We introduced Dr Louise Porter in our last issue to help parents with one of their biggest worries – using effective discipline to teach children how to manage their emotions and gain self control. Her guidance approach is an alternative to the highly publicised reward and punishment methods currently in favour.
A reward and punishment style of discipline suggests that children will only learn to behave if they are rewarded. The flip side of that theory then is that they will modify their behaviour because they know that there will be negative consequences otherwise.
Parents should ask themselves whether that thinking has ever stopped their children from fighting!? No matter how many times you’ve said something along the lines of, ‘If you don’t stop fighting with your sister you won’t get any pocket money’ it simply doesn’t lead to long term behaviour change. You might get a short term result, but that’s about it.
In contrast, the guidance approach suggests that no child is going to stop a satisfying sister scuffle just on your say so. Considerate behaviour is about self control – of which they have little or none depending on their age and emotional development. In the guidance approach, parents recognise that the skills needed for negotiating things like sibling discord have to be learnt and that there is no quick fix.
Parents instinctively know that children’s thoughtless behaviour is often the result of normal exuberance, exploration and play, hunger, tiredness or a general lack of skill and awareness of those around them. Our role as parents is to teach them and move them from the baby state of acting on every feeling to the adult state of regulating feelings so that they help rather than hinder their lives. It’s inevitable that children will not have mastered this art yet.
In other words the guidance approach is child-centred - your child learns to recognise and gradually control their own emotions over time and with growing maturity, whilst the reward and punishment approach is parent-imposed ie do as I say.
The question of tantrums
Dr Porter describes lapses of self control as four ‘tantrum’ patterns, two of which are active, and two of which are passive.
Active tantrums include protesting – the child who kicks and screams in the supermarket – and social – which involves verbal abuse, refusing to share, becoming aggressive and generally not being friendly. Children having a social tantrum might become angry with their playmate and cannot overcome this feeling to play sociably, despite knowing how.
Passive tantrums include whinging, whining, sulking and nagging – which tell us that children feel dissatisfied with something, and cannot get past that feeling and get on with what needs to be done.
The second passive tantrum and commonly the most frustrating for parents is uncooperative behaviour. This is where children do not like what they’ve been asked to do and, because for the moment they cannot overcome their distaste for it, they do not intend to do as asked.
When children often have active tantrums (the protesting or social type), they commonly display one of the passive types (whinging or uncooperativeness) as well. Sometimes you can avoid the more serious, active types, by dealing with the passive tantrums before they grow into their more active counterparts.
However, many of the behaviours arising from the tantrums are what parents quite rightly know must be managed and overcome. A controlling response can make the situation worse because control leads to resistance, rebellion and retaliation. Just as adults resist and resent control by other adults, children (who are people too) react similarly.
If you use power, you will lose influence. All parents need disciplinary methods that reduce disruptions, without provoking defiance in children. Here are some useful strategies which will help to minimise disruption or prevent escalation:
Use positive instructions: when you hear yourself using the word ‘if’, take it as a sign that you are trying to control your child: ‘If you eat your dinner, you can have dessert’. Instead, a more positive way of responding when your child has asked for dessert is to reply, ‘Yes, when you’ve eaten your dinner’.
Another example would be, ‘If you pick up the towels, you can watch TV.’ One is manipulating behaviour to get a desired behaviour; the other puts the decision in the child’s hands. Name the action you want, not the one you don’t: rather than saying ‘don’t run’, say ‘walk’, or ‘speak nicely’ rather than ‘stop whining’.
Help them start: sometimes children do not cooperate because they don’t like what you’ve asked them to do, or don’t know what you mean. When you find yourself repeating a verbal instruction that didn’t work the first time, you may have to start them off.
Say it – ‘I’ll start you off , then you can finish the job’. Reactive behavioural problems come about because children are resisting our attempts to control them. Try these tips to side-step a confrontation:
Tactical ignoring: this is when you tell them that you’re ignoring them because you don’t like their behaviour. For instance, when they have demanded something in a whiney voice, you can respond, ‘Sure, I’ll get that for you. But first I’d like you to ask again in a normal voice please.’
Saving face: if blamed or shamed about a mistake, children can become unmanageably upset so give them a way to save face. You could say things like:
- ‘I’ve explained that what you did was wrong. I’m sure you wouldn’t have done it if you had known that. Now that you know, I reckon you won’t do it again’.
- ‘Looks like that was an accident. What could you do next time so that it doesn’t happen again?’
- ‘Sometimes people forget to think first. You’ll probably remember next time. What do you think?
If your child hurts another child, don’t coerce an apology: forcing a child to say sorry when they’re not is pointless and will not help. Focus on the hurt child instead and console them with words like, ‘I think that Henry is sorry that he hurt you. He might be able to say so later.’
So what about specific behavioural problems that are typical family flashpoints?
Look for a solution, not a culprit
Some families need all family members to contribute to household tasks. Tidying up toys can be one of the tasks that can be allocated each week and this three-step process may help teach children so that later they can do it without your assistance.
Step 1: assist with planning and timing – planning how to tidy up a room in logical steps can be too overwhelming for children to do without your help. To assist, structure the task into smaller components. For example, suggest that they put away every toy with wheels, or toys that are blue. Or turn it into a game such as ‘Simon Says’. Older children can create a check list with your help on the computer.
Step 2: assist with the actual packing away…as the old saying goes, ‘a task shared is a task halved’. So, you can both motivate and help children by packing away with them. Your help will produce a tidier end result; give children more satisfaction and greater motivation to do it again.
Step 3: restrict the task, ie not all toys out at once; therefore you don’t have to put everything away. This works for the tidying of bedrooms as well – but the next time you hear yourself demand that that ‘pigsty be cleaned up’, think of it this way; if your husband is watching his team play on TV, is it likely that he will leap off the couch when you command him to ‘clean up the shed this instant!’?
Decide what you will and will not tolerate, eg a messy bedroom is okay but common areas must be tidy; or rooms have to be tidy enough to be cleaned on cleaning day and above all, ask yourself, are your standards part of the problem?
When you cannot play in a friendly way, you cannot play
Aggression is inconsiderate and harmful to both the victim and the offending child. It is important to eliminate aggression so that both parties are protected; in doing so your aims will be threefold:
- Comfort the recipient.
- Teach the aggressive child another way to meet their needs and solve problems.
- Reassure any onlooking children about their safety.
Take both children aside and soothe the child who has been hurt. Don’t confront the offender with questions such as, ‘What did you do that for?’ and do not force an apology as the child will be too worked up to mean it. The aggression tells you that he or she is out of control.
Instead, reflect the victim’s feelings so that he or she receives some empathy while the offender hears the effect of the aggression. ‘I can see that your arm is sore. I will get some ice for it in a moment. I can also see that you’re crying, which tells me that your feelings are hurt too.
Shelley must have got so angry that she forgot to use her words. I’m sure that she will feel sorry when she has calmed down. But right now, I’ll say sorry for her. I am sorry that Shelley hurt your arm. I’m sorry that she hurt your feelings.’
It has often been observed that the offender will actually apologise meaningfully at this point, probably having been enabled to do so by not being blamed and shamed for their actions. Next, nurse the recipient’s injuries and invite the offender to help in order to encourage him or her to take responsibility for the effect of the aggression.
If the aggression is one more incident in a series of repeated violence, you will need to separate the children. The offender will have to play by himself or stay with adults until you can be sure that the child is back in control. This might seem like a consequence or punishment, but it is really a natural outcome of thoughtless behaviour towards others.
The perpetrator can continue to have fun alone or in your company, but in the interests of keeping other children safe, cannot join in socially until you are certain that he or she is in command of his own actions. This could take minutes, hours or even weeks.
Children need coaches, not cheerleaders
Some behaviour problems can be addressed once parents have recognised and understood the learning style of their child.
About two-thirds of children learn best by listening (auditory-sequential). These children think logically, attend to details, respond well to verbal instructions, plan ahead and are organised.
The remainder, however, learn by forming visual images of concepts (visual-spatial). They cannot hear you when watching the TV, miss details as they focus instead on the bigger picture, tend not to be able to follow long sequences of instruction, cannot be reasoned with verbally (especially when distressed) and find it difficult to change tack when they have a fixed plan of action in their minds.
If you are an auditory-sequential learner, you might find yourself somewhat irritated if your children have this visual-spatial learning style. It can appear that they are being disorganised and obstinate in the face of verbal instructions, when instead they need to be able to picture what you are asking them to do. In this case:
- before giving an instruction, make sure you have eye contact; click your finger in their light of sight or stand between them and the TV giving them a moment to change out of picturing mode into listening mode
- use visual language. Say ‘picture your room…can you see where your pyjamas are at the moment? Okay, go and get them’.
- use a digital camera to make a picture chart of everyday tasks they need to go through in the morning to get ready; this give s them independence at managing a sequence of tasks which may otherwise be difficult to do without reminders
- If your child is busy with a project but you want them to get ready for school, let them know that they don’t have to totally abandon what they’re doing, but they can pick it up again later in the day.
You do not have to tolerate inconsiderate behaviour
Finally, let’s be clear about a crucial point of the guidance approach - understanding that children’s behaviour is natural does not mean gritting your teeth and putting up with intolerable or inconsiderate behaviour.
This is not beneficial for anyone as it allows children to develop an antisocial habit and is not fair to others around them to put up with senseless acts.
While we understand that children get out of control or forget how to behave when they know perfectly well what to do, it’s our job as parents to guide them back on the right path. What we have to understand, to paraphrase those famous words, is that it won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.
- If you use power you will lose influence
- You do not have to tolerate intolerable or inconsiderate behaviour
- Look for a solution not a culprit
- You cannot reason with people while they are being unreasonable
- Children need coaches not cheerleaders
- If something isn’t working, don’t do it again
- When you cannot play in a friendly way you cannot play
Responses to children’s behaviour
Behaviour type Responses
Exuberant or exploratory Understand
Be assertive if the behaviour becomes disruptive
Skill deficits Teach a more mature skill.
Explain how the skill will be useful.
Provide extra support to learn considerate behaviour.
Emotionally overwhelmed Help the children to calm down.
If they can't calm down, change your demands.
Reactive difficulties Use guidance, not control.
Children are People Too by Dr Louise Porter, published by East Street Publications. RRP $29.95.
This article was first published in Australian Family Magazine, May 2007.