Positive Parenting – How I address behavior issues

When my oldest daughter was 13 months old I made a new friend who just so happened to be a child therapist. The first question out of her mouth after I introduced myself was “Do you have any little people at home and what are their behavior issues?” I was aghast! How dare she?! The nerve of this woman to ask such a question, assuming my darling little angel could be anything but absolutely perfect?! Then, I thought about it. At the time, Esther really disliked tubby time (cried the whole time she was in the bath as if the water was burning her skin off) and she was purposefully dropping food onto the floor off of her highchair tray. She would stare at me, pick up a piece of food and simply drop it “mic drop style” on the floor and watch me for a reaction. These are undesirable behaviors – but how could this woman help me?

Esther at 13 months, when positive parenting entered my life.
Esther at 13 months, when positive parenting entered my life.

This is when I was introduced to the concept of positive parenting. It’s quite logical, simple, and yet challenging to employ consistently. But if you do it – it is MAGICAL.

I am not a punitive parent. I have never threatened taking anything away from my kid or bribing her for good behavior. My husband and I do not yell at our kids. I honestly cannot think of a time I raised my voice at my girls. I cannot control my toddler – who has ever heard of successfully controlling their toddler anyhow?! Still, my toddler listens to me and my husband, she speaks respectfully with good manners (I do not care for toddler attitude), she follows directions, tantrums are very few and far between, and she’s a happy kid (as exhibited by her running around the house in circles singing a mashup of Disney princess songs only she understands)!

Please note: bribing and rewarding are close cousins but they should not be confused. Bribery takes place when you offer something to make bad behavior stop or in anticipation of bad behavior. Rewards reinforce good behavior. I am giving attention to the behavior I want to see more of in the future. For example, when Esther has a successful trip to the potty, she gets a jelly bean. She does not get a jellybean for calming down after a tantrum. This would only send the message, after a tantrum I get a jelly bean, thus more tantrums in the future with the promise of a jelly bean at the end.

How Positive Parenting works

The only two concepts I really need to internalize are as follows:

  1. Give attention to only the behaviors I want to see.
  2. If a “rule” is broken, give a time out.

How often do you hear yourself telling your kid any of the following? NO! Don’t touch that! Stop that! Don’t go over there!

These are all focused on telling your kid what you do not want him/her to do instead of what you would like him/her to do. For example, don’t think of the color red. What did you just think of? Was it red? Now, think of blue. It’s much easier to think of blue than try to process don’t think of red, now what should I do?! It’s the same concept. Telling my girls what I want them to see is a major shift in parenting vocabulary, but it’s incredibly effective. Instead of telling Esther what I want her to avoid, I tell her things like, “Feet stay down” instead of “Get your feet off the table.” All she wants to do then is put her feet on the table. “Napkin stays in your lap” when she’s dropping her napkin on the floor. “Fork goes in your mouth or stays on the plate” when she’s waving her food around on her fork like it is a magic wand. “Food stays on your plate” when she’s dropping food on the floor. These are “rules” I have put in place. I want Esther to have good table manners, so dropping food on the floor is unacceptable.  This falls in line with the overall food environment we have at home and setting up healthy eating habits.

Dropping food on the floor was a behavior I was eager to extinguish because it was just wasteful and annoying.  I take food seriously.  I really do not like throwing food out and this was clearly a power struggle. Esther was sending me a message. The “rule” is keeping your food on your tray. If she didn’t want to eat anymore it’s OK. However, throwing food on the floor to signal she’s done, or does not like a particular food, is not OK. We explained just leave the food on the tray if she’s done with it. If she intentionally dropped the food on the floor (and toddlers know exactly what they are doing when they pick it up and do a “mic drop” with their little cube of chicken or cheerio) it warranted action from me. Esther received a time out.

A note about time outsUnhappy Ilana

I do not have a time out chair or spot. Time outs can happen anywhere. I have given Esther time outs in the super market, even while strapped in her car seat! Nothing has physically changed about her situation, and yet she knows it is a time out (I guess a piece of it is parental attitude).

Time outs are not measured with a timer either. This is just a moment where Esther does not get attention from me or my husband (and not anyone else in the room) because of her behavior. We are not going to reinforce her dropping food on the floor by picking it up and yelling, “No! Stop dropping food on the floor!” We simply pushed her chair away from the table, removed the tray (so she wouldn’t have any more food to drop) and said quite calmly, “Food stays on the tray. Time out.” Esther burst into tears. She knew her behavior was undesirable and we were reacting to it, but not in the way she had hoped (us continually picking it up and putting it back on the tray for her). The very instant Esther calmed down (this could be 30 seconds or a few minutes later) we would give her tons of praise for calming down. “Great job calming down! I am very proud of you. Now I need you to keep food on the tray.” What usually happened was she would signal she was all done with her meal; we would clean her up and move on. It was this simple. I did not engage in a battle of wills and I did not need to yell or threaten… and food stayed on the tray. It took a few more nights and subsequent episodes of time out for Esther to consistently keep her food on the plate/tray, but it’s never been an issue since.

So how did we tackle the bath time situation? We needed to reevaluate how we approached the situation. We needed to make tubby time fun instead of dreading the process. We changed our attitude and said, “Oh boy! It’s tubby time! This is going to be great! You’ll get to play with toys in the water!” When Esther did a good job getting into the tub without a great deal of crying we rewarded (aka reinforced) her good behavior with little color pellets which changed the color of the water (you can find them at Walmart or Target). She could choose which color she wanted. When she was upset or refused to sit down in the water, we had to completely ignore her crying (she was essentially having a tantrum). We would stand in the bathroom (safety first), but we would not look at her. You get very good at using your peripheral vision when it comes to time outs! She would wail until she realized she wasn’t getting a reaction from us, calm down and eventually sit in the water. As soon as her little tushy touched the water we showered her with tons of praise. “Good job sitting down! I’m so proud of you! Which toy do you want to play with? What color do you want to make the water?” The level of excitement and joy provided was like no one has ever sat down in a bath before! She was getting A LOT of positive reinforcement. The next time tubby time came around, her protests were less, she calmed down fairly quickly, and we were able to have a more pleasant bath time experience. This positive reinforcement compounded upon itself and now it’s hard to get Esther out of the tub. She loves taking tubbies now!

Another bonus is seeing how being a positive parent builds momentum and even my 3 year old toddler employs positive parenting techniques with playmates and her 13 month old baby sisters now!  She’ll tell her little sisters to keep their milk cups on the tray (she has tried to give them a time out, but we’re not encouraging this).  It’s easy to keep this going when you see such quick and effective results.

Positive Parenting came into my life before I had to deal with some serious parenting head-scratching situations. Truthfully, I have no idea what kind of parent I would have been without the influence of positive parenting. It has provided all the skills I need for my parenting toolbox. When done consistently, it’s truly transformational and effective. The Positive Parenting Program is an evidence-based international program. Full disclosure: I have not personally been a formal recipient of Triple P counseling. You can learn more here.

 

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