Sending Your Child Mixed Signals

There is no one perfect strategy to manage your child’s behavior at all times. However, after years of home visiting, I find one common problem. We often do not send clear signals to our children regarding our expectations of their behavior. By being sure you are communicating clearly to your child about your expectations, you can improve your management of their behavior, making them AND you a happier family unit.

Here are some suggestions:

Match your facial expression and tone of voice with your words: If your “NO, NO” is not getting the response that you expected from your child, he is either testing you or thinking “this is a game”. Most likely, he is being confused by mixed signals from you. Since very young children are still learning language, (especially if they have a language delay) your facial expressions and tone of voice are very important for clear communication and need to match the words you are using. For example, assume your child has hit you in the face. If you respond with a smile and sweet, passive tone, softly saying “no, no”, “no hitting, that hurts”, your message is mixed. Young children understand action, more than words. Laughing or send messages that indicate the behavior is acceptable, when it is not, is confusing to your child. An appropriate response to this would be to say “NO, — NO HIT, THAT HURTS” with a firm assertive tone, a frown and furrowed brows. Using a mad or sad face will help your child learn empathy and that his actions affect other people. Afterward, distract him with something acceptable to do.

Use Simple Language: Use brief statements instead of long explanations as to WHY he should not hit you. Otherwise, you are asking him to use logic, which has not yet developed. In addition, avoid vague phrases such as “be good”. What does “good” mean to a young child? Say EXACTLY what you want him to DO. For example, if he is kicking you, say to him, “Put your feet on the floor” (point to his feet and the floor).

Repetition, Repetition, Repetition: Expect that your child will repeat the behavior again at some point. You will not be able to correct his behavior overnight. This is an unrealistic expectation of you and your child. Children need repetition in order to learn. You may be asking yourself… “So why do this if he is just going to do it again?” Remember, you are laying the foundations for respect. You are setting boundaries between good and bad behavior. He needs to practice knowing that your words and actions are meaningful. You want him to know that you mean what you say.

Be Immediate and Consistent: When you do decide on a consequence, be IMMEDIATE with giving the consequence. Avoid long time intervals such as “threatening” to give a time out if he doesn’t behave or rewarding “good” behavior at the end of a long day or week. Try a shorter time period to begin with (Not kicking for 10 minutes gets a star-sticker), and gradually increase the time period between rewards by increments of 5 minutes. This helps your child to see the benefits of his good behavior, and gives him positive reinforcement to continue the good behavior. Also, be CONSISTENT. Use the same consequence (time out) for each incidence of the bad behavior (kicking) and the same reward (sticker and praise) for each interval of good behavior (not kicking). This is good practice for both you. Learning to listen to you now, will help him listen to you later, and is very important when thinking about his safety. For example, if suddenly you need to say—STOP!” as he is running toward the highway, he needs to be able to follow your direction.

Final Thoughts: Parents will often share with me two concerns about discipline that can be obstacles. First, they are concerned with hurting their child’s feelings or making them unhappy. However, allowing this idea to control your use of discipline will do a dis-service to your family and your child. Good discipline helps your child be the best he can be socially and emotionally and I’ve seen more than one child fall in love with a firm teacher.

Secondly, I also find that parents want to discipline in the opposite fashion than they were disciplined as a child. In this case, be sure to not go to any extremes, and find a good middle ground that works for you and your child. Learn to communicate clearly with your child no matter what your style of discipline may be. Most importantly, be patient with your little ones, as well as yourself. We are all doing our best. Good luck!

Are You Sending Your Child Mixed Signals? by: Maria Holquist, MS, ITFS, Early Childhood Interventionist
Published: July 2007 © Carolina Pediatric Therapy

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