The basics: Begin outside the problem
It can be tempting to skip right to a bullet point that looks like it has the potential to offer a solution. While that could possibly be effective, it’s more likely that everything will be more effective (and that everyone will be happier regardless of the problem) when you begin with these core principles.
- Spend time outside of daily tasks playing with your children. This is a fundamental concept of most parenting classes (and you can probably tell it’s my personal soap box I like to get on). I would venture to guess that it’s most families’ goal not only to get rid of problem behaviors, but also to build love and positive memories and happiness. Spending time playing together does wonders for familial relationships and children’s confidence. The more positives in the relationship bank account the more able everyone is to make withdrawals when harder challenges arrive.
- Listen to and validate your child’s concerns. Remember, every emotion is worthy of being addressed and listened to even if the behavior is less than desirable. You can understand and empathize with your child’s feeling even if you don’t agree with how she acted. One of the biggest sources of tantrums right now is due to my daughter becoming mad that we cannot understand her. I can empathize with how frustrating it is when someone cannot understand something I’m saying, but that doesn’t mean that I condone the screaming. So instead, I validate her, we take a deep breath or even find a distraction, and then either move on to something else or try to figure out what she wanted once she is calmer.
- Try to find and work toward a shared goal. Even though it may seem that we’re at odds with our kids when they’re acting out or insisting they can’t sleep in their own bed, deep down we both want the pain and discomfort to end. So, find a shared goal. Let your child know that you’re on the same team. This may take some creative thinking, but once you’re on the same team it’s much easier to problem solve together. This is true even for teenagers. It may seem you’re always fighting over curfew, but a I’m guessing you both want him to have the additional privileges that come with responsibility.
- Problem solve together. This helps make it so that your child is invested in the journey instead of simply having one more thing that they are required to do. For example, if your child breaks a sibling’s toy you might decide together how to make the situation right.
- Find the good and build on it. Ensure that there are more positives to negatives in your child’s interactions – 5 to 1 to be scientifically exact. Yes, this can be extremely difficult to do if it feels like the whole day is one temper tantrum after another. I get that. Certain days feel like you’re only saying, “Stop!” So, be proactive, creative and imaginative. Let your child know that you love him/her even when they have hard days and aren’t following directions. Compliment their efforts and good behavior. Remember, positives don’t have to be just words. They can be smiles, hugs, playing together…the possibilities are endless.
- Use praise as a motivator for and reinforcer of behavior. You know how we all work better for bosses who praise our work and attempts rather than the bosses who endlessly criticize? Well kids are the same way. By praising and thanking our kids for good behavior (whether it’s their bravery in tackling a fear or for staying by us in the store because the past three trips have been an unpleasant game of hide and seek) we reinforce it, give positive attention to good behavior, and build up our relationship bank account. Praise should be specific and sincere.
- Focus praise and compliments on efforts and actions rather than inherent talent. This helps children have a growth mindset (meaning they believe they are progressing and can work to overcome challenges) rather than a fixed mindset.
Find ways to practice the behavior you are seeking
Oftentimes children and teens don’t have the skills or practice they need to effectively deal with anger, depression, fear, anxiety, etc. If they did then it probably wouldn’t be problem! So one way to help our kids learn how to deal with these difficult situations is to find ways to practice coping with them. Here’s some ideas:
- Role play the situation with your child. Take turns imagining different scenarios and pretending how you would talk about it or what you would do. Just like adults, kids are often at a loss on how to tackle a gigantic concern at school or overwhelming feelings with their friends. Being able to role play answers and possible actions ahead of time gives kids extra support and empowerment to make a wise choice. “What if your friend decides to play with someone else during recess?” Just dive into your inner drama self!
- Turn role playing into play. You can use toys, puppets, or other objects to come up with creative solutions, figure out how to respond, and talk about what to expect. For example, to work through first day of school anxieties you might use puppets to act out how the puppy dog got dressed for school, said goodbye to his mom, met a nice bus driver, and had a good first day at school. Mom was waiting for him at the end of a fun day.
- Talk with kids beforehand about what is going to happen so they know exactly what to expect. These managed expectations can help kids feel calmer and more in-control of the situation. Make sure expectations include what the situation might be like, what behavior is expected of them, and the consequences of their choices. Daniel Tiger’s jingle gets stuck in my head: “When you try something new, let’s talk about what we’ll do.” This concept also includes giving time warnings. “5 more minutes of your game and then it’s time to turn off the tv.”
- Create mini “field trips” to help practice the behavior. For example, you might take a child to the store simply to work on learning how to reduce temper tantrums instead of focusing on getting your groceries. Or, you might plan phone calls with your friends to work on patience and not interrupting instead of actually needing to talk on the phone. Meeting teachers and exploring the classroom beforehand can help reduce anxiety.
Use other resources and mediums to help teach kids important coping skills
- Coping skills are so important! When we are teaching kids to swim we teach them different lessons and skills they need to be successful and float instead of sink. The same can be said for emotions. If a child is drowning in their emotions then it is so important to teach them skills to help manage it. These skills can include relaxation techniques, distraction ideas, learning how to identify emotions in the first place, various ways to appropriately express what they are feeling, ways to change unhelpful thinking and talk back to fear, anger, or sadness, and learning to accept situations that we don’t have control over.
- Read books together. I love using books in therapy because they not only are a fun way to learn, but they also help kids learn with less focus on themselves. Through a character’s eyes, kids can learn important analogies and helpful coping skills. I can’t tell you how many times we’ve read Daniel Tiger goes to pre-school (changed to nursery to be more applicable to her). Read about my favorite therapy books for kids here.
- Work on workbooks together. There are so many great self-help books and workbooks that can easily teach kids step-by-step how to deal with their different emotions.
- Find relaxation skills that are a good fit for your child. You might have some favorites in your personal tool box, or you might find some great ideas by googling it or looking on Pinterest. For example, some kids love deep breathing while others like imagining a safe place while still others really calm down whenever they draw.
- Use movies, art, crafts, video games, or other interests to help teach skills. Oftentimes musical kids find a song that becomes their power statement. Other kids love drawing out how they’re going to tackle anger or fear. Some children love making dream catchers or creating worry boxes to help with their nightmares or nighttime anxieties.
- Play or create games to help reinforce coping skills such as deep breathing, relaxation skills, talking back to fear or anxiety, or finding other alternatives when they become upset. I really like using simple games like Candyland and each different color corresponds to a topic to talk about and practice.
- Use kids’ unique interests and personality to help them overcome challenges. Some kids really calm down when they draw. Others could care less about logical talking themselves down from being angry, anxious, or depression and instead find great strength in being humorous.
Use behavioral principles to change behavior
- Come up with a rewards system. Working toward a shared goal of facing their fears or reducing angry outbursts can be much more motivating when a rewards system is in place. Tips: be sure it’s manageable, easily understood, and step-by-step. Mount Everest isn’t climbed in a day. Rewards systems can be much trickier than a simple potty training chart, so click here to read more tips.
- Remove unnecessary temptations. We do this all the time for toddlers when we lock up medicines and put them on a high shelf. The same principle can be true for older kids. We can simply remove the stimulus that often prompts poor behavior. For example, we might separate 2 fighting siblings in the car and have them sit by someone else. (In our house lately this means separating the toddler from the dog.) Or, perhaps we start avoiding the toy aisle of the store so the tantrum doesn’t even start.
- If the answer is no, provide acceptable alternative choices that your child can choose from. Sure, this doesn’t always work because sometimes kids just want more ice cream instead of fiber-filled snacks no matter what. But, I’d say at least a good 50% of the time this works wonders with my daughter. “It’s time for bed. Do you want a piggy back ride to bed or should we march to music together?”
- Pick your battles. Sometimes you’ve got to just save the relationship and focus only on the most problematic of behaviors. Additionally, I’ve found that the more I think about yes parenting the more I realize how little most things matter. Instead of always hurrying my daughter along at the store, I can give her time to stop and smell the roses (literally at times). Or, I realize it isn’t that big of a deal to read one more book at bedtime even though I’m tired and want to go to bed myself. Perhaps you’re thinking that I should just wait until she grows older and real problems arise. Well, I’ve seen that in counseling and found that the more parents let go of the battles when it’s harming their relationship the better things turn out in the long run. Remember, relationship first!
- Ignore behavior if it isn’t too big of a problem. This is probably paradoxically the easiest and the hardest thing to do. If no one is in danger and it’s not breaking a big family rule, then just ignore it. Eventually kids will learn that they don’t get a response for whining or interrupting, etc.
Tips for caregivers
- Try to understand emotions behind your child’s behavior. For instance, did you know that many times kids are irritable and grumpy when deep down they’re really worried about something? By addressing the emotion that’s behind it all we can more easily get at the root of the problem and find a helpful solution.
- Remember that dealing with emotions is something that all of us have to keep learning. My husband laughs when I pull out the big phrase “emotional regulation” which simply means that we all have to learn how to not let our emotions get the better of us. If a solution isn’t working out then consider that maybe the child doesn’t have the skills he/she needs to tackle it yet. Or, perhaps too much is being expected of them too soon. Help them learn more relaxation and coping strategies. Start with smaller goals and later build into bigger ones.
- Remember, your example is the greatest teaching method. Kids learn how to respond to anger and anxiety by watching you. This doesn’t mean you have to be perfect or can never feel mad. Instead, your own emotions (and there will be plenty of them while parenting!) create great opportunities to talk about them, model skills to help you calm down, and even sometimes apologize if necessary.
- Be consistent. Just like you have to keep exercising to keep up your strength, kids have to keep practicing to keep up wanted behaviors and coping skills. Keep encouraging your child to practice skills, and be consistent with consequences and expectations. It is difficult to change if one day they get in trouble for every minor whine and another day they don’t get in trouble for major yelling.
- Outside help is available. If you feel like the behavior or emotion is more than your family can handle right now, that’s okay. Know that there are many different resources and helping professionals out there who can provide additional help.
Remember, no parent is perfect, and that means no parent is going to do all of this all the time. If this seems overwhelming then just pick one or two things that you think might be helpful and that you want to work on with your child.
Also know you are not alone. You can seek outside help if everything is just too overwhelming.