“We can’t control every aspect of our kids’ lives forever,” explains Anna Page, a school Psychologist, as we sit together watching our kids play. “But we can teach them to be able to tackle whatever comes their way”. Parents’ responses to their own frustrating situations teach their kids how to respond. Our goal is to teach resilience. Anna gives an example of frustrating situation, then she shakes her head and shoulders and suggests saying, “Now, I’m going to shake it off”. Both of our kids look up and start laughing—they loved it. I try shaking and say it again, “shake it off!” They’re cracking up. I feel happier just saying it and hearing their little laughs. It’s so simple, but I feel like I just heard a tip that will change our lives.
Anna has spent her last 5 years as a credentialed school psychologist working with many 3-13 year old kids and their families. Here are some other gems she shared, on achieving better behaved, happier kids:
- Use logical natural consequences, rather than punishments. If your child throws a temper tantrum and refuses to put on a raincoat, a logical natural consequence would be that they get rained on.
- Communicate expectations clearly. Sometimes parents say, “I asked them to clean their room three times, and they didn’t, so I cancelled our Disneyland trip.” Anna suggests first examining how the parents communicated their expectations. Did they give enough cues? Did they specify a time for when the toys needed to be picked up? She suggests that often parents will get better results through better communication. If the information was all there, though, she’d suggest a more logical consequence like taking away their X-Box instead.
- Tell kids what to do, instead of what not to do. It is OK to first instruct the child to stop, to prevent a dangerous situation from occurring. Just be sure to follow with an explanation of what you’d like them to do. For example, instead of just saying “don’t run” or “don’t throw”, ask them to walk or use gentle hands.
- Offer alternate options to the undesirable behavior. For example, if two kids want the same toy, they can share, take turns, or play with something else. For non-verbal kids, you can even show pictures of the different options, and they can choose a picture of the option they prefer.
- Try to identify the cause of the tantrum. If the child is trying to communicate, try to help her with how to communicate. On the other hand, if she wants something, you’re saying no, and it’s a power struggle, you can give options and alternatives.
- Keep your own emotions in check. When a child goes into a rage cycle, we have a slightly delayed rage cycle that follows theirs. A good first step is to acknowledge that you’re escalating too, and take a deep breath. Then choose the best way to respond.
- Use short, simple phrases. Little kids don’t register long explanations, especially when they’re escalated, and they may just tune out what you’re saying. Instead ask yourself what they’re registering, and try to keep it short and simple.
- Offer comfort and communication with limit-setting. Many negative behaviors (e.g.: biting) are very emotional for the child, especially if they want something they can’t have. You can help by acknowledging the child’s feelings, for example by saying “I can see that you’re sad. Sometimes when we’re sad, we feel angry too.” Also, by being physically near the child and speaking to them in a soothing tone, you let them know that you’re there for them.
- Let a child deescalate before trying to teach new behaviors. As child enters a rage cycle, their IQ and reasoning ability declines. That means that when the child is enraged, they’re not able to register a lot, let alone learn a new skill. It’s a good idea to save the lesson for later.
- Take time to reflect on the negative incident after the child deescalates. Ask the child, “What are you going to do next time?”
- Catch them being good. If there’s a child at school who tends to push other kids and Anna sees them in a moment where they’re not pushing, she’ll say, “You’re having such a nice conversation with your friend.”
- Be very specific with praise. Praise is very important, but empty praises are ineffective. Instead, try explaining what the child did that was good. Anna suggests that if a child opens a door for her, she’ll say, “Thank you for opening the door for me—It’s so respectful.”
- Model resilience and coping strategies. Kids need to not only learn to play well, but also to respond resiliently when it’s time to put the toys away or when things don’t go their way. You teach them how to respond to frustrating situations by your responses to stressful situations. It’s OK to be frustrated. But if a car cuts you off, tell your child, “I’m so frustrated right now, because that person put us in danger.” Then tell them how you’re going to cope with it. For example, “I wonder what I can do. I’m going to take a deep breath and we’re going to listen to some music and shake it off.”
- Take care of yourself. Sometimes, we focus so much on teaching our kids and putting our kids first that we neglect ourselves. We need to be able to respond resiliently to model this to our kids though.
- If you’re struggling with anxiety or depression, get treatment. This can be clinical treatment with a counselor, cognitive behavior therapy (acknowledging your own emotions and having a go-to plan), having a support system in place, learning coping skills, or any number of other options. Anna suggests even writing down coping strategies (like going for a walk) can help in tough times.
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