No matter what approach we take in raising our children, they are bound to act out at some point in a way that we consider to be unacceptable. All parents know the feeling – your head fills with confusion, your heart fills with shame, and you wonder just where you went wrong that led to your child’s decision to hit her sister, talk back to his teacher, or throw a kicking and screaming fit over a cookie at the store. Thankfully, you are not alone. Rebecca Eanes, the founder of Positive-Parents.org, asked over nine thousand mothers and fathers which behaviors their children exhibited that truly made them lose their cool, and the results were refreshingly familiar. Here is my favorite advice (compiled from her website, as well as Love and Logic, other experts, and personal experience) on three of the big ones: aggression, tantrums, and back talk.
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There are very few things worse than watching your child hurt someone else – so how do we deal when it happens?
-Do not meet violence with violence. Traditional discipline dictates that a child who hits should be hit or spanked himself. However, this only shows the child that hitting out of anger and frustration is okay. Furthermore, it will keep the child in that reactive fight-or-flight state, during which she cannot effectively examine her behavior in a reasoned way and learn how to do better next time.
-Listen and empathize. Let the child tell you why he kicked his friend, and tell him that you understand why he felt frustrated and hurt. Calmly explain that kicking is not acceptable and will not be tolerated. Then, discuss non-violent ways that these feelings can be handled in the future.
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-Set firm limits that you are willing to enforce. Be clear about the consequences for aggressive behavior, and make sure that you follow through every time. For example, do not tell your daughter that if she kicks her brother under the table she will lose her dessert, and then cave in and give her a scoop of ice cream after her attitude turns around. Similarly, don’t tell your son that you won’t take him to the pool anymore if he hits, knowing full well you’ve already paid for six weeks of swim lessons. This teaches them that your rules are just empty threats, and encourages them to manipulate their way out of facing the consequences of bad behavior.
Ah, the tantrum – enemy of grocery lists everywhere. Sadly I have yet to come across a magical fix, but I have learned the following:
– Contrary to popular belief, most children will not throw a tantrum in an effort to manipulate their parents. Rather, a temper tantrum is how a child deals with overwhelming emotions that are too difficult for him to understand or express. It is only when you give in to your child every time she throws a tantrum that she can learn to use this behavior as a means of control.
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-Understand that tantrums are involuntary and inevitable. A child’s prefrontal cortex is not yet fully developed. This is the part of the brain that regulates emotion and social behavior. Unfortunately, this means that tantrum prevention is futile – and effective tantrum management varies widely from child to child, since tantrums are as wildly diverse as the children throwing them.
-The most commonly recommended techniques for managing a tantrum are to completely disengage by ignoring it and walking away, or to actively empathize with the child, trying to calm him down and work through his feelings. For my child, I find that either of these approaches will work well as long as I distract him with something else. However, he is a one and a half year old with little kid problems, like a stacking ring that falls off his head or a purse he is not allowed to open – so he is much easier to redirect than an older child might be. As I explained above, every child is different – find a method that works with yours, and don’t beat yourself up when the tantrums continue to happen despite your best efforts. It’s in their nature.
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My child is not much of a talker yet, but he can already sass with the best of them. When I tell him no, he will often listen (hooray!), and then look at me and make an angry, aggressive noise with a pout. We are really just hoping for him to listen and obey at this age, so we let his back pre-talk slide. While his attempts at back talk are harmless and a little bit cute now, they will become less so as he grows older – so I found some advice to ready myself for this battle.
-Differentiate between problematic back talk and a valid complaint. Teach your child to voice her disagreement and address conflicts with authority in a respectful manner, so she does not feel that talking back with an attitude of disrespect is her only option when she wants to be heard. When she does have a problem with you, listen respectfully. Do not chalk it up to back talk and shut it down just to avoid conflict and assert your authority.
-Construct clear boundaries. Explain to your child that he may tell you why he thinks a rule is unfair using a calm tone, respectful language, and a willingness to understand that although you will listen, he may still not get his way. Give your child a firm understanding of what kinds of speech and behavior will end the conversation. Respectfully disengage when these ground rules are broken, using a phrase like “I am not open to arguing about this issue when you use unkind language”.
-Reassure your child that even people who love one another very much disagree often, and that no one makes perfect decisions one hundred percent of the time. Tell him you are trying your best to do what is right for him because you love him very much.
Every child is different, and each one will require a unique style of parenting in order to grow into a happy, healthy, and productive member of society. Do what feels right to you, and don’t beat yourself up when you get it wrong. We all do – and all we can really give our children is our best.