When your child’s bad behaviour just won’t turn around, this positive discipline technique is incredibly effective. Find out what to do and how it works below.
It wasn’t a long road trip and I felt like I had prepared so well.
I had taken my kids to the playground before we left.
“Run a lot!” I implored them.
By the time we hit the van, they had played, climbed, and of course, ran. I had them fed and they’d gone to the bathroom too.
In no time, my daughter started acting out…
One hour into our three-hour drive, my five-year-old started screaming.
“I. WANT. TO. BE. HOME.”
Each word was punctuated.
I had tried to reason with her. “We will be home shortly. Just close your eyes and the trip will be over faster.”
When that didn’t work, I tried empathy. “You’re frustrated. I know. Waiting takes a lot of patience.”
But, it only intensified.
The more I ignored her, the more deliberate her words became.
I breathed deeply and tried to imagine yoga class, then a nice glass of wine. ANYTHING to stay calm.
She flung one shoe. Then the other.
I no sooner spun my head around than I saw her hitting my brother. With that, I pulled to the side of the road and took her out of the car.
I’ll be honest, my blood was boiling. My heart was racing. All I wanted to do was shake some sense into her. In fact, it took everything in me not to shake sense in her I was that mad.
As I waited for her to cease and desist, I held her hands and choked back my frustration as best I could. After what felt like an eternity, she was ready to go back to the car.
My mom offered to take my place in the driver’s seat and I made my way to the back of the van. Wedged between two booster seats, it was the last place my racing heart wanted me to be.
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But I was there. My jaw clenched tightly, I did my best to breathe deeply. My almost four-year-old cracked a potty joke. There was a bit of laughter from both of my back seat buddies. Taking his lead, I whispered a joke in my daughter’s ear.
Then, there was a little more laughter.
Quickly, it turned into an ongoing rotation of silly little potty humour jokes and so many giggles from all of us. In no time, my daughter’s behaviour turned around.
The next hour and a half went so incredibly smoothly. Not only that, but the next day, both of my kids were angels. Typically, the day after an event that requires a lot of self-regulation, they have a hard time.
I’ve tried distraction techniques as a form of positive discipline before, but this was different. Something compelled my daughter to behave and it wasn’t a simple slight of hand.
So what happened? What was the positive discipline technique that changed her behaviour?
Connection. It was connecting with my daughter that changed. It was a combination of me being present with her and being playful that created the connection for my daughter to cooperate.
[Related reading: Why Punishment is Ineffective and What to Do Instead]
How does this positive discipline technique work?
According to family therapist, Susan Stiffelman children are hardwired to behave better when they feel connected to us. Their attachment to us fuels their cooperation. From an evolutionary psychological perspective, it makes perfect sense. If a stranger or who is unsafe for the child to come with him, the child will know to say no.
In truth, as adults, we operate similarly.
In her talk, Stiffelman explains that, when someone we don’t like makes a request of us, we are likely to decline. For example, if our loud, annoying neighbour asks us to bring in his garbage cans while he is away, we’ll likely say no. However, if our very best friend asks us to drive one hour each way to do something for her, we are more likely to say yes.
So what does this positive discipline technique look like in everyday life?
Connection to fuel cooperation can take on many forms. For instance, it can come in the form of appreciating their elaborate lego building, then asking them to clean up. It can come to fruition by hugging and empathizing first then disciplining. In the case of our road trip, it came to be when I was closer in proximity to my daughter. We cracked jokes. Then, she cooperated and ceased to scream, yell, throw, and hit.
No matter how it looks, when the going gets tough, we must connect then request. In doing this, we can achieve cooperation and better behaviour from our kids when we appeal to their love and attachment to us.
[To learn more from Susan Stiffelman, check out her positive parenting talk here.]