"Dr. Laura, I was wondering if you could do a post about empathic limits. What is an appropriate response to bad behavior from an unconditional parenting approach? For example, 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?"
There is no such thing as a brat, only a child who is hurting. When our starting point as parents is a close bond with our children, we are their North Star, the point around which they orient. They want more than anything in the world to protect that relationship and meet our expectations. If our child is acting like a brat, she's either signalling that she needs a stronger connection with us, that she's got some big feelings she needs our help with, or that she can't meet our expectation without some tailored support.
So given that Aha! insight, which would be the most effective tactics to transform "bratty" behavior into cooperative behavior?
1. Having high expectations for our child's behavior
2. Ignoring "bad behavior"
5. Give tailored support
6. Setting empathic limits
7. Help the child with the feelings that are keeping him from cooperating by playing
8. Help the child with the feelings that are keeping him from cooperating by crying
Let's consider each of these in turn.
1. Having high expectations for our child's behavior-
Yes, this is an effective tactic. If we don't expect civility in our home, for instance, then we may not get it. But this only works for age-appropriate expectations. And if she 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 she WANTS to cooperate.
2. Ignoring the behavior
This only works for temporary issues that you can live with, like your child acting out because he's very hungry. In that case, acknowledge non-judgmentally ("You are so hungry, you're getting very impatient...Let's calm down and get you some good food!"), address his need, and he'll be back to his sunny self. But if your child is repeatedly testing your limits, always intervene. She is asking for your help.
This is also known as the parental tantrum. It is never an effective tactic in enforcing your expectations, except to the degree that is scares your child into immediate compliance. When we do this in adult relationships, it erodes the relationship. When we do it with our kids, it also erodes the relationship—so kids act out even more. It also scares the child, so it adds an overlay of tangled-up feelings that the child will then end up "acting out" by misbehaving. 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 our help.
This sometimes stops the "bad" behavior immediately. However, it's a symbolic abandonment (which is why it works.) It gives your child the message that you're not there to help her with those upsetting feelings that are driving her to act out. It creates power struggles. And it stops working as kids get older, leaving a child who is in rebellion rather than WANTING to cooperate.
5. Tailored support
Maybe he needs a warning about the transition coming up. Maybe she needs a written schedule, with photos, of her morning routine, so she can feel in charge of it. Maybe you need to play a game that gets her giggling about power and obedience. Maybe you need to put an old sheet on the couch for awhile to keep it clean. But if your repeated reminders that she needs to take off her 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!) 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. Redirection is the best way to stop the behavior because it channels the energy. "I see that's so much fun! And you know the couch is not for jumping. Come, off the couch. Let's go jump on the old mattress in the basement."
All kids will naturally test limits to see if they're firm. That means for now you'll need to stay with her as you enter the house and helping her get those shoes off, every time, before she heads for the couch. Eventually, it will become a habit, and neither of you will even think about it.
But what if she darts away from you and makes a beeline for the couch, before you can get her shoes off? She's sending you a signal that something's getting in the way of her cooperating with you. What? Emotions. Kids store up their feelings, waiting for a safe chance to release them with a compassionate witness. That's you. If you get to the bottom of these tangled emotions, you'll stop "bad" behavior before it starts.
Sure, you can make her "stuff" those feelings, by screaming at her or punishing her. She'll comply, eventually--until she's old enough to rebel. The teen years won't be pretty. Her chances of depression or anxiety go way up. And you'll never be as close as you could be, to this person you brought into the world.
Or you can help her with those feelings. It will help her cooperate with your agenda. It will teach her emotional intelligence. It will make her more able to meet your expectations as she gets older. And it will bring you closer. How? Play when you can. Cry when you have to.
7. Help the child with the feelings that are keeping him from cooperating: Play when you can.
Take a deep breath and repeat after me: "It is not an emergency. We can play with this." Keep your tone light and playful, so you get her giggling. "Excuse me?! Are you on that couch with your shoes on?! We'll see about that! I'm the couch protector, and I always get my girl!" Scoop her up, laughing, and toss her over your shoulder. As you run around the house with her, take her shoes off and drop them. Sing a silly chant about how much you love her and you'll never let her go. Keep dropping her on the couch and scooping her up again. Finally, collapse together on the couch for a good snuggle.
The next time you enter the house, before you go in the door, tell her you want to play the game again, but first she has to take her shoes off with you, right inside the door. Transform the game into one of re-connection and celebration. Use it any time you need to interrupt "bad" behavior. Giggling releases upset feelings just as crying does, and it triggers oxytocin, the bonding hormone.
8. Help the child with the feelings that are keeping him from cooperating: Cry when you have to.
What if she doesn't giggle? Won't let you take her shoes off? Gets angry and defiant? She's beyond play. Those big feelings are bubbling up, and she's trying to keep them down with anger. Summon up all your compassion. Look her in the eye. Set your limit clearly and kindly. "Sweetie, you know shoes get the couch dirty. I won't let you wear shoes on the couch." She may burst into tears. Hold her while she cries, if she'll let you. Tell her she's safe. If, instead, she lashes out, remember that the tears are right behind the anger. She just needs to feel a little safer to let them out. Which brings us to:
I agree that hugs are not our only tactic to reconnect and create cooperation. But they are probably our most useful. Hugs help our child feel safe enough to cry and let out the upsets that are driving her to act out. Hugs reconnect us, so our child WANTS to cooperate. And they remind us that our child, even if he's acting "bratty," is our beloved. Hugs rescue our child from the low road he's stumbled onto and pull him back up onto the high road with us. Hugs are no substitute for daily "special time" with your child, but nine hugs a day are essential for him to thrive.