Finally, five minutes of quiet. Until you realize it’s a little too quiet. Sure enough, when you find your 7- and 5-year-old, they’re intently doodling on the coffee table—with no paper in sight. And when you question them (“What in the world are you doing?!”), they cop an attitude. Pretty soon, you have a giant battle on your hands, not to mention a ruined table.
No matter how much you wish they wouldn’t, sometimes kids will act out. You may have already tried a number of tactics to get them to behave—but they still won’t listen. And you’re left wondering what to do, and what makes them misbehave in the first place.
At the heart of the problem? According to a parenting philosophy called Positive Discipline—inspired by the work of psychologists Alfred Adler and Rudolf Dreikurs and a book series by Jane Nelsen, Ed.D.—all behavior is goal-oriented. Kids have a fundamental need for a sense of belonging (attention and emotional connection within the family) and a sense of significance (power, or having a sense of control over his own world). If these needs are unmet, even in part, a child will act out in an attempt to gain these feelings. A grocery store tantrum might be a subconscious plea for attention after hours of running errands, and a homework battle could be the result of being told what to do all day.
Traditional parenting methods, such as time-outs, counting, punishments, and rewards are all fundamentally flawed because they don’t address the underlying reason for the misbehavior—namely, that the child’s “attention basket” or “power basket” is nearing empty.
The good news is that it’s possible to proactively prevent misbehavior in the first place by providing plenty of positive attention and positive power, so your child won’t feel the need to resort to negative means to achieve them. Here are a few ways to do that:
Spend time together
The most important thing you can do to bring out the best in your child is to get into her world with daily one-on-one time. Once or twice a day, do something meaningful of her choosing, and make sure she doesn’t have to compete with her siblings (or your iPhone!) for your attention. Even 10 minutes of playing dinosaurs or listening to her favorite music will give her a huge boost of positive attention and power, and help cut back on misbehavior significantly.
Give him choices
When your child feels like he has some control over his own life, he won’t feel the need to lash out and seize the reins by waging a power struggle. Give your child as many opportunities as possible to make real-world choices about anything from the type of healthy cereal to buy at the grocery store, to where he does his homework, to whether he’d rather walk the dog or empty the dishwasher—and he’ll be less likely to fight you on the nonnegotiables, like whether or not to take a bath.
Correct with consequences
Some misbehaviors keep cropping up, even with our best preventative efforts. When you face repeated acting out, you’ll need to set up a system of meaningful consequences. First, think of a fair and effective consequence that follows the 5 R’s: “related, respectful, reasonable, revealed in advance, and repeated back to you.” Then, in a calm moment, tell your child, “If you leave your chair at dinner, I will take away your plate and you’ll be done eating for the rest of the meal.” Then, have her repeat the consequence back to you to make sure she fully understands it. And finally, stick to your plan—your child might complain she’s hungry later, but will soon learn that you mean business.
How do you handle tantrums? Share your tips in the comments.