How To Help Your Child Control Their Behavior

Milo is a very active 2-year old and is almost always in motion.  He loves throwing things, especially his toy trucks because of the sound they make upon impact.  His parents have a rule, though, that he may not throw his trucks as they keep breaking.  As Milo brings his truck up above his head to throw it, his father warns him sternly not to throw it.  Milo throws it anyway and it breaks the wheels off.  His father can feel the blood pulsing in his head and exclaims “I told you not to throw it!  Now look what you’ve done!”.  Milo cries with disappointment and his father is fuming.

An hour later, Milo’s father reflects on the interaction and decides that next time he’d like to try something different.

Sure enough, Milo soon found another one of his MANY trucks and his father could see it happening.  Milo raised it again above his head, looking to his father.  His father could feel his blood pressure rising again, but this time noticed that and instead of giving into his feeling, made a point of lowering his voice, softening his expression, and remaining calm.  Even though he was calm, he still jumped in right away, gently grasping the truck and bringing it back down to the floor.  “Trucks on the floor.” he told Milo, yet Milo wanted to throw!  At this point, his father would have normally lost it, but he decided again to do something different.  He gently grasped the truck, set it down, and brought Milo outside to the backyard to the pile of rocks in the back corner.  He picked up a rock, threw it, and said “throw”.  Milo quickly picked one up and did the same, smiling at his father.

This story illustrates the most important parenting tool in action:  self-regulation.  First for the parent, then for the child.

As he became upset, Milo’s father took notice of his escalating frustration and reined it in, remaining calm and collected, while gently guiding Milo toward a more constructive way of channeling his behavior.  Seeing this, Milo was able to stay calm himself while being redirected to another, more constructive activity.

What is self-regulation?  It is the ability to control one’s behaviors, thoughts, and emotions.

How does it develop?  It begins in infancy as a baby learns to predict that when he cries, he will be soothed.  And surprisingly, the ability for a child to exhibit self-control does not even appear until age 3 at the earliest.  A child’s ability to self-regulate then continues to develop slowly throughout the lifespan into the 20’s.

How can you help your child learn to self-regulate?  The first step is by learning to do it yourself.  Prior to the age of 3, children actually borrow their self-regulation from you as a parent.  Your child’s brain is not developed enough to be able to control his behavior on his own.  He needs you to help control it for him by remaining calm for the both of you and setting limits via calm, supportive, and loving interactions.

As your child escalates and his behavior triggers a response in you, take notice.  What are you feeling in your body?  Is it a pulsing in your head, a tightening of your chest?  Simply notice.

Once you notice what your body’s doing, identify how you’re feeling.  Most people will say angry, but usually there is something deeper going on.  Maybe you feel frustrated that you’re still dealing with the same behaviors again and again.  Maybe you’re feeling defeated that you can’t seem to get through to your child.  Whatever it is, notice and label it, even by saying it out loud.  “I feel . . .”

Take a deep breath.  Intentionally breathe in deeply, then, as slowly as you can, breathe out.  Do this one or two more times.

You can even tell your child about the whole process.  “Oh, I feel my blood pumping in my head.  I’m feeling frustrated.  I’m going to take a break and take a few deep breaths.  One . . . two . . . three.”

By doing this, you are doing two things:  you’re calming yourself down AND you’re modeling to your child how to do it for himself.  It’s a real win-win!

Everyone wants their child to grow up and have self-control.  It doesn’t come naturally for your child nor for you as a parent.  But, with a bit of focus and a lot of practice, both of you can learn.

Now, I know that this is not easy.  You were not meant to go it alone.  That’s why I am here, to support you.  If you would like more support in learning to self-regulate or in learning how to respond to your child’s behaviors, please reach out.  I am here for you.  Let’s get on the phone and talk about it.  Send me an email at and schedule a free session to see how I can help.

Getting Your Child to Cooperate When You Have an Agenda

Have you ever been out shopping with your child and he decides that it’s just not happening? Maybe he drops to the floor, refuses to let go of that candy bar, or has an all out meltdown right in the middle of everything. Of course it’s when everyone’s out and you’re trying to get a list of things accomplished. How are you supposed to gain your child’s cooperation when you have something to get done, but your child has a different idea?

Most parents are surprised when I tell them that discipline actually derives from the Latin root disciplina and means “teaching; learning”. So when you think about helping your child through difficult behavior, it’s important to think, not simply of stopping unwanted behavior, but more importantly, teaching her a life skill and how to behave in a given situation. Unfortunately, discipline is not one size fits all. Instead, it requires that you carry a toolbox full of strategies to help your child make better choices. Different situations call for different approaches, so let’s look at just a few ideas to add to that toolbox . . .

Give Choices

Just like an adult, your child has a strong need for autonomy. If your child feels powerless in a situation, you will often see more resistance and unwanted behavior. Try giving as many choices within your activity as possible. “Do you want to hold Dad’s hand or ride in the cart?” “Would you like to stand up on your own or do you want Mom to help you?” Follow this up by saying, “You choose”. This puts the power back in his hands even though you have given pre-defined choices. Not only are you avoiding potential behaviors, you are teaching the power of making good choices. But what if he refuses the choices??? Simply tell him in a calm voice that you will choose for him and calmly and firmly help him do what it is that needs to be done. Allow him to be upset as you do this, even telling him a word for what he might be feeling. Then do what you need to do to help soothe and calm him. It is very frustrating for your child when he is required to do something against his will and he needs your help to get through it.

Get Your Child Involved

When your child contributes usefully to what is happening, she is less likely to feel the need to get attention by acting out. Next time you go shopping, try creating a simple list of 3-5 items for her to look for while you go shopping. She can even help you find pictures of the items to put on the list so she can see what she’s looking for. You can also allow her to carry items to the car, place things on the conveyer belt, etc. Even the smallest task can feel like an important job to your little one. In doing so, you are giving her a sense of competence and confidence, that she can contribute something valuable to the family.

Tell Your Child What To Do

How often does your child hear “Don’t touch that!” or “Stop running!”? We all do it! But, when you tell your child what not to do, it brings more attention to the unwanted behavior instead of what you actually want him to do. Also, your child has to translate your negative statement into a positive action. Why not simplify it and give him a clear statement of what is expected? If he is running, try “Please walk”, if he is screaming, try “Quiet voice” (using a quiet voice yourself really helps with this one). By doing so, you will guide him toward better behavior by explicitly telling him what is expected.  I have found, too, that telling your child this before you even get out of the car is really helpful. I recommend using simple pictures or drawings to show your child what to do so that he knows what is expected.

Now of course, these three strategies alone are not going to fix all of your child’s behaviors. What you will find, though, is that you are actively teaching some very important skills that will help lessen the need for these outbursts. And remember, as you use these strategies, remain calm and model this to your child. Her brain is wired to copy you so when she sees you calm yourself, she will begin to calm herself, too.

Photo courtesy of Thomas Hawk

4 Ways to Use Your Weakness as a Powerful Parenting Tool

My wife and I have been taking dance lessons for the last several years and love it! For a while we would have lessons twice a week and our daughter would come along for every one of them. She sat in the corner with a book (she is a voracious reader), looking up from time to time to watch us dance.

One of the toughest things about learning to dance for me has been that every now and then it makes me feel completely inadequate. When you are learning a new step it is nerve-wracking. I would watch my instructor with a deer in the headlights sort of look as she demonstrated the move for me. I would then try it out and mess up, time and time again. And all of this was in full view of our daughter. She watched me stumble, step on my wife’s toes, and sweat with that feeling of incompetence that comes with learning something new. Heck!  My teacher actually had to push me to get my body to move in the right direction so that I could grasp the new movement pattern for the step.  Talk about embarrassing!  I hated feeling so vulnerable and incompetent, especially in front of my daughter. But, I also think it was important.

For some reason, if you’re like most parents I know, I’m sure you’ve been given the crazy idea that as a parent you are supposed to always exhibit and exert control over yourself and your child, presenting a mirage of I’ve-got-it-togetherness that is not only unsustainable and unrealistic, but downright unhealthy. This unrealistic ideal also completely misses out on a powerful connection tool in your relationship with your child. Instead of being a sign of weakness or frailty, learning to be vulnerable with your child is actually a powerful relational tool to produce profound and lasting connection with her.

If you haven’t already, you need to set aside 20 minutes to watch this powerful talk given by Dr. Brene Brown on “The Power of Vulnerability”. In it she explains that very idea and why it is so important for us to practice being vulnerable with each other.

So, if you’re like me and every other parent out there, despite your best intentions, you often screw up with your child.   But if you never let your child see you screw up, you rob her of an important opportunity to really SEE you and learn something valuable. That’s right, your mistakes and screw-ups can actually be your best asset toward teaching your child the life skills she needs. But, it requires your vulnerability. The way that you show up to your child teaches her about how she needs to show up for life. So, I wanted to share with you four ways to use vulnerability as a powerful parenting tool.

1. Admit that you messed up

That’s right. You have to admit it.  With your child, this can be as simple as saying, “Ya know, after I yelled at you for leaving your toys out, I realized that I was wrong.” You can also sit down and draw out what happened.  Go ahead! Admit it! What you will actually find is that you will be able to see your child visibly soften to this overture. Most often your child is always at the ready with warmth and compassion when you actually own up to your mistakes. Not only are you modeling the practice of confession, but you are also offering her the chance to demonstrate kindness, compassion, and understanding toward you.

2. Ask for forgiveness

You’re not done yet. Once you’ve admitted that you messed up, it is really important to ask forgiveness of your child. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. I messed up when I yelled at you. Will you forgive me?” It’s quick and simple. It doesn’t need to be complicated, but it does need to be heartfelt. Our kids are some of the best BS detectors around and can see straight through us if we’re not being genuine. So really put some thought into it.

3. Let her see you feel

There is a range of human experience both rich and varied that is totally enhanced by our emotions. Our emotions are a compass leading us to make good decisions and guide us down the right path. Our kids also need to see us feel. This gives them permission to do the same. Learning to express and identify feelings is central to your child’s development, impacting all other aspects of her growth. It is okay to cry, get angry, or become exhilarated in front of your child.  So help her by showing her how to do it by talking to her about it. “I am feeling so happy/sad/frustrated/disappointed/etc. because . . . ” Through your example, she will learn how to do it for herself and grow in her connection with you.

4. Let her see you struggle
What?!!! I know. But, honestly, there’s no use in hiding it. Your child can already see it. Stop fighting it and just go with it. When you don’t know how to do something or you can’t seem to figure it out, let her be around and even talk about it with her. “This is hard, but I’m going to keep working until I can figure it out.” You are teaching some very valuable life skills here, like tenacity, patience, and hard work.

Vulnerability can be tough. But nothing worth fighting for ever comes without challenge or struggle. So I challenge you to take the leap into vulnerability and to use it to deepen and strengthen your connection with your child. As you do so, your child will notice and your connection will grow. You will be living more authentically and you will find that you are a more effective parent.