Tips to Redirect Negative Behaviors in Children
Rachel Haley, M.Ed.   •   December 12, 2022

When a baby enters their parent’s lives, they are wonderful! Even though they rob parents of sleep and are extremely needy, that little innocent bundle of joy is wonderful. Then, as the child gets older, it seems that the little bundle of wonder seems to fade as a temperamental toddler takes their place. Every young child naturally begins to push boundaries and try to establish their wants as they begin their individual quest to learn about the world. Suddenly, parents are now trying to make it from one toddler or preschool fit to another as they try and enjoy the amazing moments and simply make it through the rough ones.

If you have ever been at your wit’s end and tried to threaten or bribe your way out of a fit to just make it through the moment, you are not alone. Parents often feel like they are just doing what they have to do to survive. Some weeks are harder than others. Experienced early educators will tell you that if parents want to see a consistent change in their child’s behavior, they must become experts in redirection. Redirection is the art of getting a child’s attention away from the negative and drawing their attention to the positive. Redirecting negative behavior to the ones you desire is a better route than dealing with the behavior to get through the moment.

By redirecting the behavior, you are not just “making it” through the moment but teaching your child other coping skills and ways to deal with their emotions. Over time, redirecting negative behaviors to positive ones can lead to the change in behaviors you are looking for. The need to redirect will lessen as your child learns to control their emotions and make better choices.

Here are a few suggestions on how to help redirect your child’s negative behavior:

  1. Model the behavior you want- First and foremost, children will always copy what they see you doing. Before you get onto your child for becoming angry or yelling when they get upset, ask yourself if this is how you respond when under stress. Remember the saying, “character isn’t taught; it’s caught.”
  2. Focus on what you want versus what you don’t want- Many times, as parents, the first thing we tell our child is DON’T do this or that. Parents naturally communicate the things we do not want to see, but telling a small child what not to do isn’t nearly as beneficial as telling them what to do. Try redirecting the negative behavior by teaching them what they SHOULD be doing instead. Instead of “Don’t talk with your mouth open,” say, “Make sure you keep your lips closed while you chew.”
  3. Engage in eye contact on their level- No one likes being talked down to, no matter the age. Instead of simply yelling and giving demanding instructions from an adult posture, try getting down on your child’s level, looking them in the eyes, and then stating what you want them to do. By getting down on their level and making eye contact, you increase the chances that your child will stop and focus on you alone.
  4. Use a calm but firm tone- As you communicate with your child, keep your emotions in check as you talk. Often, words are used to communicate one thing, while conflicting tones and emotions portray something different. Since we want positive behaviors, we need to use positive and calming voices.
  5. Move their attention to a substitute- A good portion of toddlers’ and preschoolers’ fits are over something they want that someone else has. Sometimes, we can help a child share, but learning to share is a process. Offering substitute items can be the solution in meantime. Shifting attention to something new will often help a child forget about their former issue.

Some children will be easier to re-direct once or twice, and they naturally comply. Other children will need to be redirected repeatedly to adjust the simplest of responses from a negative response to the positive action you are looking for. No matter the child, working through the process to help redirect and teach the proper actions will always work out better than threatening or bribing.

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