Why Redirecting Children’s Behavior Works Better Than Distracting

You’ve likely used distraction to curb your child’s behavior, but found that it backfired. Learn why redirecting children’s behavior is a better option to discipline a child.

Redirecting Children's BehaviorMy kids were fighting over the same fire truck… again. Tired of the arguing, pleading, and tears, I scrambled to find something to break up the fight. I dug into the storage bin and found old toys they hadn’t played with in a while.

“Look, check out this new board game!” I announced, and 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 distraction… phew.

Or did I?

Let’s talk about distraction. We turn to distraction because it has quick results. Rather than sit through the crying, we shine a new object to divert our kids’ 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 offered a snack. And the one with a scrape is happy watching the cartoon he now gets to watch.

Argumentative Child

Redirecting children’s behavior

Both distraction and redirection are ways of disciplining young children and preventing outbursts. Because their intentions are similar, they’re sometimes confused with one another.

Let’s say you walk into the living room and see your child about to throw a hard tennis ball, potentially breaking items or injuring others.

With distraction, you divert her attention to something new to convince her to stop throwing the ball in the living room. “Look at your new blocks—let’s play with those instead.”

Redirection means asking yourself what she’s really doing (throwing a ball) and redirecting her to something similar. “Looks like you want to throw a ball, but we don’t throw tennis balls in the living room because they can break things. You can throw this softer ball instead.”

3 problems with distraction

Many of us default to distraction because, on the surface, it’s seems to “work.” Handing your toddler a smart phone does seem to curb her tantrum quicker than comforting her tears or finding another way to calm her down.

Still, even though distraction works in that moment, it’s not as effective in the long run, and includes several problems, such as:

1. Your child won’t 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 wants to coach kids through an argument with one another, but that’s the kind of interaction they need to learn during social conflicts.

Distraction denies them the chance to learn from what happened, such as taking turns, self-control, and not always getting what they want. We save them from disappointment, but they end up missing out on several life skills.

Children's Social Conflicts

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“I’m short fused by nature, and I’m sometimes fighting myself like a tiger to be tamed. So the ‘teachable moment’ you’ve mentioned so many times is like a mantra now for me. And I have to say I think it really is working, as I can see my daughter steering towards logic and reasoning more and more. Thank you!!” Agnes N.

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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 him jumping on the couch. He was happy but oblivious to the risk of falling and hitting his head on the coffee table. In a panic, you whisk him from the couch, leading to his tears, of course.

He wants to keep jumping and seems inconsolable, 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 him and can even confuse him.

After all, you clap our hands and encourage him to jump at the playground. In his mind, he was doing something you’d always been happy to see him do.

Why is jumping wrong at home, he might think, when before it wasn’t?

We don’t honor our kids’ impulse when we distract with the next nearby activity or toy. Let’s say your child is about to write in your books. Honor her impulse to write and don’t just replace it with a random activity (“Play with your doll instead”).

When we redirect kids to a similar activity, we instead reassure them that the activity isn’t bad. We define when it’s acceptable (writing in a coloring book) or not (writing in mommy’s books).

3. Distraction isn’t respectful

Imagine you were having a bad day. You fought with a friend, missed a few weekly goals at work, and received a huge bill from the dentist.

You come home to tell your spouse 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 your mind off of the issues upsetting you.

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. Distraction makes parenting seem like a “placate our kids at all costs” task. We do whatever it takes to avoid a meltdown or be the “bad guy.”

How to use redirection

Verbal redirection curbs the misbehavior while still acknowledging your child’s emotions and motives. It gets her to stop doing what she’s doing without dismissing her intentions.

Don’t distract her from one activity to another unrelated one. Instead, redirect her to an activity that ties in with the initial behavior. Here are a few ways to do so:

1. Show empathy for your child’s motives

As we saw in the case of jumping on the couch, many times, your child’s intentions aren’t bad. It’s just jumping, after all. Drawing on the walls isn’t acceptable, but drawing itself is.

Step back and acknowledge the impulses that drove her to jump on the couch. Yup, even before you correct her negative behavior and use this as a “teachable moment.”

Why? Doing so helps you determine the reason she decided to break the rules. You realize that the impulse itself isn’t bad, even if the actions were wrong. Jumping is awesome—it’s a skill you would want her to have. It’s enjoyable and desirable behavior in other circumstances.

31 Days to Better Parenting

As I say in my book, 31 Days to Better Parenting:

“Empathy makes us more understanding and patient. It’s easier to lose your temper when all you see is a child who hit his sister. But when you imagine how he must be feeling, you might notice it’s because his sister grabbed a toy out of his hand. You’re able to connect and show him you understand why he must’ve done what he did.”

Honoring her impulses sends the message that you’re on her side. You’re showing empathy with her motives, regardless of her misbehavior. That you understand her intentions are often not bad. Because nothing feels worse than getting in trouble for something you didn’t even know was wrong.

2. Say the rule

Once you’ve acknowledged your child’s motives, say what she’s 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 she learns the clear limits of what is or isn’t allowed. Jumping is all right, just not on the couch.

3. Explain the reason

Kids respond well to reasons. They’ll know the real reasons to stop jumping on the couch or drawing on the wall, and it won’t be because of fear of punishment or angering you.

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.” Appeal to her desire to make sense of what she can or can’t do by explaining exactly why you stopped her from doing it.

4. Redirect to a more appropriate activity

Only in the end should you redirect to a more appropriate activity.

Now that she knows jumping is okay but not on the couch, redirect her to a more appropriate way to do so. Maybe she can jump on the floor or outside.

If you were to just tell her to stop jumping on the couch, she won’t know why. This is especially confusing when you’ve given the impression that jumping is good in other circumstances.

Redirecting to an appropriate activity acknowledges that the initial motive isn’t bad. She just need to do it in appropriate and correct ways, like jumping on the floor. Throwing the remote control isn’t allowed, but throwing the rubber ball is.

When redirecting children’s behavior 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 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.

Finally, sometimes the behavior isn’t acceptable, no matter what. If he hits another child, it doesn’t make sense to redirect him to hit a soft toy. His need at that moment isn’t to find an alternative to hitting, but to manage anger and frustration.

And sometimes, redirection won’t prevent a meltdown or outburst. He might still act up even after you’ve redirected him to a new activity. (“I don’t want to play with the soft ball!”).

But that doesn’t mean you should resort to distraction on the first try. There’s always something valuable to learn with every difficulty he 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, or 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 them.

How to Discipline a Toddler Who Hits


“Spin over here,” I told my then-four-year-old. I didn’t mind him spinning, just not with his 11-month-old baby brother a mere foot away. Instead, I offered another similar option.

At face value, distraction 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 she can learn, the better she can behave. Whereas redirection can teach 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.

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  1. I have a 21 months old son. My biggest struggle as a mother is to get him to listen to me. He never obeys my commands. He is extremely curious and wants to touch, throw or bang everything. Plus, he speaks very very few words and has a short attention span.

    1. Nina Garcia says:

      I can definitely understand the frustration when kids don’t listen, especially when they’re so curious about everything. The biggest thing that has helped me is to change the environment, so that things you don’t want him to touch are out of reach, and the things that he can play with are in front of him. That way, you don’t feel like you have to constantly monitor and scold him all the time.

      The other thing too that will help is to redirect him to a more appropriate activity. Most of the time, kids aren’t out to give us a headache—they literally are so curious about the world and constantly exploring.