The Two Most Important Steps to Coping with any Behaviour – and why so Many get it Wrong!

I often speak with parents who are struggling with a specific behaviour, such as hitting. They will say “I keep telling them to stop and explain why they shouldn’t do it – but it just keeps happening!”. The problem here is not necessarily what the parent has done, but what they *haven’t* done. Dealing with tricky behaviour is a two step process. If you skip one of these processes, it’s almost inevitable that your discipline will be ineffective.

What are these two steps?

1. Dealing with the behaviour ‘in the moment’.
2. Understanding and future prevention.

Let’s look at them in some more detail:

1. Dealing with the behaviour ‘in the moment’.
This is what I call ’emergency discipline’. It’s discipline in the here and now. You have to stop your child 1. hurting themselves, 2. hurting others and 3. damaging things. This is what the parent has done in the hitting example above – they have stopped the hitting. That’s great, it’s important to do, but that’s only half of the discipline needed. I’m often asked how you stop children biting/hitting/throwing/running away and so on – my answer is pretty much always “however you have to”. This is emergency discipline. Safety is at risk. ‘Gentle’ is not high on my list at this point. If I need to physically move my child in order to stop them hurting others (or themselves) I will do. Even if it makes them cry. If I need to shout at them when they are about to run into a road and I can’t reach them quick enough, I will do. Remember – safety is our number 1 priority here. I need to extinguish the behaviour as quickly as possible. Once I have stopped the behaviour (and thus ensured safety) I would focus on reconnecting with and calming the child. This may not be a hug (some children need space, enforcing a hug on a child who would rather not be touched while they cool down is clearly not gentle!), it could be sitting close by, it could be letting the child know you will be in a different room whenever they need you. Of course you also need to calm down. When you are both calmer it’s time to talk, explain, hug and make everybody feel better. This is where the gentle comes in, not earlier – when safety (and getting the child to stop the behaviour) should be your priority.

2. Understanding and future prevention.
Coping with behaviour ‘in the moment’ is important, however it’s only half of the discipline. Unless you look at the cause of the behaviour and work to remove or reduce it, the behaviour is going to keep recurring, however well you coped ‘in the moment’. Step 2 is all about WHY? Asking why your child acted in such a way, trying to understand how they feel, what triggered them and what they need in order to dramatically reduce the chance of the difficult behaviour recurring is the second most important thing to do (after ensuring safety). Children don’t behave in difficult ways for no reason. Now it’s time to find that reason. In the case of hitting it could be: a need for more physical activity, a need to express feelings in a more positive way/to be understood, e.g: via signing, a need for more 1-2-1 time away from a sibling, a need to reconnect with you more if they spend time away from you in the daytime, a need for less (or more) stimulation, a need to be alone/away from other children, or simply a need for food or sleep. Until you find the underlying cause of the behaviour (and associated triggers) and work with that you will be left to deal with the same behaviour over and over again ‘in the moment’ (no matter how great your emergency discipline skills are).

The best – and most effective – discipline strategies incorporate both discipline steps!

For more on coping ‘in the moment’ and long term ‘why’ discipline check out my Gentle Discipline Book HERE in the UK, HERE in the USA, HERE in Canada, HERE in Australia and HERE in the rest of the world.


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Published by SarahOckwell-Smith

Sarah Ockwell-Smith, Parenting author and mother to four.

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