The Steps of Positive Discipline

The steps of Positive Discipline are not something I’ve created, these steps have been around for years. Originally written in 1965, Dr. Haim Ginott introduced a version of these steps in Between Parent and Child. Systematic Training for Effective Parenting, or STEP classes, desiged by Dinkmeyer and McKay have been in session since 1976. These steps are covered in some variation in most all Positive Discipline parenting books. We cover the steps of positive discipline in my one-day and eight hour evening series workshops. My full audio workshops are also available at www.askdrrene.com. Here are the basics to get you started:

  • I messages – This is labeling your own or others emotions and blaming the behavior not the child. When labeling your own emotions, it sounds like, “I am frustrated, no one is listening,” or, “I am upset, this is a huge mess.” Labeling others’ emotions sounds like, “she is upset, she wasn’t finished with her turn,” or, “she is angry, that hurt her.” This shares emotions and avoids You messages which blame the child such as, “I am frustrated, you never listen,” or, “she is angry, you hurt her.”
  • Empathy – This is validating the child’s emotions as you enter into a discipline exchange, even when you disagree with the emotion at hand. It is saying, “wow, you are mad, you didn’t like that game,” or, “I see you are sad, it’s hard to be left out.”  It’s remembering to validate emotions and help find a calm before you address the situation or discipline.
  • Positive Intent – This refers to how we view the child’s behavior. What we think and assume about their behavior, shapes our tone and our reply. This is thinking of those you love as tired or overwhelmed rather than lazy. For the child having trouble waiting for a turn, it is seeing them as excited, young and needing to learn patience rather than annoying or rude.
  • Choices – The idea is to offer the child two positive choices about how, when or where they can do the behavior you want them to do. If you are wanting them to get homework done, this might be, “do you want to start with reading or math,” or, “do you want to work before or after snack,” or, “do you want to work at the kitchen table or your bedroom desk?” These often work because they give the child some power.
  • Natural Consequences – This is what just might happen in life if the child continues the behavior. These warn and encourage the child to think about the possible outcomes. This sounds like, “if you don’t wear a coat, you might be cold,” and, “if you do that, she might not want to play with you.” These consequences start to make sense around three-and-a-half years old.
  • Logical Negative Consequences – This is, if the bad behavior; then the bad related outcome. “If you keep yelling, you will have to play in separate rooms,” or, “if you grab a toy, you may not play with it for 5 minutes.”
  • Logical Positive Consequences – This is, if the good behavior; then the good related outcome. “If you can speak nicely, you can stay together,” or, “if you can share the coloring books, I’ll get out the other markers.”

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.

Curb Tattling

Tattling is a common behavior particularly for children four to seven years old. It is also an unpopular behavior particularly with classmates and older siblings. My Claire was about five years old when she started tattling non-stop on her older sister. It took about a week for Alicen to have enough. Claire was telling on big things like, “she is hurting me,” and little things like, “she is almost touching me.”

The first round of defense is to teach children the difference between tattling v. what we call helpful telling. Helpful telling is when they come to tell you something that you want or need to know about. This includes when someone is hurt or in danger or getting their feelings squashed. Define this with children and give them examples. Helpful telling would include, “she hit me,” “her chair is too close to the stairs,” and, “they are calling him names and he is crying.” These are things that need an adult’s intervention, children are showing they aren’t yet able to handle the situation.

Once children understand the difference, it is on the parent to consistently respond. Parents should intervene when it is helpful telling and not when it is tattling. When the child says, “her chair is too close to the stairs,” a parent can say, “thank you for telling me, that’s helpful,” and intervene. When the child says, “she is looking at me funny,” a parent can say, “is anyone hurt or in danger? I think you can handle this, go tell her to stop.”

Done consistently, this should start to curb tattling. It makes tattling ineffective. If it’s still happening too often, parents can add a logical negative consequence to make tattling costly to the complaining child. The answer is to have the tattling child say something nice about the child they just told on. In our house Claire said, “she is breathing on me.”  I responded, “is anyone hurt or in danger? I think you can handle this, but first, tell me something nice about Alicen.” This was painful for Claire, it took her a few minutes of saying, “I can’t think of anything,” before she said, “if I have trouble with the tv, she helps me change the channel.” I said without laughing, “good enough, go.” Children do not want to say something nice about the child they came to tattle on. Done consistently, this really dampens the behavior.

Teaching Them How to Share

I think learning to share starts with learning to take turns. Taking turns is more concrete than sharing. The child knows, “I have this to myself. When the timer dings, or you tell me, it will be their turn. If I ask nicely and wait, I will get another turn.’ This can make sense as early as 18 months to two years old. Sharing is, ‘we might all touch it at the same time. I may not get this to myself.’ This can be a more complicated issue and can be managed more easily as children get to be three or four years old. At any age, if they have difficulty with sharing, focus first on turns. When there is difficulty, think of empathy and coaching before discipline. This is a social skill that can take a lot of time and practice to learn. It’s more than a specific behavior.

Turn Taking

If your child is having difficulty with turn-taking, you might more actively practice. If he is playing at the train table when you come in the playroom, you could pick up an unused train and say out loud, “wow! The green engine. I am going to take a turn with this train.” If he wants the green one immediately, you can say, “oh, you would like a turn? I am taking a turn, but will be done in just a minute, and you can have the next turn.” Role the train for just a bit longer, and then say, “I am done; you can have a turn now.” You might add, “when you are done, can I have another turn?” Then when he is done, if he remembers to give it back you, gush a little, “you remembered I wanted a turn; that was thoughtful!” If he forgets, you say, “Oh, remember I want the next turn,” and prompt him to hand it to you. If he does, gush a little. Again, this can take some time. (this paragraph from a previous post)

Talk them through these steps with similar language every time they are in a situation of turn taking. Turn Taking may be easier when it is about an activity like waiting to bat in a t-ball game or waiting for a turn on a slide. Use similar words to talk through these times. Also, talk about it when you are waiting for a turn at the grocery store or at the doctor’s office.

Playing board games, even cooperative board games, is a nice way to introduce and practice turns. Cooperative games like Snails Pace Race and Things In My House give an opportunity to practice turn taking without the added pressure of learning to lose.

Sharing

Again, talk about sharing whenever you see it. Talk to them about how we share pool toys with neighbors and how we share a metro ride with strangers on our way to the zoo. Talk about how well they shared the sandbox at the park. Work to share something with them everyday such as a bowl of ice cream or space in the chair when you are reading to them. The idea is to make sharing a common event and highlight the times it is going well.

It’s often more difficult to share things such as a shovel in the sandbox or a puzzle task with classmates. When you can be proactive, prepare them for the sharing that’s about to happen. In our preschool, before we take out a big floor puzzle, we talk to the children about how we are going to all work together to share the task, how we can ask each other for pieces and should listen to others’ requests. We end up reminding them to share the pieces and the space throughout the activity.

It may be a good idea to have a similar conversation about sharing before playdates. Let your child know that friends are coming over, and they will be sharing their toys. If this is difficult, you might allow your child to put away a few toys that they are not ready to share with the understanding that what is out is for everyone to use. Be ready to give reminders throughout.

Read About It

  • The Mine-O-Saur by Quallen
  • Mine, Mine, Mine by Becker
  • Rainbow Fish by Pfister
  • Share and Take Turns by Meiners
  • Sharing is Fun by Cole
  • The Boy Who Wouldn’t Share by Reiss
  • I am Sharing by Mayer
  • It’s Mine by Lionni
  • One for You, One for Me by Albee
  • Martha Doesn’t Share by Berger

Want a Better Morning Routine with Kids?

Family Using Digital Devices At Breakfast Table

Believe me, I know, mornings in a busy house with kids can be tough. There are several guidelines that can help in this hectic transition time.

  • Build a real routine – Many families have a solid bedtime routine, but fewer have a great morning routine. If you are one of those winging it in the morning families, it is time to get a routine. Start by deciding what time you want to walk out the door. Next, list all the things that need to happen before that from wake-up to out, and decide about how much time you’ll need for each step. Working backwards gives you a wake-up time.
  • End with fun so you have something to work towards and a buffer – Now take that well planned schedule and bump everything earlier by 10 minutes. Set aside this bit of time at the end for the kids to do something enjoyable. This may be reading or lego time, it may be time with the puppy. This gives your kids something to work towards, and gives you a 10 minute buffer for sanity’s sake.
  • Get visual – Work with your child to make a chart or a poster including the steps of your new routine. Let them make the decisions to write a chart, draw pictures or take pictures for the illustrations. Give them time to decorate it and make it their own. Put it somewhere easily visible to all.
  • Stick to the schedule – Help your child make it through the routine, and have the 10 minutes for something enjoyable at least a few mornings. Make it your goal to stick to the schedule for a month, a routine only helps if you do it.
  • Think logistics for sticking points – If getting dressed is a battle, put it first rather than last in the routine. Make a rule that breakfast is for dressed people. If you’re really desperate, have them sleep in their next day clothes (at least the shirt, underwear and socks).
  • Give jobs – To keep kids in the routine, it may be helpful to give them individual responsibilities as they go. Make one the toothpaste squeezer, another the cereal pourer. Titles are appealing to younger children. Think to rotate jobs every few days.
  • Give choices – Choices allow the child some power. Here and there, share a bit. Ask, “do you want cereal or oatmeal this morning?” or, “do you want to wear shorts or a skirt?” or, “do you want to get dressed by yourself or with help?”
  • Give challenges – Can they get dressed before you? Can they get to the table faster this morning than yesterday?
  • Do what you can the night before – In our house, homework isn’t complete until it is in the backpack and by the front door with all papers signed. Some gung-ho families make lunches the night before and lay out clothes. Every little bit helps.
  • As they are able, give them more responsibility in the process – If you trust, let them take over the tooth brushing. If they do, let them wake-up by an alarm.
  • Plan with simple and healthy in mind for breakfast – It’s great if you can cook a full hot breakfast every morning. I am not knocking that at all, in fact I’d like to wake-up at your house! I often cook on the weekends, but go the easy route on weekdays keeping health in mind. We do a lot of scrambled eggs, hard-boiled before eggs, whole grain cereal, yogurt, cheese sticks, toast and fruit salad. Things that take just a minute or two, and we can keep well stocked.

Four-Year-Old Goes to the Park Alone

Hi Dr. Rene,

Early this morning, I was awakened by knocking at my front door. There stood my neighbor with my four-year-old that she had found playing by himself at the park down the street. We have rules that he can’t go downstairs in the morning without telling us, he can’t go outside alone and such, but he obviously ignored them. He scales babygates like a pro and knows how to open the locks on our doors. I am looking for ways to drive home the seriousness of what he did. I showed him how scared I was and am, but he just countered with, “but we know her, and she was nice, and look, I’m fine.” I called his dad and together we told him there are some very bad people who like to take children away from their parents and hurt them. Any advice on how to drive this home? Is talking enough?

Thank you,

Ellyn, scared mom

Hi Ellyn,

There are several answers here. I think in the moment you were absolutely right to show him how scared you were. Most parents, when they feel scared show anger which doesn’t tend to stick. Your children see you angry often, but they rarely see you scared, so if you can keep it that true emotion, on your face and in your voice, it will likely have a biger impact.

I would then review the rules of telling before going downstairs in the morning and getting permission before going outside. Since this was in place and ignored, I would have followed up with a related consequence something along the lines of being inside for two days. I get this may seem like a big response, but it is a big and depending on where you live (busy streets) potentially dangerous one. As a parent of a four-year-old boy who has already bypassed the system, I would go ahead and install an alarm system. I don’t mean to be dramatic here, but for sanity’s sake put one on the doors to be used overnight or at least new key-only locks.

In a whole other area, I would get and watch The Safe Side: Stranger Safety by John Walsh (America’s Most Wanted) and Julie Clark (Baby Einstein) with him http://www.thesafeside.com/. It is a DVD that teaches children the difference between ‘safe side’ adults, ‘kind of know’ adults and ‘don’t know’ adults with rules for each. It is informative without being scary and well done to keep the children’s attention. For yourself, I would also read Protecting the Gift by Gavin DeBecker https://www.gavindebecker.com/index.php/resources/book/protecting_the_gift/. It is a book written to guide you through teaching your child about personal safety.

I hope this helps.

Sincerely,

Dr. Rene

Answers to Typical Two-Year-Old Struggles

Recently I got an email from a mom with several questions asking how to respond to several of her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter’s behaviors. The start to each of the answers was, “this is common at two…”  I am going to write a paragraph about what it is to be two-and-a-half years old, and then answer the specifics in turn.

At two-and-a-half years old, most children move through a stage of saying “no” all day long and are driven to do the opposite of the things you request. This struggle stems from their developing sense of self. They are learning they can voice an opinion and are testing the power that opinion has. As challenging as it can be, you want your children to move through this. They are also starting to realize independence and how to speak up for themselves. At two-and-a-half years old, they are starting to experience bigger and more complex emotions such as fear and jealousy. They are starting to have broader social interactions such as sharing space in a busy preschool classroom. All this while lacking a real ability to deal effectively. Their thinking is big, but their language, size and skills are limited.

1. When I am speaking on the phone, texting or emailing, she will act like she is hurt, cry and make other loud noises.

Answers: First, if you can, save the texting and emailing for when she is asleep or otherwise occupied. If there is a 30 minute stretch of a tv show, that’s the time to text away. I get things can’t always wait, but when they can it’s a nice practice. Second, plan for distractions. If you know you are going to be on a 20 minute call, run some water in the sink and let her “wash dishes” or break out the play-doh set that she can mush for a while. Third, teach her how to politely interrupt like standing in front of you waiting or touching your hand quietly. I wrote notes on how to teach that in this blog post: https://parentingbydrrene.wordpress.com/2012/05/13/teaching-patience/.

2. At times she will say she wants something like a stuffed animal. When I give it to her she says, “I don’t want it,” and backs away from me and it. Then I will move on to do something else, and she will jump up and down saying, “no, I want it! I want it!” When I try to give it to her again, she backs away. Now I am mad. How do I break this cycle?

Answer: Recognize she is still learning the power of words and how these social dynamics work. The answer is to see it coming as best as you can. When she backs away the first time say, “I can see you changed your mind, and you don’t want it now. I am going to leave it out for you right here in case you change your mind again,” and then just leave it. If she starts to jump around say, “it is okay to change your mind. You are welcome to have it,” just avoid picking it up again. The key is to stay completely calm and disengage yourself while allowing her to make decisions.

3. One day a week, my parents watch her. They mentioned that all goes well during the day, but when I pick her up at 5:00 p.m. she acts totally different. She gets clingy to me, whines, forgets all their rules and runs amok.

Answer: This is totally normal from grandparents, babysitters or preschool teachers. Children tend to be better behaved for others. The silver lining is just that, they are better behaved for others, so their time away is a bit smoother. First, be ready for it. Let your parents know it’s normal and have a plan to spend the first 10 minutes you are there giving her undivided attention. Yes, greet your parents, but let her talk with you about her day and show you anything important, maybe play a quick round or two of hide’n’seek. Many children at this pick-up transition long for a bit of realtime. If it’s given, they can relax a bit, so you can then more peacefully speak with your parents. Second, distract her from it by giving her a job or challenge. As you walk through the door, ask her to be the door locker and then your shoe untie-er or ask if she can quick find grandpa and kiss his cheeck five times. Third, make a quick exit. Ask the grandparents to put everything by the door, call them from the car to have any necessary small talk and whisk her away as you open the door.

4. When we are in the car I usually play children’s music. She likes to sing along. Sometimes I like to sing too, but when I do she says, “no mommy, don’t sing.” My reply is along the lines of, “that’s not nice to say, Mommy wants to sing too. We can both sing together.” I’ve also tried taking turns singing, but then we get stuck on a song two or four times.

Answer: Several options here. First, say, “oh, you want to sing alone? Okay,” and then really enjoy her singing. Second, offer to take turns, but just play each song twice, so you don’t lose your mind. Third, offer empathy and then sing along. This sounds like “oh, I hear you want to sing alone, but right now I’d like to sing too. It’s fun to sing with you,” and then sing. In each case, you are letting her know you’ve heard her and then moving forward. Overtime, and while there may be some upsets, you are teaching her to be flexible to others as well which is a good skill in life.

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.

Want Kids to Listen? Stop Repeating Yourself!

It’s an all too familiar scenario…

Mom is almost ready to leave, children are still coloring in the kitchen. Mom says, “hey, time to get your shoes on, and could you turn off the tv, please?” Mom keeps moving to put the breakfast dishes in the sink. Children ignore mom’s request and keep coloring. Mom walks over to gather her things, turns off the tv herself and says, “really, get your shoes.  We gotta go.” Children continue coloring. One child looks up briefly, sees mom looking through her purse and checking her phone, so back to coloring. Mom, without looking up says, “shoes.” Mom, putting on her coat snaps, “shoes now! (five seconds pass) That’s one….(five seconds), two….(five seconds), do you hear me? I am counting! GET YOUR SHOES!” Crayons drop, kids move towards shoes. 

Parent asks child to do something. Child ignores request. Parent repeats request. Child ignores. Parent escalates. Child ignores. Parent, who was initially calm, loses it and yells. Child listens and moves into action. Parent is frustrated that child doesn’t listen.

The unfortunate thing if you are in this cycle is you are actually teaching your child to NOT listen. By repeating the request, you are directly teaching them to tune you out. The child is learning that, when you start talking, you are going to say it two or three more times, so they wait. They learn that they have at least a few more minutes from the first request before they have to listen. They learn you are unpredictable, sometimes you really mean it, and sometimes you just don’t, so they watch.

To break the habit of repeating yourself, you have to make a new habit. The idea is to say it once, and then expect them to listen. Accept that at least initially, you may have to move into action and help them to listen. You may have to help them at first because together you’ve created the pattern of tuning out. So let’s say you buy in, and starting now, decide to say things once and expect children to listen. For starters, the new pattern is going to fail. Tomorrow morning, you get their attention and very clearly say, “it’s time to go. Put on your shoes, please.” They are not likely to listen as listening the first time is not the familiar habit. Rather than repeat and frustrate yourself, move into action. Take child to shoes, or take shoes to child, and get them started. You can still give them choices about which pair of shoes or which step to sit on. You can give them a challenge to put them on before you sing the alphabet. You can still be polite and say please. The point is, you can still talk, just avoid the repeated asking them to put on their shoes again. Hopefully you will be less frustrated. Even if you have to stop what you are doing to help, at least you only said it once.

Have faith that you are building a new and better habit. It should only take a few weeks before a six-year-old starts to realize, “oh, you are only going to say things once. You actually expect me to listen.” With a two-year-old, it can take until they are three, but it is a far better habit to be in as a parent, to say things once and expect listening than to start down the path of repeating to be ignored.

We had a mom in class who said, “I get this, but it’s crazy. I must say 16 times every morning, ‘put on your shoes.’ No one is listening to me, but I”m making four lunches, and I’ve got four boys running amok, and you want me to stop making lunch.” Yes, I either want her to stop making lunches and help them listen, OR, better yet, save her breath and wait until she is done making lunches, and then gather everyone to ask them to put on shoes. Wait until you are in a position to move into action and expect listening. In her current habit she is directly teaching them to tune her out 16 times, making the rest of her day that much harder. Clearly there is a need to change the habit.