I may be the last person not to have heard of this acronym before. Raise your hand if you haven’t seen it before. I knew about it instinctively and even more deeply through my efforts to connect with my kids. It’s such a simple thing to remember, especially when I’m overwrought myself.
I haven’t been able to pin down an origin, but I do see that HALT is used widely in trauma-informed therapy where people are struggling with such fundamentally dehumanizing experiences that they lose touch with their own human needs. It got me thinking about what children experience every day in childist cultures. They’re told what to eat, what to think, what to wear. They’re encouraged to obey even when obedience means they must deny their own needs. And, there is no escape for so many kids. Traditional parenting approaches demand hierarchies that disadvantage children. It stands to reason that children, who are just learning/have just learned what all the sensations inside their bodies mean, will not recognize their needs at all when they are overwhelmed.
So, when our children seem out of sorts, let’s HALT. Stop and ask yourself, when’s the last time my child had something to eat or drink? Resolve it, if needed. If that’s not the problem, consider whether your child might be angry. If that’s the case, emotion coaching may be the answer. Give it a try. If that’s not it either, maybe your child is lonely. This would be the perfect time to take a little break from whatever we’re doing and give our child some attention. Kids have varying attention needs day to day and even hour to hour. Some days, it might feel like you can get anything done and other days, you’re left wondering what your kids have been up to. That ebb and flow is important for growth in the relationship as is the quality of the interactions you have. So, please, take some time and hang with your kids. And, finally, if none of that resolves the issue, your child may just need some downtime and might not even realize it.
I’ve given up on asking my kids if they need a nap, because they never choose to Maui if I suggest it. I’ll just say, “Oh goodness, I need some quiet time.” I’ll turn the lights down (we already keep most of them off for sensory reasons), snuggle up on the couch with some books, and invite my kids over. If they don’t come right away, I start reading aloud quietly in my little nest. They have full autonomy over their bodies in these instances and I will not force them to comply with my quiet time. They can choose to go anywhere in the house. Typically, they will eventually join me and sometimes even take a little cat nap.
HALT doesn’t end with these four considerations. It is an opportunity to take a look at your child and discern their needs even when they don’t recognize them. In my house, “nature” and “water” could be their own entire letters in the acronym. If nothing else seems to be upsetting my kids, I know that getting them outside to run free in nature or putting them into some form of water will cure many troubles. So, try the basics first. Recognize that children communicate with us through their behavior and prepare yourself next time for the tough moments. You’ll be so glad you did!
Rewards are an inherent feature of behaviorism, a school of thought which posits that we are influenced by our external environment alone. It does not take into account the inner life of kids. Their thoughts, their frustrations, their very identities are ignored. Behaviorism seeks to change children’s behavior through external forces, including various forms punishment and rewards. One of those forms (of punishment or rewards… depends on how it’s received) is praise. “Good job!” we might say to a child to push them toward a result we desire. I’m heavily conditioned to use praise by my culture here in the United States. It is a moment-by-moment battle to stop my mouth from dishing out quick and empty motivators. What’s so wrong with these phrases, though? Let’s look at a few.
I’m so proud of you!
You can do it!
They all sound lovely and encouraging and the truth is they are. To a point. But, it’s the backside of these phrases that can harm our kids. I’m so proud of you! and Great work! communicate our excitement that our children have fulfilled our expectations of them. They are moral judgments that kids will continue to try to maintain to keep us happy. Well, that is, until they stop caring when the reward of praise becomes exhausting or demotivating. You can do it! looks harmless enough until you realize it represents a parent informing a child about their abilities. We can understand how dismissive it is to tell a crying child, “You’re ok,” rather than offering empathy. It erases the child’s inner feelings and minimizes their struggle. By the same token, while we may think You can do it! communicates our confidence in our child’s competence, in reality, it sets them up for an impossible outcome. If my child fails, does that mean I’ve lied to them? Does it mean I don’t respect them? What’s the end result?
The Power of Noticing
There is an alternative that works to foster intrinsic motivation: noticing. Noticing can be a simple thank you, It helps a lot when you carry groceries in with me. Thank you! Noticing can be paying attention to the simple, every day things, You’re working so hard on that drawing. I’d love to hear about it! Noticing can be empathetic support, Scoring a goal is really challenging. I am right here with you. Noticing is highlighting and acknowledging the values or the effort or the struggle without attributing a moral zero-sum game to them.
I’m especially partial to the phrase, You did it!, to express my joy when my children accomplish goals they’ve set out from themselves. It’s my way of noticing their effort by stating a fact and leaving it at that.
The Power of Not Noticing
As we carefully and purposefully speak to our children’s intrinsic motivation, we have to know when enough is enough. Have you ever seen a child’s exuberance deflate when a parent comments on what they’re doing? I certainly have in my own children. When I overstep bounds and interject my thoughts onto my children, it can be an invasion into their bubble of privacy. Any time we interact with our children, we impose our own values. For better or worse, most of us adults value things like rightness, progress, and success. But, these values aren’t superior to wrongness, stopping, or failure. Think of all the wonderful things that happen in the space of wrongness, stopping, and failure. We learn by trial and error. We pause to rest and to reflect. We know when to move on because something isn’t working. These are also critical lessons children need to learn and they can’t do that when we compulsively push them away from the very spaces they need to reside in.
It’s very easy for us to jump in and teach. Although, often children need time to express their thoughts freely. It’s ok if they don’t know what to do and it’s ok for them to feel they need direction.
When we continually teach and correct children, they learn to always look for direction. The more children use their own thoughts, the more they build up their intrinsic motivation and self belief. Having time to be creative with no direction is such a healthy process and supports children’s emotional wellbeing.
For me, the simplest way to know when my comments are invited is to wait to be invited. When my children include me in their play and in their efforts in some way, those are the times I can be pretty sure it’s ok to share encouragement and love. I try to avoid interrupting my children to tell them what I think. Sometimes this method works and sometimes it doesn’t. When it doesn’t, I am quick to apologize and let them know I won’t interrupt again. See what happens there? I learn from my wrongness. Children have a way of enforcing their boundaries in a straightforward, genuine way when adults allow them to. So, let them, y’all.
In the realm of peaceful parenting, the “time-in” is hailed as the respectful alternative to the “time-out.” Where time-ins give children the opportunity to connect with a trusted adult, slow down for a minute, and coregulate, time-outs isolate, punish, and force kids to stuff their emotions down deep. There’s evidence that time-outs are effective at curbing undesired behavior because of course they are. Time-outs are behaviorism in action, which is why they’re extremely effective at externally controlling children. It’s easy to control kids when you don’t care what’s happening with them psychologically. It’s much harder to interact with a distraught child and help them sort things out. Time-outs are to child rearing what turning your back on a misbehaving pup is to dog training. If that’s not what you want for your kids, time-ins might be for you.
A time-in involves interrupting undesired behavior by taking a child to a neutral spot and guiding them toward logical reasoning. The first step is to help the child calm down. What helps one child might not help another. My toolkit includes bear hugs, singing, movement, and simply being in the same space while my kids work through their emotions. I’ve started introducing deep breathing in my household once the kids have reached the point in the process when they can handle it. The next step is to empathize. After your child has calmed down, it’s important to let them know you get it. You’re not angry. You’re not judging them. You are connecting, human to human, over very relatable emotions. And, finally, when your child is ready, you can have a conversation about what happened and how to ease those big emotions in the future.
Time-ins are great. So great, in fact, that I’m a big advocate for them. However, I’ve noticed something in my own peaceful practice. When I’m angry or otherwise unsettled, I have a tendency to use time-in as a punishment. It becomes an opportunity to teach a lesson rather than a chance to relate. It serves as a lifeboat I throw myself and my child onto for a breather before jumping back into the fray. That’s not enough and it’s not what time-ins are for. Time-ins have to be child-led and child-focused. Children should be invited into the time-in space. Not coerced or pushed into it. Time-in requires time. My limited time. It’s hard for me to stop what I’m doing and focus on my child, but that’s what my kids need from me as their parent.
If you’re like me and you’re misusing time-in, I invite you to take this moment to switch up the game plan in your mind. What will you do next time to make sure time-in is working for your child and not just for you?
As peaceful parents, we recognize that rewards and punishment are tools of manipulation and they have no place alongside things like emotion coaching and relationship building. But, should we go so far as to call rewards a tool of abuse? That’s a heavy, heavy word and one I was reticent to use in describing punishments, like spanking, for a very long time. However, within the past year, I have come to realize just how destructive spanking really is. Now, I’m turning my attention to rewards to investigate their effects on children.
Rewards are an implement of a field of psychology called behaviorism. Put plainly, behaviorism is a psychological approach that assumes all behaviors are the result of conditioning and that behavior is always purposeful. It leaves no room for cognitive sources of behavior. So, where behavior is deemed a problem, the solution is not to resolve what is happening with the person internally, but to externally mold the person’s behavior into something the therapist considers more appropriate.
While behaviorism as a branch of psychology traces its roots back to 1913, the use of external manipulation is far, far older. It’s mentioned throughout the Bible, we see it in the form of punishment as marks cut deep on skeletal remains, and we all know it for the anxiety and fear it produces. Behaviorism has some practical applications, such as animal training and smoking cessation when used by choice. Consent is key, as behaviorism has such a substantial potential to be harmful. To understand how very undermining it can be, take this story as an example. I saw it in an autism-related facebook group and it is a fantastic illustration of what I mean.
My degree is on Cognitive Science, which included quite a bit on behaviorism. I was never aiming to be a therapist, and had no idea I was autistic when I was in college.One of the interesting things about behaviorism is that it works even on subjects who have no idea they’re being trained. You can train a grown adult into quite elaborate behaviors without them being aware they’re being trained, or sometimes that they’re even doing the behaviors. Case in point, my brother’s psychology class decided to try training their professor. They picked three behaviors they wanted: writing class notes more towards the middle of the board, using the word “I” more, and tucking his hand into his upper inside pocket a la Napoleon. They then chose three reinforcers: scribbling notes, looking up at the professor, and leaning forward interestedly.The professor was an excellent subject, and by the end of the semester was using “I” in virtually every sentence, had his hand tucked in the target pocket any time he wasn’t using it, and writing all his class notes in a 2 foot square box in the middle of the room-spanning chalkboard, all without realizing he was doing it. In fact when they fessed up at the end of the semester, he didn’t believe them until they turned him around and showed him 3 hours of notes crammed into a tiny invisible square for no good reason.How do you think the professor reacted to the revelation? If you guess “not well”, you’re right. If you ponder why that might be, even though he liked that class particularly (such attentive, responsive students!), and hadn’t minded the training process at all, you may have some insight on why so many autistic people dislike ABA, even in kinder, gentler forms.
Researcher Alfie Kohn suggests that rewards and punishments are two sides of the same coin. He wrote a book about his perspective called Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise, and Other Bribes. He explains that, “There are at least 70 studies showing that extrinsic motivators—including A’s, sometimes praise, and other rewards—are not merely ineffective over the long haul but counterproductive with respect to the things that concern us most: desire to learn, commitment to good values, and so on. Another group of studies shows that when people are offered a reward for doing a task that involves some degree of problem solving or creativity—or for doing it well—they will tend to do lower quality work than those offered no reward.”
So, rewards tend to be demotivators over time. They interfere with natural human curiosity and self-realization. They aren’t that different from using a treat to teach a dog to sit. After all, humans and dogs are both animals. Many of our innate, unconscious motivations are the same, such as seeking food and drink, and avoiding danger. Rewards offer temporary motivation, but it comes at a cost. However, there is a way to keep rewards fresh… and it’s enticing: intermittent reinforcement.
In practice, intermittent reinforcement involves rewarding a subject sporadically rather than continuously for a behavior deemed to be desired. For children, it might be a gold star for being kind to a classmate where the child has to be kind over and over before being noticed. The anticipation of the reward keeps the desired behavior front and center. But, intermittent reinforcement has a dark side. It is a preferred form of trauma bonding used by abusers in violent relationships.
Flowers after days of the silent treatment. Crocodile tears after weeks of brutal insults. An unexpected extravagant gift after a rage attack. A sudden moment of tenderness after hours of critical remarks. What do these all have in common? In the context of an abusive relationship, they are all demonstrations of intermittent reinforcement – a dangerous manipulation tactic used to keep you bonded to your abuser.
Psychologist B.F. Skinner (1956) discovered that while behavior is often influenced by rewards or punishment, there is a specific way rewards are doled out that can cause that behavior to persist over long periods of time, causing that behavior to become less vulnerable to extinction. Consistent rewards for a certain behavior actually produce less of that behavior over time than an inconsistent schedule of rewards. He discovered that rats pressed a lever for food more steadily when they did not know when the next food pellet was coming than when they always received the pellet after pressing (known as continuous reinforcement).
In laymen’s terms, when we know to expect the reward after taking a certain action, we tend to work less for it. Yet when the timing of the reward or the certainty that we’ll get it at all is unpredictable, we tend to repeat that behavior with even more enthusiasm, in hope for the end result. We relish the joy of a “hard-earned” reward that much more.
Intermittent reinforcement can trigger behavior that looks a lot of compulsion and obsession in humans, especially in the context of a toxic relationship. So, where does this leave us on the question of rewards being abusive or not?
Here is my perspective. The way we wield rewards is crucial. When we use rewards to manipulate our children into doing what we want, we have fallen into dangerous territory. The more we use rewards to coerce children, the more it begins to look like abuse. However, humans do crave social acceptance and recognition is an important part of that. Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Laura Markham, has some advice for how to incorporate recognition without falling back on rewards. She says,
The good news is that there are better ways to give our children encouragement. In fact, when children feel seen, accepted and appreciated for who they are, that becomes a super power, an internal source of affirmation that outweighs any external evaluation and gives them an internal compass to express their values, from compassion to hard work.
So when you find yourself starting to say “Good Job!” or “Good Sharing!” try these phrases instead.
1. Empathize with his excitement (instead of evaluating and telling him what you think about his accomplishment.)
“Yes! You’re pedaling all by yourself!”
2. Let her know you’re really seeing her (and let her evaluate whether what’s she’s doing is working.)
“I see that you’re doing the sides of the puzzle first.”
3. Empower him to choose how to behave in the future by pointing out the results of his behavior (so he develops his own moral compass.)
“Look how happy your friend is to have a turn with your toy.”
4. Encourage effort (because that’s what creates results.)
“You’re working so hard on that…. I think just a little more practice and you’ll nail it!”
5. Be specific in your description (so your child feels his accomplishment is seen, rather than just a global “good job.”)
“You counted from zero to twenty! Last week, you couldn’t count that far. I see that you’ve been working on learning those numbers!”
6. Ask questions to help your child reflect (so she begins to trust herself to be the arbiter of her own performance.)
“Do you like the way it came out? Why or why not?”
7. Express your own feelings, including gratitude.
“I love it when we work as a team like this! It makes the work so much faster! Thanks so much for helping me.”
Notice the difference? You’re not judging your child. You’re loving him. As Deepak Chopra says, “Love is attention without judgment. In its natural state, attention only appreciates.” That’s the kind of attention every child needs.
These words ring true for my own family. Peaceful Dad and I do not use rewards or punishments with our crew. And, this decision was recently affirmed when our new speech therapist remarked on our son’s ability to engage with her without the need for rewards. I took the opportunity to gush about peaceful parenting, intrinsic motivation, and emotion coaching. The reality is this: No rewards, no punishments, respectful, and connected discipline is not only possible, it’s also evidence-based and fruitful for all children. It’s achievable, but it does take a big shift in thinking on the part of us parents.
Several days ago, I shared a post from Dr. Rebecca Kennedy, a licensed clinical psychologist in New York City. I found there was quite a bit of discomfort about what she said among parents. And, a couple of my friends even private messaged me to clarify for themselves what the meme meant for them and their kids. Before you read on, I want you to be thinking about your own emotional awareness and see if what she says was also true of your childhood.
I saw clearly what she was talking about because I experienced it as a child and vowed never to do it to my own children. As someone who has had to heal from emotional manipulation both as a child and an adult, let me say this first:
OTHER PEOPLE ARE NOT RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR EMOTIONS
So many of us don’t understand this, because we’ve been conditioned from childhood to believe that our impact on other people matters more than our ability to recognize and adjust what is happening inside of us. BOTH of these things are important and children understand neither until we show them. There’s an entire industry around “emotional intelligence” and re-teaching adults how to look into themselves to better understand how to relate to others. We wouldn’t need to be trained in emotional intelligence if we learned about it organically as children.
Everything we do here at Peace I Give is centered on the idea that behavior is communication and that children need our support more than they need our chastisement. I recently wrote a how-to on emotion coaching that may be of some use to those of you who are reading this and feeling uncertain about how to address behaviors that impact you negatively. I am not saying it’s ok for children to do hurtful things to us. I’m saying that, as parents, our first step has to be to help them understand why they are lashing out and resolve the root issue. The behavior is merely a symptom.
Within our healthy adult relationships, it’s good to talk with each other in times of peace about our feelings. I can tell my husband that, when he behaves in a certain way, it triggers feelings of sadness or anger in me without being concerned that he will take on the responsibility of being my therapist. He understands the impact of his behavior and can choose to make a change once he knows something he did was not appreciated. Know what else I do that is not healthy? Sometimes, in my frustration, I say things like “You obviously don’t care what I think” and “Do you even love me?” This is emotional manipulation and I daresay most of us do it from time to time when we are not in a good place psychologically. It comes from emotional immaturity, which I still struggle with as a fully grown adult because healthy emotional responses weren’t modeled for me consistently as a child. I am in the process now of reparenting myself.
Just like adults, children can understand their impact on other people when we have conversations with them in times of peace. However, that’s not usually what happens. Usually, we react to our children’s behavior in the heat of the moment, attaching our emotions to their behavior by telling them how they made us feel. They may change their behavior as a result, but not to improve as people. Any change that follows is meant to avoid upsetting others and that breeds codependency. With children, we need to address the behavior and name the emotion in order to build the emotional awareness they so desperately need for positive mental health.
When we point to our emotions in addressing a child’s behavior, it is a form of control. If our kids are lashing out, something is going wrong and our first step has to be to help them figure it out. Once that connection is made, we can circle back around as needed to let them know what their impact was without creating a situation where they have to console us. If we want to teach our children empathy, we have to SHOW them empathy first.
Kids can say some really hurtful things to us like “I don’t like you” and “You embarrass me,” which can trigger lots of difficult emotions in us. It’s important to stop and understand that something is happening inside our child that is uncomfortable and may be difficult to express. A friend of mine uses a phrase that might help in these situations. She extends a judgment free invitation to “say more.” Just those two words and then she listens. You could try that next time your child says something that hurts you hard as you engage in emotion coaching to help your child process what it is they’re feeling.
I’ll close with another video. In it, Dr. Kennedy dives deeper into the message behind her earlier meme. She answers several questions, including ones you likely have. Give it a thorough listen and see if anything hits home:
Over the weekend, a sweet friend of mine posted a story about her young daughter who knew just what to do when she saw her mother in distress. My friend owns Hoopla! Letters, a custom calligraphy business. (She has designed artwork for me and it is amazing. Shameless plug because, seriously, check her out. She’s been featured nationally.)
Her post was right on time for me as I’ve been needing to be reminded how important emotion coaching really is. For those who don’t know, emotion coaching is a way to positively communicate with children that gives them the skills they need to practice self-regulation.
Dr. John Gottman, of The Gottman Institute, has researched and practiced emotion coaching for decades, and he has boiled down his approach to five steps. I’m going to keep this blog post brief and let it stand as a reminder on how we can best help our children through their big emotions. I hope you will return to it, as I will, when you need a little boost.
Step 1: Be aware of your child’s emotions.
One of the most basic tenets of Peaceful Parenting is that we must be tuned into our kids. In our childist culture that minimizes children’s emotions as being nonsense, it is revolutionary for a parent to recognize that our children’s emotions are as important as ours. A child’s experience after losing a beloved toy can be akin to an adult’s experience after losing a cherished piece of inherited heirloom jewelry. The grief and frustration exist no matter how old a person is. When we understand that our children’s emotions are of great importance, we can begin to pay attention and sense how our children are doing at any point in time.
Step 2: Recognize emotion as an opportunity for connection or teaching.
If you’ve ever heard (or, like me, been told) “stop crying or I’ll give you something to cry about,” you’ll know how devastating it can be for a child to have their emotions brushed off like they’re worthless. As Peaceful Parents, we reject the idea that children’s emotions should be suppressed or ignored. We take it a step further and find ways to connect with our kids even in their most volatile emotional states. In many cases, what this looks like is being a non-judgmental presence for the child as they cycle through their feelings.
Step 3: Help your child verbally label emotions.
This step is tough for many adults to do even for ourselves. Often, we don’t know how we feel. We may be too overwhelmed or out of touch with ourselves. But, this practice is crucial to processing our experiences. Have you ever seen an emotion wheel? There are many versions of them and they all look a little something like this:
An emotion wheel can be a helpful tool in helping both children and adults identify what it is they’re feeling and back track to what generated the feeling. With my very young children, I generally stick with the basics. I might say, “You’re feeling angry that brother took your toy.” For older children, I would offer possible feeling labels in collaboration with the child.
Step 4: Communicate empathy and understanding.
This step does get easier with time, but I’m confident in saying that most of us were not raised to be comfortable with other people’s emotions and most of the time, we really don’t quite know what to say. If you find yourself in that situation with your child, try one of these:
“That’s really hard.”
“I understand why you’re [state feeling]”
“I would feel the same way.”
“I’m here as long as you need me.”
“I love you.”
Repeating back what your child has said can also be an effective way of demonstrating that you’re listening with the intent to understand.
Step 5: Set limits and problem solve.
Once the crisis has passed, it’s important to pause and address what caused the upset in the first place. In some cases, it is helpful and informative to set a reasonable limit. Remember, though, limits are not punishments. Responding punitively can easily undo the work you’ve put into connecting with your child.
Consider a child who abandons one toy in search of another. When a family practices turn-taking, the toy is fair game, so other children are well within their rights to play with the toy. Children can become enraged when this happens, even when they have long since moved on. When a parent goes through the process of pausing to co-regulate with the incensed child, empathizing with their feelings of anger and envy, and reminding them that it is the other child’s turn and they can play with the toy when it becomes free again, interesting things happen. I have known such a case in which the sibling of the angry child brought the toy back. Empathy overflows from the hearts of well-loved children.
And, that brings me back full circle to my friend and her wonderful daughter who, through the experience of co-regulating with her mother time and again, recognized her mother’s distress and did exactly what had been modeled for her. That is the power of Peaceful Parenting. We model gentleness and prioritize our relationships with our kids. Then, our kids turn around and reflect it all back to us in the most beautiful ways.
ZerotoThree.org, an organization that focuses on development in the first three years of life, found that 56% of parents they surveyed in 2016 believed that their toddlers had the ability to resist doing something they were told not to do before the age of three. And, of those, 18% believed that children had this ability by only six months of age. Let me be clear in saying that it’s impossible for an infant or a young toddler to habitually exercise self-control. Their brains are incapable of this feat. So, let’s talk about it.
Self-Regulation versus Self-Control
Before we launch too far into this piece, I need to make a distinction for your understanding. As I’ve noted before, self-regulation and self-control are two very different things. Dr. Stuart Shanker of Psychology Today explains,
There is a profound difference between self-regulation and self-control. Self-control is about inhibiting strong impulses; self-regulation, reducing the frequency and intensity of strong impulses by managing stress-load and recovery. In fact, self-regulation is what makes self-control possible, or, in many cases, unnecessary. The reason lies deep inside the brain.
In this piece, I’ll be talking about both.
Birth to Twelve Months
Newborn and very young infants have not yet discovered that they exist apart from their parents. They have no concept of self-control during this phase. They simply communicate their needs and wants in the only ways they know how. During this time, young infants begin to build self-regulation skills through co-regulation with their caregivers.
The development of self-regulation starts young. Very young. As part of an intensive report prepared for several federal agencies back in 1991, researchers conducted an extensive literature review of studies on infant attachment. The goal of the overall project was to critique the literature review, identify research gaps, and build a consensus for an interdisciplinary research agenda, one that has influenced our understanding of infant brain development over the past 30 years. One clear outcome emerged from the literature. Secure attachment results in “ego resiliency,” which is our adaptability to stressors. It is the capacity that allows us to resist lashing out emotionally under stress. And, it all starts at birth.
By the seven month mark, infants begin to realize that they are separate from their caregivers. This early skill is necessary several years down the road when young children begin recognize that other people have emotions. Starting from about seven months, infants also begin to understand that they can control the movements of their bodies and their personalities start to emerge. This is a time of problem solving and much motor development.
At the end of the first year, most babies can understand a wide range of vocabulary and make some speech sounds themselves. They can typically move themselves around their space and recognize basic boundaries. However, they are still too young to be able to control their impulses without adult assistance.
Twelve to Thirty-Six Months
From twelve to thirty-six months, toddlers are really coming into their own. They might express their wants and needs with a sharp “no” or a jolly “yes.” They’re experiencing independence for the first time and it is thrilling. With independence, though, comes more boundaries. And, toddlers don’t quite get the need for them. At this stage, they don’t have the life experience to recognize cause and effect in a way that older kids do. They’re pretty good with simple guidelines when we remind them, but they may not bring them to mind when they’re about to do something we’d prefer they didn’t. Add to that their lack of impulse control and you have a potential conflict between parent and child. However, resist the desire to punish! Understand that your child is doing the best they can. Check out this post about punishment to understand why it’s problematic.
At this stage, toddlers still don’t have reliable self-control, though their self-regulation may be coming along very well. This is the perfect time to deploy the Three Rs in earnest. Toddlers understand empathy and need our understanding to work through their emotions. You can also model your process of self-regulation by talking through your own experiences. For instance, if you’re at the store and you find they’re out of something you were hoping to purchase, you might say, “Oh no! They don’t have what I needed. I feel angry. I really wanted that. Ok, let me think. Maybe another store has the same thing. I’m going to finish shopping here and then go somewhere else.”
Thirty-Six Months and Beyond
Older toddlers and preschoolers have a better grasp on boundaries and limits, but they still don’t have access to the level of impulse control they need to exercise self-control consistently. They still need an adult to help guide them. And, there’s evidence that tells us the effort we put into our children now pays dividends in the future.
A 2016 study published in the journal, Social Development, sought to examine associations between parental responsiveness and executive function, which is a key component of self-regulation. The population they chose is notable. They selected 3-5 year old socioeconomically disadvantaged preschoolers, thereby mitigating many of the confounding factors present in other populations. What they found was that “higher parental responsiveness predicted greater gains in both delay inhibition and conflict EF over time.” In short, warm parenting improved the children’s ability to wait (i.e. delayed gratification) and their ability to choose or not choose to do a task based on who is demanding it (e.g. Simon Says).
It may be difficult to believe, but children do not begin to have the ability to exercise self-control until 3 1/2 at the earliest but typically closer to 4. Again, that’s the start of self-control. We cannot expect a child under the age of 4 to be able to resist doing the things we’ve told them not to do without our supervision and support. With this information in hand, it may be easier for us to approach our children with their developmental stage in mind. We might try redirecting them to other activities, giving directions in simple terms, limiting their access to danger zones, and other similar methods to gently enforce limits around them without putting too much pressure on them to do more than they cognitively can.
How to Support the Development of Self-Control
Start first by supporting your child’s natural development of self-regulation. The most straightforward way to do this is by co-regulating, being there physically with your child as they experience emotions and frustrations. Model ways to deal with upset and conflict. Give unlimited affection. Avoid punishments and rewards. And, give your child time to grow. Your exercise of patience is crucial.
1 Rest and Nutrition! We have all seen how lack of sleep, dehydration, or a hungry stomach can derail a day! If we want to teach kids social-emotional skills, we also need to attend to their rest and nutrition. Sometimes what a tantrum-throwing toddler needs most in the moment is a snack or a nap.
2 Breath[e] in the Fresh Air Provide opportunities for free play and outdoor play. Let the energy out. Increased heart rate = more blood flow to the brain = more brain power. When my older daughter starts to feel emotionally dysregulated, she often takes a walk in the fresh air. As her body begins to fill with happy hormones, her affect becomes calmer. You can also check out these active games that support self-regulation.
3 Blow Away Troubles Blowing bubbles is a kid-friendly way to practice deep breathing — and deep breathing calms the body down. Plus, who doesn’t like bubbles?! When you blow bubbles too quickly or too slow, it doesn’t work. You need to breathe from the belly, at a regular tempo. Speaking of deep breathing, yoga is another great way for kids to connect with their bodies and stay focused and calm. Try adding 15 minutes a day or a quick session after a meltdown.
4 Read All About It! Read books about emotions as a way to discuss all the feelings kids have. I love Todd Parr’s books (including The Feelings Book and It’s Okay To Be Different) and the way he displays an array of feeling vocabulary. In addition, sensory “touch and feel” books can help hold your child’s attention during reading time and stimulate their senses.
5 Listen Up! Calm music can help settle children down. And fun, simple songs can help children remember self-regulation strategies. Check out these Daniel Tiger songs about anger, taking turns, and waiting.
As you’ve read, self-control comes later, around the age of 4. You can help your child practice self-control by playing games like Red Light, Green Light. Help your child reason through difficult situations, all while empathizing with them in their distress. Give your child opportunities to choose between instant gratification and delayed gratification. For instance, “We can go to the park today and get ice cream tomorrow or we can get ice cream now and go to the park tomorrow. Which would you like to do?” And, of course, provide your child with consistent limits and be willing to negotiate those limits.
Almost all children will go through periods where they lash out in some way and spitting, hitting, biting, and kicking seem to be the most common behaviors. What should you do when your child lets loose? It’s critical to understand what underlies the behavior. We could fancy ourselves investigators for this purpose. What precipitated the event? Here’s a list of replies your child might give you if they could.
I just felt like it.
I need your attention.
I need freedom. Give me space.
It’s too noisy in here.
My sibling took my toy.
Stop touching me!
You’re not listening to me.
This is fun!
Let me do it my way.
I saw my sibling doing this and I wanted to try.
I was curious what would happen.
My body doesn’t feel good.
Both my 2 year old and my 4 year old spit, hit, bite, and kick at one time or another, so I completely understand the frustration and that gut feeling of wanting to react in an unkind way. But stop! Stop for a minute and think about what’s happening. Let’s categorize the “whys” for greater understanding.
I need your attention. You’re not listening to me.
Sadly, we’ve been conditioned to see children as annoyances who drain our time and our energy. We don’t want to “give in” when our kids express their need for our attention in undesirable ways. However, empathetic communication actually increases well-being. It’s not simply a way to meet our children’s needs. It also improves our relationship. If your child needs your attention, try a little active listening.
Some of the pitfalls I face when it comes to listening to my kids include thinking of something else while my child is communicating, trying to figure out what I’m going to say next, and attempting to manipulate the direction of the conversation. If you’re anything like me, one or more of those statements might resonate.
Professional communicator and educator, Julian Treasure, recommends a four-step approach to listen with investment:
Receive: Absorb what the child is telling you
Appreciate: Pause and think
Summarize: Paraphrase what you’ve understood
Ask: Learn more
If you know your child needs your attention, give it freely. Silence those harmful voices telling you not to spoil your child. You cannot spoil a child with love and affection. Quite the contrary, kids who are perceived as spoiled tend to be those children who have a) not had their boundaries respected so they react with belligerence or b) not been given enough attention and therefore do not trust that their needs will be met.
I need freedom. Give me space. My sibling took my toy. Stop touching me! Let me do it my way.
In our childist culture, it’s easy to get caught up in “what’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine” thinking when it comes to children. We’ve got to work toward flipping that perspective around and radically respecting our children’s autonomy.
Years ago, sexuality educator, Deanne Carson, made headlines when she advocated for asking infants if it was ok to give them a diaper change. She acknowledged that they wouldn’t be able to consent, but said that asking for consent and pausing to acknowledge them lets children know that their response matters.
I fully admit that I scoffed at her comments at the time, even though I was already three years into my Peaceful Parenting journey, as I was sorely lacking an understanding of childism.
Yes, you can let your baby know you’re about to change their diaper. Consent does start from birth and it never ends. We must prioritize navigating our children’s demands for bodily autonomy and their health-related needs. It’s not easy or simple, but it’s our responsibility.
If you know your child is enforcing a boundary, respect it. Bottom line. For guidance on helping siblings through the tough task of sharing/turn-taking, check out this article.
I’m tired. I’m hungry. It’s too noisy in here. I’m anxious. My body doesn’t feel good. I’m frustrated.
Discomfort shows up physically and mentally. Both are completely real and valid. In our culture, we tend to tell children how they’re feeling. We dismiss skinned knees with “You’re ok” and toileting urgency with “You just went!” Children are too often forced into the constraints of our schedules and whims, and it’s not ok. Kids deserve for their needs to be met. Where the dominant culture tells us that our children are manipulatinrg us, it is incumbent upon us as Peaceful Parents to reject that perspective wholesale. If our children need to use the bathroom, they will. If they feel sick, we listen. If they are anxious, we soothe.
And, a note to those who fear all this responsiveness will lead to spoiling children. It won’t, but as we get into more complex needs, our responses may need to evolve. All children need accomodations, some more than others. Autistic Mama wrote a fantastic piece called Are You Accommodating or Coddling Your Autistic Child and really it applies to all children. In it, she explains:
The line between accommodating and coddling boils down to one specific question.
What is the Goal? You have to ask yourself, what is the goal here?
Let me give you an example…
Let’s say your child has a history assignment and is supposed to write two paragraphs on the civil war.
What is the goal of this assignment?
To prove knowledge of history.
Now any tool or strategy that doesn’t take away from that goal is an accommodation, not coddling.
So typing instead of writing? Accommodation.
Verbally sharing knowledge of the civil war? Accommodation.
Writing a list of civil war facts instead of using paragraphs? Accommodation.
Because the goal of the assignment is a knowledge of history, not the way it’s shared.
We can empower our children to solve their own problems by showing them how to be problem-solvers from a young age. We can teach our children to ask for what they need and demonstrate that their needs matter by obliging their requests. As they get older, we can empower them to seek reasonable accommodations in a variety of environments by considering what needs they must have met in order to succeed and to advocate for themselves.
I would be remiss not to mention one thing here of great importance to the Autistic community. AUTISTIC PEOPLE ARE NOT INHERENTLY VIOLENT. Violence is not a criteria for diagnosis. So many people ponder why it seems like Autistic children tend toward aggression. Well, imagine having to endure all the little things you dislike (flavors, sounds, textures, etc.) all the time and then being treated as though you’re a burden for asking for it to stop. You might be driven to aggression as well. It’s hard being Autistic in a world that isn’t made for you. Meet the needs of Autistic kids and you’ll see a drastic decline in any aggression.
If you know your child is uncomfortable, try to help relieve that discomfort. Some children are unable to clear saliva and may spit or drool as a result. This is common with children who need lip or tongue tie revisions. If your child is anxious, try these measures. Whatever is going wrong, seek out a solution to support your child rather than punishing them.
This is fun! I saw my sibling doing this and I wanted to try. I was curious what would happen. I just felt like it.
Our children’s top job is to learn through play. We must leave some room for childlikeness, even when it comes to things that are as upsetting as aggression. As strange as it might seem to us, children do many things because they’re testing out how their bodies move and what effect they can have on their environment.
If you know your child is playing, try directing their play into a form that is more conducive to your family’s lifestyle. Getting down on the ground to wriggle around kicking can be fun. Just make sure the goal truly is play or your actions could come across as mocking.
Tips for Interrupting Aggression
Respond Gently. First and foremost, try not to meet force with force. Understand that children start out several steps ahead of us in terms of emoting because of their stage of brain development. The calmer we are, the better we can respond. And, if you need to physically stop your child from harming you, use the least force you possibly can.
State Your Boundary. Let your child know your expectation in clear, unambiguous terms. Try “I know you want to hit me because you’re angry. I can’t let you” or “I won’t let you hurt me.”
Engage the Three Rs. When you need to engage with a dysregulated child, remember to Regulate, Relate, and Reason. For many children, just acknowledging and empathizing alone will resolve the aggression, so that you can work toward meeting the need.
Give Your Child an Alternative. Understand that there are two types of aggression: the type you can mediate, like hitting and the type you can’t, like spitting. You can stop a child from hitting, biting, and throwing. You can’t stop a child from spitting, peeing, or pooping. In all cases, it’s crucial to address the underlying need, but you may also be able to introduce an alternative such as giving a child a chewie to chomp in place of spitting or even a towel to spit into. Whatever alternative you choose must be desirable to your child and easy to access when the need calls.
Resolve the Underlying Need. I cannot stress enough how important this one is. You’ve got to figure out what’s going wrong for your child and help them fix the problem. For example, when a child is pushing his sister down over and over again, take notice of why it’s happening. Is the sibling standing too close? Bothering the child while he’s playing? Once you figure out the need, the solution is often simple enough. Help the kids regulate and then invite the other child to help you in the other room.
Give Children the Words.Kids do not instinctively know how to ask for what they need. I hear a lot of parents telling children to “Use your words.” Let me tell you how very unhelpful that is! Parents, please use YOUR words. Give your child the language they should use to have their needs met, even if you have to do it over and over and even if you have to ask questions to get there. The more you model how to use language under stress, the more capable your children will be in following suit.
Avoid Confusing Messaging. While you’re giving your child the words, remember that children think in very concrete terms. There’s a series of books by Elizabeth Verdick called the Best Behavior Series and it includes such titles as Teeth Are Not for Biting, Feet Are Not For Kicking, and Voices are Not For Yelling. Read those titles again… carefully. How do we chew our food without biting? How do we swim without kicking? And how to we call out for help without yelling? It’s not logical, so it’s not going to make a lot of sense to a child. Kids might learn in spite of these messages, but it’s best to avoid them if possible.
Consider an Assessment. If your child’s aggression doesn’t seem to be manageable using any of the tips above, consider that something deeper may be going on and that you might not have all the information you need to meet their needs. Put aside concerns about stigma and work with a professional to help you and your child understand what’s happening.
Did y’all see the study from November 2019 that found screen use greater than the amount recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics was associated with decreased microstructural organization and myelination of brain white matter tracts that support language and emergent literacy skills? Big yikes! Does that mean screens cause brain damage? That’s certainly a question I’ve seen floating around the internet. Parents are rightfully concerned about screen time when study after study shows these terrible outcomes.
And, that 2018 literature review on the physiological and psychological effects of screentime. You might as well just give up at this point.
And, that whole Research Roundup that seems to exist to fill parents with dread. Oh, the horror!
But, check this out.
The 2013 review found that there is very little research on infants and toddlers and that more research is needed to better understand the environmental, socio-cultural, and behavioral correlates for young children.
The 2015 review found that none of the studies they looked at from 1999-2014 could establish a causal connection, measurement errors of screen time exposure and sleep limited the outcomes of the studies, and factors like characteristics and content of screens was not well understood.
And, the 2018 review found that psychophysiological resilience in children requires the ability to focus, good social coping and attachment, and good physical health all of which could be impacted by “excessive” digital media use. They further recommend more research on duration, content, after-dark use, media type, and number of devices.
In fact, there’s a 2015 literature review on the association of parental influences with physical activity and screen time among young children found that there is a causal connection between the parents’ physical activity and screen use and that of the children. It should come as no surprise that the behavior of parents directly influences the behavior of their children.
And, that first study I mentioned? The one from 2019 about how screens change the brains of little kids? If you look a little deeper, you’ll see that the sample size is both small and homogenous and that the survey and testing scores used in the study did not meet the threshold for statistical significance when income was included in the model. Those details change the story a bit.
Minding the Nuance
The reality is that there is valuable research happening, but we simply don’t understand what’s really going on. That’s why the pediatric organizations that exist to protect our kids are sounding the alarm. They’re saying look at all this data we’re seeing! Something is happening. Pay attention. So, if your family’s lifestyle flows better without any screens, by all means, do what works for you. This post is for those of you who want to incorporate screens without fear.
There are some things we can discern intuitively about screen use.
It can be distracting. Background sounds from a TV at low volume add static to the environment where infants and toddlers play. A measurable impact has been found on the ability of very small children to develop play skills naturally when TVs are used as noise fillers.
It can signal trouble. While we don’t know that screens cause depression, we do know that children who watch a lot of TV often have clinical depression that necessitates medication. So, it’s worth paying attention to what your kids are doing, so that you can intervene if necessary.
It can replace other healthful behaviors. A child who is watching TV or playing video games is not outside running around. And, a child who is watching TV or playing video games is not telling you about the troubles they’re having.
Now, something that doesn’t get enough air time in these discussions is the economics of restriction. Essentially, by restricting a thing, we increase its value. As explained by Pam Sorooshian, unschooler extraordinaire,
When you only allow a limited amount of TV, then the marginal utility of a little more tv is high and every other option looks like a poor one, comparatively. Watching more TV becomes the focus of the person’s thinking, since the marginal utility is so high. Relax the constraints and, after a period of adjustment and experimentation to determine accurate marginal utilities, the focus on TV will disappear and it will become just another option.
The more you restrict, the more they’ll crave screens. It can feel uncomfortable to loosen the reins and it’s pretty likely your child will consume seemingly impossible amounts of flickering deliciousness at first. But, over time, and in the presence of intentional investment in your child’s needs and wants, screens will lose their luster and become just another activity.
If you’ve been restricting your child’s screen time, because you wanted to do the best possible thing for them or because you felt their screen use was getting out of control, it’s ok. You’re not alone. Not by any means. Just know there is an approach to screen use that is responsible and respectful, whenever you’re ready.
Anti-Childist Screen Use Monitoring
One of the things about the furor over screens that particularly bothers me is the emphasis on cognition and school performance. We’re encouraged to limit our children to a screen schedule of our making, so they can possibly do better in school at some point in the future. But why? Why is academic success the measure of a good life? Why are we not prioritizing our children’s ability to regulate their own behaviors and activities by giving them ownership over the way they choose to spend their time?
We can trust our children to make good decisions when we set them up for success. In our house, I try to limit my compulsion to set rules for everyone. Whenever my kids want to watch TV, I’m ok with it. They have free access to their tablets to use as they wish. But, I also create an environment where they don’t have any desire to obsessively consume that visual stimulation. We spend lots of time outside. We read. We do chores. We play, craft, and bake together. When I see one of my kids struggling to transition from screens to another activity, I intervene. When that happens, it means there’s something deeper going on that needs to be addressed. It doesn’t mean I need to arbitrarily limit screen time. I have some guidelines for my family in the back of my mind to help ensure that I’m providing the most effective mix of activities and the best possible education around the use of screens.
Be Intentional. Consider using screens on purpose. That means avoiding the use of TVs as background noise and trying not to hand your kids screens to keep them occupied. Instead, let your children decide when they want to use screens and for how long. And, have them choose one screen at a time. In general, our TV doesn’t get turned on until 3 PM, if at all. There’s too much other fun stuff to do.
Be Interactive. Studies show that children can learn a great deal from interactive touchscreens when their parents help them and reinforce what they’re learning.
Be Wise. Particularly when it comes to older kids, parents need to prepare children for the risks of predators and dangerous malware. Talk to your kids about these dangers and make a plan together for how to stay safe.
Choose Educational Content. Programs like Sesame Street and Daniel Tiger provide important information and skills to little kids, especially when families reinforce in daily life what the kids are learning online.
Eat Without Distraction. One rule we do have is that our dining table is a toy-free, screen-free space when we’re having a meal. It’s a matter of mutual respect and consideration. Family meals are sacred in my house. They’re one of the few opportunities we have to get together and chat over one of the most fundamental human activities.
Get Plenty of Fresh Air and Exercise. Getting outside is so important for every member of the family, but especially children. They need lots and lots of movement throughout the day to improve focus, digestion, motor skills, and sleep. Rather than restricting screens, think about encouraging more movement for balance.
Practice Good Sleep Hygiene. The so-called warnings about blue light got a little kick in the pants this year. A study challenged the idea that blue light impacts circadian rhythms. We don’t actually know if blue light is a problem. What we do know is that stimulation of any kind interrupts our sleep cycle. In our house, all screens and radios go off at 6:30 pm. That’s our family time and we cherish the ability to interact with each other without distraction. For a great night’s sleep, keep your kids’ room very dark, relatively cool (65 to 68 degrees Fahrenheit), and comfortably quiet.
Like many parents, when I first became a mom, I was hypervigilant about everything. I stressed myself out trying to do everything by the book, until life taught me that wisdom beats out perfection every time. If you want your children to enjoy screens, let them. Formulate some guidelines for yourself and conduct self-checks to make sure your guidelines are working. Talk with your kids about your concerns. Let them know your values and also that you trust them to know what their minds and bodies need. As new evidence emerges, we’ll be in a great position to shift some of our guidelines to better support our children’s development. Screens are ok, y’all. Promise!
Ever have moments when you feel like you’re in sync with your kids and things are amazing? If so, did you know you can have even more of those moments? Kids do well when they can, and you can help them out by understanding better where they’re coming from.
Marriage and Family Therapist, Galyn Burke, put together a fantastic resource on the way children’s brains develop. She explains that the three major parts of the brain (hindbrain, midbrain, and forebrain) develop on different timelines. They have to. Our brains are complex with high energy demands. It takes a while to get everything in order.
The reptilian hindbrain looks like someone dropped a crocodile brain into our heads. This part of the brain serves the most basic purposes including regulating autonomic functions like breathing and instictive behaviors like threat patrol.
The limbic midbrain is our emotion center. It’s what allows us to be empathetic, social creatures. This is the part of the brain where children process their world.
The neocortex forebrain is where our rational mind lives. This part doesn’t fully develop until the mid-20s in humans. We like to think of this area as the logic center, but without the midbrain, our logic is incomplete.
Childhood is an incredibly crucial time in the life of a human being when we learn how to be human. We figure out what emotions are and how to work with them. We learn how to love each other and respect boundaries. And, we learn our personal signs of dysregulation and how to cope. If children are not treated gently and responsively, any of these skills can be hindered.
So, you know that brain development isn’t as simple as 1, 2, 3, but did you know that even babies can think logically before they can talk? Turns out, our ability to reason doesn’t depend on language or understanding. A study that came out a few years back found that preverbal infants notice when something is wrong and try to work out a solution. The scientists figured out that “at the moment of a potential deduction, infants’ pupils dilated, and their eyes moved toward the ambiguous object when inferences could be computed, in contrast to transparent scenes not requiring inferences to identify the object. These oculomotor markers resembled those of adults inspecting similar scenes, suggesting that intuitive and stable logical structures involved in the interpretation of dynamic scenes may be part of the fabric of the human mind.” And our ability to reason explodes from that point.
Alison Gopnik, Professor of Psychology and Affiliate Professor of Philosopy at the University of California at Berkeley and author of The Gardener and the Carpenter, has been studying children for a long time. What she has found is that children have a greater capacity for innovation and creativity than college students all while applying clear logic. She explains that 3-year-olds will offer a stream of consciousness when asked to give us their thoughts, but if you use their own language to ask them concrete questions, the responses will be sensible and surprising.
Check out this piece explaining some of her experiments. You might just find something useful (Hint: Don’t miss the part where the researcher notes that having children explain something themselves increases their understanding of it.)
Now that you know just how brilliant your child is and you know why they can appear to be illogical, you might be surprised to learn that a very simple solution can flip a switch for your child. When a child’s limbic system is on overload, top to bottom exercises can be useful. These are exercises that require movement across both the top and bottom parts of the body. Things like standing stretches and light weight lifting can help your child’s brain regulate itself.
One final thought that comes to mind is Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) with its focus on integration. In DBT, there exists a concept of the Wise Mind, which is “the balanced part of us that comprises our inner knowledge and intuition, where our emotional thinking mind (thoughts driven by distressing feelings) and rational thinking mind come together, the part of us that just ‘knows’ that true reality.”
Many adults need therapeutic intervention to learn to live into their Wise Mind. Children, whose brains are still forming, need direction and practice to find this place. When you recognize that your children are logical, but not logical in the exact same way that you are, it can become easier to learn to speak their language and to offer responses that help them integrate all the parts of their brains. I firmly believe that children are perfectly reasonable and I hope that, now, you do too.
Did the phrase, “asked and answered,” come to mind? These words came to us from the legal world and they’ve been openly embraced in certain corners of the positive (not peaceful) parenting community. It’s a way to shut down a “nagging” child. And, it’s a way for a parent to pit their authority against their child’s needs. We don’t do that around here. If anything, we do the opposite. If a child is asking a question over and over, something has been left unresolved and it’s on us as parents to address it.
With that said, the three words I was actually intending to give you will help toddlers on up to adults across so many different challenges and crises. Kids fighting over a toy or tearing up the house instead of helping to clean it? Parents feeling mentally blocked and unmotivated while attempting to complete a task? Try this: Choose another activity.
People of all ages tend to roll with the words they receive. We all know how unhelpful it is for people to tell us “stop worrying!” when something is really bothering us. As soon as we get to that second word, it reinforces the worry. I talk a lot on this blog about cognitive reframing and the importance of speaking in positives for this very reason. Rather than saying, “stop worrying!” it is more effective, from a psychological perspective, to say what a person should do instead.
So, when my children are fighting over a toy, we first determine whose turn it is supposed to be and then I encourage the other child to choose another activity to do while they wait for their turn.
One of the things that tends to lead to upset for me in my household is when my children are playing and creating a mess where I’m trying to clean. A favorite pastime of theirs is going through my things, which isn’t helpful under the circumstances. I’ll gently stop them and say “I will sit with you later to go through the pens. For now, please, choose another activity, so I can finish this chore.” Then, oftentimes, I’ll give them a couple ideas. “You could feed the baby doll or build with blocks.” Nearly every time, they run off happily to play and I can quickly join them because my work efficiency soars.
There are times when I’m struggling with executive functioning and can’t will myself to do what needs to be done. As I fixate on the task that’s hanging over my head, I begin to dysregulate. I have even cried when I got frustrated enough about not being able to get started. So, in those instances, I try to tell myself to choose another activity. Find something else to get my body moving and pull out the stopper in my brain that’s thwarting my efforts.
Choose another activity has become second-nature to me now that I’ve been using it for so long. It allows me to set a limit AND give my children the undirected freedom to do something else they’ve chosen for themselves. These three words have helped me reduce my reliance on “No…” and “Don’t…” and “Stop…” – all sentence leaders that will ensure that your child will do the opposite of what you’re asking of them, due to that sneaky issue that’s solved by cognitive reframing. So, if you’re looking to reform the language you use and avoid resorting to using adult authority where it isn’t needed, try this approach and then tell a friend!
So, you’re on-board with Peaceful Parenting. You try to co-regulate with your kids, empathize, and collaborate with them toward solutions that are mutually beneficial. You’ve been cognizant of your attitude and you’ve been working toward remaining calm most of the time. But, then something happens and you snap. You yell or you spank or you threaten or otherwise forcibly control your child, even though this isn’t who you want to be.
I hope you’re not looking at me thinking that I’ve got it together. That I must never yell or act out in a non-peaceful way. Nope. I’m working toward being a Peaceful Parent just like you are and stumbling all over myself along the way. Here are some of the things I’ve committed to that have helped me push forward.
Punishment Rejection Action Steps
1. Start With a Choice. You have to decide before you ever get angry what your limits are. Yelling is my vice. It’s deeply ingrained from my childhood and it is the language of my hot temper. But, yelling is a punitive act. We use our adult voices to suppress and control our children, leaving them with unseen scars. It may not be as clearly punitive as time out or spanking, but it is undesirable as a tool in our Peaceful Parenting kit. What’s your go to? What punishment do you turn to when you feel you can’t bear anymore? Make a commitment right now to stop. Draw the line in your mind and say, “I will not fall back on this action.” Even if you do it again, reinforce your belief that your actions are unacceptable and then try again the next time.
2. Engage in Prevention. As you may know if you’ve been following my posts, I am a big advocate of the Three Rs: Regulate, Relate, Reason. When my children begin to dysregulate, I intervene then. I try not to wait for the situation to escalate. Most of the time, prevention also helps me avoid dysregulating myself. It gives me a chance to get a grip on my emotions and fully invest in the moment when my kids need me most.
3. Have a Game Plan. Decide, in advance, what it is you’re going to do when you’ve gotten to a point where you’re about to blow your top. The Learning Parent SG put together a fantastic series on what she does as she nears her breaking point. She calls her approach, “Reactive Distancing.”
During a calm moment, take some time to put your game plan together. Decide what it is you can commit to doing when your thinking mind begins to struggle.
4. Think Like a Child. Ever notice how small children go from huge emotions to giggling in no time flat? They aren’t weighed down by the self-judgment and mental turmoil that adults experience. A dear friend of mine told me she takes a cue from Daniel Tiger. When she starts to feel dysregulated, she says, “If you feel so mad that you have to roar take a deep breath and count to 4.” As she counts, her jaw and fists start to relax, and she finds she’s more able to breathe. Then, she makes an effort to speak to her children in a neutral way in an effort to de-escalate the situation. Sometimes neutral is the best she can do and sometimes she’s able to nurture. Either way, she and her children both benefit from her efforts. She shared that she’s learned how valuable things like hugs, cuddles, and tickles can be as she works toward co-regulating with her kids. Play is always called for when tensions are high.
6. Never Stop Trying. Every time you choose to be gentle with your children, you are reinforcing to your own psyche that what you’re doing is good and it’s achievable. Even when you mess up, and oh will you mess up, brush yourself off and make a better choice at the next opportunity. Parenting is about relationship. When we push our kids away with our attitudes, we have to focus on reconciling and confirming to them that the issue is us not them. In the backs of our minds, we have to give ourselves grace enough to say, “I will do better next time” and really mean it.
I yell less than I did a year ago and still less than I did a year before that. Things are improving over time and, before too long, I will consistently react neutrally when members of my family touch a raw nerve. That’s my commitment to them and to myself. What are you willing to commit to today?
Last week, I was dutifully scrolling through my Facebook feed to check in on my friends and see if I’d missed important updates while I had been adulting in real life. I stopped when I saw a post from my close friend, and fellow Peaceful Parent, that started out raw and never let up. She had laid her soul bare right there on the screen.
As I read her palpable words, thoughts welled up in my mind. I recalled being spanked as a child and questioning whether my parents truly loved me. How could they hurt me like that and say “I’m doing this because I love you” moments later? I couldn’t comprehend it. As a parent myself now, I understand how hard it was for them to manage their own emotions and parent two small children at the same time. But, the sadness still lingers even to this day.
Reading my friend’s words helped me to see clearly how much effort it truly takes to choose the peaceful path. So, I asked her if I could share her words here, anonymously, and she graciously consented. I hope her words touch your heart as they have mine.
She shut down as we were walking to the bus and my rage flared.
How dare she. Doesn’t she see that I’m trying my best? I have been nothing but transparent. Does she not know how hard I’m trying?!
She stomped toward the back of the bus and I fumed silently behind her. She sat in an empty single seat and I raged past her to a seat where I could still see her. My inner world raged and I glared at her. She angrily stared straight ahead and looked miserable.
I looked down at my phone for a distraction.
When I looked up, she’d fallen asleep.
The angry swirl of voices coagulated to a single whisper: “it’s not about you.”
The most important and trickiest part of peaceful parenting for me is regulation.
Before I knew of this way of parenting, I knew that I could never beat or spank my child. Aside from my personal trauma of having that experience, it simply never made sense to me. I knew that if I was hitting my child, I would be in a state of anger. That never sounded right to me. And then, if I’m no longer angry, would I be emotionlessly hitting my child? Somehow that sounded even more terrifying.
You can’t peacefully parent if you are dysregulated. You can peacefully parent a child when they’re dysregulated – only if you’re committed to peacefully helping them regulate. And let me tell you, this shit suuuuuuuuuuuuuuuucks.
Feelings have so many meanings attached to them. Analyzing those feelings to achieve regulation requires constant self-awareness. My dysregulation as a parent is laden with generational trauma. How DARE she disrespect! How dare she disobey! Does she know what would’ve happened to ME if I EVER did that?!
The middle layer is usually a feeling of the present – annoyance, exhaustion, hunger, etc. The top layer is the saltiness of recognizing my annoyance, my desire to lash out, containing that desire, and – you guessed it – another layer of intergenerational awareness. Jealousy. Sadness that sometimes I was not granted this self-restraint. The burden of why I need to be peaceful. The wheel to my shoulder as I push it in a new direction.
Also, tears. Tears I feel she doesn’t need to be crying. Or her tears dropping on my shoulder, arms, or clothing.
I looked at her sleeping. Poor thing. I knew she was tired. I knew she had a rough day – some of her favorite foods from the lunch I packed fell on the playground. The teacher thought she was rude. She cried a whole river and stream. She told me herself.
And so my anger subsided. I know that behavior is communication. I just had to sift through my messages to get to hers. Her shutting down is not a snub of my attempts to reason and parent fairly. Later on, she told me that she knew that I was getting mad.
It’s not about me.
It is, but it’s not. My feelings are important too. Of course I want to be appreciated, but it’s not really a 7 year old’s job to say, “thanks for peacefully parenting me, mom.” So what do I need?
What do you need to regulate and regain peace so that you can reach out to your child with peace in your eyes?
Looks like we’ve found some common ground, because talking doesn’t work with mine either. Did you think I was going to disagree? Do you think my “hugs and happy thoughts” approach to parenting is doomed to fail? Hold that thought.
First, let’s think about what we mean by “work.” It doesn’t work to do what? To compel a child to understand the full impact of their actions? To immediately force the child into compliance? To make the child recognize the authority of the parent? Because, if it’s any of those, you’re right, there’s no way talking can succeed on its own.
Second, and more important, the idea that Peaceful Parenting is about talking to a child like we’re all in our own private Disney film and they’ll fall right in line is spectacularly wrong. The hugs, the talking, the empathizing, the affirming, the freedom, the limits… all of these are techniques. They are not a means to an end in and of themselves. Before you will ever have success with any of the Peaceful Parenting techniques I share, you must do two things: 1) painfully rip your worldview to shreds and rebuild it in such a way that places your child on a direct parallel with you in terms of mutual respect and 2) build a genuine, non-confrontational relationship with your child. And then you should still expect childism to infiltrate your reasoning. It takes active work to reject childism and to understand that many of the behavioral complaints we have about our children are a direct manifestation of childism. The very idea that children intentionally misbehave is childism in action. In short, Peaceful Parenting is the antidote to childism and the archetype for positive, healthy relationships between parents and children.
The reason talking will never be effective by itself is that it jumps ahead of all the other work you need to be doing. So, you’ve shifted your worldview, you’re working on your relationship with your child, and suddenly, there’s a crisis. Your child (age doesn’t matter) is furious with you and is treating you unkindly. Stop. Don’t try to talk yet! The first step in the midst of a crisis is to co-regulate with your child. For younger children, that may mean hugs or sitting nearby while the child unleashes. For older children, that may mean coaching the child through breathing exercises or getting your child to an established chill out space. This is the time when you bring your child’s emotional and physiological arousal level into greater alignment with your own. This step is more difficult the younger your child is and, therefore, requires seas of patience which will grow from practice and intention.
The next step is to empathize. Let your child know you understand their distress and that you’re right there to help. With my small children, I tell them things like “You’re angry right now. It’s ok to be angry. You’re safe with me.” Older children and teens will likely need a more grown-up approach such as “I can see how upset you are with me. I understand why you feel this way. We can work through this together. You’re safe with me.” But, please be sure to give your child plenty of grace. Understand that they need time to work through the emotional turmoil. Offering empathy cannot be your way of shutting your child up. Attempting it will backfire horribly.
Finally, after you’ve guided your child through that emotional minefield and you’re in a place of healing, now is finally the time for talking. You can offer your perspective. You can explain any limits you’ve set. You can answer questions. The point here is to engage and provide your child with all the information they need to make a sound and reasonable decision on moving forward.
Your child might negotiate or even reject what you’ve said. It’s ok. Let your child have their own mind. If you’ve set a firm limit that has little wiggle room, be honest. You may need to go back through the three steps again or more than twice before your child has fully reasoned through. If you are looking for immediate compliance, you won’t find it in Peaceful Parenting. At least not at the beginning. But, why would you want immediate compliance? Do you beat your young child for not being able to read or write? Do you shame your teen for not being able to drive before they’ve had a chance to learn? Then, why punish a child who is building self-regulation ability and logical reasoning for learning those skills too slowly for your liking?
If you are expecting immediate compliance every time or children who behave like little adults instead of kids, Peaceful Parenting will never work because your expectations are beyond a child’s developmental abilities. When I first encountered Peaceful Parenting, I too struggled to understand how it could work (and I had no idea what “work” even meant in this context). Now I understand that, for a Peaceful Parent, success looks like children who are open and willing to share their emotions with you, willing to make mistakes and fail without fear, willing to trust that you have their best interests at heart, willing to do the things you ask of them because they know you will reciprocate that level of respect.
I have been peacefully parenting my children from the day they were born. I know a lot of people think it’s hilarious to ask a baby if you can change their diaper, but lessons in consent begin as soon as you, the parent, choose. I didn’t ask my children if I could change their diapers, but what I did do was to sportscast their days. “It’s time to change your diaper! Let’s go to the changing table and get this done.” Many of us do this naturally as we talk with our newborns and infants.
Over the years, I’ve fine tuned my plan for tackling difficult situations. As they’ve grown, my strategies have changed, but my underlying approach continues to be Peaceful Parenting. Do my kids wild out sometimes? Most definitely. They aren’t different from anyone else’s kids. They aren’t more mature or easier. They are as challenging and wonderful as any child I’ve ever cared for and I had many years of experience in child care before I became a parent. But, my children tend toward cooperation and gentleness. I’ve rarely had fights over diaper changes. I’ve never struggled to put them into their car seats. Any time I’ve felt I needed to punish them was because of my own emotions and my reactions to triggering events. They aren’t manipulative or mean or ill-mannered. They are respectful, kind children who are a delight to be around.
Peaceful Parenting works for every parent and every child though the routes we each take in addressing the ways our children communicate through their behavior will always differ. Your response may not look much like mine. My responses will not address the needs of every child. I am focused on my own children and tailoring my parenting to their needs, which I recognize because I have spent such a long time understanding who they are and why they do the things they do. I write to spark ideas for how parents can more effectively engage with their children, not to lay out a singular path to parenting success. Peaceful Parenting takes time. You can’t “try it out” or occasionally talk to your kids instead of punishing them. You can’t talk first and punish later. It doesn’t work like that. This is an all in approach as you must surrender to a significant paradigm shift and recognize that behavior is communication. From that perspective, no child on the planet misbehaves.
So, if talking isn’t making a difference for you, you can’t claim it as a weakness of Peaceful Parenting. Talking ≠ Peaceful Parenting. Oh no, it’s so much more!
ABA is an extremely sensitive topic. You may experience intense emotions as you read this piece. I ask that you read through the post in its entirety before you make a final decision on what your perspective will be. If you need clarification, please ask. If you disagree, I’d appreciate your feedback.
It has taken me months to prepare this post for so many reasons, not the least of which is that I’ve been coming to terms with my own very late autism diagnosis. I’m one of the fortunate people who wasn’t subjected to Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy, but so many Autistic people are not so lucky. I write this post for them and for all the children now and in the future who will undergo this very painful experience.
At the start, I have to make clear that I am not a professional. I’m an Autistic mom of an Autistic child, and I have been in the position of deciding whether or not to put my child into ABA therapy.
I also need my fellow parents to know that I am not condemning you if you’ve chosen ABA therapy. It is the gold standard “treatment” for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), it’s covered by insurance, and it certainly seems to work. Unless you’ve been exposed to Autistic adults and our position on ABA, there’s little reason for you to be concerned. I hope you will hear what we have to say and consider whether you want to continue down this path.
Autism Isn’t a Behavior Disorder
So, why treat it with compliance-based training? Autism is a completely natural, neurological variant. It is primarily disabling in cultures where Autistic people are not included and embraced.
Autistic brains perceive and process the world differently from allistic brains. But, we are fundamentally human beings, like everyone else, with the same emotions and responses to stimuli. If you hear a loud noise, do you not cover your ears? That’s not considered odd at all, right? So, why would it be odd for an Autistic person to do the same? Sure, it might be accompanied by humming and rocking, because stimming is so comforting to us, but we’re doing the same thing you do to reduce the strain of overstimulation. When allistic children relieve intense stress by cutting, we don’t send them to compliance-based training to try and coerce them to stop. We get them into helpful therapies to give them back control and provide relief that doesn’t harm, thereby addressing the problem rather than the behavior. And, that’s what Autistic kids need: acknowledgement that behavior is communication and relief from the underlying problem.
A History of ABA Therapy
Back in the 1970s, UCLA psychologist, Ole Ivar Lovaas, participated in the development of a therapy that promised to alter “deviant” behavior. His involvement in the Feminine Boy Project offered him an opportunity to engage in a form of behaviorism soon-to-be-called conversion therapy wherein gay men would theoretically be converted to heterosexuality. He also used this new therapy in his work with Autistic children.
Conversion therapy for homosexual people has since fallen out of favor, for obvious and good reason. However, Autistic children are still subjected to the same behaviorism that we’ve deemed unacceptable for use on other human beings. The reason? It was the same back then as it is now. In the words of Lovaas himself, ABA therapy can make Autistic kids “indistinguishable from their normal friends.” Unfortunately, that so-called progress comes at the price of an uptick in PTSD and suicide among Autistic people. I’m sure you can understand how devastating it is to go through life feeling that the person you genuinely are simply isn’t enough for the people who say they love you. Now, before you decide that my criticism is unfounded, let me make it abundantly clear that Lovaas was a pretty despicablefellow:
Modern ABA might look gentler on the surface; however, at its core, it starts with the assumption that Autistic people are broken and wrong, and it seeks to make our behavior more comfortable for allistic people.
Autistic Perspectives on ABA
Amythest Schaber is an Autistic artist, writer, public speaker, and advocate. Her series, Ask an Autistic, tackles a great many topics that have proved helpful to her many allistic followers. In this episode, she explains what ABA is from her perspective.
The following list includes links to other Autistic writers and advocates, as well as allies, who explain why ABA should be avoided:
Finally, this post from the Non-Binary Intersectionalist (and I must give tremendous credit to this page for the wealth of resources I’ve been able to provide in this post!) describes a recent interaction with a young child in ABA therapy:
If you’re interested in reading some personal accounts of ABA therapy, I encourage you to check out this post on Stop ABA, Support Autistics. If you still aren’t convinced that ABA therapy is harmful, read this post.
What’s the Alternative to ABA Therapy?
To answer this question, we have to consider what well-meaning parents intend to happen when they put their children into ABA therapy. Some of the most common reasons I’ve seen are 1) to help the child be more independent, 2) to help the child navigate society more easily, and 3) to protect the child from danger. There are many, many more reasons of course! These are simply the top three as I’ve understood them.
I imagine you won’t be very surprised to learn that the best alternative to ABA therapy, in my experience and in accordance with my values, is Peaceful Parenting.
Peaceful Parenting achieves each of the three aims I mentioned by instilling self-sufficiency, self-assurance, and boundary recognition in children, as well as improving emotional development and self-regulation, one interaction at a time. Peaceful Parenting does not require thousands upon thousands of dollars or 40+ hours a week of therapy. For symptomatic concerns, there are other wonderful therapies like speech therapy, occupational therapy, and physical therapy. These therapies can help discover and meet needs that parents may not fully understand. And, much like taking an ESL class, they help Autistic kids learn a different culture without coercion.
Autistic kids deserve the same gentle treatment as any other child. If you wouldn’t put your neurotypical child into ABA therapy, there’s no need to put your Autistic child into ABA therapy. If you’d consider Dialectical Behavior Therapy (sidenote: DBT and ABA are not the same) to help your neurotypical child handle the stresses of life, offer the same to your Autistic child. Figuring out how best to support a child – any child – can be complicated. But treating our children with the same responsive gentleness, regardless of neurology, need not be the least bit complicated.
In this TED Talk, Dr. Amy Laurent explains why Autistic people need support in developing emotional skills, not behavior management:
ABA therapy is simply incompatible with Peaceful Parenting. The entire concept hinges on the adult therapist’s ability to coerce a child into compliance by withholding beloved objects and activities until the child “earns” them by obeying the therapist. ABA therapy discourages children from saying “no.” It does nothing to meet underlying, unmet needs and, instead, attempts to force children to ignore those needs while behaving as though the needs do not exist.
If you are a Peaceful Parent who is alarmed by what you’ve read, please know you and your child are enough just as you are. Your connection with your child is the key to comfort and growth. All children want to be heard and understood. Your job, then, is to learn how your child communicates and become conversant in their preferred language. Trust yourself. Trust your child. And, when you need help, find people who are willing to do the hard work of figuring out why your child is suffering and then find ways to relieve that suffering by way of accommodations and modifications. For instance, if your child hits himself in the head in the presence of very bright lights, the remedy is simple. Turn the lights down or off. When you start to see remedies everywhere, the rest falls right into place.
No Autistic child is the same and there are going to be things your child can do that mine can’t. Again, all Autistic people are different from one another. The key is learning what exactly that means for your child and filling in every single crevice in your child’s heart that is aching for your love and attention.
That includes Autistic children who exhibit self-destructive and violent behavior. Remember, all behavior is communication. If a child, any child, is lashing out, something is wrong that the child can’t overcome. Our goal as parents has to be to investigate the underlying cause of our children’s challenging behavior and help to relieve any stressors we discover.
You Want Action Steps? We’ve Got Actions Steps.
You’ll find this to be a very short section, because I’m directing you to the single most helpful post I’ve ever read on helping Autistic kids as a parent. For concrete, comprehensive details on what you can do for your Autistic child without the use of any ABA whatsoever, please read If Not ABA, Then What at The Thinking Person’s Guide to Autism. The recommendations there will support what you are already doing as a Peaceful Parent.
Careful! ABA Ideology Can Wriggle Into Other Therapies
If you’ve gotten this far, I want to make sure you know that ABA ideology has infiltrated all aspects of the way professionals care for Autistic people. Plus, because ABA is so profitable, some professionals use ABA codes to bill insurance even while they claim they aren’t practicing “traditional” ABA. However, don’t be fooled! If it’s called ABA, it is ABA. And, even if it’s not called ABA, the professional could be using ABA tactics to pressure your child into making advances. It can all be very confusing. An excellent post by Autistic Mama describes the red flags that should send you running for the door if you see them in any therapy your child undergoes. Please visit her post directly for a full explanation of each red flag.
Observation is Not Allowed
No Stimming Allowed
Requires Eye Contact
Excessive Reliance on Token Systems and Edibles
Rigid Approach or Refusing to Make Basic Accommodations
Focus on Outward Behaviors, Rather than Functional Skills
Expecting Kids to Perform on Command, Regardless of How Difficult Something is or Where the Child is at Emotionally
Moving too Fast or Not Breaking Down Tasks into Manageable Pieces
Learned Skills Don’t Transfer
Focus on Compliance
Focus on Verbal Communication
Punishment of Any Kind
You Are a Good Parent
Any parent who would go to the ends of the Earth, at any expense, for their child has earned that title. Please know my intention is not to attack you, though I understand why such an impact could result. You may be thinking that your child’s ABA looks nothing like what I’ve described or that your child loves their ABA therapist. I’m not here to argue or to condemn you. I ask only that you carefully consider the history of ABA, its inherent weaknesses, and the voices of Autistic adults urging caution.
A Thank You to All My Fellow Autistic Adults
This post wouldn’t have been possible without the labor of my fellow Autistics. You are so incredibly valuable and I appreciate you more than I can express. Thank you!