Children have a whole slew of negative behaviors that they try out over the years. By the time they’re 3 and 4 years old, they’ve run the gamut of crying, shouting, hitting and tattling. You might wonder where these little rage machines came from, and many parents blame themselves, thinking if they had only been better, more supportive parents, their children would be content. This is not so. Rare is the child that skips testing these behaviors to see if any of them work. The burden of parenting is slowly and painstakingly showing your children that those methods don’t work, then proving to them that life is better when they cease to use the negative techniques altogether.
When your child is feeling negatively toward another person or even an object, her first reaction will be to lash out. It’s easy for a child to get stuck on the feeling of release that gives her. Combined with her repetitive nature at this point in her life, she could float on this negativity kick for hours. If you fight her on it, tit for tat, she’ll get more stubborn and set in her thinking. Using distraction tools might seem like you’re simply avoiding the problem, but you’re not. Giving your child something else, something happier, to think about will reframe her thoughts and emotions at that moment. Then later, you can broach the topic on your terms, when you’re both on neutral ground. For instance, if your child is shouting about wanting to wear a different shirt, but you don’t have another shirt because you’re at the library, take her to another section for a new environment, and pick out a few colorful books from the shelves. Start talking to her about these books in a cheerful tone, to get her interested in the pictures. She may even ask you to read one.
Redirecting is more involved than distraction in that it uses the original negativity to piggy-back from. The parent takes the negative thoughts and reactions and spins the situation so that there is no room for a tantrum or grudge. Say your child is throwing a tantrum because he wants to open a DVD by himself but doesn’t have the dexterity to do it. Tell him that you understand how frustrating that is, then get your own DVD from the shelf. Fumble with it for a moment to get his interest. Then, as he watches you, very slowly and deliberately open the DVD so that he sees your hand movements. Then have him try again. By inserting yourself into his situation in a non-combative way, he’ll be less likely to fight your help. You’ve placed yourself on the same team. Direct your child to a solution to his problem without giving in to his moods. The more you minimize the damage, the more easily he’ll see that his reactions are overblown.
Give your children the power of language to combat their instinctive behavior. If your kids think in negative terms — like stupid, jerk, unfair and hate — they’re going to have a harder time seeing each situation as it actually is, rather than an elaborate ploy against them. Show your children other ways to label their problems. You can use laughter, labeling something that would have otherwise been negative as silly or funny. For instance, if you have a child who doesn’t quite grasp that she doesn’t have control over other people and their decisions, you can explain the situation simply, so that neither party is wrong. Children are illogical little things. If you put them on the defensive by telling them they’re doing something wrong, you’ll never get them to calm down. If one child will only color in blue, and your kid is convinced he should color in purple, say, “Isn’t it funny how Mark always wants the blue crayon? He’s so silly.” Over time, your child will come to accept that she doesn’t have control over every little detail and that it’s better to just let some things go.
The most adult way to handle negative behavior, particularly when it is aimed at someone else, is to give the situation context for your little one. Preschoolers have trouble seeing the world as anything outside of themselves. To them, the way they feel is the way everyone feels and they have every right to behave in the manner they do. They assume everyone would do the same; they assume everyone is exactly as they are, and therefore should seamlessly understand their point of view. With just a bit of prodding from you, however, they will be able to associate their side of the issue with that of their perceived foe. Like if a child is spinning around in a circle and hits your kid, she may try to retaliate, and you need to calmly interject. Tell her that violence is never right, and show her that the other child didn’t mean to swat her. Give the other side of the story and allow your child to understand the full circle.