Think Ahead and Avoid a Meltdown

Clearly, that wasn’t what he wanted to hear. The mother muttered fiercely, “Get up off the floor!” When that didn’t produce a positive response, she turned to coaxing: “Please be a good little boy for Mommy.”

Next came the bribery attempt: “If you mind now, I’ll buy you that video you’ve been wanting.”

Out of desperation came the threats: “Get up now or you can forget about TV and treats for the rest of the week! I’m counting to three, and you’d better be up before that!”

The little boy holle-red, and the mother seemed to stall as if predicting an even more embarrassing tantrum to come. A pregnant silence blanketed the aisle, and then the mother gave in and handed the boy a candy bar.

Parents often find it difficult to follow through and implement disciplinary techniques.

Typically, parents cave in on rules and don’t follow through with consequences. Unfortunately, children quickly learn that acting out can often earn them what they want. That’s not the only problem that arises when parents are too permissive. Failure to follow through with consequences robs children of the opportunity to develop resiliency and the self-confidence to solve problems and handle disappointment.

So what’s a parent to do?

Start with recognizing attention-seeking behavior. We identify those actions by making ourselves aware that when we feel annoyed, our child is displaying attention-seeking behavior.

Children crave attention, so making a big deal out of minor misbehavior will only reinforce that it’s an effective way to get your attention. If parents ignore such behavior, the children soon realize this isn’t going to get the attention they seek, and the behavior will fade away in time.

Begin thinking ahead about your child’s needs by maintaining a child-friendly environment. If you plan to do the weekly shopping — something that is ground zero for misbehavior — prepare some activities that will occupy your child during this outing. Small children can identify the fruits in the produce section by describing the color, shape and size of each object. Older children can help locate items on the shopping list.

Some quality time spent organizing some distractions can turn a high-tension task into a bearable outing for an antsy child — and, in turn, prevent the need for discipline on the parent’s part.

Utilizing choices with children offers them some control over small decisions and will help even a younger child feel that his desires are being taken into account. For example: “Do you want bananas or apples?” “Would you like to check out two books or three?” This approach validates the child’s feelings and will often prevent his need to whine or act out to be heard. Choices are also invaluable in teaching children about making good decisions.

If your 6-year-old insists on wearing a sweatshirt in 98-degree weather, he’ll probably make a different decision next time, and the parents will have the burden of enforcing discipline taken off their shoulders.

Children under the age of 4 are easy to distract when you take their focus off the heated subject at hand. For instance, your toddler refuses to get into the stroller. As a parent you can argue the issue, but how about belting out a few lyrics to “Itsy Bitsy Spider” instead?

Your preschool-aged twins are fighting over a toy. You could just take the toy away from them, but what about giving them some Play-Doh instead? It may seem simple, but for young children, distracting them is better than scolding anytime.

Parents can take control of their children’s environment by setting some rules to ensure that before misbehavior happens and discipline is needed, they have some well-thought-out guidelines to follow.

Step One: Be realistic.

 Parents must first recognize what their child is developmentally capable of understanding before expectations can be established.  For instance, 3-year-olds lack the maturity and the social experience to share well with other children. As a parent, if you insist on sharing regularly, your child will likely rebel, and you will find yourself fighting for cooperation.

Step Two: Know yourself.

 Know your limits. Only set rules that you’re willing to be inflexible on, like no hitting. As parents, we may dream of a world where our children pick up after themselves every day — but if you know you’ll give in when they push back, scrap picking up after themselves as mandatory or amend the rule in such a way that you can manage it. For instance, you might say that picking up after themselves must happen, but you’ll help as needed.

Step Three: Make it official

  Establish a regular family meeting that includes all family members. Use it as an opportunity to establish house rules that everyone can agree upon. Allow everyone — including children — to participate in the procedure.  By allowing children to offer up ideas and help with designing the list and selecting the place to post it, parents are validating their children’s place in the family.

Children who take part in this process are more likely to follow the agreed-upon rules. If they break a rule, parents can direct them back to the agreement they helped create.  

There is no manual to refer to when our children are born. We simply must rely on what we were taught, but we also must be willing to learn as we go. If we, the parents, flounder when our children have a major meltdown, the behavior will continue; but if we plan ahead, we put the odds for good behavior in our favor by being prepared and keeping the environment child-friendly.

Debbie A. Heaton is an author, parent educator, and a master’s level therapist currently employed with The Parent Connection, a member of Arizona’s Children Association Family of Agencies. The Parent Connection utilizes the Adlerian approach to parenting.

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