I fed the puppy.
She had gone to her first “puppy class” that day and was extra hungry. Literally dancing for her food. At the exact moment that I put down her bowl, my son came racing into the room with his loudest truck, straight towards the puppy, scaring her and making her gulp her food. Even when he saw this reaction, he continued. I asked him to stop. I asked him again and again. Then, in a moment I’m not proud of, I walked right up to him and said STOP very loudly and close to his ear.
It worked. He stopped. But he was also upset, surprised, and hurt. “Why did you yell in my ear, Mama?” he said through tears. And then I felt awful. Why did I do that, I asked myself? I’ll tell you why, because I was tired, stressed, making dinner, hungry, — you name it — and my fuse was short.
I was grumpy mama. Grumpy mama comes around when life gets busy and I haven’t had any time to refuel my introverted tank. It had been a stressful patch and I was completely spent.
Here’s the thing. No one is perfect.
Not even me with my Ph.D. in Child Development — actually I am far from perfect, believe me! And I know the strategies, I know what’s effective, I know which positive parenting practices research supports.
It is one thing to know what to do and a whole other thing to be able to BE that person, even when the chips are down. It takes practice, patience, and personal growth.
We are all a work in progress.
Parenthood is a developmental journey all on its own. In fact, it’s one of the toughest growth periods we will go through. Our kids push us like no other person can. We grow and learn right alongside them. We need tools, prompts, reminders, and inspiration to help us grow. To help us BE that person.
I needed a go-to strategy that incorporated the methods that I knew have worked with my son and that science supports. Something easy to remember, something that could become a habit, something I could easily relay to my husband so our discipline could be consistent, caring, and effective.
This is what I came up with to get rid of grumpy mama and get back to the positive, playful Mom that I strive to be. ACT instead of reACT.
The first step in changing your child’s behavior is to be empathetic with what they are going through. To do that in a concrete way, we first Acknowledge what they are feeling.
Get eye level with them and ask how they are feeling or recognize what their real goal is or what it is they are wanting to do. With younger children you can name the emotion for them.
“I see you are trying to get a reaction from the puppy with your truck. Are you wanting to play with her?”
“I see you are being rough with your friend on the playground. Are you feeling really frustrated?”
“I see you are upset that it is time to go. Are you feeling sad about leaving?”
Listen to their response and then empathize with them. You can say things like, “that is hard,””that is upsetting,” “that is sad” or “I’ve felt like that before too.”
Acknowledging children’s emotions help them understand emotion and leads to better empathy and prosocial behaviors, especially in boys. Talking about emotions is also associated with more sharing and helping behaviors in toddlers.
When you start this conversation about emotions you are listening to their hearts. In response, they will feel like it is safe to express those emotions to you.
After you Acknowledge their feelings, it is time to physically connect with them and give their emotions a place to go. Connecting with your children first, before correcting the behavior or asking them to change the behavior, will make it much more likely they will cooperate.
The key is to show them that you accept them, even when they have big emotions. You do not need to accept their behavior, but we get to that in the third step. You do need to help them manage those big emotions.
While rubbing your child’s back: “It is hard to wait. I think it is hard to wait sometimes too.” (Here you are empathizing, normalizing the emotion, and physically connecting– “I’m here with you.”)
“You are really frustrated. Would you like to stomp like a dinosaur? How about a hug?” (Here you are offering a physical way to release frustration and a physical connection.)
“You are upset that we have to go, would you like a hug?” (Here you are diffusing their emotion through a stress-relieving hug.)
Hugs can be powerful. They have been found to buffer against stress, especially hugs from mom.
This strategy AMAZED me when my son was younger and had tantrums. I didn’t expect for this to work, but more often than not, after offering him a hug, his tension melted into tears in my arms and the tantrum was over.
Connection alone will sometimes bring kids out of a tantrum. Already, through these two steps, you have heard your child and connected with them in their moment of emotional turmoil.
This is step two to helping them with their reactions. You have diffused their stress and brought them back to a more calm state.
Acknowledge and Connect are often happening at the same time. As you acknowledge your child, you also give them an outlet for that emotion through you. You help them channel that emotion. You are a conduit to better executive function and as you do that, you are helping to strengthen those tenuous connections in their immature brain.
The original meaning of the word discipline comes from the Latin disciplina, meaning “teaching, learning” and is related to the word disciple. As parents then we are teachers.
To get your child to change their behavior is all about presenting it in a way that empowers your child to want to change.
When children feel empowered they will be internally motivated to change their behavior instead of you externally controlling their behavior through threats and fear (which, spoiler alert, doesn’t work.)
Negotiating and reasoning are the top two effective discipline strategies for most situations, according to research.
How children act out changes with age. From about the age of 18 months to 5 years, direct defiance decreases, but simple refusal and negotiation increase with age. 5-year-olds who used negotiation more often, as opposed to defiance or refusal, were less likely to develop psychological behavior problems, like externalizing disorder.
Negotiation and reasoning — giving some choices, compromising while still setting limits, teaching while empowering, is both effective in the moment and is good for your child’s overall development in the long-term.
Teach through Negotiation—
“We need to go, we had so much fun! Chose one last thing to do and we’ll go. Let’s stay longer next time. Next time I’ll give you an extra warning so you know it’s time to leave and I’ll make sure we get there a little early so you have more time to play. What will you do next time when it is time to leave? What is our new good habit? We will choose one last thing to do!”
Teach through Reasoning—
“What do you think would happen if we were always really loud around the puppy when she was eating? What if someone scared you when you were eating?” My son “Maybe she would stop eating.” “Yes, and then she would get sick, right?” My son “Yes, I don’t want her to get sick.” “No you don’t, I know you don’t, but now we know what to do when she’s eating don’t we? And you’ll remember that next time. You will be the person to make sure everything is calm when she eats. That can be your job!”
Teach through Taking a Break—
“We cannot push and shove on the playground, even when we are frustrated. What can we do with our frustration? Can we stomp our feet? Wave our arms? Throw away our angry ball? Let’s take a break together over here until we feel better.”
Note: Sometimes Acknowledge, Connect, and Teach will happen in quick succession.
Let’s say your child is hitting another child on the playground. You walk over and firmly grab their hands, stopping the behavior—Connect—while at the same time you say “I can see you are angry,”—Acknowledge—followed by Teach, “It is okay to be angry and stomp like a dinosaur, but it is not okay to hit. Let’s take a break on the bench together.”
Then go on to the next thing and hard as it might be as a parent, let go of that interaction. Recenter, find your breath and let it go. Kids are good at this, we, on the other hand, are not. We linger on difficult interactions. For me, I think I linger because I question how I handled it. With A.C.T., you’ll have more confidence in your actions and that will help you stay calm yourself and cool that inner critic.
When you think about discipline proactively you’ll find that these moments become the foundation for the social and emotional tools your child will use for life. When you ACT instead of REacting to your child you are helping them problem solve — you don’t have to change their behavior for them or control them, you have to understand them and help them handle those big emotions.
A version of this article was originally published on Nurture and Thrive.