12 Strategies for Curbing Difficult Behavior

by Heligirl on April 27, 2010

in Parenting Articles

Another installment in my Positive Discipline Articles

My buddy Kris brought up a great point in the comments to my last article, When Discipline Goes Bad. Setting your little one up for success is a big part of positive discipline. In fact, that is one of the 12 strategies in this article.

In Laura David and Janis Keyser’s book Becoming the Parent You Want to Be, they detail strategies to help you deal with a whole range of difficult behaviors. I’ve used all of these in some capacity or another, and while they won’t eliminate bad behavior (that’s just par for the course and a part of a child’s exploration), they’ll sure help keep it more manageable, and predictable.

It goes without saying that setting limits is an absolute must. Children need limits. They provide safety and security, not to mention a level of predictability. That’s not to suggest they won’t test them, but when you set clear and reasonable limits and stand by them, you help your child in more ways than you can imagine.

David and Keyser emphasize that these strategies are presented in no particular order and not every situation will call for all of these steps. In fact, there are times you’ll have to repeat them several times to help curb the behavior. (I attest to that one!) I agree with them wholeheartedly. From my own experience I’ve seen that consistency and sticking with them does work.

1.    Honoring the Impulse
Children are 100% impulse. Imagine being able to just tell your boss what you think, or whack that idiot driver in front of you on top of the head. Oh the days of acting on impulse. Sometimes I envy Sweetness. I want to have a tantrum when it’s time for me to go to work the same way she does when it’s time to leave the playground.

The strategy here is to ask yourself what is the impulse behind this particular behavior. Knowing where it is coming from is half the battle. The rest is understanding and showing respect for it. For instance, your child is spilling her juice. Depending on her age, she may be exploring the experience of it dumping, the power of being able to spill it, the experiment of watching someone clean it up, or studying your reaction. Could be any of the above.

They suggest you honor the impulse by expressing your observation, “Looks like you like to watch the juice pour out.” They suggest saying “looks like” because you’re really guessing unless she tells you. Use this for every situation, “looks like you want to stay at the playground,” “looks like you want Tommy to move,” “looks like you want to take a turn with the fire truck,” etc.

Then you set or reiterate the limits. The additional strategies offer suggestions on that piece.

2.    Active Listening
This allows us to mirror back what the child is thinking, which helps them feel connected – we understand them. This is little more than repeating back to the child what he is saying or feeling.

“It looks like you’re really frustrated.” “You really don’t want me to change your diaper right now.” “You’re saying “˜No” really loud. You really don’t want to go to leave Katie’s house.” With preverbal children, you just express what they’re feeling to the best of your knowledge, “You’re having fun playing with the blocks and don’t want to clean up.”

Just communicating you understand what your little one is thinking or feeling goes a long way. I’ve seen Sweetness completely settle down and go along with something she really doesn’t want to do but knows has to be done (clean up, diaper change, get ready for bed, etc.) just because she felt understood. Granted, it’s not all the time. But this has helped a lot if I do it before full tantrum mode.

3.    Sportscasting
This is kind of an extension of active listening, but focuses more on the events rather than the feelings of people involved. You just talk about what you see. “I see you are holding on to that toy so Mike can’t take it.” “I see you got pushed off the slide.”

This is particularly useful when children are having a conflict. By sportscasting, also called factual commenting, you’re very simply helping the children see what each is doing. It also gives them a basis for working out a solution of their own. I’ve noticed Sweetness sportscast Mr. Man lately. It’s hilarious, but does prove she’s paying attention.

4.    Facilitation
This can be added to sportscasting when children get older and gain more verbal skills. You use facilitation by asking questions and giving kids information that helps them find their own resolutions in conflicts:

“Kim, I see you’re grabbing John’s toy. Is there another way you can ask for it?”

Describe the problem and invite the children to problem solve. “Looks like you both want to ride the bike, but there is only one. Can you think of a way you can solve this problem?”

This one is time consuming and takes patience and compassion. It’s sure easier to step in and umpire, but that robs the kids of valuable lessons in conflict resolution and problem solving, not to mention reduced esteem because they don’t think they can solve these things themselves.

5.    Using “I” Messages
By saying “I”, you can share your response to your child’s behavior without negatively labeling or judging. You describe the behavior or situation, then share your feelings about it. “When I ask you to come in several times and you don’t do it, I feel frustrated.”

David and Keyser emphasize that using “I” messages help model identifying feelings and show we’re responsible for our own feelings. It also places less blame on the child, thus leaving them in a more open frame of mind to learn.

6.    Positive Limit Setting
Always set clear limits. Children need them to thrive as they provide a sense of safety and security. When setting them, be ready to set both verbal and physical limits. When we just rely on verbal, and they’re ignored, we get louder and even mad, which gets negative very quick.

For instance, Tyler hits Mia: “We are gentle with our friends.” (said positively, rather than the negative “don’t hit”). Then take his hand, “I’m not going to let you hit Mia.”

Remember to use positive language.

7.    Giving a Choice
Giving choices whenever possible is imperative to supporting a child’s autonomy, and also gives the child the sense that she is in control after all. Be aware of giving too many, though. They’re not capable early on of knowing exactly what they want, but they want to be the ones to make the choice. I’ve ended many a power struggle over getting dressed by offering her a choice between two different shirts, pants, jammies, etc.

You can also use choices when a clear limit is set: “You can hold my hand as we cross the street or I can carry you.”

8.    Giving Information
One of the things we can do when dealing with difficult behavior is give the child information about the impact of what they’re doing. “When you spill your juice, it makes a big mess and we have to clean it up.” “When you hit your sister, it hurts her and makes her cry.” “When you leave the water on while you brush your teeth, it wastes water.”

Giving information teaches kids they’re worthy of an explanation and they’ll  start to think about the impact of their actions themselves as they mature. The opposite is just telling kids “because I said so,” “because I’m the boss,” etc., which tells them the person of authority always needs to be around to direct behavior. The latter also plants the seeds of future rebellion.

9.    Natural Consequences
There is some controversy over natural consequences. These are easily abused and used as punishment. Used correctly, these are simply the action of allowing children to learn from experience. For instance, if Jamie pours out her juice, it’s now all gone. The danger is when you really rub it in with, “see I told you if you poured it out it would be all gone. Now you don’t get any more. Maybe you’ll think twice about it next time,” etc. Avoid the guilt trip (even though it would feel REALLY good, oh how I know). Just be matter of fact and then done, “You poured it out and now it’s all gone. I see you’re upset about it being gone. That’s what happens when you pour it out.”

10.    Redirection
A kind of extension of honoring impulses, redirection is a logical next step. Once you identify the impulse and honor it, you can redirect the child toward appropriate behavior for that impulse. “If you want to touch your brother, you have to do it gently. Like this.” “It looks like you want to kick. Let’s find your ball and kick that.”

This isn’t to be confused with distraction, where you direct the child’s attention to something else. Redirection is helping the child identify an appropriate way to express the impulse she’s having right now.

11.    Inviting Children’s Initiative
Between 3 to 5 years of age, kids are really testing their own ideas. These ideas are not real unless they can act on them, so they exhibit a great deal of initiative as they try to actualize these ideas. Using things such as offering choices, facilitation, and simply paying close attention to their actions and providing ample opportunities to be creative can be very supportive of their initiative. Additionally, by helping your child channel this initiative, you can work together to find ways to channel it so it works for the whole family.

For instance, Kenny has just learned to hold a crayon and he’s excited about his ability to color. Providing an easel with paper always available, or chalk outside for sidewalk art might be better outlets than a Kenny on the loose in the house with crayons (can you say, “Hello Mr. Eraser mega pack?”).

12.    Setting the Stage for Future Success
One of the best ways to deal with difficult behavior is to take steps to prevent it. While that can’t always happen, you can sure help in many instances by setting up circumstances that minimizes the stresses that cause bad behavior.

For instance, David might hit his baby sister every time she tries to take his beloved fire engine away. Working out a system with David where he keeps his fire engine in his room and the door closed, or moves it before his sister crawls over where he’s playing is an example of how you can help defuse the situation before it gets bad.

I hope these are some help. This is just my very brief summary of a small piece of the book Becoming the Parent you Want to Be, which I highly recommend. It’s only $14.28 on Amazon. This link will take you there. Obviously there are tons of examples of how these strategies can work in a million different scenarios. This is just to get you started.


Catherine B April 27, 2010 at 10:25 am

I found your site from the Mom Sexy comments. I have enjoyed checking it out! The positive parenting is interesting to me~ Thanks for sharing you insights and thoughts.

Kris April 27, 2010 at 10:52 am

Very cool. I love how you detailed each with personal experiences too. I knew some of these on a practical/higher level, but this breakdown is a print/bookmark for Grady’s “book” of ideas for sure. Thank you!

Raechelle April 28, 2010 at 8:23 am

Hi there! I found your blog from the West Seattle Blog, and you are now on my list of blogs to check daily.

I am a new mom to a 12 year old girl and a 15 year old boy. Sink or swim, I say! While this book is geared for much younger children, I can totally see situations with my kids where using positive language would be helpful. I will pick up the book this weekend. Everyone, even non-parents, could benefit from positive language. Because, really? It doesn’t come naturally. Thanks so much for educating me 🙂

Carol Ann July 12, 2010 at 7:26 am

Ahh. The light flicks on. Some major blunders in my household….we are probably creating most of the misbehaviors by how we are addressing them.
Carol Ann recently posted: I did it

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