Aha! Parenting Blog

Practical solutions for real parenting problems

9 Ways To Transform "Bad" Behavior

 

"Disconnection is at the heart of many behavior problems. We often respond to "bad behavior" with isolation, time outs, humiliation, hitting, slapping, threats, yelling or withdrawal of love. These responses create even more disconnection, which is why they don't work very well." - Dr. Lawrence Cohen

All parents get frustrated when our child knows the appropriate behavior but doesn't do it. Even worse is provocative behavior, when a child deliberately acts badly -- what some parents call "bratty" behavior. It's easy to think that screaming or using force might "teach" the child acceptable behavior.

“You don't seem to ever discuss discipline in terms of teaching acceptable behavior. Sometimes these kids are brats and they need to be aware of it. I'm not saying that Screaming is good but screaming or other tactics besides hugs are necessary." - Erica

The Aha! Parenting website has over a thousand pages of examples showing how to teach acceptable behavior using empathic limits, so if you aren't getting enough examples from these posts, please do some exploring on the Aha! website. I'm hoping you'll have an Aha! moment, which is this:

There is no such thing as a brat, only a child who is hurting.

Children want more than anything in the world to protect their relationship with us, as long as that doesn't compromise their own integrity. If our child is acting like a "brat," she's either signaling that she needs a stronger connection with us, that she's got some big feelings she needs our help with, or that she can't meet our expectation without some tailored support. After all, support (along with modeling) is how we teach acceptable behavior -- because that is what helps children learn, and what motivates them to cooperate.

So given that Aha! insight, which would be the most effective way to transform "bratty" behavior into cooperative behavior?

  1. Having high expectations for our child's behavior
  2. Ignoring "bad behavior"
  3. Screaming
  4. Timeout
  5. Give tailored support
  6. Setting empathic limits
  7. Help the child with the feelings that are keeping him from cooperating by playing
  8. Help the child with the feelings that are keeping him from cooperating by crying
  9. Hugs

Let's consider each of these in turn, using this example: 

"Dr. Laura...Could you do a post about empathic limits? Every time I come home with my daughter I remind her that when we go inside she must take off her shoes. She often will immediately run to the couch and climb onto it with her shoes on. I know she does this precisely because she knows she's not supposed to, and now I warn her if she doesn't get down she will get a timeout. Usually she gets a timeout. I can't not respond when she does something like this. What can I do instead of a timeout?" - Eden

1. Having high expectations for our child's behavior

Yes, this is an effective strategy. If we give up and let our child jump on the couch with her shoes, she will certainly do it. But this strategy only works when we have age-appropriate expectations and constantly, cheerfully, enforce them. And if the child knows the age-appropriate expectation and still doesn't meet it, then either she needs help with the tangled-up feelings that are keeping her from cooperating, or she needs a better connection with us so that she WANTS to cooperate.

2. Ignoring the behavior

This works for temporary issues that you can live with. For instance, if your child is acting out because he's very hungry, you can address his need and he'll be back to his sunny self. You might acknowledge his inappropriate behavior in a non-judgmental way: "You are so hungry, you're getting very impatient... Let's calm down and get you some food!" but you don't need to make a big deal about it. On the other hand, if your child is repeatedly testing your limits by jumping on the couch, ignoring the behavior doesn't help. She's asking you to intervene to help her.

3. Screaming

This is also known as the parental tantrum. It is never an effective tactic in enforcing your expectations, except to the degree that it scares your child into immediate compliance. We all know that in adult relationships when someone indulges in a "tantrum" it erodes the relationship. When we do it with our kids, it also erodes the relationship. That makes kids act out even more. Screaming is a symptom that you've slipped onto the low road of parenting, into fight or flight, and you're seeing your child as the enemy. Our child is never the enemy, no matter how ugly he's acting. He's a very young human with an immature brain who is signaling that he needs your help.

4. Timeout

This sometimes stops the "bratty" behavior immediately. However, it's a symbolic abandonment, which is why it works. After all, your child needs your presence to survive. Putting her in timeout is a threat that at any time you might withdraw your love and even your presence, leaving your child unprotected. You're telling her that you're not there to help her with those upsetting feelings that are driving her to act out. Since most children aren't compliant enough to go willingly to time out, it creates power struggles that can infect your whole relationship. And it stops working as kids get older, leaving a resentful child who is in rebellion rather than one who WANTS to cooperate.

5. Tailored support

Maybe she needs a warning about the transition coming up. Maybe you need to play a game that gets her giggling about power and obedience to defuse the tension about feeling pushed around. Maybe she needs a job to do when she comes in the house, so she feels some power.  Maybe you need to do some bonding before you come in the house so she wants to follow your lead. Maybe you need to put an old sheet on the couch for awhile to keep it clean. But if your repeated reminders that she needs to take off her shoes before getting on the couch aren't working, move on to:

6. Setting empathic limits

Kids don't share our priorities. Why should they? They have their own priorities (jumping on the couch!) and no understanding of our world view (couches cost money). So it's our job, all day, every day, to guide them. "Shoes get the couch dirty... no shoes on the couch." The more firm and consistent you are, the more your child can accept your limit, grieve about it, and move on. The more empathic you are, the more your child will accept your limits without needing to rebel against them. Redirection is the best way to stop the behavior because it channels the energy. "I see that's so much fun! And you know the couch is not for jumping. Come, off the couch. Let's go jump on the old mattress in the basement."

All kids will naturally test limits to see if they're firm. That means that for now you'll need to stay with her as you enter the house and help her get those shoes off, every time, before she heads for the couch. Eventually, it will become a habit, and neither of you will even think about it.

But what if she darts away from you and makes a beeline for the couch, before you can get her shoes off? She's sending you a signal that something's getting in the way of her cooperating with you. What? Emotions. Kids store up their feelings, waiting for a safe chance to release them with a compassionate witness. That's you. If you get to the bottom of these tangled emotions, you'll stop "bad" behavior before it starts.

Sure, you can make her "stuff" those feelings, by screaming at her or punishing her. She'll comply, eventually--until she's old enough to rebel. The teen years won't be pretty. And you'll never be as close as you could be, to this person you brought into the world.

Or you can help her with those feelings. That will help her cooperate with your agenda. It will teach her emotional intelligence. It will make her more able to meet your expectations as she gets older. And it will bring you closer. How? Play when you can. Cry when you have to.

7. Help the child with the feelings that are keeping him from cooperating -- Play when you can.

Take a deep breath and repeat after me: "It is not an emergency. We can play with this." Keep your tone light and playful, so you get her giggling. "Excuse me?! Are you on that couch with your shoes on?! We'll see about that! I'm the couch protector, and I always get my girl!" Scoop her up, laughing, and toss her over your shoulder. As you run around the house with her, take her shoes off and toss them towards where they belong. Sing a silly chant about how much you love her and you'll never let her go. Keep dropping her on the couch and scooping her up again. Finally, collapse together on the couch for a good snuggle.

The next time you enter the house, before you go in the door, tell her you want to play the game again, but first she has to take her shoes off with you, right inside the door. Transform the game from one of defiance into one of re-connection and celebration. Use it any time you need to, to interrupt "bad" behavior. Giggling releases upset feelings almost as well as crying does. It also creates more oxytocin, the bonding hormone, so when you and your child are laughing together, you're bonding.

8. Help the child with the feelings that are keeping him from cooperating -- Cry when you have to.

What if she doesn't giggle? Won't let you take her shoes off? Gets angry and defiant? She's beyond play. Her provocative behavior is letting you know that she just needs to cry and express all those emotions she's been stuffing. Wouldn't it be a lot better if she could just say "Mom, I feel like someone is always telling me what to do...I get so tired of it!" But she can't TELL you how she feels so instead she SHOWS you, with her defiance.

Summon up all your compassion. Look her in the eye. Set your limit clearly and kindly. "Sweetie, you know shoes get the couch dirty. I won't let you wear shoes on the couch." If you're able to stay compassionate, she may burst into tears. (If you take this personally and get mad, there's no way you'll get to tears -- you'll just have a fight on your hands.) Hold her while she cries, if she'll let you. Don't talk much, just tell her she's safe. If she lashes out, remember that the tears are right behind the anger. She just needs to feel a little safer to let them out. You build safety with your 24/7 empathy for your child, as well as with play, and with physical connection. Which brings us to:

9. Hugs

I agree that hugs are not our only tactic to reconnect and create cooperation. But they are probably our most useful. Hugs help our child feel safe enough to cry and let out the upsets that are driving her to act out. Hugs reconnect us, so our child WANTS to cooperate. And they remind us that our child, even if he's acting "bratty," is our beloved. Hugs rescue our child from the low road he's stumbled onto and pull him back up onto the high road with us. Hugs are no substitute for 24/7 empathy and daily one-on-one reconnection time with your child, but nine hugs a day are essential for him to thrive and want to cooperate.

I'll be doing more posts focusing on empathic limits in the near future, but for today, why not try more hugs?



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