DISCLAIMER: This blog is not written by a psychologist with superpowers who has never become frustrated at her children. This blog is written by a real mom who recently caught herself yelling “Stop yelling at your sister!” …and the irony had her thinking, “Hmm. I could blog about that.”
When responding to our children’s negative behaviors, from minor infractions to blatant disobedience, it’s best to leave emotion out of it. If we get too frustrated by our children’s behavior or feel personally offended by it, our response is often more emotional than logical. A bit of mindfulness (being in the present moment without thinking about the past or future) can be useful here. When your child throws a tantrum, the focus should be on this one tantrum, not that it is his fifth tantrum over the past 2 weeks or that you have to get dinner ready in 30 minutes. Responding to the moment without the emotional baggage of what has happened or what needs to happen can free up our resources and allow us to approach the situation—and our children—more rationally.
Developing a plan for how to respond to negative behaviors is imperative. Similar to ordering from a menu at a restaurant, choice of discipline should be contemplated and intentional. (Unless you’re going to Superdawg. Then just always get a chocolate shake, no menu necessary.)
Devise a system that lays out some “undesirable” behaviors your child engages in (e.g., hitting, talking back, etc.) and an appropriate associated consequence (e.g., time out, removal of privilege, etc.). When initiating a behavior plan, start small. Choose one or two behaviors and appropriate consequences, write it down in a simple format, and review it with your children. It’s important for them to know that there are consequences for their negative behaviors and to have a basic understanding of the rules in the house. When the behavior occurs, impart the consequence; there should be no surprises for your child or for you.
A word of warning: it gets worse before it gets better. Children generally escalate their negative behavior to get what they want if their usual level of disobedience/noncompliance/pouting does not work. It’s your job to stick to the plan. If you do this consistently, the negative behavior will eventually subside. In addition, when parents are consistent, it is comforting to children: we show that we are predictable and that we mean what we say.
If you use time-outs as a consequence, here are a few pointers:
• The amount of time should be your child’s age in minutes
• The time-out location should be consistent
• The time-out location should have no access to external rewards
o The child should not be in his room
o The child should not have access to toys or electronics
o The child should not be able to see other family members
• If the child leaves the time-out location, he is to return and the timer restarts
Here’s an example:
• Child hits sibling
• You approach child and say “I saw you hit your sister. You’re going to have a time out now.”
• Calmly walk the child to the time-out location
• Set a timer for the number of minutes equivalent to your child’s age
• When the timer goes off, discuss the situation with your child
o How did you feel when you hit your sister?
o What can you do differently when you feel that way next time?
o What is a better way to solve the problem with your sister instead of hitting her?
Remember—we all get heated when our children do, but their frustration is not the stomach flu; it does not have to be contagious. Take a breath, deliver the consequence, and then give yourself permission to disengage while your child is in their time-out. They might scream and yell as part of their cool-down process, and that’s OK. Go take a sip of your chocolate shake.
For additional information on mindfulness in parenting, see my blog from March 2016
Jillian Wickery, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist
Athans and Associates
32 Main Street, Park Ridge, IL 60068