Behavior Management Part 1
One of the hardest parts of parenting can be behavior management. Behavior is “the way in which one acts or conducts oneself, especially towards other in response to a particular situation or stimulus.” Our children’s behaviors are the results of an emotion they are feeling due to a situation or stimulus.
Behavior molding or management is a key part of parenting. This work begins when your child is an infant but really becomes important during the toddler years. As your child enters toddlerhood, they are expanding language skills and seeing themselves and independent beings. Their brain is developing social skills, logic, and self-control. They need to try out different words, emotions, and skills in order to determine which ones are appropriate. Behavior molding, or discipline, continues throughout your child’s life as they grow, change, and reach new developmental milestones.
Discipline as a word can have a negative connotation but discipline comes from the Latin word teach. Discipline is the teaching of “orderly conduct based on moral training”.
It does not need or deserve the negative connotation that word can bring. Discipline can involve positive interaction or behavioral techniques.
This part of parenting is hard. There is not a parent on earth who can escape this necessary stage of life. To make it even harder, many of us were raised with discipline methods we don’t agree with and would like to avoid with our own children.
This week we will look at the basic things we need in order to put our best foot forward parenting and things that can help our children manage their behaviors and emotions. In the following weeks we will discuss methods of discipline and common behaviors of childhood and how to address them.
Authoritative parents have rules and boundaries and also consequences. They take the child’s opinions and feelings into account when parenting but their way of leading makes children feels secure because they know the adult is in charge. This type of parents often uses positive discipline methods, such as reward and attention, to prevent behavior problems. Children raised with this style are happy, successful and good at problem solving.
A parent who is authoritarian believes kids should follow the rules without exception and without explanation. It is a “because I said so” style. Parents using this style are more likely to use punishments for discipline. This method often raises children who are rule followers but often for the wrong reasons. They end up adults that have higher rates of hostility and aggression.
Permissive parents are lenient parents. They often do not step in or provide guidance unless there is a serious problem. This is a style that has a “kids will be kids” attitude. This style will use consequences but often does not follow through entirely. Children parented this way often have more behavioral problems, don’t respect authority, and can have low self-esteem. They are at higher risk for sadness and health problems such as obesity and dental caries.
Uninvolved parents are very hands off and generally are unaware of what their children are doing. These parents provide few rules and rarely provide guidance or attention. Uninvolved parents may let children raise themselves due to social or financial factors or they may be physically or mentally ill and unable to provide for their child. Children raised with this style often have problems in school, problems with behavior, and higher rates of unhappiness.
PARENTING AS A TEAM
Before you can start using a discipline plan, you must have a discussion with your partner about which method of discipline seems to fit your family best. Having both caregivers on the same page is essential. Children need consistency especially with any behavioral management. Getting mix signals is very confusing for children, can increase behaviors, and can often result in children learning to manipulate their parents. This discussion should happen before you even need these techniques. You also should share this with any other caretakers involved in your child’s life.
This is also a good time to discuss how you were disciplined as a child and what you felt worked and didn’t work. It is often important to work through this with your partner because children’s behavior and your partner’s responses may be triggering depending on your upbringing. For example, if your family upbringing involved lots of yelling but your partners did not, yelling may be a scary event for them or even yourself, depending on how it was handled in your house. Did the yelling come with shame and embarrassment or was it followed by love and understanding? Everything has a context and that will affect your emotional reactions. Bringing awareness to any triggers can help both you as a parent, your partner, and your child.
One of the most important things you can do to help guide your child’s behavior is to MODEL that good behavior. Children learn from watching us. You want to use the behaviors you expect from them. This may include using good manners, sharing, listening to others, and showing kindness. We can also help identify and praise these behaviors when we see them happen in others.
We don’t just want to model good behaviors but also model how you handle negative emotions or frustrations. If your emotions get the best of you either directed towards your children or otherwise, speak with your child after. Let them know you made a mistake, and your reaction was not appropriate. It helps them normalize their own behaviors. It is also an opportunity for them to learn from you how you recover from that emotion. Model how you calm down and the coping mechanisms you use.
We also need to focus on taking care of ourselves. When we are not eating well, sleeping well, or exercising, we are not at our emotional best. Think of it like a pitcher. You have a pitcher of water and your child has a cup. You cannot fill your child’s cup with water if the pitcher is empty. You need to make sure you are filling your pitcher. This means meeting your basic needs for sleep and nutrition. It also should involve an aspect of self-care. It doesn’t have to be a big day at the spa (although that would be lovely). It can be a 10-minute walk listening to music you love, an earlier bedtime, a walk around Target by yourself, treating yourself to a favorite coffee or beverage, or watching your favorite movie. Remember, you can only give to your child if you have something to give.
In addition to providing ourselves with care, we need to make sure your child’s basic needs are being met. We need to make sure they are getting quality sleep. We have years of practice managing our emotions and I think we can all agree, we don’t do it very well when we are tired! We are more likely to overreact or react in a negative way to even a minor situation. We cannot expect children with developing brains to operate well without enough sleep!
We also need to make sure they are getting enough physical activity. Children need to move and should be moving a minimum of 60 minutes daily. More is better and being outdoors is of utmost importance! We need to make sure they are getting the calories, nutrients, and fluids they need. We all operate better, handle emotions better, and cope with situations better when we take care of our bodies.
We need to make sure they feel safe and secure. A child may feel less secure or safe because of a community or national event, a family change, a new sibling, or a move. As adults, we haves a strong emotional response to events like these and we need to remember children may also, especially since they may or cannot understand what is going on around them.
To help your child feel secure, the need exposure to loving and nurturing relationships. And children, especially younger children, thrive on routine. The more stable the routine they more likely they are to be able to deviate from that routine without issues or a behavioral response. Providing structure and consistency helps a child feel safe and secure. An important part of a nurturing relationship means giving your child attention. You need to play and connect with your child daily.
Remember the pitcher and cup example above. Part of what fills our child’s cup is getting undivided attention from you. The more you fill it with positive attention, the more positive behaviors your child will exhibit. Spending quality, positive time with your child, even just 5 or 10 minutes of uninterrupted time a day, can fill their cup and decrease unwanted behaviors. During this quality time, let them lead play or the activity. Make sure you remove any distractions. Show eye contact, listen to what they are saying and summarize or repeat what they said so they know you are listening. Respect what they are expressing or their choice in activity. If your child is having a rough day, you can often turn their day around by spending 5 quick one-on-one minutes with your child.
Behavior plus attention equals more behaviors. All children want attention and will seek any type of attention they can get be it positive or negative. If your child is receiving a lot of positive attention it will decrease the need for them to act out to get negative attention. If your child is not getting enough of any attention, it may increase negative or unwanted behaviors since these almost always get attention.
Therefore, we need to pay MORE attention to good behaviors. That doesn’t mean we pay NO attention to undesirable behaviors, but we need to help your child identify the behaviors you want to see. By positively reinforcing behaviors, this helps your child identify behaviors that should be repeated. If they are constantly getting lots of attention for negative behaviors, they will continue to repeat those behaviors to get attention. Over the course of the day, you should be offering more praise than negative attention (this can be really hard some days). Attention can be though play or verbal but can also be gentle touch, eye contact, a smile, or a nod.
SETTING UP FOR SUCCESS
Part of managing behavior is setting your child up for success. There are things we can do to help. Setting clear boundaries or rules help children feel safe and secure. They like knowing what is expected of them. Your family should also have “house rules”. When the expectations set out clearly, it is easier for a child to know which behaviors are acceptable as well as which behaviors are not tolerated. Children are not mind readers. The more information we can give them about expectations, the more likely they are to meet those expectations.
We can also try to shift to saying yes or what our children can do. It is frustrating for children to be redirected or to be told no all day long. The more you tell them what they can do, the more likely they are to react favorably. For example, if your child is throwing sand in the sandbox, instead of saying “Don’t throw sand,” you can say “we put sand in buckets and we build castles”. You are redirecting and giving them examples of what they can do.
Preparing our children can also help them manage their feelings and behavior. Giving a warning about leaving a playground or another transition time can help your child prepare to end an activity. Having them help set a timer to count down the time, turning it on and off on your phone, can help them take ownership over that transition and decreases negative behaviors around transitions.
We can also prepare children for events or times where emotions may be uncomfortable such as a new sibling arriving, a doctor’s appointment or a scary experience. You can discuss exactly what will happen, if you will be there, how you will keep them safe, and how they may feel. You can demonstrate things on stuff animals. You can practice! For example, Halloween can be scary for a toddler. You buy a cute costume only to your child won’t wear it on Halloween. By practicing wearing the costume around the house in the weeks leading up to the holiday and practicing ringing a doorbell and receiving candy you are much more likely to be successful on the actual night.
Or if your child needs a shot at the doctors, instead of surprising them, lying if they ask or dismissing their fear, you can prepare them for the experience in a safe, calm manner. In addition to explaining, you can demonstrate on their stuffed animal and let them take a turn, Take time to explain to your child why they get a shot and what will happen in the office. You can say “The shot is to help your body learn to fight germs so that you stay healthy. You will be brought into a room. I will be with you the whole time and I will keep you safe. You will feel a cold wet wipe on your arm then a quick pinch. Afterwards we can give each other a big hug and get a sticker!” Just simple preparation, without extra emotion, that reassures their safety, can result in a more positive experience.
POWER STRUGGLES AND CONTROL
Often behaviors are the result of children trying to have power and control over their lives. We often make little missteps that set us up for power struggles. A child will try to engage in a power struggle or try gain control over an emotion or situation that may be eliciting a big feeling. Ways that we can avoid these missteps and help avoid issues related to power or control can include:
• If it is not a choice, do not ask it as a question. Do not say “Do you want to go have your diaper changed?”. Instead say “It’s time for a diaper change”. Often if asked a question, they will say no. If the expectation is set, they are more likely to follow.
• Offer choice when you can. For the example above, “Do you want to have your diaper changed here or in your room” or “do you want the striped diaper or the polka dot diaper”.
• Remember to give them power, but power with boundaries! Parents make the big choice and children make the small choice. For example, you decide what is served for dinner and they can choose between the blue or red plate.
• Keep choices simple and both should be acceptable choices to you. Don’t give a choice you aren’t willing to commit to.
• Any instructions you give your child should be direct, to the point, and developmentally appropriate. This means only using one-step directions for a one year old, but 2-3 step directions for a 3 to 5 year old.
• Before giving instructions make sure you have their attention. Use their name, make eye contact, and use a strong but not angry voice.
• Have your child repeat the directions back to make sure they heard and understand
• Praise your child for following or trying to follow directions.
Behaviors are what we all do to respond to situations and experiences. We help our children modify their behaviors. We set your child up for success by ensuring that your and your child’s needs are taken care of, by setting boundaries and expectations, and by being prepared for this stage of parenting. Next week we will discuss and evaluate different discipline methods.
Children’s Health Care of Newburyport, Massachusetts and Haverhill, Massachusetts is a pediatric healthcare practice providing care for families across the North Shore, Merrimack Valley, southern New Hampshire, and the Seacoast regions. The Children’s Health Care team includes pediatricians and pediatric nurse practitioners who provide comprehensive pediatric health care for children, including newborns, toddlers, school aged children, adolescents, and young adults. Our child-centered and family-focused approach covers preventative and urgent care, immunizations, and specialist referrals. Our services include an on-site pediatric nutritionist, special needs care coordinator, and social workers. We also have walk-in appointments available at all of our locations for acute sick visits. Please visit chcmass.com where you will find information about our pediatric doctors, nurse practitioners, as well as our hours and services.
Disclaimer: this health information is for educational purposes only. You, the reader, assume full responsibility for how you choose to use it.