When a child is upset and acting out, we tend to focus on “stopping the behavior” as our first priority. When doing so we often punish the behavior, without first understanding “why” it is occurring. Children don’t have good ability to control their emotions, nor the control needed to check their impulses before acting on them. So, when we punish the behavior we are punishing their emotions as well. This tends to invalidate the children (punishing them for something they do not have control over). This does not teach them better ways of handling their emotions. I often recommend that whatever technique you use to reduce problem behavior, first “acknowledge and validate” the child’s feelings, then deal with the behavior. Consider this approach:
1. Acknowledge that the child is upset "Wow...Johnnie, you really look upset to me!"
2. Next, validate that it is is ok to be upset, "I understand that you are upset because ______. That would make me upset to." This does not mean you have to agree with him, or approve of his behavior; just acknowledge and validate how he feels.
3. Finally, help the child problem solve or understand when or how he might get what he wants. Focus
on what you want the child to do, not on any negative behavior.
4. If the child is too upset to talk reasonably with you, simply say to him "You are too upset to talk right now and that’s ok, you let me know when you are calm enough to talk." Then minimize any attention given to the upset behavior. Do not try and reason with a child who is acting out. Show little emotion, speak matter of fact, and only reason and problem solve once the child calms down enough to talk.
5. After the child calms down, return to steps 1-3.
This respects the child, even if we are punishing the behavior. Focus first on the feelings, not the behavior. “It is ok to be upset, but not ok to hit.” Etc. In order to reduce a negative behavior you need to focus on training a better alternative response to take its place. How do you want the child to respond when he is upset? Sit down with the child and work together to identify alternative ways of responding. Once you identify one or more, then practice and role play the desired response, until it becomes more automatic. Then, when the child is upset, validate his feelings and coach him to use the new response. You will find that you are then “teaching” the child, rather than simply punishing the child. The child views you as a “working partner” with him, and will try harder to develop more appropriate ways of acting.