When your child misbehaves or cries, it’s tempting to do this to get him quiet or stop crying. But this is one parenting technique you shouldn’t follow.
My kids were fighting over the same fire truck… again. Tired of the arguing, the pleading and tears, I scrambled to find something to break up the fight. And so I dug into the storage bin and found old toys they haven’t played with in a while.
“Look, check out this new board game!” I announced. And just as I predicted, the fight ended as they scampered toward the new toy. The fire truck sat untouched, no longer a hot issue to cry about. I averted another fight with good ol’ distraction… phew.
Or did I?
Let’s talk about distraction. We turn to distraction because it yields quick results. Rather than sit through the crying, we shine a new object to divert their attention away.
And it almost always works. The child sad about losing a game forgets all about it when he sees a new coloring book. The one upset about not sitting on the see-saw stops crying when we offer a snack. And the one with a scrape is happy watching the cartoon we sit him in front of.
Distraction: The parenting technique you shouldn’t follow
With these quick fixes, why wouldn’t any parent distract their kids from frustration?
#1: Kids miss an opportunity to learn from the moment
Let’s say your kids are playing at the park and fighting over whose turn it is to go on the monkey bars. No one looks forward to coaching kids through an argument with one another. But that’s exactly the kind of interaction kids need to learn during social conflicts.
Distracting kids denies them the chance to learn from what just happened. They don’t learn turn taking, patience and the discomfort of not getting what you want. We try to save our kids from disappointment but they end up missing out on several life skills.
#2: Distraction doesn’t acknowledge your child’s motives
Have you ever used distraction to steer your child away from an inappropriate activity?
Maybe you caught your preschooler jumping on the couch. He was happy but oblivious to the risk of falling on the coffee table. In a panic, you whisk him from the couch, leading to tears, of course.
He wants to keep jumping and seems inconsolable. And so you offer a snack to take his mind off of jumping on the couch.
Problem is, snacking (the distraction) has nothing to do with jumping (the motivation). This makes no sense to your child and can even confuse him.
After all, we clap our hands and encourage him to jump at the playground. In his mind, he was just doing something you’d always been happy to see him do.
Why is jumping wrong NOW, he might think, when before it wasn’t?
#3: Distraction isn’t respectful
Imagine you were having a bad day. You fought with a friend, missed a few sales goals at work and received a high bill from the dentist.
You come home to tell your husband the gory details in tears. But he doesn’t listen or help you find ways to meet your goals or talk with your friend. Instead, his first suggestion is to watch a funny movie.
No vent session, no productive plans moving forward. Straight to the funny movie to take our minds off of things.
And sometimes we need these types of distractions when things are just too overwhelming. But if this is our go-to move, you can see how brushing aside emotions doesn’t feel respectful.
Our kids need us to be there for them, even when it’s uncomfortable and difficult.
With the downsides of distraction, what can parents do?
Don’t distract kids from one activity to another unrelated one. Instead, redirect them to an activity that ties in with the initial behavior.
How to use redirection with kids
Redirection curbs the misbehavior while still acknowledging your child’s emotions and motives. It gets them to stop doing what they’re doing without brushing it under the rug.
#1: Acknowledge your child’s motives
As we saw in the case of jumping on the couch, many times our kids’ intentions aren’t bad. It’s just jumping, after all. Your child drawing on the walls isn’t acceptable, but drawing is.
When redirecting kids, acknowledge your child’s intentions. You might say, “Whoa—looks like you’re having fun jumping on the couch!” Or, “Drawing is a cool thing to do…”
Acknowledging their motives shows kids we understand that their intentions aren’t always bad. Nothing feels worse than getting in trouble for something you didn’t even know was wrong. You’re showing empathy and saying you understand where they’re coming from.
#2: Say the rule
Once you’ve acknowledged their motives, say what they’re supposed to do or not. You might say, “We don’t jump on the couch” or “We don’t draw on books, though.”
This is when your child learns what is or isn’t allowed. Jumping is all right, just not on the couch.
#3: Explain why
Kids respond well to reasons, and not because you declared, “I said so.” They’ll see why it’s important to listen and trust what you say. And they know you’re not acting out of anger.
You can say, “You might fall off the couch and hit your face on the coffee table. It’ll hurt a lot!” Or “We use these books to read, not draw on.”
#4: Redirect to another appropriate activity
Only in the end should you redirect to a more appropriate activity. Have your child jump on pillows on the floor or draw on a notepad. If we were to just tell them to stop jumping on the couch, they won’t know why. This is especially confusing when we’ve given the impression that jumping is good.
Redirecting to an appropriate activity acknowledges that the initial motive isn’t bad. They just need to do it in appropriate and safe ways, like jumping on the floor.
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When redirection isn’t possible
We can’t always redirect our kids to another appropriate activity. You may not be able to offer anything similar to a child who wants to grab items at a grocery store. Other times, it’s not a big deal to give him another similar toy that’s within arm’s reach.
Or it’s just not worth it. Your child may have been fighting with another at the park over the swing. But if he moved on to the slide, he may have found a solution on his own without any need for you to interfere.
And sometimes the behavior isn’t acceptable, no matter what. If your child hits another child, it doesn’t make sense to redirect him to hit a soft toy. His misbehavior wasn’t about wanting to hit but his frustration with the other child.
Redirection isn’t always possible or even appropriate. But that doesn’t mean you should resort to distraction. There’s always something valuable to learn with every difficulty your child faces.
If he’s hitting another child, don’t distract him with a toy. Instead, acknowledge his emotions and encourage empathy. You might remove him from the spot to prevent things from getting worse. And you might hold him as he crumbles in your arms.
Distraction is our attempt to save our kids from awkward or difficult emotions, but that may not always be the most effective way to teach our kids.
At face value, distractions seems to work. It’s quick and stops the misbehavior and tears almost immediately.
But distraction glosses over many lessons. Your child can learn social skills, self-regulation and coping with emotions. The more he can learn, the better he can behave. Whereas redirection can teach kids so many skills, distraction skips over them entirely.
Now I know better than to distract my kids from fighting over a fire truck. A shiny new board game might end the tears, but it won’t teach the lessons they need to learn.
Get more tips:
- One Sure Way to Prevent Misbehavior in Children
- The Difference between Distraction and Redirection (and Why I Prefer One Over the Other)
- 7 Techniques to Discipline Children
- Want a Child Who Can Think Critically? Start Here
- Set Boundaries — Kids Actually Want Them
Tell me in the comments: How has redirection worked over distraction for your kids?
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