When I ask parents which of their child's behaviors they find most challenging to deal with, these three inevitably come up: lying, aggression, and backtalk. Let's look at each of these behaviors and discuss how to handle them using positive parenting.
Behavior "problem" #1: Lying
Being lied to by your children is upsetting for most parents. No one wants to raise "a liar." When our children lie to us, it breaks trust, and trust is a vital component in any healthy relationship. But the reason that children lie might surprise you.
Children under the age of about seven usually do not have the cognitive ability for deceitful lying. That type of lying requires the brain to be developed sufficiently enough that the child can recognize the truth, intellectually conceive of an alternate reality, and then try to sell that alternate reality to you. Because of the way the brain develops, the ability to do this just hasn't developed for toddlers and preschoolers.
When young children tell lies, it's to please you, not deceive you.
Children very much want to please their parents, to feel attached and accepted. So when your child tells you they brushed their teeth when they clearly did not, they may be telling you a falsehood, but it isn't with malicious intent. They are not being calculated about their fibs. They just want you to be happy with them. For more on the developmental aspect of deceit, read this.
Older children lie for a myriad of reasons, and even the best-behaved children will probably lie at some point. Reasons include:
- Feeling unable to tell the truth for fear of punishment
- Trying to protect themselves or someone else
- Not wanting to disappoint parents.
While it can be a trigger for parents, it's important not to have a big emotional reaction when you catch your child in a lie.
Here are a few tips for handling lies:
1. Don't blow up at your child.
Calmly state the truth and assure your child they can always be honest with you. "I see that your teeth aren't brushed. You can always tell me the truth. Please go back in and brush your teeth."
2. Avoid shaming your child for lying or calling them a liar.
You're influencing how they see themselves right now, and you don't want "liar" to be a part of their self-concept.
3. Don't set your child up for a lie.
Asking "did you take out the trash" when you see they didn't is a bit deceitful as well. Just say, "I see the trash still needs to go out. Take it out, please."
4. Work on building a trusting relationship with your child.
The closer your child feels to you, the less likely they will feel the need to lie.
Behavior "problem" 2: Aggression
Children sometimes hit, bite, pinch, and push, and these behaviors elicit strong reactions from parents who are horrified to see their child being aggressive. You may be moved to shame and punish the child for this behavior—but punishment doesn't solve the problem.
While punishment may temporarily stop the behavior, particularly when the parent is looking, it doesn't stop the emotions that drive it or speed up the development it takes to manage emotions and reactions better.
Rather than punishment, children need limits with lots of empathy, understanding and encouragement. When you understand that aggression is a mask for anxiety, fear, guilt, or hurt, it becomes easier to empathize.
My first rule for dealing with aggressive behavior is to discipline yourself because aggression from your child often does trigger big emotions in the parent. When we meet aggression with aggression (yelling, spanking, threats, and shaming language), it fuels the fire.
Therefore, wait until you are able to respond appropriately before disciplining your child. This might look like quickly removing your child from the situation by putting them in a safe place in your home and taking a short time-out for yourself while you calm down, or it could look like bringing them onto your lap for a time-in as you two calm down together.
Lecturing children while they are angry or in the fight, flight, or freeze response is useless. They cannot engage their higher brains at that point. You must help your child to calm down first, and this is done by providing empathy and safety.
Often, parents worry that this is somehow rewarding to children, but empathy is not a "reward" and gentleness doesn't elicit more bad behavior. Instead, these are how we reach a child's heart, and that's where we have the best chance to guide children toward better behavior.
When children feel safe with us, when they feel understood and loved, then they calm down and hear our words. It's in that moment that we can teach them best. Discipline, after all, is about teaching.
Here are my tips for dealing with aggression:
1. Calm yourself first.
You don't want to bring your own aggression into the mix.
2. Understand that aggression is a mask for more vulnerable feelings such as guilt, shame, fear, and anxiety.
This will help you respond with gentleness and empathy and reach your child's heart.
3. Remove your child from the situation and to a safe place.
While some older children can calm themselves and need space, most children will need your help calming down. Consider using a time-in to accomplish this.
During a time-in, the child is invited to sit close to the parent or caregiver and is guided in calming down their brains and bodies so they can absorb the lesson. This teaches an important life skill—the ability to self-regulate. Calming techniques can include reading a book, drawing, or just talking with a calm parent.
Once the child is calm, the brain is ready to learn, and the lesson can be taught. At this point, explain what the child did wrong, why it was wrong, and how to do better the next time such a situation arises.
4. Use problem-solving instead of punishment.
Time-outs and other typical punishment don't teach children how to manage their emotions and reactions— this is what is needed to prevent aggressive behavior from recurring.
Instead, talk to your child about how they can begin to recognize anger, fear and frustration, and what they can do to calm down before they lose their cool. Offer solutions such as giant breaths, clapping, drawing, or writing in a journal and ask your child to come up with ideas as well.
My youngest child loved to pop balloons when he was upset. This helped him release his anger quickly, so I kept a small box of blown up balloons for him. Find what works for your child.
Behavior "problem" 3: Backtalk
This is another common behavior that really bothers parents because it feels like disrespect. Here, as is always the case, it's helpful to understand what is going on behind the behavior—what's causing it to occur.
It's important to remember that, in early childhood, children are only beginning to learn to assert themselves. Often what we misunderstand as disrespectful back-talk is a still-developing child's way of trying to communicate their need for autonomy.
Parents can support the child's need while teaching more respectful and positive ways to communicate that need.
Therefore, setting a good example with positive and respectful communication in the home is the best first step to curbing back talk. Children do learn what they live, and if they're accustomed to yelling or being ignored, they'll use those tactics as well.
Next, be direct in your communication. If you state your request as a question, such as "Will you pick up your toys now," that leaves room for "no" or "I don't feel like it."
Instead, be kind but direct. "Please pick up your toys now so we can go outside to play." When/then statements are often effective, such as "When the toys are picked up, then we will go outside."
When a child is testing your limits, don't bicker back and forth. Acknowledge what your child is wanting, validate their feelings, explain your reasoning once, and then use a short and respectful statement to disengage from the argument, such as "I've already answered that" or "I won't be arguing about this."
Two keys for handling backtalk:
1. Listen to what is behind the words to what is really motivating this child so you can take the personalization out of it so that it doesn't trigger feelings of anger and disrespect.
2. Empathizing, which shows the child that you listen and care about what he feels and wants (a behavior you'll want him to pick up) while holding your limit will dissipate the power struggle.
These are tough concerns—and you are not alone in feeling frustrated by them. But by understanding where they come from, you'll be ale to help you child learn from them, and move through them together as a team.