Redirecting Your Children's Behavior

by Susie Walton, Scripps Memorial Hospital La Jolla

Raising children is certainly rewarding, but it isn’t always easy. Power struggles, misbehavior and disrespect can happen in every family. Fortunately, small changes in your parenting style can make a big difference in minimizing negative behaviors.
In teaching parents to redirect their children’s behavior, we focus on three key principles that can be implemented day in and day out. And, they work with children of any age, from toddlers to teens. I raised four sons who are now between 24 and 30, and these principles have worked beautifully for us.

Practice Mutual Respect
Most of us were raised autocratically—we respected our parents, but it was out of fear of getting caught misbehaving. That worked a while ago, but these days, it is a lot harder to catch kids doing things they shouldn’t be doing. Many homes have only one parent, and in many two-parent homes, both mom and dad are at work all day. As a result, kids spend more time on their own, and it is much more important for them to develop their own internal control mechanisms as opposed to the external controls provided by parents and other adults.

In mutual respect parenting, you’re firm out of respect for yourself, and you’re kind out of respect for your child. This parenting style is based on the same democratic principles that we have in America: there are a lot of freedoms, and there are rules. It’s not a free-for-all. For example, you might have a rule that bedtime is at eight, but you can tell your child, “It’s eight o’clock. You can either hop into bed or I can carry you there.”
As often as you can, get your child to help you solve a problem. That in itself will empower him, and he will feel respected and respect your wishes as well.

Imagine your child comes home with a skinned knee. An autocratic parent might say, “I can hardly see where you scraped it. Now stop crying and go back outside before I really give you something to cry about.” The permissive parent might say, “Oh no, you skinned your knee, you poor thing, let me get a bandage and some ointment and a big cookie.”The democratic parent would say, “I can see this is really hurting you. What can you do to make it feel better?” Then she recruits the child to help by washing his own knee or getting the bandage himself.

Children Must Feel Significant
We are the only species on the planet that need more than food, water and shelter to survive. As human beings, we need a sense of self-worth. Years ago this was much easier, because kids were needed on the farm after school. Older kids helped out younger kids. There was a sense of importance and being needed. Nowadays, our kids don’t have that sense—especially teenagers. That’s one of the reasons gangs are popular; they give a child a feeling of importance and wanting to belong.

We try to teach parents to create “team” in their families so their children will feel important and needed. It can be as easy as asking, “Which tie should I wear this morning, this one or that one?” Let them make small decisions. Ask them to plan dinner one night, and give them tasks to help out with the meal.Get them involved and let them feel valued.

A Misbehaving Child is a Discouraged Child
When your child acts out, try to figure out why she is feeling discouraged. This enables you to feel detached from the behavior, and also helps you treat the child with respect.
Within this principle, there are four different types of misbehavior: attention, power, revenge and inadequacy. Once you determine which type of behavior your child is displaying, you can address it appropriately. Consider these examples:

  • Attention: This child believes that “the more time you spend with me, the more you love me.” This is the child who is all over you when you are on the phone. We use a four-step process: no eye contact, no words, make them feel loved, and take action immediately. For example, simply stroke your child’s back while you are talking on the phone, but do not make eye contact with her or speak to her. She will feel your attention but understand that the world is not going to stop for her.
  • Power: This child wants to be in charge. Give him choices in decisions and ask his advice. Let him feel like he can have a say in things without running your life.
  • Revenge: This child says things like, “I hate you” or “I never want to talk to you again.” Instead of reacting angrily, validate her feelings by asking why she feels that way. Then you can work on the issue.
  • Inadequate: This child feels overwhelmed or frustrated by new tasks, whether it is a homework assignment or learning to tie his shoes. Instead of feeling sorry for him or trying to “fix” him, help him be successful by breaking tasks down into small steps. Also, by handling small tasks early on, such as throwing away her own diapers or helping to clear the table, she develops a sense of competence and can take on bigger tasks with confidence.

Susie Walton is a parenting coach that teaches Redirecting Children’s Behavior classes at the Scripps Mende Well Being Center at the Westfield UTC shopping center.