As a mom, I much prefer to be on the offensive rather than on the defensive when it comes to my child’s behavior. Instead of managing meltdowns all day long, we try our best to green light our son’s positive behavior in order to prevent tantrums from happening frequently.
This is especially true when taking my son to church. I have noticed that when I do not use green-lighting tactics, my son will spend the time trying to run away, throwing toys, talking loudly, and whining to get out of the pew. The whole hour in church is an epic fail and I spend the majority of the hour defusing meltdowns and playing cleanup.
This post originally appeared on A Fine Parent.
On the other hand, when I take steps to green light positive behavior in church, I have a toddler who (mostly) sits and quietly plays with the toys and books we bring to entertain him.
What do I mean by green lighting? It means that we use positive parenting strategies to promote positive behavior. Dr. Karp’s book, Happiest Toddler on the Block, first introduced me to this strategy.
Green lighting behaviors encourages children to:
When using green lighting consistently, misbehaviors and tantrums decrease and are much more manageable. Do I have your curiosity yet? Read on to learn about 10 simple ways to green light positive behavior!
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#1: Fill Up Your Child’s Attention Cup
#1: Fill Up Your Child’s Attention Cup Children often act out because they want attention; and if they don’t think they can get positive attention, then negative attention may be the next best option.
Mommy’s not paying attention to me. But every time I cry or throw something, she comes to me. I’ll keep doing that.
To make sure that that doesn’t happen, fill up their attention cup by using time-ins or special time. Time-ins are a short amount of time that parents spend distraction free (no phones or TVs) with their child. It is surprising how just 5-10 minutes of undivided attention a few times a day can make a difference.
When I am not at work, I like to do time-ins when I wake my son, after breakfast, before nap, in the afternoon, and before bed. These time-ins are nothing fancy and can simply be 5-20 minutes of being by my son’s side, reading a book, or playing with him without distractions.
Of course we can all be busy at times and that’s okay! For parents who work or have multiple children, creating a visual schedule of when you are available for special time can be helpful. Red means Mommy or Daddy are not available, yellow is a maybe, green is good to go! Your child will know what to expect and that his attention cup will get filled up, decreasing the likelihood that he will act out.
#2: Allow for Plenty of Opportunities to Play
Play is so important for children. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics play:
That doesn’t mean that parents shouldn’t play with their kids. In fact, Dr. John Delony of the Dr. John Delony podcast, says that play is a great way to build connections even with older children. It is best if parents let their kids take the lead and avoid bombarding them with question after question about what they are doing. Instead the CDC recommends actively listening to your child and describing your child’s behavior and what they are doing.
Wow! You built a ramp for your cars and are making them go fast down the ramp. Can I have a try?
Dr. Karp recommends three types of play every day:
#3: Provide Consistent Praise
Catch your children doing something good and tell them!
Wow! You drew that picture all by yourself? How’d you think of that?
I liked the way you behaved in the store. How do you feel about that?
You went to the bathroom in the potty! Yay! Good job.
Praising your children for behavior you want to see happen will green light that behavior in the future.
The right kind of praise can be tricky to navigate. But try to remember to praise effort, not talent.
For example, instead of “You’re amazing. What a great artist you are!” try saying, “Wow, you worked really hard on that painting. Tell me about it.”
With the right kind of consistent praise, your child will be confident in continuing his positive behavior, even in the face of adversity.
#4: Gossip About Your Child
While gossiping may bring to mind a negative picture, it can be a positive way to green light behavior. Young children eat this up! What you want to do is gossip about your child, but not behind their back! You want your child to actually hear you talk about them.
Magnify your gossiping by being as non-discreet as possible. You can cup your hands to your mouth with the dramatic flair of a whisper, yet make your volume loud enough for your child to hear. You may want to gossip to Dad or a sibling; but if another person is not available then a stuffed animal or toy will work just as well!
Instead of gossiping about bad behavior, you want to focus on the positive behavior your children are doing throughout the day.
Psstttt, Daddy, guess what your son did today? He helped pick up his toys when Mr. Dinger went off. I didn’t even have to ask. He picked them all up by himself! I was so proud and so was he.
Gossiping greenlights this positive behavior to continue. When your children overhear about what they are doing right, it makes them feel good and want to continue just like when adults overhear someone saying something nice about them.
#5: Give Little Rewards
Dr. Karp also discusses the idea of little rewards to encourage positive behavior. He cautions that rewards are not the same as bribery. Bribery is used to discourage bad behavior while rewards are used to encourage positive behavior.
Here’s how little rewards work (using the example of wanting your child to cooperate when it comes to bed time):
Keep in mind that the reward doesn’t need to be tangible. It can be a time-in, playing a game with your toddler, playful roughhousing, or reading a book. It’s also important to back up little rewards with praise; never underestimate how much praise means to your child!
#6: Use Positive Behavior Charts
Similar to providing rewards, using positive reinforcement is a good way to increase positive behaviors. As children (especially young children) are often visual learners and thrive when provided with visual support, charts and checklists can be hugely beneficial.
This can look like the following:
Everytime your child engages in a behavior that you want to see continue, give them a sticker, stamp, or hand check. As the parent, you can decide on a prize or reward for reaching a certain milestone. For example, maybe they need to earn 10 stars a week to be able to watch a movie.
It is always best to provide positive reinforcement right after the positive behavior happens, so your child can make a connection that I did this, so I got this.
It also helps to get them involved and take ownership for their actions. You did xyz! Go put a sticker on your chart. Yay! How did it feel to earn a sticker?
#7: Connect With Humor
Sometimes laughter really is the best medicine to get a child to cooperate. “Playing the fool,” is a strategy that allows us to connect to our children with humor while encouraging positive behavior. Specifically, parents can utilize “playing the fool” by pretending that they don’t know how to do something.
It’s time to put on your pajamas. Wait, I forget where does your top go? Does it go on your knees? No? Hmmm…does it go on your butt.” No! Ughh please help me. I forget.
That is my piece of broccoli. Please don’t touch it. I am going to do one thing first, and when I come back I want to eat it….What! You ate it? You are so tricky and smart. You always win.
Using humor or taking the time to laugh and be silly with your child builds connections and makes your child feel safe and confident with you–a gateway to positive behavior.
#8: Practice Patience
Kids aren’t born with the ability to know how to wait. This is a skill that develops from learning and repeated practice.
A quick strategy to help children with patience is “patience stretching.” I started using patience stretching with my son from about 6-8 months old. During patience stretching, I will act like I’m going to give my son something he wants; but just before I hand it to him, I remember that I have to do something first.
Here you go, here is your milk. Ohh silly Mommy. I forgot. I need to make sure it’s warm enough first.
I will then turn around and count to ten. When I am finished counting, I’ll turn back around and give my son his milk and praise his excellent waiting skills.
Good waiting! Here’s your milk now.
When using patience stretching to practice this important skill, it can be helpful to implement the strategy at least once a day while slowly increasing the time in which you are asking your child to wait for about a minute. Practicing consistently will make it more likely that waiting skills are generalized to real-life situations.
#9: Create Daily Routines
Children, especially toddlers, like routines. This is for good reason! Routines have been found to:
When we create a day that is predictable for our toddlers, we increase the chances of them having good behavior because they know what to expect.
While not every day can be the same, there are ways to input short routines into certain times of the day, such as:
In the event that something big and unexpected might happen, we can use a strategy called prep.
First introduced to me by my mom and backed up by the popular Instagram account of two toddler experts, Big Little Feelings, prep is when you give children plenty of time and explanation of what is going to happen.
A visit to the dentist, an out of town trip, a new baby, or moving out of your house are all things to use prep with to signal to your toddler that something will be different outside of their normal routine. You can read books, role play, or watch a video as a way to prep your child.
With both daily routines and prep, children will know what to expect and be on their way to behaving better.
#10: Use Make-Believe
Showing your little ones how to be kind is a great way to green light positive behavior. We can use make-believe (a kid favorite) to model kindness.There are two great ways in which you can be purposeful and creative about planting seeds of kindness:
Planting seeds of kindness through make-believe will give your children the tools necessary to handle conflict and what to do when they feel angry, frustrated, or sad.
Thanks to these 10 simple strategies, we are more often than not being proactive rather than doing damage control with unwanted behavior. Children are much happier when they have tools and strategies for what is expected than when left alone to figure out how they are supposed to act. Give them a try!
Learn 60+ more strategies like these ones in my parenting guide, Now What?
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Take a few minutes to contemplate or journal the following questions:
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
If any of the strategies above feel like they may be a successful way to green light your child’s behavior, give them a try! In doing so, it can be helpful to keep track of your child’s behavior as a way to measure how well each strategy is working. This may include:
We have all been there. Walking through Target with our toddlers in tow; everything is going well until we have to walk by the toy section.
Your toddler sees a toy he has to have. In my case, itâs a truck. My son wants it and asks for it. Very gently, I tell him that he canât have a toy today, but it doesnât seem to matter that I say it kindly and calmly. My son starts reaching out for the toy, whining, and then the tears begin. I can see it written all over his sad little face; he is headed straight for tantrum town.
This post originally appeared on A Fine Parent.
Hereâs the thing about tantrumsâsometimes they are absolutely unavoidable. Perhaps I warned my son prior to going into the store that we wouldnât be getting a toy on that trip. Maybe I even told him we could get one next time; or maybe I made the point of singing his favorite song or starting a game of âI Spyâ right as we rounded the toy bin aisle. Yetâ¦the tantrum STILL happened.
It isnât our job as parents to make sure our toddlersâ lives are always happy and conflict free. In fact, wanting something that they cannot have is necessary for our young ones to learn how to handle disappointment.
Why Do We Not Want to Give Into Toddler Tantrums?
âAs parents, we donât enjoy seeing our little ones sad and itâs especially unpleasant to see (and deal with) them pitching a fit. When we see our toddler upset, our tendency is to problem solveâand for toddlers, this may mean giving in to the toy or activity they are seeking.
While this might be the road to least resistance, we have to resist the innate urge to swoop in and make everything better by letting go of our boundaries when our toddler scrunches up his face and opens his mouth to let out a big wail.
Not giving into these tantrums helps our toddlers with:
In my research, I have found 6 effective ways to calm a toddler mid-tantrum. Read on to find out what they are!
#1: Validate the Magnitude
One evening, my son was sad that his grandma had to leave to go home. He started crying uncontrollably as she tried to walk out the door. I realized at this moment that there were several ways in which I could respond to my sonâs reaction. I could:
Another way to frame it that works well with my toddler is to pick two points and gradually stretch those points to be farther and farther apart.
ââAre you as sad as from the tippy-tip of your head down to your itty-bitty toe? Are you that sad? Or are you as sad as the top of the ceiling all the way down to the floor? Are you that sad? Wow! Or are you as sad from the top of the tree where the birds are all the way down to the dirt with the worms? Are you that sad? Are you as sad from way out to the sun all the way back to earth? That sad? Thatâs really sad!â
Usually after one or two distances, my sonâs tears subside as he looks at me in curiosity. Heâs processing his level of sadness and before long, his tantrum is over.
By validating the magnitude, we are letting our toddlers know that we are taking their feelings seriously and telling them that what they are experiencing is a big deal. The result is that our kids feel heard.
Another benefit, according to Dr. Becky, is that we are taking something abstract (the feeling) and making it concrete, which is less confusing to toddlers. Our toddlers feel seen and understood, and that may be all they need to calm down.
#2: You Didnât Want That to Happen
Another strategy I learned from Dr. Becky is to emphasize how much you know your child didnât want something (the thing they are upset about) to happen.
âYour toy broke. Wow. You didnât want that to happen. That stinks.â
The phrase âyou didnât want to happenâ works so wonderfully in the moment compared to phrases like, âNext time, you need to be careful with your toys.â
Think about how we feel when something bad or annoying happens to us. For example, we are rushing to load the dishwasher and grabbing too many dishes at once in our rush to load it. While unloading, we drop a dish and it shatters into a million pieces.
What would we prefer our spouse say to us at that moment?
Our kids feel the same way. Lectures and advice can come later, when our child has calmed down. For now, during the tantrum, we can just simply say, âYou didnât want that to happen, did you?â â
#3: Use Sign Language
âYounger kids can have a hard time understanding abstract ideas and feelings. Thatâs where sign language comes into play.
I have started teaching my son signs for his feelings. Without a visual representation for their feelings, toddlers can be left feeling confused and frustrated by their inability to communicate the big emotions they are experiencing. This powerlessness eventually leads to a tantrum or meltdown.
Research has also shown that sign language can help calm a child in a stressful situation and that children can often learn the sign for a word before the actual verbal word. My son now has a way to communicate and identify his feelings for the next time a situation arises. Instead of crying, he can say or sign that heâs sad, angry, scared, etc.
I often sign the feeling in the moment in which my son or I are actually experiencing that feeling, including when my son is having a tantrum.
For example, when my son is sad that TV time is over, he will often start crying and whining. I will repeatedly identify the feeling my son may be experiencing and back it up with the sign.
âYou are sad, sad, sad [signing the word sad over and over with exaggerated facial expressions]. Itâs okay to be sad [Sign sad again]. But the dinger rang, and itâs time for bed. You can help me pick out a book to read.â
ASL Nook, run by a Deaf family, has videos that teach kids their emotions and is a great resource for anyone wanting to learn sign language.
#4: Become a Broadcaster
I first heard of this strategy in Dr. Harvey Karpâs Happiest Toddler on the Block book. The premise behind it is to narrate and mimic your childâs emotions like a football broadcaster would do while calling a game.
Instead of immediately jumping in with our adult voice of reason (âNo, I am sorry. We canât have any TV now.â), we can get on our childâs level and echo our kidâs feelings (Dr. Karp recommends repeating back with one-third of their level so as not to appear sarcastic or overdoing it).
âTV, TV. You want TV now, now, now! You are sad! You are stomping your feet. You want TV! TV! Now. You want TV, now.â
Doing this can stop our childâs tantrum in seconds because our toddler feels seen and heard. It may also be helpful to pair this tactic with the sign language mentioned in the previous section!
Once our child has started to settle down a bit (before they are fully recovered), we can use redirection to help them refocus on what they can do instead. Toddlers are told ânoâ often; so now we want to focus on the âyes.â
Redirection can look like this:
âTV time is over. But we can read THREE fun books together. Maybe some of your favorites. Câmon, you can help me pick them out.â
The point is to take their minds off what they canât have in the moment and shift to what they can do instead.
Another way to redirect is to act the foolâa strategy by Dr. Karp.
âTV time is over. I know that makes you sad. But can you help me with your bedtime routine? I forget how to do it. Hmmâ¦do we first brush your toes? Do I bathe you in dirty mud? No, that canât be right. Pleeasssseeeeee. I need your help!â
This example of redirection will affirm how smart they are, build their confidence and instantly take their minds off wanting TV. Itâs a major win for all!
#6: Magic Breaths
I have heard of Magic Breaths (slow deep breathing) from a few places, including Dr. Karpâs book and the childrenâs show Daniel Tiger. My son and I practice magic breaths every night before bed, when my son is calm and focused. The point is to teach them in a calm moment so they can be used successfully during a tantrum.
When my son is having a tantrum and I get the feeling that he wants to hit or throw something, I will take his hand and place it by the top of his head. I will say âMagic Breathâ and together we will take a deep breath, as I move his hand slightly lower. We will do this four times until his hand returns back to its normal position.
As our children get older, we can move from doing Magic Breaths with our children to reminding them about Magic Breaths when we sense their anger rising. In education, we call this shift the gradual release of responsibility; the purpose being to move from modeling, to reminding, to being able to do independently without prompting. Magic Breaths can always be part of our childâs toolkit, even as they grow older.
With these 6 strategies, we can breathe a sigh of relief the next time our toddler has the inevitable tantrum. Instead of feeling helpless and out of control like our toddlers, we have research-based, proven to work strategies that will calm the meltdown.
The next time your toddler starts gearing up for a breakdown, run through this list and find one that works for you and your toddler.
You got this!
Learn 60+ more strategies like these ones in my parenting guide, Now What? â
The 2-Minute Action Plan for Fine Parents
Here are some questions to contemplate as you take a few minutes to assess how you currently react to your toddlerâs tantrums:
The Ongoing Action Plan for Fine Parents
As you move forward in seeking how best to use tantrums as an opportunity for your child to grow and learn, it may be helpful to assess where you are now so you can compare it to where you will be! Here is one helpful way to monitor long-term progress: