Jane Nelsen and Lynn Lott’s Positive Discipline views children’s behavior that looks and feels like misbehavior as discouragement, or the feeling that they don’t belong. This paradigm shift can help parents respond in a different way, ultimately changing the child’s behavior and the parents’ feelings of frustration, anger and helplessness. In this article, we will focus on parenting the preschool-age child, but most of the concepts can be applied loosely to all age groups.
Part of successfully responding to your child’s “misbehavior” is to understand the meaning behind the behavior. Children generally want to behave well and when they aren’t, it’s usually with good reason. For example, they may be acting out to get more attention (which means they want to be noticed and involved), to gain power or control (they want to help or be given choices), to get even or have revenge (they are hurting and need their feelings recognized and validated), or they have given up (they need to be believed in and shown in smalls steps how to be successful).
Another important tip for parenting your preschooler is to be consistent with your expectations. Respond kindly and firmly to negative behavior. Children don’t understand when you are inconsistent or when something is sometimes okay and sometimes not because you are too tired to enforce a rule. Let your love for them be evident in the way you interact with them (be explicit about your love and care for them).
Redirect instead of using “no” when possible. Instead of telling your child what not to do, share your expectations or what they can be doing. You might ask for their help or turn tedious tasks fun by making up a competition.
Encouragement and recognition motivates children to continue behaving in positive ways and will get much better results than scolding or only paying attention when your child does something “bad.” Praise your children for positive behavior, and build on their strengths.
Because children are emulating the behavior they experience at home and with important adults, focus on your own responses and behaviors. If your goal is to raise a respectful, caring, responsible adult, you must model these behaviors when with your children (toward them and others). Instead of punishing your child in the heat of the moment, it can be helpful to take a time out yourself to collect your thoughts, calm down, and then thoughtfully respond to your child.
Developmental Considerations for Preschoolers:
- Until age five children are much more interested in what/how they are doing something rather than the goal or outcome. Be patient and give children time to be process-oriented when possible. When you are running short on time, set clear (but kind) expectations ahead of time to improve cooperation.
- Recognize your child’s physical perspective and limitations to increase feelings of competence and to decrease frustration. For example, buy a footstool to allow your child to wash his/her hands independently. Or, get down on their level when you are having a conversation with them instead of talking down to them.
- Children have a difficult time understanding the difference between what is real and what is not. Instead of disciplining children for what might be perceived as lying or for developmental difficulty in understanding reality versus fantasy, try to accept your child’s fears and listen to his/her feelings.
- Mistakes are inevitable- strive to recognize your child’s mistakes as an opportunity to learn.
- When your child does lie (which they may do at this age), listen and avoid shaming or punishing. Fear of punishment or shame often encourages children to lie! Instead, work with him/her to understand the truth as well as the value of honesty. And remember to model honesty yourself.
- The preschool years often bring questions about anatomy and defining who they are. When asked, try to remain calm and approachable. Use accurate terms when describing anatomy, but avoid giving a great deal of detailed information about sexuality to small children as they don’t need it at this point.