KEENER! Don’t jump on the couch. KEENER! No more playing with your food. KEENER! Stop making that loud screeching noise. How much time do you feel like you spend telling your children what they can’t do — and feeling frustrated yourself while doing so? For most of us, our natural reaction is to watch them, notice what they are doing, and then tell them they can’t do that. The undesired behavior stands out and we immediately tell them no, don’t, or stop. The first time we might be calm, but the more times we say “don’t,” the more annoyed we feel. But there is good news — I’ve found that by retraining myself, I can calmly present my kids with options for what they can do, which greatly reduces the undesired behavior.
The first step is changing the words you use. When Grace started throwing food off her highchair, my first instinct was to just tell her to stop. Unfortunately, this didn’t make her stop. Instead, I now try and give her options for what she CAN do with her food. You can put it in your mouth or leave it on your tray and say no thank you. Because she only has emerging verbal skills, she is not able to verbally tell me which choice she is opting for. But with repeated teaching opportunities, she is now opting for one of those two choices more, and throwing her food less (much to our dog Hank’s dismay!). Does she still occasionally throw her food? Absolutely. But now when I look over and see food in her hand, I can start to see her deciding what her next move is going to be, and throwing her food on the floor is happening with less and less frequency.
For verbal kids, it is the same formula, but with expanded “options.” Like many two year olds, Keener is into all things construction. He wants to bang, fix, and measure everything he can get his hands on. He will turn a cow into a hammer if he can’t find his actual hammer, and every wall, bookcase, and chair is seen as his next project. But instead of saying Keener, don’t bang the chair, or Keener, stop hammering the wall, I give him options for where he can do his “work.” Keener, we don’t hammer the wall. You can hammer on the rug, on the train track, or on the barn. Which place are you going to choose? And 9 out of 10 times, he will choose one of those options.
The second step is being mindful of how you react. Yes, the words we use are important. But our facial expressions, tone of voice, and the amount of time we spend attending to the behavior is equally as important as the words we use. When Keener was 15 months old, I remember feeling beyond frustrated with him for throwing his food off the highchair. After a week or so, it dawned on me — my reaction was likely the #1 reason why he did it. In his mind, he thought: This is great! I throw my food and mom goes crazy. I’m going to do this again and again! Look at her go! Once I realized that my reaction was a big part of the problem and I took a step back, I swear it took less than a week before the problem disappeared.
We don’t want to condone throwing food or taking a hammer to a coffee table, but we also don’t want to give less desirable behavior more attention and a bigger reaction than positive behavior. So the next time your kid looks at you and her eyes are saying, I’m going to drop this and what are you going to do about it?, try your hardest to act unphased. Pretend she is doing it for the first time and say as calm as you can We keep our food on our tray or put it in our mouth. If it still continues, change gears and use a distraction. Grab a book and read to them during lunch, or Facetime a relative. Take the attention away from your child and where her hand and food are, and most importantly, stay calm. It won’t be nearly as much fun to see you act normal when that green bean lands on the floor than it is to see you upset.
Here’s some example language to help shift gears and name what your child can do:
|Naming what they CAN’T do||Naming what they CAN do|
|Don’t bang the wall||You can bang the rug or the pillow.|
|Stop jumping on the couch||Couches are for sitting or laying down. Which one are you going to do?|
|Stop using your fork as a lawn mower on the table||Forks are for eating. You can use your fork to eat or it can rest on your plate. Look where I put my fork when I’m not using it.|
|Don’t eat the crayon||Crayons are for coloring. Do you want to color on the white paper or the blue paper?|
If this doesn’t stop the behavior, try naming the natural consequence. For the crayon example, it would be: If the crayon goes in your mouth one more time, we will have to put the crayons away. Crayons are for coloring. More on natural consequences next week