When a child is intentionally defying us, as parents our first reaction may be to try to correct the disruptive behavior and hope that will prevent a repeat performance, but it turns out that an extra dose of love might help even more than corrective measures.

As a new meta-analysis of more than 150 studies shows, when our kids are acting out the best response is to manage the behavior while also reassuring our children that they are loved.

The research, published this week in the journal Child Development, looks at studies conducted with more than 15,000 families in 20 countries. Among children aged 2 to 10 with disruptive behavior, the responses from parents could be categorized as either aiming to “enhance” the relationship (e.g. being more sensitive to the child’s needs) or “managing” the behavior (e.g. with discipline for bad behavior and/or praise for positive behavior).

The research shows that the winning solution really seems to be a combination of the two, especially among children who are already lashing out—because that’s the power of empathy.

“For children who have already developed severe disruptive behavior, adding relationship building to behavior management is key to reducing these problems,” says G.J. Melendez-Torres, senior lecturer in social sciences and health at the University of Cardiff, who coauthored the study.

Although Melendez-Torres notes that adding relationship building to behavior management didn’t seem to prevent outbursts, there is still no downside to it.

“Adding relationship building to behavior management may benefit children who have not yet developed severe disruptive behavior in other ways, such as encouraging better overall communication between parents and children.”

When it’s put like that, it may seem like common sense. But as Rebecca Eanes, author of Positive Parenting: An Essential Guide, has previously told Motherly, cultural messages about the “terrible twos” or “threenagers” may cause us to see the worst in our children.

“When we reduce them to the behavior they currently display, we miss out on seeing their beauty, their light and ultimately their potential,” Eanes previously wrote. “If we can correct, teach and guide our children from a position of seeing the light within them rather than their momentary setbacks along the way, how much higher will they reach?”

So, how do you parent with empathy + direction?

As child development psychologist Ashley Soderlund has said for Motherly, our job as parents is to give our children the tools to handle their behavioral problems differently the next time around—and this calls for empowering them.

To do that, she suggests this response:

  • Correct the behavior (say no and stop the grabbing)
  • Identify the problem (you would like a turn with that toy but Sarah is playing with it now)
  • Engage them in perspective taking (how would you feel if someone grabbed a toy from you?)
  • Offer an alternative (can you ask Sarah if you can have a turn after she’s done with the toy and then you’ll give it back to her?)

Then, critically, you end with a phrase that empowers the child: “You’ll remember next time.”

Those few, small words can make a big difference when parenting children with disruptive behaviors—more than 150 studies now prove it.

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