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3 Ways to Treat Bad Behavior For What It Is

Photograph by Twenty20

I get a lot of calls about behavior issues. More often than not, the behaviors described by concerned parents are mild in nature. These behaviors tend to include things like talking back, teasing a sibling, refusing to complete tasks, failing to follow directions and, sometimes, even frequent meltdowns.

Being a parent is no easy task, and I know how difficult it is to remain calm when you're at the end of a long day and all systems are down. Sometimes you just want to hit the easy button and put an end to the negative behaviors swirling around you. It can be especially emotionally taxing when you have more than one kid, and they all trigger each other.

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The problem, of course, is that there is no easy button for this parenting gig. Each child brings his or her own unique personality to the mix, and each child has different emotional needs. While it might be tempting to hand out consequences the moment trouble arises—or create some sort of reward system with the hope that dangling a carrot will inspire better behavior—the truth is that those are behavioral Band-Aids. Those strategies might create a moment of calm or put a quick stop to an undesirable behavior in the moment, but they won't provide a long-term solution.

Kids don't enter this world with sophisticated social emotional skills. They learn these skills along the way. They will make mistakes, and they will make undesirable choices when upset—that's part of being a kid.

It's up to us to help them learn how to cope and make positive choices.

It's important to teach kids that they have the power to learn from their mistakes.

An important step toward helping kids make better choices when upset or under pressure is to flip the script on how we view their behaviors. When we see behaviors as willful, negative choices intended to upset us or others, we set kids up for frustration and sadness. When we view behaviors as cries for help with emotional regulation, on the other hand, we give kids the tools they need to thrive when upset or overwhelmed.

The next time your child engages in negative behavior, try one of these strategies to help restore a sense of calm in your home:

1. Unpack the emotions

I often teach kids to visualize their negative emotions as giant books in their backpacks. Think about how heavy your backpack might feel if you packed it with five dictionaries each morning. That's how heavy emotions can feel to little kids. When you don't know what to do with those big feelings, it can really weigh you down.

Help your child unpack his emotions by removing one book at a time. Resist the urge to fix the problem for your child. Your child needs to learn how to work through his emotions in his own way. Instead, ask open-ended questions like, "I wonder what might make you feel angry?" or "Can you think of something that made you feel sad today?"

More often than not, kids push their feelings aside (or stuff their feelings down) in an attempt to get back to feeling happy. Those feelings always come back later, though, and often the feelings intensify over time.

2. Rewrite the story

Do you ever wish you could have a do-over on something? If you could back up and make a different choice that might lead to a better outcome, would you do it? Kids feel this way a lot.

Young children are fairly impulsive by design. They make quick decisions, often grounded in emotions in the moment, and sometimes those decisions don't work out.

All too often we simply expect little kids to figure stuff out.

A great way to help kids learn to regulate their emotions and make positive choices is to give them the opportunity to rewrite their stories. I like to fold a piece of paper to make eight boxes (like a comic strip) and have kids write or draw one action per box to describe what happened. When they get to the part where they made a poor choice, they can fill in that box with a different choice.

It's important to teach kids that they have the power to learn from their mistakes. Sitting alone in time-out won't teach your kids how to make positive choices in the future, but rewriting the story will.

Note: Another version of this strategy appears as "Storyboards" in my book, "The Happy Kid Handbook."

3. Brainstorm together

All too often we simply expect little kids to figure stuff out. We want them to be responsible and "well-behaved" so we establish some rules and expect them to fall in line. But little kids have big feelings, and they tend to experience emotional shifts throughout the day.

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Expressing their emotions, even in the form of yelling, is a very necessary part of growing up. We can't just send them off to "think about it," when half the time the feeling that triggered the behavior is still bubbling inside them. We have to help them learn to work through their emotions.

Take a few deep breaths together, then sit and brainstorm ways to solve the problem. My kids and I love to use our whiteboard to write out ideas for making positive choices for the whole family. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised to find that when your kids have your emotional support, they come up with some great choices on their own.

Feelings and behaviors can easily become tangled up in a web of big emotions. Take the time to untangle each strand so that your child can learn how to cope with the ups and downs of childhood independently.

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