Addressing challenging behaviors positively

Throw out those empty threats and help address your child’s challenging behaviors in positive ways.

Father and son

Every parent or caregiver is guilty of using empty threats to try to encourage good behavior from young children. We say things like, “Stop that right now or I won’t take you with me!” and “If you hit your brother again, no TV for a month!” All parents and caregivers can feel overwhelmed by challenging behaviors and when they are overwhelmed, they may be more likely to make empty threats. The problem with these empty threats is they can’t be carried out.

When we don’t follow through with these threats, young children become confused. If you threaten to leave your child at home but don’t have another adult that can stay with them, it is an empty threat. They might start to believe that those behaviors are OK after all since they don’t experience the consequence you promised. These threats don’t help young children learn the connection between their behaviors and the consequences of their actions.

Instead of empty threats, use positive behaviors to set limits and encourage cooperation from young children. Michigan State University Extension suggests the following ways to build positive behaviors in young children.

Use a warm, loving voice. Children won’t only respond to the words you say, they will also respond to the way you say them. When you yell and scream, it is harder for your child to really hear what you are saying. When you are out of control, your child feels out of control too, so try to use a warm and loving voice to really communicate with your child.

Explain why a behavior isn’t OK. As tempting as it might be to say the reason a child needs to do something is “because you said so,” children need to know the “why.” When children understand why, they can connect their behaviors to the consequence. That way, the next time they might want to try that behavior in the future, they can think of the reasons why it’s not OK and learn to make a different choice.

Allow children to make some choices. Children feel empowered when they have the ability to make choices, even if they are just small choices. If your child is dragging their feet about cleaning up their toys, give them some power by asking, “Do you want to pick up the books first or the toy cars?” Simple choices help children feel like they have some control.

Respond with empathy. Sometimes adults respond to children’s negative behaviors with our own strong emotions, like anger. When a child throws their food on the floor because they are done eating and want to leave the table, instead of responding with anger, we can show them empathy and understanding. “Wow. You are very frustrated because you are finished eating and want to leave the table. That must be difficult.” When we respond with empathy instead of anger, we open the door to having a conversation with a child where we can explain the limits. “It’s OK to be frustrated, but it’s not OK to throw food. Next time, you can say, ‘May I be excused?’”

Practice positive language. Throw out those empty threats and practice positive language. Communicate to your child what you need them to do instead of introducing consequences they won’t actually experience. Instead of saying, “Put your shoes on right now or you’ll have to stay here,” try saying, “When you put your shoes on, we will be ready to leave.” In this way, you set a limit and communicated what you need without an empty threat.

You can use positive language to set limits and help manage your young child’s behaviors to help them build strong social and emotional skills for life.

For more articles on child development, academic success, parenting and life skill development, please visit the Michigan State University Extension website.

To learn about the positive impact children and families experience due to MSU Extension programs, read our 2017 impact report. Additional impact reports, highlighting even more ways Michigan 4-H and MSU Extension positively impacted individuals and communities in 2017, can be downloaded from the Michigan 4-H website.

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