You’ve likely used distraction to curb your child’s behavior, but you may find that it backfires. Learn why redirecting children’s behavior is a better option to discipline a child.
My 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 haven’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 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.
Redirecting children’s behavior
Both distraction and redirection are both ways of disciplining young children and preventing outbursts. Because their intentions are similar, they’re sometimes confused with one another, or used interchangeably.
One day, I walked into the living room and saw my child about to throw a hard tennis ball, potentially breaking items or injuring others.
With distraction, I divert his attention to something new to convince him to stop throwing the ball in the living room. “Look at your new blocks—let’s play with those instead.”
Redirection means I ask myself what he’s really doing (throwing a ball) and redirect 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 soft ball instead (or throw the tennis ball outside).”
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 seems to work, 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 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, such as taking, patience and the discomfort of not getting what they want. We 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, 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 doing something you’d always been happy to see him do.
Why is jumping wrong NOW, 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 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.
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.” It’s okay to be the bad guy. Kids need us to be the bad guy.
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 dismissing their intentions.
Don’t distract kids from one activity to another unrelated one. Instead, redirect them 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 children’s intentions aren’t bad. It’s just jumping, after all. Your child drawing on the walls isn’t acceptable, but drawing is.
Step back and acknowledge the impulses that drove her to jump on the couch. Yup, even before you correct her 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 wasn’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 appropriate behavior in other circumstances.
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.
You might say, “Whoa—looks like you’re having fun jumping on the couch!” Or, “Drawing is a cool thing to do…”
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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 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 their desire to make sense of what they can or can’t do by explaining exactly why you stopped them 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 just not on the couch, redirect her to a more appropriate way to do so. Maybe she can jump on the floor, or outside, or during another time.
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. They just need to do it in appropriate and safe ways, like jumping on the floor.
Not all redirection works, though. Sometimes we don’t have alternatives to the behavior, no matter how innocent it may be. I live on a top floor of a building where jumping would drive the neighbors crazy.
But if possible, redirect kids towards a similar but more appropriate activity. 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. Or it’s not a big deal to give him another similar toy that’s within arm’s reach.
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 your child 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 how to manage anger and frustration.
Redirection isn’t always possible or appropriate. Your child 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. 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, or hold him as he crumbles in your arms.
Distraction is sometimes 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.
“Spin over here,” I told my 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.
Redirecting misbehavior elsewhere honors your child’s impulse and avoids telling your child “no.” Jumping is fine, just not on the couch, for instance. Telling our kids “no” too often can wear them down and lead to an outburst.
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:
- How to Discipline a 1 Year Old (Especially When Yours Ignores You)
- Effective Ways to Handle a Car Seat Tantrum
- How to Stop Children from Biting
- Why Time Outs Don’t Work (And What to Do Instead)
- How to Get Toddlers to Listen Without Yelling
Don’t forget: download my PDF, The Power of Empathy, and learn how to prevent power struggles and instead better connect with your kids, all by understanding their perspective. Join my newsletter and get it below—at no cost to you: