small boy laughing lots on seat with book

Turning tears into laughter

In Children and Family, Community and Relationship by lou.harveyzahraLeave a Comment

Turning tears into laughter: creative discipline for the toddler and preschool years

“A hundred years from now, it will not matter what my bank account was, the sort of home I lived in, or the kind of car I drove; but the world may be different because I was important to the life of a child.” Anon.

All parents experience challenging moments – when your child has a tantrum in the shopping centre; when you’re running out of time to go to an appointment and your young child does not want to get dressed; at a friend’s house, the lovely toddler squeezes the guinea pig almost unconscious!

When toddlers display inappropriate behaviour, rather than pointing a finger, perhaps we should ask the question ‘Why?’

Behaviour is a means of communicating. Is my child tired or hungry? Does she need to slow down and have some special time with me? Too much excitement can lead to undesirable behaviour. Are children in fact being creative and inquisitive, and their loudness or messiness is not purposely disruptive? Asking ‘Why?’ allows you insight and understanding into your child’s life. It stops the parent from reacting harshly, giving time to respond in a compassionate way.

At my conscious parenting classes, I have more parents enrol for the night on ‘Creative Discipline’ than for any of the other topics. The reality is that if you have established positive rhythms, healthy eating and creative play, providing nourishment and stability in your child’s life, this will have a direct influence on how much (or little) you will need to creatively discipline your toddler and young child.

Let me explain: if your child is not getting enough sleep, time to relax, rest, and cuddle, time for softness and love, she may become very grumpy! Are you often rushed, busy and going out? Remember that a child is not aware of our adult timeframe yet. Connect and rest on your child’s time frame (where you can). The consequences of a fast-paced life for a small child are floods of tears over the smallest things.

“Love to a child is spelt T.I.M.E.” Anon.

Likewise, is the food that your child eats contributing to energy highs and lows and erratic, excitable behaviour? For example, additives like colours, flavours, flavour enhancers and preservatives have been linked to hyperactivity in children. Please see Sue Dengate’s website

What about ‘playing’? If children are continually over-stimulated by noise and action toys, do they get more active and high themselves? If sitting for hours in front of super hero images and television, do they fly around the room, and then get easily bored afterwards?

Why not have a wonderfully enriching, imaginative play corner perfectly placed in the heart of your home, and in the garden with plenty of mud and sand. This will have a profound effect on your child’s mood. You can bring a little magic to children when they are distracted, bored or grumpy – a blanket over the table for a cubby, or a doll washing time in the sink. Can your child join in with all the household chores – chopping, cooking, washing, and shopping? Little hands love to be included and it keeps them out of mischief. Involvement is the key.

Even with all these foundation areas in place, challenges naturally occur from time to time with a young child. With five strategies I will show how these moments can be transformed.

I started my teaching career with special needs students and spent some time working with children with autism and Asperger’s syndrome. This experience taught me a lot about children’s behaviour (and autistic children can really throw tantrums!). The school I was lucky enough to teach in had a wonderful system when dealing with challenging behaviour, the ‘least restrictive first’ method. Since this time I have worked as a primary, special needs and Rudolf Steiner trained teacher, run playgroups and had my own two children. I have had ample opportunities to practise on lovely little children. I have since adapted the ‘least restrictive first’ method and renamed it ‘creative discipline’.

Creative discipline is a bag of useful tools for those trying moments that naturally occur with all young children. These techniques can transform challenging moments while parent and child remain connected together. The desired behaviour is achieved or a negative behaviour is stopped, but how you find your way there is a matter of ‘creative’ choice. There are many pathways in disciplining; I am choosing one that empowers both parent and child, is fun, understanding and loving (well most of the time anyway!).

The following creative discipline tools can transform challenging moments into positive outcomes with a toddler or young child:

Changing the environment to transform the challenging behaviour

Changing the environment, not the child, can develop a sense of increased fun, understanding and compassion.

Scenario: your child does not want to go to bed

·      Make sure that children are not overly stimulated by TV or games at bed/bath time

·      Introduce a lovely rhythm which is fun and special, e.g., a piggy-back ride to the bathroom

·      While cleaning teeth, play a funny game where each tooth speaks and says his favourite part of the day

·      Sing a lullaby

·      Stroke your child’s head and say kind words

·      Say goodnight to three things in the room; let your child choose which toys

·      Hang a cocoon around the bed, and play a soft classical music CD

·      Leave on a special night light

·      Make sure you are connected with your child at these sacred times and be consistent with a fun and loving bedtime rhythm.

Re-direct – a great way!

Children’s spontaneity and ability to be in the moment allows for the art of re-direction. Isolate the ‘action’ a child is displaying and re-direct it into a safe and positive play idea.

Scenario: a young child is throwing wooden blocks inside – they do look great flying through the air!

·      Place a basket nearby, “You throw a ball, not blocks or toys – let’s throw the ball together. Throw the ball into the basket: goal! Balls are for throwing, well done!”

Scenario: a young child is running inside at a social gathering

·               “Can you run to that tree and back three times in the garden? I will watch from the window. Outside is where you can run.”

All too often parents fall into the trap of reacting to an inappropriate behaviour by saying (often in a raised voice) ‘Don’t do that’, or ‘No shouting’, or ‘Stop it!’ With this type of instruction, the child hears what to not do, but with no real guidance of an appropriate way of behaving. Instead emphasise how you would like your child to behave, ‘Be gentle’, or ‘Hands down’, or ‘Talk quietly’. Children are more open to being guided in this way. Each time your child displays a negative behaviour is an opportunity to guide your child on how to live in this world. Re-direct by explaining and showing the child the positive way to behave.

Scenario: a child is pulling a cat’s tail

·      “We stroke a pussy cat like this” (demonstrate). “Let us do it together” (place the child’s hand on the cat and stroke together). “He loves to be treated kindly and softly – this is the way to stroke a cat. Great, you are doing such a good job, being gentle. He loves that; well done!”

Scenario: a young child is hitting a playmate to get a toy

·      Say ‘hands down’ in a firm manner, re-directing the child to keep his hands to himself.

·      Re-direct the child to use words to ask for a turn, or to say, ‘Stop! I do not like that’, if upset. Find a similar toy to play with. Re-direct the children to look at your watch to play a turn taking game when the big hand gets to the top!

·      Model an apology and demonstrate ‘gentleness’ with friends.

·      Play ‘sharing’ games with Teddy to practise this skill. Explain gentleness throughout the week with toys and chat about what makes a good friend. ‘Sam does not like to be hit – it makes him sad’ (explaining simple emotions). Praise positive behaviour.

Change the word ‘no’

At the first parenting class I attended the teacher spoke of the wisdom of not using the word ‘no’. She hastened to add that this does not mean that your children get everything they want – not at all! It is merely a matter of word use. Can you step into your children’s shoes? Throughout the day your children may ask for many things – if they hear a barrage of negatives, a rebellion may be in order! With food requests, try to offer a healthy alternative. With activity requests, state when it can happen or find another interesting appropriate choice.

Scenario: a child asks to have an ice-cream (it is breakfast time)

·      “What a wonderful idea – let us squeeze orange juice to make icy poles for a lovely treat for morning tea”.

Scenario: a young child asks to watch TV

·      “It is a lovely day, let’s make a cubby outside; we can read stories in it. Remember ‘home-movie day’ is Saturday”.

Scenario: for more difficult questions like “Can I have a puppy?” or “Can I have a toy?”

·      Let us write it on your Christmas list (children have usually forgotten by then or have asked for another ten things).

·      I have always found ‘We’ll see’ is a great answer for difficult questions.

Games and giggles

To play games requires you both to connect together and have fun. This trick is very ‘child-friendly’. Games can be a magic wand to achieving tasks with your child.

Scenario: a child who refuses to put on their socks or PJ’s

·      “I am ‘Sandy Sock’ and I love to eat toes. I eat them all the way up; look at that, all the way up to the ankle!”

·      “Can you put your pajamas on by the time I make a cup of tea? I’ll race you, ready steady go!”

Try to relax in stressful moments. Breathe in and hold for four seconds, then slowly breathe out the stress. From time to time, just try a game of chase. Most children cannot resist having a giggle. So when children stamp their feet and say ‘No’, say ‘I am going to tickle you – run!’ Lightheartedness can be a very successful tool in diffusing bad moods.

Most importantly, the power of praise!

Isolate one or two positive actions that you would like your child to achieve. Every time you see the appropriate behaviour, verbally praise it. At bedtime, as you are having a cuddle, say “I was really pleased with the way you played with Sally today”. This can transform challenging behaviour over time.

If, after trying the above techniques (changing the environment, re-direction, saying ‘no’ a different way, playing a game, and using the power of praise), the young child is still displaying the inappropriate behaviour, quietly removing the child or toy from the challenging situation may be required. “You need to stay with me until I know John is safe. Be gentle with your friends – no hitting – everyone needs to feel safe”. Take the toy away that is still being thrown, and place up high, while stating, “We throw balls; not toys”. This is a ‘quiet removal’; quietly take the toy or child away from the situation, stating the positive way to behave. If the child begs to go back then allow for another chance. Otherwise re-direct to a new activity after a while of staying within your care. During the day gently explain how to be friends or treat toys.

It is paradoxical to see a parent shout ‘No shouting!’ or hit as a response to a child’s rough behaviour. Children made to sit isolated in corners often put up a protective wall. If shut in a closed room, their screams, at times, can be primal. It is extremely difficult to always stay calm but if you talk reasonably, teach positively, and lovingly guide, these tendencies will become valuable communication skills for your children too. It is a wonderful experience, after years of role-modelling, to see your children treat each other with respect and hear your positive manner within them. Children brought up with creative discipline techniques will know how to communicate and treat others in life. This is a powerful insight.

Remember that no child or parent is perfect, and neither should they be, as it is our mistakes that help us to learn and grow. Parenting can be like a dance: two steps forward and one step back. Try to be conscious of how things worked out during and after each incident with your child – how your heart really feels in each moment. Each night, before going to sleep, run through your day with your child in your own mind. Understand where you could have parented more positively to change inappropriate behaviour and make plans to act differently tomorrow.
Lou Harvey-Zahra is a mother, playgroup leader, and primary, special needs and Rudolf Steiner trained teacher. Her book “Turning Tears into Laughter – Creative Discipline for the Toddler and Preschool Years” is published by Five Mile Press and distributed by Scribo and Brumby Books.

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