass figurines together, substitute something noisy and unbreakable in their hands. If your child is inclined to reach out and swat, pinch or grab whoever is nearby, give them a small toy they can manipulate with their hands. Rather than stand firm and assert, “No!”, take that same energy your child has for using their senses, and refocus it on something that is safe and appropriate. Turn a ‘no’ into a ‘yes’.
Age two: My toddler is constantly throwing fits!
Development – As children enter the twos, so begins the age of autonomy. Toddlers become self-assured in their increasing mobility, and they are able to accomplish so many tasks for themselves. They are developing confidence in themselves and a sense of awareness in their bodies. They are becoming capable. Along with this newfound sense of independence comes a natural increase of limits. Toddlers are not capable of making logical decisions, so we help them by setting limits around health and safety - though our well-intentioned limits don’t always agree with what our little ones have in mind. The difference between a toddler’s priorities of, ‘I want to do it!’ and our priorities of, ‘No, you may not,’ combines with their burgeoning sense of autonomy to create the perfect recipe for a tantrum.
During the twos, the midbrain (the emotional brain) and the prefrontal cortex (the logical brain) have poor connection and communication. So while a child’s emotional brain is capable of feeling strong feelings, their logical brain is not capable of appropriately acting on those feelings. The resulting behavior is a “flipped lid” or emotional meltdown in which they express their feelings in the only way their brain is capable of: yelling, crying and carrying on.
‘Working with’ tips
• Remember that while it is unpleasant, a tantrum is normal and very appropriate for a two-year-old, so do your best to stay calm. A child’s brain has mirror neurons that pick up on the emotional state of their environment. In other words, calm begets calm. It’s okay to step away from the fit for a few minutes to collect yourself and refocus.
• Allow for tears. It is important to teach children that their feelings are always okay and are not something to suppress, hide or be ashamed of. Trying to stop a toddler’s tantrums resists their natural development and only causes more friction in your relationship. Instead of punishing a child for having a tantrum, accept the feelings you’re hearing, and let your child know that it’s okay to cry. This is the first step for them to learn the skills to handle such feelings.
• Teach your child the language for the feelings they are having by empathizing with your child. You are mad… It’s okay to feel sad right now… You really wanted this and you’re angry you can’t have it. You don’t have to change the limit you set (meaning: give the child what they wanted). You are only acknowledging their feelings and being emotionally available to support your child through their feelings as their brain chemistry restores. Your empathy teaches emotional intelligence as your toddler outgrows a tumultuous age.
Age three to four: My preschooler hits!
Development – Though the age of frequent tantrums may be over, life’s frustrations are not. And what once may have triggered cries and tears of epic proportions may manifest differently in an older child: aggression. Aggressive behavior is rooted in frustration. When a child encounters frustration in their life – from small problems like not getting the dessert they want, to larger issues such as an extended absence of a parent – their feelings will inevitably surface.
Parents often want to address occurrences of aggression with a ‘doing to’ approach; a consequence. They adopt a ‘you hit, you sit’ approach with timeouts, punishments or other imposed consequences intended to teach the lesson that hitting is unacceptable. True, hitting is not okay. It’s also not the problem to be addressed. Hitting is the manifestation of unresolved feelings of anger, fear and frustration. It is due to an immature prefrontal cortex and poor communication between the logical brain and the midbrain. Most importantly, it stems from a child’s inability to adapt to futility. The key to finding a solution to hitting, then, becomes about addressing the child’s adaptive process, not the behavior itself.
‘Working with’ tips
• Be close with your child often to help prevent them from hitting. If you see your child is getting frustrated, quickly move closer to help. Realize they have an immature brain and is physically unable to control their aggression when their emotions are running strong. Get between your child and the other person and let your child know, “I won’t let you hit.”
• Empathize with your child to draw out tears instead of aggression. I can tell you are really frustrated right now… You’re very angry that your friend knocked over your tower… It is so sad to lose a game, isn’t it? Let them cry. Encourage them to cry. Tears facilitate the adaptive process by providing an emotional outlet. The brain is able to adapt to adversity without moving to aggression.
• Once you’ve addressed your child’s feelings, address their needs. You were feeling hurt; you need to be included with your friends. You felt annoyed; you need to be able to make your own choices. Identifying valid needs is the first step for a child to be able to understand how to solve problems. From there, you can pose the question, “Okay, what can we do about that?” and brainstorm alternate solutions to hitting.
Age five to seven: My child argues about everything!
Development – You say, “Yes,” your child says, “No.” You say, “Please pick up your toys,” your child says, “I don’t want to.” You say, “Time to get ready for bed,” your child says, “You can’t make me!” It seems that whatever you say, your child says and does the opposite. Life has become a battle of power. Power struggles are an expression of a need to be heard and regarded. Growing children experience a phase of initiative and individuality; that is, they are autonomous, they have a voice and they need to use it. There are things you can do to help strengthen your relationship with your child so that they’ll be less argumentative and more cooperative.
‘Working with’ tips
• Regularly ask your child questions. Make sure they are not just yes-or-no questions, but open-ended questions that encourage them to share their thoughts. “What do you think about this?” “How did you make a decision?” “What are your ideas?” Show your child that you are interested in hearing their perspective. Then, the other half of this step is to actively listen to the answers. Show that you understand by echoing back what you hear and paraphrasing their thoughts. “Oh, so you decided to…” “That must have been difficult…” “You felt…” This communicates that you value their thoughts and take them seriously.
• Enlist your child’s help to create routines and habits. Routines are conducive to cooperation because of their predictability. And power struggles are less likely to occur when your child has had a say in how those routines are created. Regular family meetings are perfect opportunities to elicit input from children on the functions of the household. Ask for a child’s input and incorporate some of their ideas so that they will have a stronger sense of significance and belonging in the family.
• Carve out regular, special time to connect. Make sure your relationship stays strong. Schedule regular time together in which your child is ‘the boss’. Your child chooses the activity, directs the playtime and leads the topics of conversation. Even just 15 minutes a day, this type of interaction adds incredible closeness to a relationship and greatly diminishes the amount of daily power struggles.
Teaching children behavior is much more effective with a natural approach. By working with a child’s development, parents can bypass much of the resistance encountered with traditional discipline methods. Consistently responding to children in a proactive, connective way creates an environment of acceptance. It is this acceptance that allows for a child’s healthy social and emotional development.
Kelly is the author of Encouraging Words For Kids. She is a Certified Positive Discipline Educator and freelance writer with a focus on child development, family relationships and discipline. You can find more of her work at www.kellybartlett.net.
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