Peaceful Behavior Shaping—Counterintuitive Approaches That Work

By Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW

Did you know that you might not always be on track when it comes to your initial approach with kids? I’m all for following your instincts when it comes to parenting, but sometimes our first reaction is just that—a reaction. As rational as we’d like to be, we are actually quite illogical beings, emotions run high and it’s often hard to stay calm and relaxed. Many of the decisions we make every day are based on our feelings. We want to respond, but we often end up knee-jerk reacting. First, I’ll explain a little about why this whole remaining calm thing is so difficult, and then I’ll offer a few outside-the-box approaches for you to try.

I want to be a peaceful parent. I aim for composed responses to my child’s challenging behaviors. But often those reactions take over. Oh, how you hijack me limbic brain! The limbic brain is home to our moods and emotions. It is also where laughter is generated, olfactory sense resides, and memories are created. While this is all well and good, our limbic system also takes charge when we feel threatened and head into flight or fight, effectively cutting us off from our higher-level-thinking cortex.

A child’s rational mind is still under construction, and their emotions are pretty much running the show. We are the ones with the (hopefully) fully functioning adult brains. However, we often get triggered by the emotional pull of the young. The best case scenario is when they are a limbic mess and we can keep it together to model self-soothing, impulse-control, and emotion moderation. In this case we are teaching through example and offering a template of what it looks like to integrate multiple parts of the brain. When things don’t go well, we are yanked down to their emotionally immature level—into the limbic soup so to speak—and well, it can get ugly. So, a few ideas for you to try:

Let your child “win.” Resist the urge to always be right, know everything, and tell your child what to do. Sometimes relaxing your inner know-it-all (almost impossible for me, I will admit) can allow a child to make their own way and come to their own conclusions. Teachers sometimes call this the constructivist approach. If we let children invent and test their own theories, they learn to be creative, problem-solve, and literally construct their own learning. Also, use humor and role-reversal to engage in their name-calling or power-mongering. When my son pulls out the Mean Mommy label, I say, “Oh no, here comes the Mean Mommy. She is after you! See if you can knock her down with your strong muscles.” (Prepare for impact. Fall over. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.)

Stop prompting. In the same vein as letting a child learn on their own, giving them a little leeway around self-care and social situations can be fruitful. Maybe they were about to say thank you when you jumped in and asked them to. I have (almost) never prompted children for manners and they consistently learn to say please, thank you, excuse me, and I’m sorry by simply seeing it modeled on a regular basis. Likewise, imagine that someone is constantly asking you: “Are you hungry? Do you need a snack? Do you have to use the bathroom? Would you like a drink of water? Are you sure you don’t have to pee? Are you REALLY sure?” Welcome to the world of the average preschooler. You’d be cranky too, right?

Ignore unwanted behavior. But don’t I need to correct a child who behaves in an unacceptable manner? Shouldn’t there be consequences? In a word: No. Even classic behaviorists know that you should never reward poor behavior if you want to extinguish it. And any attention—even the negative kind—is a reward. I typically ignore behavior (and just the behavior, never the child) that would lead me into a power struggle if I addressed it. Many things I would like my child to stop doing: whining, complaining, and speaking defiantly, are ultimately are up to him. Telling him to stop from a place of authority and “might is right” will get me nowhere. Instead I ignore the behavior, focus on my child, use the teachable moment in a calm manner, and move on. Take the following example and the two possible responses:

Child demands in a horrible, bratty tone akin to nails on a chalkboard: “Mommy!! Get me some milk!!!”

Response One:  “Don’t talk to me that way! I will get you milk only after you ask nicely.” You are now in a potentially endless power struggle.

Response Two: “Sure sweetie, I’d be happy to get you some milk.” Hand milk to child. “Next time please use a kinder tone to ask.” This situation is now over.

I guarantee that all children will catch on quicker, and all adults will be happier with option two. Taking a step back from a coercive approach is always helpful. I recently learned a new catch-phrase from a colleague: that we should aim for “alliance not compliance” when it comes to our interactions with young people. Such a great practice! Remember to breathe, connect to yourself and how you feel (Cranky? Stressed? Agitated? If so take another d-e-e-p breath), and then meet the child where they are. You can validate their feelings without getting triggered. It takes practice, but it can be done.

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