Tips for Parents and Caregivers to Decrease Challenging Behaviors
Have you ever wondered how to have a better relationship with your child or how to handle all of those difficult behaviors? Our early childhood therapist Katie Dulla has provided some easy-to-implement tips for parents to try.
Katie provides therapy to our youngest kids and their parents. She can often be found providing guidance and support to parents, as well as helping them understand these difficult behaviors and the big feelings that usually come with them. In the following tips, she shares what she has learned as an early childhood therapist and even provides examples of what parents and caregivers can do!
- Acknowledge and validate feelings (we all have them). This allows your child to feel seen and heard. Then, continue to hold the limit, instruction, stance, etc. Below is a basic example of a child being scared their parent will get hurt while going out to dinner without them – this is a common fear of children by the way!
- You could say something like, “I know you feel scared right now. That’s a tough feeling. I get scared sometimes too. You are safe here at home with (nanny or whoever) and I will be safe at the restaurant. I am just a phone call away. You will have so much fun with your nanny eating pizza! I love you so much and I will see you soon. It’s time for me to go now.”
- Use the word, “and” instead of, “but.” Imagine the visual of giving with one hand, but then taking it back with the other. “And” allows two opposing views to coexist, while “but” is invalidating to the child/person. Practice saying out loud a limit you recently set with your child with both “but” and “and” – i.e. “We are going to have a snack but we need to clean up your toys” or “We are going to have a snack and we need to clean up your toys.” Does it feel different to you?
Intentionally Attempt to Prevent Big Reactions
- Use “first, then” statements. It gives the child an expectation of what is to come and decreases anxiety about not getting to do the preferred or even promised activity. If you can’t stay true to your statement, don’t say it, or it will actually increase your child’s anxiety in the long run. You could say, “First we need to clean up, then we get to jump on the new trampoline.”
- Give “transition warnings” which means preparing the child for what comes next. This decreases anxiety too. Depending upon your child’s perception of time, you might need to provide a visual of time passing (i.e. using a sand timer, counting down, paper chain, etc.). You also may need to check in and reiterate the plan in case they have forgotten. Below is an example:
- “Remember the plan? We’re going to the store, then to grandma’s, and then we’ll come back home.”
- “Catch them being good.” This phrase simply means recognizing when your child does something well! And especially when they’re doing the opposite of the negative behavior you’ve been working on. Comment on their hard work and tell them how great it is. This reinforces the good thing and will increase their ability to do it in the future.
- Catching them being “good” can simply be them doing something well and working hard. When praising and when correcting, always use behavior-specific language!
- “It’s so cool how you’re blending those colors together!”
- A child who always picks their boogies and they don’t, “Wow, you used a tissue to blow your nose this time!”
- A child who has a hard time being safe in the kitchen, “I love how safe you’re being by helping me read the recipe book and using your eyes to watch me do the cooking.”
- “That was so kind of you to share the ball with Bob. His smile was so big.”
What if it’s Already a Little Bit Tense?
- In difficult situations where both you and your child are very upset, say that you both need a break to calm down and that you can talk later. Make sure to follow through with that. A calm-down corner can help you provide a space for your child to go to instead of following you around.
- The key to this strategy is that you have to practice it during times when your child is regulated and calm. Then when you suggest they go to their calm down corner (when they are upset) they understand what you are suggesting.
- Model ways to calm down when they’re upset – deep breaths, counting to ten, using the five senses or say, “This is hard to do or talk about, isn’t it? Let’s try again when you feel ready.”
- Again, label all feelings (excited, happy, silly, scared, angry, anxious, nervous, worried, etc.) in a way that is developmentally appropriate. A child needs to know what a feeling is before they can understand it, verbally express it, and then do something about it. This means labeling their feelings, your feelings, the character on the TV’s feelings, etc.
- After a fight or hard time or when you (the grownup) lose your cool (just like everyone does sometimes), make sure to explain what happened and apologize later. It models that you can have conflict and still love one another. Even if a parent was frustrated about the sprinklers not working (or whatever), explain that you were upset about something else and not them.
- Sometimes the hardest part is trying not to overreact if something negative happens. We’re all humans so these strong negatives will happen and when they do, look into yourself and identify this strong response. The repeated overly negative comments reinforce that the child really messed up, disappointed you, and creates shame. On the other hand, when telling your child, they did something fantastic, let them know!
These are just some techniques to help parents and their children decrease conflict and subsequently improve connection. This list is far from comprehensive but it’s a good beginning. Be creative and do what feels right! Your children might act out because this is new and confusing. Expect that and don’t let it deter you. Good luck!