Create a consistent environment for your child
It’s important to tell your child what you want them to do and how you want them to behave and what you don’t want. For a child to follow the rules, they must have a clear understanding of what the rules are. The purpose of setting boundaries is to protect the safety of the child and to teach them how to live with other people.
Have a dialogue with your child about the rules and why they are important. This helps the child to develop an understanding of why there are rules in the first place. It’s not the parent’s intention to use their authority to punish the child, but to help the child learn how to behave properly.
In addition to giving praise and encouragement, the parent’s job is to set clear limits on their child’s challenging behaviour. It’s not unusual for children, as they grow and develop, to challenge the rules their parents have set. If a child rebels against them, it doesn’t mean that the parent has failed. By testing the limits, children learn about rules. If the rules are not consistent, children may keep testing them and resist them even more.
Studies have shown that parents give their children instructions and feedback almost 20 times every half an hour. Children with behavioural problems get instructions and feedback even more often. It’s important to avoid excessive guidance so that the child has a chance of succeeding in following the parent’s instructions. If a child gets too much guidance and instructions, they may feel that it’s impossible to succeed and start to resist the rules because they feel that the expectations are unreasonable.
Sometimes parents give instructions over and over again, and children learn that it’s not until the sixth time that they need to follow them. It’s important for the adult to break down their instructions and requests into small parts so that the child can better understand them.
For example, “get dressed” may be too broad an instruction for a child who may not know where to start. Instead, you can say, “First put on your socks, please,” and then wait for the child to do it before saying what they should do next: “Now put on your trousers.”
Think of 4 or 5 basic rules for the home that everyone should follow. If you have a partner, discuss the rules with them. It’s useful for those who share parenting duties to be sufficiently united on the rules of the home. If parents give contradictory instructions to their child, it’s difficult for the child to know what is expected of them. This makes it difficult for them to respect or adopt the rules.
Once you have come up with the 4 or 5 basic rules, take a peaceful moment to discuss the rules in an age-appropriate way with your child. Ask your child’s opinion. Ask them if they have any suggestions to add to the rules. You can also talk to your child about the fact that the rules also apply to adults. For example, if the rules say not to swear at home, the parents shouldn’t swear either.
Here are some guidelines for making rules:
- Be specific and clear about the rules. Keep them short and to the point. Bring up one rule at a time. For example, “only walking inside” and “the dinner table is for eating.” Young children can’t remember long sentences.
- Make sure that the rules are age-appropriate and that the child is capable of following them successfully.
- Try to form the rules in such a way that they’re positive. Be clear about your expectations. For example, “Be kind” is not a clear rule that tells the child what is expected of them. “Give your friend a turn to play with the doll” gives a more specific idea of what kind behaviour means. Tell your child what you want rather than what you don’t want.
- Once you’ve talked through the rules, remind your child of them.
If the child behaves in a way that breaks a rule
- Get your child’s attention. Go to the child, get down to their level and seek eye contact if you can.
- Explain what you want: “Remember that the dinner table is for eating.”
- Give the instruction only once and make sure the child follows the rule.
- Say thank you if your child now follows the rule.
- Tell your child why their previous behaviour is a problem: “Mealtimes are for eating. If you start playing, you’ll forget to eat.”
- Ask your child to show you or practise how to act in the situation. Give them the chance to correct their actions and succeed. Encourage them and praise their success.
Remember that your child will learn the rules gradually. The more consistent, clear and regular you can be, the faster your child will learn the rules of the home.
Tips for supportive instructions
- Instructions are not a question. A polite question such as “Do you want to put the toys away from the dinner table?” does not constitute clear instructions when you don’t intend to give the child a choice. Phrasing it as a question may give the child the impression that they can choose not to do it and they may get upset when they realise it’s not a choice. “Let’s put the toys away now because they interfere with eating” is a clearer instruction. The parent should express the rules with sufficient confidence.
- Instruct and guide your child with respect. Avoid personal criticism. A parent’s anger or derisiveness when guiding or instructing a child may make the child resist this particular tone of voice. The way you say things is at least as important as the things you say. Criticism makes the child feel they’re not good enough and this can increase their disobedience. Guide and instruct your child with respect. This kind of talk is easier for both the child and the adult to accept and receive.
- Give a warning in advance before instructing the child. Change situations, such as transitioning from one activity to another, often cause friction for children. It’s hard to stop an enjoyable game when it’s not finished. A parent can anticipate the transition by saying, “In two minutes the play will have to stop and we’ll go and have a wash before bed.” You can also use a timer to help.
- Use “First – then” instructions. Point out a positive consequence of your child doing as you ask. “First collect the toys in the box, then you can watch cartoons.” You can also use picture cards as a helpful tool. papunet.net You can also download the Ensin – sitten (First – then) picture card templates: https://suojellaanlapsia.fi/2022/05/04/ensin-sitten-kortit/
- Offer alternatives. When you prevent a child from doing something they like, it’s a good idea to offer them alternatives. This will help the child to get over their disappointment and focus their attention on new things. “You can’t watch cartoons anymore, but you can help me cook or read a book.”
- Make use of body language. If your child seeks your attention at a time when you’re busy, you can use body language to signal to the child that you have noticed them, for example by putting your hand on their shoulder or stroking their back. This way you won’t have to interrupt your conversation, or whatever you’re doing, and the child will understand that it will soon be their turn.
A parent may inadvertently strengthen problem behaviour
Often a parent observes how their child behaves but ignores how consistent or inconsistent their own behaviour is towards the child. Parents may unwittingly reward a child for problem behaviour.
Here are a few example situations:
- You’re at the grocery store and you’ve told your child they can’t have any treats today. The child keeps insisting you buy some and misbehaves. Eventually you get tired of the child’s behaviour and buy them something to stop their whining. The child learns that whining and insisting is an effective way to get what they want.
- Your child doesn’t want to clean up and you know that if you insist they do, they will argue against it. So you avoid telling your child to clean, or clean up for them. This way your child will not learn to clean up their own mess, even if you would like them to.
- You’re having a conversation at the dinner table with another adult and your child starts talking over you. You stop talking and turn your attention to the child. This sends the message that they can get your attention by talking over you.
Don’t avoid issues; instead, anticipate future difficult situations
Many parents find it difficult to be in public places when their children behave in a challenging way. Sometimes one failed restaurant visit can even result in the parent deciding not to go to a restaurant again with the children.
However, you can prepare yourself for challenging situations and they can become easier with time. Usually in situations that occur in public spaces, the problems are related to the child not being able to act as usual, being bored, not getting the attention they want or being tired.
When you know that a situation is coming up that may be difficult for your child, tell them about it in advance. You can use picture cards www.papunet.net to help, or draw the future event on paper while explaining it at the same time. Explain what you want them to do and how you want them to behave in this situation.
Also discuss in advance the consequences if your child behaves in an undesirable way. Avoid threatening and pressuring the child, as this can have a negative impact on their behaviour. You can also agree on something nice to do or have as a reward if your child behaves the way you want. Remember to praise your child when you notice them acting the way you told them to.
You can also prepare for the situation, for example, by:
- Taking along something for the child to do if you know they’re likely to get bored.
- Taking along something to eat if you plan on staying late.
- Calming yourself down. Think kindly of yourself and create compassionate images of the difficult situation in your mind. Everyone understands that going anywhere and doing anything with children can be chaotic sometimes.
- Remembering that you have permission to set boundaries or use your own methods that you feel good about, even when there are other people around. It is not wrong, and your child’s expressions of emotion are not dangerous or shameful.
Webster-Stratton, C. (2006). The Incredible Years: A Trouble-Shooting Guide for Parents of Children Aged 2–8 Years. Publisher: The Incredible Years.
Triple P – Positive Parenting Program.