Parenting tweaks that curb children’s annoying behavior.
Susan Newman, PhD
Rebecca Eanes, creator of Positive-Parents.org asked some 9,000 parents what behaviors in their children upset them and made them “lose their cool.” The ideas she has for disciplining and moving away from conventional parenting will go a long way in minimizing the upsetting challenges the parents reported and that almost all parents face at some point: aggression, tantrum throwing, whining, back talk and not listening.
In her new book Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide, Eanes trades punishment for solutions and presents new ways of disciplining that lead to a more positive parenting experience. I asked her how parents can cope with the five top challenging behaviors.
Q: When you did your parent poll, Aggression headed the list. You caution parents to respond and not react. What can parents do to curb a child’s aggression—let’s say your five-year-old just hit a friend?
A: We must, first and foremost, make sure that we don’t act aggressively toward their aggression, which is so often the case in traditional discipline when a child is spanked or shamed for hitting. This means we have to be in control of our reaction. The next step is to get the child out of the situation. I recommend a time-in, putting the child onto your lap or sitting near you. The purpose of the time-in is to calm the child down and get his or her brain out of that reactive fight or flight state. Much of the traditional discipline techniques do not calm children’s brain but, in fact, do just the opposite, and a brain locked in that state can’t reason well. This is why we take the time-in which both sets the limit of “I won’t let you hit” and provides space and skill to calm down so that he or she can be rational again.
Once the brain is out of fight or flight, discuss alternatives and ask the child how he or she is going to solve the problem, which in this case is an upset friend. We need to be teaching our children to be emotionally intelligent by practicing scenarios that will greatly lessen the chance that hitting will occur.
Q: Tantrums. In your book you write that parents need to understand that tantrums are a plea for help for emotions that are too difficult for children to handle. What is the difference between a young child’s tantrum and one of an older child?
A: There are different types of tantrums, and we tend to use this word for any outburst that a child has. True tantrums are total emotional overwhelm and are common in very young children. They have underdeveloped prefrontal cortices, and this is the part of the brain that regulates emotion and social behavior. We often think of tantrums as some manipulative ploy to get their way, but this would require the brain power of a region not yet developed enough to produce it. The emotional overwhelm sends them into that reactive state, and just providing empathy and a loving presence to help them through it is really all they need. This will lessen as their brains mature.
Older children may “tantrum” or essentially “throw a fit” if they feel they are being treated unfairly (adults do this, too, unfortunately). This is a signal that they need help developing better emotional control and learning how to express emotions appropriately.
There is no simple technique that will stop tantrums by children of any age, and the complex reasons behind the behavior are as unique as the children experiencing them. Of course, limits should be set on hitting, kicking, throwing things, slamming doors, and other destructive behaviors that may result from an outburst. Ultimately feelings cannot be punished away; they must be worked through. It comes down to determining why a tantrum is occurring and giving children the knowledge and skills needed to move beyond tantrums.
Q: Whining is so annoying to parents. It’s a “step-up,” so to speak from a baby’s crying. Like a baby’s cry, whining in an older child tells you he wants something. A parent can feel as if she’s being manipulated. What’s the best way to address a child’s whining?
A: Many experts advise parents to ignore a child who is whining, but again, I don’t believe that ignoring the people we are closest to does anything positive for the relationship. In the book, I recommend these four approaches.
Listen. Often children just need to feel heard and understood. Acknowledge the upset that’s causing the whining.
Look for the reason behind the whining. Is it signaling hunger, tiredness, or built up frustration? The solution could be as simple as a sandwich.
Provide lots of preemptive cuddles and laughter. Laughing releases the same built-up negative feelings as crying (or whining). Spending time giggling and connecting every day will reduce whining.
Teach children to use their “strong voices.” You might say, “I care about what you’re saying, but I can’t understand that voice very well. Can you tell me in a strong voice?”
Q: Not Listening. Kids tend to tune out when a parent makes a request. How do you get children to pay attention or cooperate—to hear what you are saying or asking?
A: Ironically, the way parents typically try to gain cooperation from kids actually causes them to tune us out. Nagging, lecturing, counting, and demanding do nothing to foster cooperation. Punishment or the threat of punishment may compel the child to act, but this isn’t real cooperation.
First, keep the bond with your child strong. Children generally cooperate well when they feel close and connected. They want to please people they are in good relationship with. Secondly, think about your expectations. It’s hard for many children to switch gears quickly, so asking him to leave his Lego building “right this minute” and take a bath is expecting quite a lot. Let’s give them same courtesy we would like to have given to us and allow them a reasonable amount of time to comply.
Try these tips to gain cooperation:
Rather than barking orders across the room, try to get your child’s eyes and attention and then use a firm but respectful tone.
Use “I want” statements rather than “will you” statements. “I want you to pick up these toys” instead of “Will you pick up these toys?” Asking leaves room for a “no” answer.
Ask once, give a reasonable amount of time to comply, then take action. We complain about having to ask our kids a dozen times to do something, but we don’t need to be asking a dozen times! If they don’t comply on their own, get up and make it happen.
Q: Back Talk. We are talking about respect—or lack thereof—when we look at back talk. It is a form of challenging you or your authority. Much of reducing or eliminating back talk has to do with conflict resolution…and communication. What are the key things parents should keep in mind that will minimize back talk and keep it from becoming a chronic problem?
A: You’re right, the biggest issue parents have with back talk is a feeling of being disrespected. We are tempted to shut it down immediately in order to prove our authority, but children learn the valuable skill of conflict resolution by being in conflict with people, and that means firstly by being in conflict with parents. Rather than being quick to shut down back talk, we can use it as an opportunity to teach our children how to respectfully communicate their disagreement and state their case.
You might encourage positive communication by asking, “Why is this important to you?” or “What other ideas do you have that meet the needs of all involved?” Of course, you don’t want to engage in a back-and-forth every time your child challenges you. If something is truly non-negotiable, use a short and respectful statement to disengage from the argument, such as “I’ve already answered that” or “I won’t be arguing about this.” If your child resorts to being truly disrespectful, you might say, “I understand that you are feeling upset, but speak in a way that doesn’t attack me. If you can’t do that right now, take a break and come back when you’re ready to.”
You should absolutely model boundary setting in the way you allow people to treat you because you want your children to be able to set those same boundaries with others.
Finally, being too controlling and being too permissive both elicit back talk. Reflect on whether you have been either if back talk is becoming an issue in your home. Children need a firm but fair leader who takes their opinions respectfully into account and also knows how to stand firm when needed.