In young children, there’s a fine line between those positive behaviors that make parents beam with joy, and problem behaviors that cause parents to blush with embarrassment.
In a matter of seconds, a well-behaved child may lose all control over those positive behaviors and dissolve into an absolute mess of whining, screaming, stomping and pouting.
There’s a few reasons for this.
The first is that children have to learn how to ask appropriately for their needs and wants. They are born into a world that responds instantly—at least hopefully—to their infant cries. They learn quickly that crying gets them attention and the thing that they want or need most. When they grow up, they need to learn how to start acting like a more mature child, which—let’s face it—is hard work without any guidance.
The second reason is that many children have learned over time that using inappropriate behaviors gets them the attention that they want at a much quicker pace. As much as most parents hate to admit it, you’ve all responded to an explosive, negative behavior in a public setting to save face in front of the many parent shamers who absolutely know how to parent your child better than you do!
If you want to encourage your child to use positive behaviors more often than problem behaviors to express what he’s thinking, feeling or wanting, try these three steps. But remember that children are children, and they’re just learning, so go easy on him if he accidentally has a meltdown every once in a while. He’ll get it figured out.
Step 1: Identify the Need
Every behavior, positive and negative, is fueled by a need. Humans make choices based on the things that they want or need, and children are no different. There’s a need behind your child’s decision to defy your directions at the zoo (independence) and his instant meltdown at daycare when his teacher has to leave to tend to the needs of another child (attention/companionship).
If you view the behavior as a negative behavior aimed at defying, disrespecting or bugging you, that behavior is going to continue for a long time. But, if you view the behavior simply as a method to convey a need, then you have figured out what’s causing the behavior and you can start working on the solution immediately.
Step 2: Acknowledge the Need
Once you’ve figured out the need that your child is expressing, that makes one person who knows what the heck has caused this negative behavior. The truth is that your child who is sitting on the ground, kicking, punching and screaming, may not have a great grasp on (1) how he currently is feeling or (2) what caused him to all of a sudden start acting this way. Sure, he was there participating in the event that made him dissolve into a ball of tears and flying fists, but he may not have the cognitive capacity to connect the two events as cause and effect. He needs your help recognizing what his needs are and that his methods to achieve this need to be altered.
If you want to stop the behavior immediately and you don’t have time for a lesson, then acknowledging the need simply requires that you understand what his need is and do something immediately to address that need, so that he can stop his negative behavior (see Step 3).
But, if you have the time and the patience, and the setting is right, then acknowledging the need means literally telling the child what the need is. Here are a few examples:
“You feel hungry so you thought it was ok to pull on the table cloth and knock all of that food down.”
“You’re upset that the older kids left and you had no one to play with and you think that whining is going to make them come back.”
“You wanted strawberry milk and I gave you white milk, so now you’re screaming because you think that will make me want to give you strawberry milk quicker.”
Step 3: Offer an Alternative
If you’ve made it to this point, you know what the need is that your child is wanting to express and that he is choosing to express his needs in an inappropriate way. What he needs from you now is to learn how he could use his words, gestures and behaviors differently in the future to get that need met quicker.
If you have to stop the behavior immediately because you’re in a public place and ignoring the behavior isn’t an option, tend to the need first. Do something to stop the behavior, and later when there’s time, talk about an alternative way that the child could have behaved. Ideally, this conversation would happen sooner rather than later to ensure that the event is fresh in his mind.
Here’s an example:
You are the hostess at a Pampered Chef party and your daughter has become increasingly bored as the women at the party ooh and ahh at the products being shown. Your Pampered Chef consultant asks you to demonstrate how a product works and as you start following her instructions, your daughter starts stealing the items off of the counter that the consultant is attempting to show off to your guests.
This isn’t a time to ignore your child’s behavior, but there also isn’t a great opportunity for a teaching lesson as you have a room filled with people who are here to watch the presentation, not your child’s misbehavior! While you can have a conversation with your daughter later about the ways that she can ask for attention and entertainment when she is bored, right now, your task is to stop her behavior.
I would recommend saying something like, “It looks like you’re getting bored. I could definitely use a helper. Can you wash your hands and then grab me that tomato over there?”
When you’re right in the middle of a public scene, it’s understandable that you won’t have the opportunity to teach a lasting lesson. But for those times when you have a moment and fewer spectators, take the opportunity right then to explain how ineffective your child’s method is at getting his need met and offer a different way that he could express his needs in the future.
Here is how I would follow up to the needs that I identified in Step 2:
“Now that you’ve knocked all of that food down, it’s your responsibility to clean it up. Once you’ve gotten it all cleaned up and if there is any left, then you can have some food. Next time, if you tell me that you are feeling hungry and ask me to get you some food, you’ll get to eat a lot sooner. Doesn’t that sound like a better plan?”
“You’ve been whining for a few minutes now. Is it working? Have the boys come back to play with you? Once you’ve calmed down, maybe you could walk over to those kids over there and ask them to play with you.”
“I can’t understand what you want when you scream, so I can’t get you what you want. If you use your words to tell me what you want, I can get it for you quicker. And, when you say ‘Please,’ I can move in super fast motion!”
No matter what age your child is, he is going to make some mistakes every once in awhile. Even when he’s learned the skills to say that he’s feeling angry, he’ll still resort to temper tantrums sometimes, and that’s ok. With you as his coach, teaching him how to use appropriate ways to get his needs met, over time he’ll figure out how to be the kid who more times than not makes you beam with pride while other parents are blushing in embarrassment.