By Dr. Laura Markham
“You don’t seem to ever discuss discipline in terms of teaching acceptable behaviour. Sometimes these kids are brats, and they need to be aware of it. I’m not saying that screaming is good but screaming or other tactics besides hugs are necessary.” – Erica
Actually, the Aha! Parenting website has over a thousand pages of examples showing how to teach acceptable behaviour using empathic limits, so if you aren’t getting enough examples of how to teach acceptable behaviour from these posts, please do some exploring on the Aha! website. I’m hoping you’ll have an Aha! moment, which is this:
There is no such thing as a brat, only a child who is hurting.
That doesn’t mean that you won’t at times get frustrated with your child, especially when they know the appropriate behaviour but don’t do it. Even worse is provocative behaviour, when the child deliberately acts badly – what some parents call “bratty” behaviour. So to be fair, most parents have at times found themselves wondering if maybe screaming or using force might help “teach” the child acceptable behaviour.
But the deeper truth is that children want more than anything in the world to protect their relationship with us, as long as that doesn’t compromise their own integrity. So if your child is acting like a “brat,” she’s either signalling that she needs a stronger connection with you, that she’s got some big feelings she needs your help with, or that she can’t meet your expectation without some tailored support.
After all, support (along with modelling) is how we teach acceptable behaviour – because that is what helps children learn, and what motivates them to cooperate.
So given that aha! insight, which would be the most effective way to transform “bratty” behaviour into cooperative behaviour?
- High expectations for the child’s behaviour
- Ignore “bad behaviour”
- Scream and shout
- Give tailored support so the child can meet your expectations
- Set empathic limits
- Help the child with the feelings that are keeping him from cooperating by playing
- Help the child with the feelings that are keeping him from cooperating by crying
Let’s consider each of these in turn, using this example:
“Dr. Laura…Every time I come home with my daughter, I remind her that when we go inside, she must take off her shoes. She often will immediately run to the couch and climb onto it with her shoes on. I know she does this precisely because she knows she’s not supposed to, and now I warn her if she doesn’t get down, she will get a timeout. Usually, she gets a timeout. I can’t not respond when she does something like this. What can I do instead of a timeout?” – Eden
1. Have high expectations for the child’s behaviour
Yes, this is an effective strategy. If we give up and let our child jump on the couch with her shoes, she will certainly do it. But this strategy only works when we have age-appropriate expectations and constantly, cheerfully, empathically enforce them. And if the child knows the age-appropriate expectation and still doesn’t meet it, then either she needs help with the tangled-up feelings that are keeping her from cooperating, or she needs a better connection with us so that she WANTS to cooperate.
2. Ignore the behaviour
This works for temporary issues that you can live with. For instance, if your child is acting out because he’s very hungry, you can address his need and he’ll be back to his sunny self. You might acknowledge his inappropriate behaviour in a non-judgmental way: “You are so hungry; you’re getting very impatient… Let’s calm down and get you some food!” but you don’t need to make a big deal about it. On the other hand, if your child is repeatedly testing your limits by jumping on the couch, ignoring the behaviour doesn’t help. She’s asking you to intervene to help her.
3. Scream and shout
This is also known as the parental tantrum. It is never an effective tactic in enforcing your expectations, except to the degree that it scares your child into immediate compliance. We all know that in adult relationships when someone indulges in a “tantrum”, it erodes the relationship. When we do it with our kids, it also erodes the relationship. Unfortunately, that makes kids act out even more over time.
Screaming is a symptom that you’ve slipped onto the low road of parenting, into fight or flight, and you’re seeing your child as the enemy. Our child is never the enemy, no matter how ugly he’s acting. He’s a very young human with an immature brain who is signalling that he needs your help.
This sometimes stops the “bratty” behaviour immediately. However, it’s a symbolic abandonment, which is why it works. After all, your child needs your presence to survive. Putting her in timeout is a threat that at any time you might withdraw your love and even your presence, leaving your child unprotected. You’re telling her that you’re not there to help her with those upsetting feelings that are driving her to act out. Since most children aren’t compliant enough to go willingly to time out, it creates power struggles that can infect your whole relationship. And it stops working as kids get older, leaving a resentful child who is in rebellion rather than one who WANTS to cooperate. Maybe worst of all? It doesn’t stop bad behaviour. It might stop the specific behaviour you’re trying to interrupt, but because your child ends up feeling angry, they start acting out in other ways.
5. Tailored support so the child can meet your expectations
Maybe he needs a warning about the transition coming up. Maybe you need to play a game that gets her giggling about power and obedience to defuse the tension about feeling pushed around. Maybe he needs a job to do when he comes into the house, so he feels some power. Maybe you need to do some bonding before you come in the house, so she wants to follow your lead. Maybe you need to put an old sheet on the couch for a while to keep it clean. But if your repeated reminders that they need to take off their shoes before getting on the couch aren’t working, move on to:
6. Setting empathic limits
Kids don’t share our priorities. Why should they? They have their own priorities (jumping on the couch is fun!) and no understanding of our world view (couches cost money). So it’s our job, all day, every day, to guide them. “Shoes get the couch dirty… no shoes on the couch.” The more firm and consistent you are, the more your child can accept your limit, grieve about it, and move on. The more empathic you are, the more your child will accept your limits without needing to rebel against them.