"Okay, you've convinced me not to punish. But my two year old still bites, has tantrums, throws his food and scribbles on the furniture...."- Rebecca
Unfortunately, a two year old's frontal cortex is still developing the ability to control his emotions and behavior. That means they throw food, break
things, have meltdowns, bite when they're mad, and scribble on the furniture. In other words, they act like two year olds.
And since the brain is still developing through the teen years, even older kids sometimes lack the rational control to behave as we've taught them. So
even 15 year olds can act like 2 year olds at times! (Of course, we adults, with our fully developed brains, never have tantrums and act childish,
So you can't always prevent your child acting out, whether he's a toddler or a teen. But here are the five best strategies for preventing misbehavior,
and for helping kids shift course, for all age kids.
Often, children act out simply because they feel disconnected from us, so what we want doesn't matter to them. And when humans lash out -- biting, breaking
things, defiance -- it's because they feel afraid or hurt. Those upsetting feelings disconnect them from us, even if the relationship is usually close.
Since the child's motivation to "behave" comes from his connection with you, you have to re-establish the connection before you can influence his behavior.
So as soon as you see your child getting upset or simply pushing the limits of acceptable behavior, move in close and re-connect:
"Sweetie, I think we all need a hug..."
Sometimes that's enough to turn things around, especially if you can then move into....
Children process emotion through play, so you can often prevent "misbehavior" by helping your child channel her big feelings into giggles. Toddlers need
regular throwing games where they can satisfy those throwing impulses. Try beanbag tossing into a bucket, or balls outside, or tossing stuffed animals
down the stairs. Watch, compete (badly, so you always lose), admire his throwing, and be silly to get your child giggling. All young children need
lots of wrestling, and games where they get to feel powerful:
"You're just too fast for me! How come you always win?!"
The more laughter, the less misbehavior.
So when your child is beginning to push the limits, you might grab her up in your arms and say: "Are you out of hugs again?!"
You might even run around the house with her chanting something that gets her giggling, like
"We're growly, growly puppies... anyone who comes close gets a big puppy lick!"
Compete with each other to see who can growl most fiercely until you're both giggling and the whole mood changes. (Adapt this for older kids. I find pillow
fights essential to life with tweens and teens.)
Unless, sometimes, things have gone too far and your child just needs to express all those tears and fears, and play won't shift the mood. Then you....
3. Help him with emotions
...so they don't drive "misbehavior."
When your child is cranky or defiant and play doesn't shift the mood, he's asking for your help with his big feelings. All young children carry a figurative
"emotional backpack" where they stuff the emotions they don't feel safe enough to experience at the moment. When those feelings are pushing to come
up and be expressed, kids get anxious. They feel disconnected from us. They show this by refusing to cooperate. When we ignore these signals, we can
be sure our child will soon escalate and lash out.
Instead, prevent "misbehavior" by proactively noticing those mood changes and helping your child surface and express his upset. How? Create safety. Muster
as much compassion as you can. Move in close and look him in the eye. If necessary, put your hand on his arm to stop him from throwing, or on his belly
to stop him from moving toward his sister. Set your limit as kindly as you can:
"You're mad...tell me in words. No hitting; hitting hurts."
Hopefully, he'll melt into tears. More likely, he'll first turn his anger toward you. If you stay compassionate (and if you've been maintaining a close
connection with lots of play and special time),
he'll feel safe enough to show you the tears and fears behind the anger. Welcome these emotions. Sometimes fear looks like a tantrum, whether two or
ten, but he needs the "holding environment" of your warm presence to experience these feelings he's been stuffing.
The good news about emotions is, once we feel them, they evaporate. After his meltdown, your child will feel more relaxed, ready to happily reconnect and
The younger the child when you start "allowing" emotions, the faster he'll "befriend" them, the better he'll control them as he grows, and the fewer meltdowns
you'll see. But even older kids will sense the safety you're creating and "show" you what's upsetting them. Just keep breathing and don't take their
Does this mean you ignore verbal attacks? No. You acknowledge them and invite expression of the deeper tears and fears behind the anger.
"Ouch! You must be so upset to speak to me that way. What's wrong, Sweetie?"
Then you listen, and keep breathing! Later, your child will probably offer a spontaneous apology. If not, you can certainly comment later on respectful
language being one of your house rules. (Of course, you'll need to be the role model.)
4. Set limits with empathy.
Of course, none of this stops you from setting limits. It's our responsibility to guide our kids. But all humans resist being controlled. Kids of all
ages are more likely to follow our guidance when we understand their perspective. (It's also easier for humans to redirect an impulse than to stop
"Food is not for throwing! Are you showing me that you're done eating? Say 'Done, Mommy' and I will help you get down....Since you want to throw, go get your beanbags."
"I know, it's hard to stop playing and get ready for bed. I bet when you're a grown-up, you'll never sleep! You'll just play all night long every night, won't you? Right now, though, it's time to get ready for bed."
5. Regulate your own emotions.
Not surprisingly, kids will act like kids and exhibit childish behavior. When we react by throwing a tantrum ourselves, it always makes things worse.
If you can regulate your own emotions, you can always calm the storm. That's what teaches kids to manage their own emotions. Which is what allows
them to manage their behavior.
These 5 tools -- Connect, Play, Help with emotions, Set limits with empathy, and Regulate your own emotions -- will give
your child the support he needs to be his best self most of the time.
Of course, if your child is a toddler, you'll also want to practice prevention: keep pens out of reach, don't have markers in the house that aren't
washable, and develop really fast reflexes to catch his bowl when he's done eating.