Help! My little ones are becoming increasingly difficult to deal with. It seems like no matter what I do their behavior does not improve. I just want them to listen to me and follow the rules at home and school, and it’s so frustrating to not be able to get through to them.
You are not alone in wanting strategies to manage your children’s behavior! It can be so challenging (and at times feel demoralizing) when you feel powerless against your kids’ behavior. While there is no “magic bullet” to solve these issues, there are certain things you can keep in mind to de-escalate tantrums, outbursts, defiance, and other difficult behavior.
The first thing to remember is that it starts with you. One of my favorite quotes on this topic is “when little people are having a hard time it is our job to share our calm, not join their chaos”. Essentially, if you want your kid to be regulated and calm, then YOU have to be regulated and calm. So, before you find yourself locked in another power struggle, take a few deep breaths, practice mindfulness, or tense and relax all the muscles in your body.
You can also use your thoughts to reframe their behavior and hopefully help yourself feel a bit more in control. One such thought is “my child is not giving me a hard time, my child is having a hard time”. It’s true! Many of these difficult behaviors you’re seeing are the result of a dysregulated nervous system. Once you realize this, you can use the steps below, called “The Three R’s” to help restore a sense of calm.
Step 1: Regulate
Direct your child to an activity that soothe and settle their energy. This can be something simple like getting a drink of water or a snack or putting on a blanket if they are cold. It can also be something like listening to relaxing music, rocking in a rocking chair, taking a walk to move the body, or playing with play-doh. The focus of this step is to help them feel safe and calm.
Step 2: Relate
Once you can see your child starting to calm, it’s time to connect. Make a statement that shows empathy, for example, “I can see you were having a big feeling” or “It seems like you were very angry at your sister”. In this step, the goal is connection, not problem-solving, so focus on feelings or doing something together. The focus of this step is to help them see you as a supportive, loving helper.
Step 3: Reason
After providing empathy and ensuring that the child is calm and able to follow directions again, now you can process what happened. You can say something like “let’s talk about what got you so upset”. You can also make a plan to solve the problem, clean up the mess or apologize. You can also give your child a chance to write or draw about what happened. The focus of this step is learning what happened and planning for future situations that may bring up the same feelings.
It’s important to note that these are sequential steps. Asking a dysregulated child to reason with you (e.g., “why did you do that?!”) will almost certainly backfire. It would be like if someone asked you to plan your retirement while you jump out of an airplane. The parts of the brain needed for good decision-making and logical thought are simply not online when the adrenaline is pumping, especially for little ones who are still working on growing this part of their brains. These steps take practice, and you may not do them perfectly as you begin to implement these ideas. But, if you keep them in mind, you have a good chance of helping yourself and your child in difficult times, all while cultivating a loving parent-child relationship.
This post was written by Kaitlin Doyle, a marriage and family therapist at Emily Cook Therapy in Bethesda, MD who enjoys working with parents and their children in talk therapy and play therapy.