If you asked me a year ago what word best described my parenting, it might have been “rigid.” Being a preschool teacher for so many years had made me a little too good at setting limits and following through. It got to the point where every day with my 3-year-old son was a repeat cycle of tears and unnecessary power struggles. I found myself thinking that I couldn’t let go of one single thing because then, “He’d win.”
But one day it hit me… at what point did he and I stop being on the same team? At what point did I start controlling him instead of guiding him? Of course I should want him to “win.” I want him to win at solving problems. To win at loving others unconditionally. Most importantly, to win in our relationship.
Fast forward to now, and I’m viewing defiance and misbehavior in a whole new light.
Solve Your Child’s Behavior Problems
Emotional regulation is your child’s ability to keep themselves calm when they are upset, and it’s so HARD for them. Your child wants to behave, always. But due to an immature brain and lack of regulating strategies, he struggles.
Since children are always trying their hardest to behave, whenever we see misbehavior, there is something blocking them from being able to do what they naturally want to do…which is to please us.
I know what you are thinking… my screaming, flailing child couldn’t possibly want to please me. She absolutely does. In fact, there is nothing she wants more than to feel like she’s on your side again.
The standard protocol in our culture for dealing with behavior problems in our children is punishment. We send them away to time-out, or send them to their room, basically get them out of our sight until they are ready to act “right.” This strategy might seem like it works, but its effects are only temporary. What we are really doing when we send our children away is telling them that when their feelings get too big or too scary, they’re on their own.
If you truly believe that your child is trying her very best, but struggling, then punishments really make no sense at all. It’s like asking a 3-year-old to run a marathon with weights around her ankles and then being angry that she can’t do it. It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it?
So what’s the alternative?
Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids states, “Defiance is not a discipline problem, it’s a relationship problem.”
Let that sink in a little bit. It’s not about the discipline strategies. Your child is acting out because he feels disconnected from you.
Disconnection: The root of all defiance
Children can feel disconnection from us for a variety of reasons: being physically separated, being distracted (on the phone, cooking, talking to another adult), during times of stress, or even bedtime. Notice that each of these are times when our children act out the most, right?
They have a meltdown the minute we pick them up from daycare. They start whining the second we answer the phone. They tantrum at bedtime.
Children have such a hard time whenever they feel even the slight bit disconnected from us. Why? Because ever since they were a tiny baby, you’ve been their safety net. You mean safety, comfort, and happiness. Whenever they feel disconnected from you, they feel disconnected from safety. Acting out is their way of releasing that fear and anxiety.
So if you want your child’s behavior to improve, then your relationship with them needs to improve. They need to feel more connected to you.
Picture this scenario:
Your child is happily playing with her toys when you tell her it’s time to get ready for bed. She screams at the top of her lungs “NOOOO!!”
Many parents – taken aback by her screaming – would immediately escalate, send her to a timeout, or start taking away privileges. She feels misunderstood, can’t emotionally regulate herself, and spirals into a full-blown tantrum.
Instead, what if you met her outburst by getting down on her level, using a soft voice and saying “You really wanted to keep playing. You didn’t want it to be bedtime.” She’s immediately reassured, and the situation de-escalates. By addressing the emotion before the action, you are telling her that you understand how she feels. Now you can follow up by telling her want you want her to do next time instead of screaming. Since she’s calm, she’s way more likely to internalize what you are saying to her.
Fill Your Child’s Love Bucket
Every moment you spend filling up your child’s emotional love bucket has a positive effect on their behavior. It also makes you a calmer, more attentive, and more energetic parent.
Here are some really simple and practical ways of reconnecting with your child. I challenge you to try them out and see the immediate difference it makes in their behavior:
After being physically separated
Hold your child for a few minutes. Hug them. Smile. As them about their day, but don’t get upset if they don’t want to talk about it. Tell them how happy you are to see them. Fill their love bucket.
After being distracted or busy
Say, “Thanks for being so quiet while I was on the phone with Grandma, I’m ready to read that book to you now.” Or if they weren’t so quiet, try saying “It’s so hard to be quiet while I’m on the phone, because you want my attention right now. But yelling isn’t a good way to tell me that you need me. Next time, just quietly touch my arm – like this – and I will know that you need me.”
After an outburst
Get down on your child’s eye level. Bring them close to you or give them a hug. Acknowledge their emotion and that you know they’re trying. Ask them to think about how we can solve this problem. If it’s a non-negotiable thing, just reassure them that you understand and that it’s okay to be sad.
After they wake up
Spend 5 minutes first thing in the morning (before your child even gets out of bed) to cuddle, talk, or pray before starting the day. There’s nothing more jarring for a child than to be rushed out of bed and expected to get dressed and ready before they are feeling connected to you. Avoid screen time if you can, because it is difficult for children to transition away from screens first thing in the morning.
After a tantrum
Acknowledge the stress, anger, or fear. Reassure your child that all their feelings are ok, but that certain actions are not ok. Ask them to help you think about things they can try next time to be able to calm down when they are upset.
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