How Choices Work in Positive Discipline

Child looking for direction

When offering choices in discipline, the goal is to offer two positive choices for the child that both meet your goal in parenting. These choices can focus on the how, what, when or where. Let’s say you need to have the playroom cleaned up. Offering choices about how could include, “would you like to start by yourself or with help?” or, “would you like to throw the balls or drop them in the basket?” Choices about what may include, “would you like to start with the blocks or the balls first?” or, “would you like to start with red toys or blue toys?” A choice about when would be, “would you like to clean before bath or before bed?” A choice about where would be, “would you like to start on this side of the room or that?”

Choices work because the child gets to have some power. Choices elicit cooperation; the child willingly does what you want her to do because she gets to make a decision. This is especially true for young children under five years old because they have very little power in their day. They are often told where to go, when to go and to be quiet while they are going there. If you ask a three-year-old who is hemming about having to take medicine, “would you like it with a spoon or a dropper?” and they reply, “dropper,” they are more willing to take the medicine because of their newly found sense of control.

The choices don’t have to be important ones. For that child who is hesitant to take medicine, you could offer, “would you like it with juice or water?” The next night ask, “standing or sitting?” The next night ask, “in the kitchen or in the bathroom?” None of these choices are terribly important in the process, but they tend to gain compliance for the parenting goal of downing the medicine.

To be fair, both options must be good for the child. Steer clear of offering one positive and one negative option. I think of Alicen, who makes a lot of noise throughout the day; she hums, whistles and sings. By the end of the day, it can be a bit much. When we are all in the kitchen getting ready for dinner, I might say, “you can do that in here very quietly or out in the foyer loud.” Neither of those options is particularly bad. If I offered one positive and one negative, I might say, “you can do that in here quietly or go to your room.” In this case, my language is manipulative. I am saying, “here is a bad and here is a good; now which do you want?” Children typically understand this and think, “well, duh! Nobody wants the bad.” They are forced to choose the one you want them to choose. That is not a choice; it is a consequence and should be stated as such: “If you do not quiet down, I will send you to your room.” When there is one positive and one negative, it is a given what will happen; it is not a choice. Rather than provide a false choice that is actually a consequence like “you can mow the lawn today or be grounded; which do you want?” parents will get better results by stating the cause and effect clearly, “if you do not mow the lawn, I will ground you.”

In most discipline, choices come after any needed “I” messages or empathy but before consequences. As you enter into discipline, it is best to address emotions first. Help yourself and your child to calm and manage emotions before you try to discipline or to fix the situation. Once that is done or if that is not needed, think choices before consequences. Choices work because they elicit cooperation. Children are often happy to do the thing you want them to do. Negative logical consequences work because you are putting your foot down. Children are often resentful of the process or angry that you just trumped them. The order of response would be to lead with the choice.

First: “Do you want the red or the blue sweatshirt?”

And then, if necessary, follow that up with a logical consequence.

Second: “If don’t get dressed now, we will lose our time for the playground.”

This puts the happy option first and follows up with the less agreeable way if happiness fails. The other order – consequence first followed by choice – is usually less effective. Children will be less willing to choose if you were just firm with them. An example would look like: “if you do not get dressed right now, we’ll lose our time for the playground. Now which do you want the red or the blue sweatshirt?” You already put your foot down, so it is far less attractive to take you up on a choice. Choices should come first because they are flexible and open. Consequences are closed; there is a built-in outcome.

There are a few exceptions to the “choices first” guideline. Aggressive behaviors tend to go straight to consequences. Hitting, kicking, biting and screaming in someone’s face are behaviors that do not have choices available; they just don’t. In those cases, I tend to think consequences first after attending to and offering empathy to the “victim.”

There are a few expected stages in development when choices can be especially effective.  At various ages, many children are driven to gain independence in particular ways. Around two to three years old, most children are driven to do things for themselves. Parents of toddlers and preschoolers often hear, “I’ll do it myself.” It is helpful if parents can offer choices such as, “would you like to do it by yourself or with help?”

Around six years old, children tend to push for more control over their schedule and routines. It can be helpful if parents offer choices such as, “would you like to read books or color now?” or, “let’s invite a playdate. Would you like to call Lindsey or Emily to play?” Around eight years old, children may push for more physical independence.  Choices such as, “would you all like to sit with us or a few aisles away?” can be helpful.  In the pre-teen years, children tend to need more privacy. Parents can offer choices such as, “would you all like some time alone in your room or in the basement?” If children feel thwarted in their push for independence, they may become evasive in their efforts. If you feel struggles happening over these pushes for new independence, it is most helpful to examine the amount of control you are exerting over your children.

Children benefit from practice at making decisions. Kohn states that children “learn to make good decisions by making decisions.” Ideally, you are offering these choices throughout the day, not just in discipline. Asking questions like, “would you like peanut butter or ham and cheese?” or, “do you want to play blocks or balls?” provides children with safe opportunities to practice making choices. These opportunities are out of the moment of discipline. There is less hanging in the balance. The better children get at weighing the options and making decisions when the decisions are not weighted with importance, the better they’ll handle choices within discipline. When my children came to me at seven years old and asked, “what should I do about this?” I wanted to be able to give it back to them by asking, “what do you think you should do?” To gain experience problem-solving – to come up with and weigh options –  children need practice.

As a general guideline, when children are under five years old, provide only two choices. If you open the closet and ask a three-year-old, “what would you like to wear?” the choices can be overwhelming. Children will let you know when they are ready for wider choices. You might ask, “do you want the red or the blue sweatshirt?” If they reply, “how about the green,” they are likely ready for more options. By all means, if green is another sweatshirt which meets your parenting goal, it is fine. If the green is a party dress, and you are headed to the muddy playground, you might say, “I really like the green too, but today it is red or blue.” It is fine to reiterate choices. If this strategy still doesn’t work, you can choose for them, but you have to let them know that is coming. You could say, “this is taking a long time. You can choose, or I will choose for you.” Most kids will choose immediately because they don’t want to lose that power. This shift should not sound like, “okay. This is taking too long; I choose the blue.” If you swoop in and take their power without warning, you will surely be met by upset or tantrums.

While choices often work, sometimes, they just don’t. You warn children to make a choice, and they fall to pieces. Or, they do make a choice, but then throw it down and run from the room screaming. When choices fail, you can fall back on consequences. Moving to consequences also prevents you from being bogged down by choices. Occasionally, we have a parent who says that choices don’t work because, for example, “my child says ‘no’ to the initial offer, so I come up with other choices, and she just refuses every option,” or, “we go in circles all day because he’ll pick something and then change his mind and fight for the other.” In these scenarios, the child has led the use of choices into a power struggle. The idea is to offer one set of choices, encourage a decision, and then move forward. If choices break down, move to consequences rather than join in the struggle by offering a series of choices. If the choices initially work and then a bit later the child starts to lose interest, it is fine to offer a second set of choices to keep the momentum going. It is successful if you are cleaning the playroom together and initially offer, “would you like to start with the blocks or the balls?” and the child chooses and starts picking up the blocks. If interest fades six minutes later, you can offer another set of choices, “do you want to finish the blocks by yourself or with help?”

Another possible challenge with choices, is when a child will choose one, but then push for the other. Let’s say you offer, “would you like cereal or oatmeal?” The child chooses oatmeal, you make it, and as you set it on the table the child says, “no! I want cereal.” At that late point, if you then make the cereal, the child will push for the second option often. There is more power in getting you to make two. If you want that push to end, offer empathy around the first choice, but stick with it through the upset. Say “I know you like cereal. I am sorry, but I’ve already made the oatmeal, and that’s what is for breakfast. You are welcome to cereal tomorrow.” It may take a few times of sticking with the first choice, but if you are consistent, the push for the second thing should lessen. If you have a child who does this often, you can confirm before making the oatmeal. After you have offered and child chooses, you can say, “I heard you, you picked cereal. I am going to make it, and we are going to stick with it. Do you understand?” At least then you’ll feel better about sticking with the first choice.

Choices are flexible and work because they share power with the child. They also teach decision-making and often result in a more peaceful exchange than consequences.

A Friend’s Child is Aggressive

Dear Dr. Rene,

I am feeling stuck in a difficult situation. I have three children under five years old, and have been fortunate to be friends with our neighbor who has four children, three in the same age range. It was a great situation, we live so close and the kids enjoyed playing together. Unfortunately, one of her children has been diagnosed with special needs and has become increasingly aggressive towards my children in the last year. When the kids first became friends, he was only aggressive towards his own siblings, but now it is towards my kids, and it’s often. Recently, he pushes, scratches, headbutts, hits or kicks my oldest every time they play together. The behavior is impulsive and erratic, most times my child isn’t doing anything to provoke, and it can happen with an adult right beside them. One minute they are playing, the next he is pushing or scratching. The most frustrating thing is that my oldest (who has been the repeated victim) head butted his own younger sibling yesterday, something I never thought would happen. I don’t want my children hurt, and I don’t want them learning the behavior. I am also fearful this child is really going to hurt someone. My concern is such that I don’t want my children to play with this aggressive child. How do I handle things with the neighbor? What do I tell my son about the aggression, so he’s not confused by being hurt by a playmate and doesn’t learn the bad behavior? Also, I am fine with the other children in the family, they all play nicely. Can I invite just them? We’ve become good friends with the neighbors ourselves and go out together and celebrate occasions together. Is there a way to keep the other relationships and avoid play with the one who is having such difficulty and seems to be getting worse?

Sincerely,

Concerned Mom of Three

Dear Concerned,

There are so many questions here with lots of options. Your primary concern is and should be your own children, their safety and what they are learning from these incidents. Part of the message they are getting rests in the follow-up that happens when this child is aggressive. Are you or the other parent addressing the behavior? Some parents give up as it happens so often and chalk it up to how kids play. If this is the case, your child is learning that behavior gets a pass. If the mom is addressing well each time with consequences and coaching how to play nicely often, hopefully your child is also seeing this piece to understand it is an unwanted or unacceptable behavior. If you continue to play as things are, I think you’ll need to address with the mom how this should be handled each time. Ask that it be consistently addressed when the children are playing together. Be sure you are both comfortable with being able to follow through. Even with a consistent follow through, your children are learning from his behavior. That they see aggression in play makes it more available as a behavior to try themselves.

If you choose to continue the play, you might try to change the play that is available. Children tend to be more aggressive in unstructured open play. You might limit play to field trips, bowling or movies. When they are at the house, you might invite them over for painting on big paper then snack and goodbyes. The idea is to fill their time rather than just go play. We had a relative whose child was particularly aggressive when the girls were little. We talked about it and for a few years opted to just get together for outings rather than open play. Honestly, there were hurt feelings, but a few years later we were able to go back to regular play.

You might also have one parent “shadow” him. In our preschool shadowing would mean one teacher stays within arms reach. This is so they might see it coming and be able to intervene early or at least stop it quickly if it starts. The idea would be to allow play but be watching and close at all times.

You and mom might also look for triggers and cues for the aggression. While you say it seems to happen out of the blue, likely there are things that set him off and signs he gives before the aggression. Triggers might be another child having a toy he wants, being told no, very close physical play or having to wait. Triggers are the things that set him off, and, if you can learn what they are, you have a better chance to intervene. Cues are signs he’s about to be aggressive. Some children get tense shoulders, others get a wild look in their eyes or their voice goes up a notch. The idea is to look and listen for cues and intervene on the cue rather than the behavior that follows.

All this is a lot of effort and assumes you are going to continue the play. I think you are also perfectly reasonable to decide to end the play at least for now. If this is the case, you can offer to maintain the play with the other children in the family, but be prepared for the mom to decline. It may be too difficult for her to separate her children this way. You can also suggest keeping the parent relationship going, but again this may be declined.

Either way you go with the above, you will have to speak with the mom. When you do, this avoid blaming her or her children. Talk about your concerns for the safety of all, that your children have started being more aggressive with each other recently, and you are working to curb that. Or, you could just opt to let this whole relationship go quietly. This means to stop making the invites and politely decline when invitations are made.  Eventually, she may push you for an explanation and giving that is up to you.

I hope something in here is helpful.

Sincerely, Dr. Rene

Introduction to Power Struggles

The first step to addressing a power struggle is to recognize when you are in one. Power struggles generally happen around tasks such as getting ready for bed, getting homework done or getting everybody up and out of the door in the morning. In parenting, a power struggle is defined as a time of the day that typically goes poorly. It’s a pattern that goes poorly often enough you may dread that time of day. If you just had difficulty today, but it’s usually smooth, that’s not a struggle it’s just a bad day.

If it truely is a power struggle, often the second step is to realize what you are doing as response is not working. If getting ready for bedtime is a struggle, likely you are chasing children around the room, yelling and wrestling them into their jammies. This is you participating in the struggle which validates it to be a push AND is likely repeating discipline patterns that aren’t working. The idea, once you realize you are in a struggle is to step back and change what you are doing as response. I am not saying give in, I know you have to get them dressed and ready for bed or feed something for dinner. I am saying change what you are doing in response. Shake up the dynamics of the struggle.

In power struggle moments rely on setting clear boundaries, positive directions, catching good behaviors and using contribution, choices and consequences. Use techniques to step out of the struggle rather than chase them around and struggle back.

To learn more about these techniques, join me for a morning workshop on managing power struggles. This is being held on Saturday, April 21st. For more information and to register, please visit http://www.eventbrite.com/org/283710166?s=1328924.

Blended Families and Re-Building Relationships

Hi Dr. Rene,
We are a blended family and have been for more than five years. One of my step children has suddenly decided they dislike me, and will avoid eye contact or any type of interaction with me if possible. I am getting sighs and dirty looks for doing something as simple as saying good morning. To the best of my knowledge, there have been no changes or incidences to cause this sudden change in behavior. Before this started we were very close, got along well and spent regular time together doing activities we both enjoyed. My husband and I have tried talking to the child about the behavior; that seems to help for a day or two. We’ve tried ignoring the behavior; which seems to make it escalate. We are at the point of wanting to enforce some sort of discipline for being disrespectful and rude. I’m not sure if this will help or hurt the situation, but things cannot continue this way, the behavior is affecting the entire family. Any advice would be welcomed.  Thank you!

Sincerely,

Michelle

Dear Michelle,

I am sure this is upsetting, but I would avoid discipline, at least at the emotion. First, I would try to look at the emotion behind the behavior and address that. While you may be unaware of any change, it doesn’t mean there wasn’t one. It may have been a piece of a passing conversation, a new understanding of an old problem as they mature or a sense of slight from his other parent. It may be impossible to find the cause, even the child may be unable to pin point it, but clearly there is upset. I would go out of my way to validate the difficult emotions when there is a behavior. When child rolls eyes, this sounds like, “I get you are frustrated with me, you don’t like what I just asked you to do.” Without lecturing, this can be followed by a simple, “and I need you to do it now.” The idea is to validate the emotion, but follow through with the behavior. It is a narrow road, but if you move forward with discipline, it is along these lines. Validate the emotions and discipline the related behaviors. In the moment this would be starting with, “I see you are grumpy this morning, I will try again later,” or, “I know you are frustratted, let’s go back and try that again.” You might also coach how the child can better display emotion. Rather than a dirty look to a “good morning,” coach that they can say, “I’m not awake yet.” This coaching is best out of the moment, when all is well.

In all this coaching, avoid putting pressure on the individual relationship. Rather than saying, “you and I are family, and you will treat me with respect,” go more global, “that is an unfriendly way to say good morning, it would be nicer to say…” Focus on coaching how to speak to people in general, how to be kind and how to carry conversation rather than pressuring the relationship.

I would also make every effort to have child spend individual time connecting with each parent. There’s no need to make an announcement, but think at least weekly each of you are spending a bit of time. This can be a trip to the grocery store if you are focused on conversation and spending the time together. You might also read about and practice Greenspan’s Talk Time as presented in Playground Politics. This is a book about social and emotional development through the grade school years, and it highlights the importance of children having open talk time as they move out of Floortime. It’s an interesting way to open up conversations and emotions.

If you decide to go more specific at the discipline, I would initially make it a whole family effort. Sit and talk with everyone about how you are going to make an effort to be kinder and gentler with each other in communicating even when people are upset. Make it an effort in your marriage and in the parent-child relationships. If there are consequences for negative tones and words, this goes for all. Likely more successful here is, it is a global effort rather than a narrow focus. I would look to discipline more specifically only if all this fails. I hope this helps!

Sincerely,

Dr. Rene

Two-Year-Old Running in Parking Lot

Hi Dr. Rene,
My two-year-old runs away from me in the parking lot. I have a four-month-old so when she does this it is especially challenging since I’m holding the carrier. I have been talking to her prior to leaving about what we need to do – hold hands, stay with mommy, etc. And lately, I have been giving her a reward when she stays with me and holds hands. This works most of the time but she still runs away now and then. Do you have any insight on why she does this? It makes me reluctant to take her places!

Sincerely,

Katie

Dear Katie,

At two years old, she likely does this because it’s fun or because it gets a big reaction. I would save the conversation about what she can do until just before you are getting out of the car. After you’ve gotten the carrier with the baby, and you are just about to let her out, I would say, “in the parking lot I need you to hold my hand the whole time.” Then I would give her a choice to help her buy in, something like, “do you want to jump or walk while you hold my hand,” or, “do you want to sing or whisper while you hold my hand?” If she is not yet able to make a choice, just give her these things as a challenge, “let’s whisper the whole time we hold hands, ready?”

If this doesn’t work, be prepared to follow through with a consequence related to keeping her safe. If she is pulling away or trying to run, “if you run, you will have to be in the stroller,” or, “you will have to wear the backpack (leash).” I am not a terribly big fan of the leashes, but I get it. If your young child is a runner, and my first one was, I get the leash in parking lots or crowded places. I think they are fine while the child is learning to stay with you or be a listener.

You might also practice a key word. In our house, we playe the Freeze Game. I took Alicen to Springfield Mall, an empty place on weekday afternoons, and said, “okay, today when you run off I am going to say, ‘Freeze!’ When you hear me say, ‘Freeze!’ your job is to stop your feet as fast as you can. Got it?” For the next while, you are playing the Freeze Game and teaching that ‘freeze’ is a magic word. Every time she listens, gush a little by saying something like, “look how fast you stopped. You are a listener!” You can then use the Freeze Game in parking lots and on bigger outings.

I hope this helps!

Sincerely,

Dr. Rene

America’s Supernanny Tired and Confused

I really wanted to like the new America’s Supernanny program on Lifetime. I had high hopes that the Supernanny would share valuable information with families about positive discipline and child development issues. Afterall, they advertise her as “saving families” and providing families “guidance and assistance on how to best raise their children.” I’ve tuned in for two of the first four shows and been greatly disappointed.

In both episodes, the big discipline reveal is her technique, the Calm Down Corner. The Supernanny touts it as an opportunity for the child to think about their behavior, to learn to calm themselves, to self-regulate. She then instructs the parent to repeatedly state the child’s misbehavior while taking them back to the Corner up to 105 times in the second episode. The child is laughing and dodging mom, then kicking and crying while she carries him back. This is not a child reflecting on his behavior, he is playing a frustrating game of chase. Eventually, at least, mom wins. The child wears out and sits quietly for three minutes. Mom restates for the 106th time, “You were in the Calm Down Corner for not listening.” Directions stated in the negative tend to backfire as the child is learning not listening gets a whole lot of attention. In action this is nothing but a renamed and poorly executed time-out.

A child’s sense of self esteem is an outcome measure based largely on their growing sense of skills and abilities and their social connectedness. While the discipline taught isn’t much, the Supernanny’s parent coaching on a child’s self-esteem was against the research at best. I watched as she moved through a conversation with a nine-year-old girl surrounding issues of self esteem. Supernanny asked the child to look in the mirror and rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how pretty she feels. The girl rated herself a 5, and then went on to add with make-up she’s a 7. Supernanny then talked to mom about how pretty her daughter feels and mom followed up with a conversation about feeling pretty. There is so much wrong with this it is hard to know where to start. Not only is it off about the foundations of self esteem, focusing on positive labels in all the conversations in the long run can diminsh the child’s sense of self. It is so discouraging to think of how many parents walked away from that show to have similar conversations with their own children. Presenting content which is clearly misinformed at the national level is irresponsible.

To me, the upsides of the shows, including getting parents to communicate with and support each other and getting the family to spend time together, aren’t worth the downsides.

Five-Year-Old Concerning Behavior at Home and School

Hi Dr. Rene,

Please help, I have a five-year-old boy whose behavior is pretty bad at school. He is spitting and trying to bite other kids! I dont know why he is doing this because he gets a lot of our attention and loving all the time. He is finding it hard to take instructions and discipline at school. We do find it hard to discipline him at home too. I’m at my wits end, and don’t know what to do to help him with it? Please, can you help? I have tried time outs in the naughty chair and taking toys or his laptop away from him. Nothing seems to be working.

Sincerely,

Agnes

Dear Agnes,

There are two main issues to address here. The first is finding a consistent discipline plan at home. The second is to enlist help to best address the behaviors in the classroom. I am going to point you to good resources for both.

You can learn a positive discipline approach by reading, taking live workshops or online classes. Good books include

  • Positive Discipline by Jane Nelson
  • The Parent’s Handbook: Systematic Training for Effective Parenting by Dinkmeyer and McKay
  • How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk by Faber and Mazlish
  • Easy to Love, Difficult to Discipline by Bailey
  • Setting Limits with Your Strong Willed Child: Eliminating Conflict by Establishing Clear, Firm and Respectful Boundaries by MacKenzie

Depending on where you live, you may be able to find a parenting workshop on positive discipline. In the DC area there are classes through our Parenting Playgroups office (www.parentingplaygroups.com), the Parenting Encouragement Program (PEP at www.pepparent.org) or SCAN (www.scanva.org).

There are also many online services which offer positive discipline workshops. This includes ours at Ask Dr. Rene (www.askdrrene.com), Positive Parenting (http://soullightcreative.com/positiveparenting/) and Positive Parenting Solutions (http://www.positiveparentingsolutions.com/) among others.

Quite a bit more information is needed to provide a helpful answer about his behavior at school. The first thing I would do is take a parent-teacher conference and ask for as much description of the behaviors as you can and request that the school develops a specific plan to address him. This likely will include an objective observation. I often provide observation services to schools and families in our local area. Request that an objective professional provide classroom observation time and a teacher interview. This could be done by your school’s guidance counselor or school psychologist or a hired, private school psychologist. This person should be able to provide a list of recommendations for what is needed in the classroom. It could be there is a learning concern or social skills difficulties that is impacting classroom behavior. It could be that a fresh pair of eyes can contribute more than the teacher’s current view. Be open to listening to any and all recommendations.

I would be happy to provide more specific answers to the school and home situations if you’d like to send more detailed questions.

Sincerely,

Dr. Rene

Time-In Guidelines

I like time-ins. This discipline technique, which is vaguely related to time-outs, focuses heavily on coaching the better behaviors. Let’s say your four-year-old snatches a toy from a playmate. During a time-out, your child would sit in a spot alone for a ballpark of four minutes with the withdraw of attention expected to help curb the behavior. During a time-in, your child would still be out of play, but the four minutes would be a productive time. For as many minutes as the child is old, you coach them. In the case of grabbing a toy, you might list all the ways he could ask for a turn, role play asking each other for a turn, give a brief puppet show with a positive outcome or draw a picture of it going nicely. This is not a time to harp on the negative, but rather to teach the positive. Time-ins do take a bit of creativity, but can be worth the effort.

Please give it a try, and let me know how it went!

Mealtime Behaviors

Using contribution to address behaviors means giving children jobs related to the given situation. This is a proactive skill that can be used before, during and after mealtimes.

  • Before meals, children can be buttering rolls, serving green beans, taking drink orders, coloring placemats and writing menus.
  • During meals, children can pass serving bowls, serve onto plates, decide topics of conversation and monitor manners (helps them to learn manners by being in charge of others).
  • After meals, children can scrape plates, carry plates to the sink, load silverware in the dishwasher and wipe the table.

Using choices to address behaviors can be an effective piece of managing mealtime behaviors. For a child who won’t stay seated, “do you want to sit by mommy or daddy today?” or, “do you want to sit at the big table or your little table today?” As with most behaviors, the idea is to try choices before consequences. A positive logical consequence would be, “if you can stay seated, you can butter the rolls.” A negative logical consequence would be, “if you are out of your chair, you’ll have to be buckled in the booster seat.”

In my two hour evening workshop, we spend some of our time on ways to manage behaviors and some on avoiding pickiness. Avoiding pickiness includes being in charge of only what is offered, avoiding short-order cooking and bribery. To learn about these ideas and lots more, join me!

Steps of Positive Discipline

I have a two hour Positive Discipline Refresher workshop currently available through my online service, www.askdrrene.com. Below are some reminders and a few examples of using the Steps of Positive Discipline.

I messages and empathy are foundation pieces of positive discipline. They are meant to be used as you enter into the exchange. I messages are for sharing (and calming) your own emotions. They are used when laying blame to be sure you are blaming behavior and situation not child. Empathy validates the childs emotions and understands why they feel that way. This tends to calm the child and put them in a better place to listen. Positive Intent is identifying the good reason behind even the bad behavior. It is not meant to excuse behavior away but rather to calm you, shift your approach to the child and lessen their defensiveness, so they can take ownership of the behavior. While I messages and empathy are used as needed, positive intent is good to at least think everytime.

Choices are meant to change behaviors. They work because they share power. When a child makes a choice they are buying into the process and closer to the behavior. Remember, two positive choices that meet your goal. Be flexible and creative here. Choices before consequences unless it’s aggression. Natural consequences are what just might happen. They are given as a warning and the child is aloud to choose behavior. Positive logical consequences are if the good behavior, then the good outcome. Negative logical consequences are if the bad behavior, then the bad outcome. Logical consequences are best when related in time, intensity and content.

Let’s say your child is chasing and yelling at a playmate, trying to grab a toy the friend has.

  • I message – “I’m upset, people are grabbing.” OR  “I’m frustrated, this is too loud.”
  • Empathy – “I know you are frustrated, it is hard to wait.” OR “Wow, you are upset. You really want that.”
  • Positive Intent – “You are excited about that toy.”
  • Choices – “Do you want to play with this or that while you wait?” OR “Do you want to ask for or turn, or do you want me to help?”
  • Natural Consequences – “If you keep chasing, he might not want to play.”
  • Logical positive – “If you can wait, I will be sure you have the next turn.”
  • Logical negative – “If you keep grabbing, you may not have a turn.” OR “If you keep yelling, you’ll have to play in a separate room.”