Have you ever had one of those days when no matter what you say, your child (conveniently) does not hear you? You could be talking as loud as your voice allows, doing hand gestures to express yourself, while repeating yourself over and over, yet they don’t respond. It’s infuriating, isn’t it?
Or how about the days when your child gets upset about something? So upset that they can’t seem to use their words to talk with you, and they won’t stop for a minute to calm themselves down. They get so angry and you keep trying to help them figure out whatever it is that is upsetting them. You trying to help them only makes them more worked up. Pretty soon it’s an hour later, you are both in tears, utterly exhausted, and ready to throw in the towel for the day.
In these moments, it is so hard to be rational. Staying calm and neutral is very difficult. Think about how hard it is to be patient and wait out a tantrum in the middle of the grocery store for you. Now think of what that must be like for a young child! It’s not easy from either perspective.
There are a few things that you can teach yourself and your child to do that may help change your attitude about your child’s behavior in these moments:
If the behavior is something that is not going to harm anyone, you can practice a technique called ignore. Pretty scientific, huh? I know, it’s total rocket science. In all seriousness though, some behavior you just have to ignore. Pretend that you don’t see it, because if you feed into it and give your child all sorts of feedback, they have found a way to get your full attention by doing something they know is not a good choice.
You have to retrain yourself to give reinforcement and attention only for positive behaviors. Children love when you catch them being good. They soak up praise like little sponges, and each time you give attention for appropriate behavior, your child is going to remember that.
When possible, give your child choices. For the most part, kids just want to feel like they have some control. As adults, we don’t like it when we are told what to do all of the time. Imagine if that was what happened day in and day out, over and over, for about 18 years. I’m pretty sure most of us would explode at some point, which is exactly what can happen to kids!
If you give your child two choices that you are okay with, they will be more likely to engage in what you are asking them to do because they will feel like they have a say in the decision. They want their voice heard and by giving choices, you are telling them that their opinion matters. Tell them what their choices are, pause and give them time to think about them, and then when they choose the appropriate choice, praise them up and down. Giving choices has saved many hours of power struggles and arguments at our house, which has helped keep me sane!
3. Eye Contact:
Try to always make eye contact when speaking with your child. We are all guilty of yelling some sort of request to our children from another room. We may yell out the back door for them to come inside and wash their hands for dinner. Or maybe we yell from the kitchen that it’s time to clean up and start getting ready for bed. Often when we state a request with distance between us, our children will just keep on doing what they’re doing and ignore what we are saying. If you make the effort, walk yourself to wherever they are, and make eye contact with your child before making your request, you will find that they will often listen to you much better.
Yes, their ears do work! It won’t happen every time, but when you are right in front of them, it’s very difficult to completely ignore what you are saying. For young children this means getting down to their level. Kneel, sit, crouch, do whatever will position yourself at their eye level. Believe it or not, we don’t just use our ears for listening. We use our eyes, too. Using this technique at an early age may save you frustration in the future.
4. Avoid threats:
Don’t use words that may feel punitive or threatening. Threats will get you nowhere with children. Just ask a parent that has an emotional four-year-old. Wait, that’s me! I am very guilty of unintentionally using threats to try to get my daughter to make a better choice. Telling her that she will lose a preferred toy or activity in the middle of a meltdown will only make her more upset and put her in a complete tailspin. I know this from first-hand experience. But I also know from experience that if I change my tone and give a very direct specific direction or request using a calm voice, she will comply.
For example, if I say to her, “When you pick up your toys, I will color with you,” she may groan, but she will do it knowing that she’s going to get what she wants from me after. I will join her and color, just like she wants me to. Had I said, “If you don’t pick up your toys, you will lose your crayons and won’t be able to color,” she would have gotten upset, thrown a fit, and probably started to cry. Then we would both be upset and the toys still would not be picked up. No one wins when threats are used!
5. Take a Break:
Allow yourself to take a break. In the midst of a tantrum, sometimes you and your child just need to take a break from each other. Teach your child that using alone time to peacefully calm down is a good thing. Taking a break is very different than a time out. A break is not a punishment. It’s a time to help your brain and body relax and be ready to make positive choices. At our house, we give each other 5-minute breaks when needed.
It is a family rule that if mommy or daddy say they need a break to think, our daughter is to not bother us for five minutes. The same goes for her too. If she gets upset and says that she needs a break, we back off and let her have alone time until she’s calm and ready to talk. Even if it is in the middle of us trying to get our point across about something, we stop, separate, and come back together to solve the issue once everyone is ready to. This is a much healthier option, and it is a great way to teach your child to self-monitor their anger and behavior.
When you’re out and about running errands or grocery shopping, taking a break may mean that you both refrain from speaking for a few minutes. A little silence can move mountains when it comes to frustration. It could mean you leave the place you are at and sit quietly in the car listening to music until you or your child is ready to calmly proceed back into the store to finish your shopping. Sometimes taking a break may mean going home from where you are to think about things and then trying again on a different day when you both are in a better mood.
Sometimes we just need space to regroup and regain our composure, which is a healthy example to set for your child.
Maybe one of these strategies will help you the next time you find yourself getting frustrated at your child for their challenging behavior. These could even help your child learn how to make positive choices so the behavior doesn’t occur at all. I know that these tips have encouraged better behavior at our house, and hopefully they will at your house, too.