How to Control Children (Hint: You Can’t)
So here’s the deal — you probably don’t want to actually control your children. No parent wants mindless automatons on their hands. What many parents would like, though, is a little more cooperation and fewer behavior problems from children. And that’s doable. Here are a few tips on how to achieve more control over situations and outcomes, without trying to control a child.
Validate emotions. An out-of-control child is often a child in the grip of a strong emotion. When this emotion goes unrecognized, they may keep trying to communicate it — often through increasingly negative behavior. Controlling kids’ behavior is often about helping them learn to control their own behavior. To do this, kids have to learn to identify emotions and causes of emotions; they learn this when adults acknowledge their feelings. An outburst that turns disruptive and nasty over something that seems trivial may seem completely unnecessary and out-of-control to you, but it’s an opportunity to help children build their ability to manage their emotions. “I know you’re frustrated. It’s okay to feel that way. But we still have to stop playing now so we can go to the doctor.”
Praise good behavior. Sometimes how to deal with out-of-control kids boils down to making sure they know what is good behavior — and that knowledge doesn’t come from only calling out bad behavior. When you see your child display good behavior — wait patiently, share a toy, put away toys without a fuss — praise them lavishly and specifically. This teaches kids what parents do want from them, not just what parents don’t want. And incidentally, it’s the only behavior management tactic that has been proven to lead to long-term behavior change — far more effective than punishment.
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Set expectations, and follow through. In calm moments, talk with your child about what kind of behavior is acceptable and what is not. For example, “It’s okay to be angry and stomp your feet. It’s not okay to throw things or hit other people because it hurts them.” If you plan to use tactics like time out (best for kids aged 2 to 5) to help children learn to control their behavior and emotions, be sure to introduce the concept in a calm situation. In the moment of rampage, be sure to carry it out exactly as you’ve explained. Finally, noting good behavior as you do it with your child helps ingrain it as the default. For instance, saying “we wait our turn,” while queuing helps the child learn this is correct and acceptable behavior.
Manage your reactions. Kids crave attention from their parents — but they’re not too picky in how they get it. When it comes to bad behavior, act in a manner consistent with the expectations you’ve set, but don’t overreact. Big parental reactions escalate situations that can spiral beyond everyone’s control; an upset child can quickly become an out-of-control child if they see their negative behavior is getting them more attention from you.
Don’t threaten. Threatening children is useless and often escalates out-of-control situations, rather than defuses them.
Offer choices. As kids get older, they require more and more autonomy. And certain at certain ages, their development is specifically geared toward achieving it. The reason the Terrible Twos and having a Threenager is so rough is because kids are just discovering they have agency — but lack the judgment and size to really wield it. The preteen years are another, similar battleground; in fact, the need for autonomy is higher at age 11 than it is at age 18. One way to respect this healthy developmental drive for control is to channel it to pre-approved choices. Offering children a choice between two or three things or courses of action that you’re already okay with satisfies their need for control without compromising yours.
Pick your battles. Finally, the ultimate rule of parenting is, perhaps, knowing when control is important, and when it isn’t. When you’re child is freaking out in the middle of a restaurant? Yes, it’s important to regain control of the situation. (Here’s how.) When it’s a matter of your child wearing the blue shirt you like, or a yellow shirt they prefer — does it really matter?
In the end, parenting isn’t about how to control children. It’s about helping kids learn to manage their own emotions and behavior so that situations and tempers never get out of control to begin with.