The subject of redirecting children’s behavior often comes up, and more often than not, it has to do with this strategy not working. Many parents ask me, “Why can’t I seem to redirect my child’s tantrums”? “Why can’t I redirect my child’s negative behavior”?
Let’s deconstruct what “behavior” and “redirecting” mean here…
The Truth Behind Redirecting Children’s Negative Behavior
No matter how old your child is or which behavior you are trying to redirect, what you are genuinely doing is redirecting emotions.
Say your child is three and wants a candy that you’re not planning on buying, and he then has a tantrum at the store. You’re trying to talk to him about anything else but that candy – you are redirecting his pain for not getting his way, for feeling he has no autonomy or freedom to choose for himself.
Say your child is six, and a friend rejects him. When you say that he has many other friends, that perhaps the other child will change their mind, or that you’ll play Nintendo with him instead, you’re redirecting his pain for not feeling accepted, connected, or celebrated. You’re redirecting his loneliness, disappointment, and maybe even fear.
When we redirect behavior – we redirect emotions.
The Damages of Redirecting a Child’s Emotions
Another piece of truth is that we, parents, have a wide range of emotions towards our children’s emotions. They make us feel uncomfortable. We want to make their feelings stop so that we won’t feel our feelings. Be it shame if our child loses it at the store, or be it guilt for believing we’re to blame for their behavior. Or we can simply want to make them feel better.
But emotions don’t go away because we don’t like them. If emotions are not processed, they stick around, grow, and come back ever so mighty.
When Emotions Bottle Up
I recently talked to a mom of a 2.5-year-old who cried every morning on their way to daycare. Each morning, she used to tell her daughter that all her friends were there, that she loved the daily activities, and that being home was boring, but nothing changed. Each day she cried harder than the day before because that’s what happens when we don’t process our emotions.
Instead of Redirecting Children’s Behavior
The morning after we spoke, her daughter cried again, but Mom knew what to do this time. She asked her, “what’s bugging you at daycare”? Her little one said, “a fly.” Mom then told her, “You know what, when we arrive, I will talk to your teacher, tell her that you are bothered by a fly, and she will make sure the fly will never bother you again, okay?”. The little one said yes, and Mom thanked her for sharing her emotions with her.
When they arrived at daycare, Mom did exactly what she said. The teacher showed empathy and promised her she would protect her, and the girl went in happily.
Teach Your Child to Process Their Emotions
Processing emotions is crucial for emotional well-being and resilience, and there’s nowhere for your child to learn this skill except at home.
The process is simple:
- Clear any emotion you might have about your child’s behavior or feelings.
- Give your child’s emotions place and space; don’t try to change them or make them stop.
- Empathize with your child’s emotions by asking them age-appropriate questions.
- When you achieve clarity, problem-solve together with your child.
- Recognize and show all the strengths your child exhibited during this process.
If you, too, were redirecting your child’s behavior until now, don’t worry – it is never too late to teach your child how to process their emotions 🙂
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