8 Ways to Improve Your Child's Behavior (Without Using Shame or Punishment)- Part 1

Now that we’ve ditched the old parenting paradigm of using shame and punishment to “teach” our kids how to behave, we need ways to help guide them when their behavior is...well...driving us crazy!

Here are eight things you can do to improve your child’s behavior while modeling love and empathy and staying connected.

1. “Stay Calm, Mom!” The Holy Grail of parenting is to stay calm. And it’s the first thing we need to do when our kids are pushing our buttons. Such a simple concept yet so (excuse my language) effing hard to do. Lord, do those little rascals know how to take us from zero to sixty!! I never understood the true depths of my capacity to completely lose my sh!t until I had kids.

But here’s something I regularly ponder...

If I can’t regulate my own emotions, how can I expect my kids to regulate theirs? Hence my favorite catch phrase, “Stay calm, Mom!” I taught my boys to say this to me when they see me heading towards the red zone. It works wonders and my boys love it. The minute I display any sign of frustration as a result of something kid-related, one of my boys inevitably stops and admonishes, “Stay calm, mom!” It always:

  • Makes me laugh
  • Interrupts my impending fight or flight response.

Then I’m able to respond rather than react to the behavior at hand. For more tips on how to stay regulated when your kids are driving you nuts, click here.

2. Don’t Take It Personally. Our kids are not out to ruin our lives, I promise! Dr. Ross Greene, author of The Explosive Child, famously said, “Kids do well if they can.” I love that quote and often say it in my head as a reminder when my boys are acting out.

It can be hard not to take it personally when they scream things like, “I hate you!” or “I love Daddy more than you!” (my older son said this to me recently-ouch!) or “You’re so mean!” Or when they hit, throw things, kick, or slam doors in our face.

Rather than being triggered by these behaviors and saying or doing something reactive and shaming in response, we must separate ourselves and remember that their behavior is a symptom of either an unmet need that is begging to be tended to or too many stressors that have piled up, causing their nervous systems to go haywire...or both.

If you’re a parent of a child with sensory challenges, keep in mind that his nervous system is more vulnerable to stressors (lack of sleep, hunger, too much noise, being overscheduled, change in normal routine, etc.) which means he’s likely to end up in the red zone more frequently than a child with a less sensitized nervous system.

So, the next time your child starts to unravel and says or does something that is emotionally triggering, try taking an internal pause and say to yourself, “This is not about me.” Then, go into detective mode to discover what’s really going on. Which brings me to….

3. Channel Your Inner Inspector Gadget (am I dating myself?!). Another parenting phrase I use as an internal reminder when my boys are acting out is, “Underneath every misbehavior is an unmet need.” Our job as parents is to figure out what that need is. Become curious. Start asking questions. Look for clues.

If your child has sensory challenges, depending on his specific sensory needs, you might ask yourself questions like, Is he overtired? Overstimulated? Understimulated? Is he reacting to something that was “unexpected?” Are the lights too bright? Environment too loud?” Has our routine been off? Is he hungry?

If sensory needs are not part of the picture for your child, look underneath the behavior (e.g., hitting younger sibling) and try to tease out the unmet need (more one-on-one attention). Then connect with that need.

4. Connect Then Redirect. Another concept that’s simple, but not easy. When our kids are melting down, acting out, and/or having a tantrum, our first instinct is to reprimand, negotiate, or lecture, all of which get us nowhere.

Think about a time when you were upset. You didn’t sleep well, had a rough morning with your kids, were late to school, and then to top it off, when you went to pick up your dry cleaning, you found out that they accidentally ruined your favorite dress. You leave the dry cleaner in tears (I mean, it really was your favorite dress!) and call your husband to vent. After listening to your slew of stressors, he responds, “Whoa, babe, it’s not the end of the world. No one’s died and you can buy a new dress. You’re really overreacting...get a hold of yourself.”

Do you suddenly collect yourself and graciously respond, “Oh my gosh, you’re so right. I am being ridiculous! Thank you for setting me straight. You’re the best, babe!” Do you then get off the phone with a smile and continue your day with a spring in your step? Hell no!

Because when we’re in the red zone, we can’t be reasoned or negotiated with.

The part of our brains that’s responsible for those higher-level skills has been hijacked by the part of our brains that tells us we’re in danger and-BOOM-it sends our fight or flight hormones to the rescue.

When we’re in what’s called a “limbic system hijack” we need someone to soothe us, to provide a calm, holding environment in which we feel seen, heard, and safe. Only then will our hormones regulate and our bodies return to a state where we can think rationally and take on a different perspective.

It’s exactly the same with our kids. They cannot process what we’re saying when they’re in the middle of an emotional storm, so let’s just save our lectures and tune into what they’re feeling. Dr. Laura Markham, author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, explains, “Expressing emotions with a safe, attentive, accepting adult is what helps kids move through those feelings and learn to self-soothe so they can regulate their own emotions eventually.”

The next time your child melts down, do your best to just be with him and validate what he’s feeling- “You’re so upset right now. You thought we were going to go to the park, but now our plans have changed.” Once he’s through his emotional outburst, you’ll have a chance to address the misbehavior- “It’s ok to be upset, but we don’t throw toys.”

To learn four more ways to improve your child’s behavior without using shame or punishment, CLICK HERE.

I'd love to hear your thoughts. What are your biggest behavioral challenges and how do you handle them? What have you tried that works and what have you tried that hasn't? Leave a comment below.


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Hi! I'm Cameron, mom of two incredible, "differently-wired" boys who have sensory processing challenges, wife of a nerdy surfer, mindfulness practitioner and Parenting Coach with master's degrees in education and psychology.