Part I of this topic explained to parents about children’s misbehaviours and introduced the guidance approach to guide children.

Part II discusses the various strategies identified by the guidance approach for guiding children’s behaviours.

The guidance approach helps parents to guide children to be considerate and responsible.  In order for this method to work, parents have to understand your child’s behaviour when they misbehave.  This includes considering your child’s needs or perspective, the circumstances and their temperament when deciding on how to help your child.  Below are some strategies that parents can use.

Help your child to identify and manage their feelings

As self-regulation skills are only beginning to develop in young children, they often let their emotions or impulses get the better of them, causing them to misbehave.  This can happen when they are frustrated, disappointed, fearful or even excited.  In order for young children to be able to regulate their own behaviours, they need to first learn to manage their emotions.  Parents can consider the following:

  • Accept your children’s feelings.  By showing empathy and relating to your child (i.e. ‘I know how you feel’), your child may then feel understood and be more likely to cooperate with you.  Although you may not agree with how your child is feeling, accept their feelings first.
  • Help your child to put their feelings into words (e.g. ‘I understand that you are upset’, ‘I know it is hard for you to…’).  This will help your child feel better, making it easier for them to regulate their emotions.
  • If above the age of three, get your child to talk about their feelings or teach them to express their feelings in a socially acceptable way.  This will help your child to address the emotion(s) that triggered the misbehaviours.
  • Remain calm, so that your child learns to keep calm.  If they are still unable to overcome their emotional tensions, provide emotional support by hugging them, gently patting their back or shoulder, holding their hands, etc.
  • Provide explanations, give reassurance or share similar experience after your child has calmed down.  This can help to ease their negative emotions, especially in managing fear or insecurity.
  • Try to understand their perspective when they are ready to talk.  If non-verbal, then still talk to them and make them feel safe.  Sometimes, parents can help to prevent situations that trigger emotional tension (e.g. to give an advance reminder before a transition so that they have enough time to prepare themselves emotionally).
  • If older than three, discuss with your child what they can do to improve the situation so that they will feel better.  By helping your child to identify the problem that caused their emotional tension, they will gain a sense of control as they can work towards solving the problem to feel better (e.g. teaching them how to express themselves or ask for things politely).

Over time, children will learn to cope with their emotions as they develop early emotional regulation abilities.

Giving feedback

Instead of praising children, which is a form of reward and judgement, parents can provide feedback that

  • gives information about what they have done right (e.g. ‘I know it was not easy for you to finish the peas even though you do not like them’),
  • focuses on the process or the effort that the child has put in (e.g. ‘Thank you for remembering to put your dirty clothes into the laundry basket’), or
  • focuses on how their behaviour affects others (e.g. ‘Aren’t you glad that we did not get caught in the rain because you left the beach when asked’).

When giving negative feedback, focus on how their behaviour affects others and how to improve or avoid the situation next time.  Alternatively, encourage your child to evaluate their own action (e.g. ‘What do you think of…’, ‘Are you happy with…’, etc.).  This will get them to reflect on their behaviours and help them make appropriate behavioural choices.

Giving specific feedback will help your child to be aware that it is their efforts and right decisions that caused things to turn out well.  Sincere positive feedback helps to teach your child about acceptable behaviours and will motivate them to behave in the same way.

Setting limits and rules

As young children are still lacking self-regulation skills, they need some form of external regulation to help them manage their behaviours.  The guidance approach uses limits and rules as a means to establish boundaries and shape children’s behaviours, in place of punishment or rewards.  This needs to be done in accord with their age.  With infants and toddlers, they are too young to understand limits.  However, they do begin to understand ‘No’ when you have to keep them safe.  For older children, by consistently enforcing limits and rules that are reasonable for your child’s age, parents can

  • help your child to manage situations to prevent or ease negative emotions or stressful reactions, and
  • support them in learning to control their impulses and regulate their emotions and behaviours.

To make it easier for children to accept and follow the limits and rules set, parents have to consider these pointers when setting limits and rules:

  • Show empathy, i.e. show that you understand their perspective (e.g. ‘I know you are angry with your brother’, ‘It’s hard to stop playing now’).  Give warnings when it is time to change an activity or have a meal.
  • Be clear in your expectations (e.g. ‘You cannot hit others, but you can tell him how you feel’) and phrase your rules positively.
  • Explain how their behaviour affects you or others (e.g. ‘You are hurting your brother’) or why they need to do certain things (e.g. ‘You need to be in a car seat so that you will be safe’).
  • Speak in a calm tone, do not lecture them.

Being able to follow rules and limits is important as children need to learn that they cannot always have their way.  When setting limits and rules to keep children safe (e.g. to hold your hand and stand within the yellow lines when riding escalators), explain the dangerous consequences and get them to agree in advance not to subject themselves to such dangers.

Reminders are often necessary as children need repeated experience to learn these limits and rules.  Gradually, these limits and rules become internalised as children develop a sense of knowing right from wrong.  By that time, they will be able to monitor their own behaviours and make the right decisions.

Provide choices or alternative

When children feel overly constrained by adults, they are less likely to be cooperative.  Sometimes, instead of making your child follow your instructions, it may work better to provide choices or an alternative for your child, within the limits you set.  Give choices that are both acceptable to you and desirable to your child.  A child is more likely to cooperate when they are given the autonomy to make their own decisions.

When a child is doing something they are not supposed to, offer them a similar alternative and gently explain the reason(s).  Providing an alternative would show children what they need to do so that their behaviour becomes acceptable.  It also helps to redirect their focus elsewhere while learning to cope with disappointment and accepting a substitute for their preferred choice.

Providing opportunities for children to take charge of their routines or daily tasks is another way of giving them autonomy.  Encourage and support your child to go through routines on their own (e.g. preparing for bedtime), giving prompts when necessary.  This takes practice but would help to foster a sense of responsibility and independence.

A few things to note

Children need to know the consequences of their actions to understand why their behaviours were acceptable or unacceptable.  This takes time and to some extent depends on the age and cognitive understanding of the child.  When a child is solely responsible for the misbehaviour, it is more effective to let them experience the natural consequence of their action, as long as it is within safety limits and not demotivating.  This will allow them to learn that the consequence was a result of their poor choice and convince them to make better decisions next time.  Punishment, however, is not an effective consequence for this purpose.

Your child is still learning to cooperate and compromise.  If they show reluctance or feel upset while trying to cooperate, appreciate their effort and do not fault them for this.  They may require more time to learn to manage their emotions.

How parents act and react will influence children’s behaviour.  This does not mean that parents cannot show their real emotions in front of their children.  It is how parents behave when they are experiencing emotional tension that matters.

Closing comments

Becoming self-regulated, considerate and responsible does not come naturally to a child.  It requires parents’ efforts to support them in their learning and to shape their behaviour.  The guidance approach relies on parents’ understanding of your child to achieve these positive outcomes in the long term.  Showing empathy and having realistic expectations when making decisions for your child helps them to cooperate and your relationship will not likely be strained even when you have to be firm and authoritative.

Copyright © Marjory Ebbeck and Wendy Toh 2017

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