Updated: Dec 10, 2019
“Don’t touch.” “Don’t run.” “Don’t hit.” “Don’t yell.”
Wouldn’t it be lovely if “don’t” worked for our kids?!
How many times have you corrected your young kids with a “don’t” and seen them do the exact thing you just told them not to do?! There’s a reason for that. See, the brain has priorities; and for small kids, there’s usually more the brain doesn’t know than does. A toddler’s brain is working so hard all the time. It’s seeing new things, hearing new sounds, feeling new sensations, witnessing new social interactions, and learning new language constantly. The thing with the “D” word, is that it’s very confusing. It appears in all sorts of contexts, tied to numerous different words, and yet doesn’t really seem to mean anything. Try this, as an adult, write down your personal definition of “don’t”, without using “do” or “not”. Can you define the word? I thought about it a while back and the closest I came up with was “the opposite of” - it’s not exact but if I say “don’t hit” I want them to do the opposite of “hit” right? Well let’s go back to the toddler brain. How many toddlers know opposites? Very few. And of course much of the above examples don’t have opposites. What is the opposite of hit? Sit? Pet? Kick? Lick? I mean, what do I even want? So first strike is: the toddler brain hears, “Don’t hit!” and doesn’t really know what “don’t” means and it spends maybe half of a second trying to figure it out before it gives up.
I say “maybe” because in reality, when the toddler's emotional brain is activated, their logical brain, the side that processes, learns, and forms language, is shut down. Strike 2.
The 3rd strike against our command is that the brain of any human tends to delete negatives on a subconscious level. Have you ever screwed up on a test because there was a hidden “not” in the question? When you make affirmations, psychologists and coaches know you can’t have a “not” in there, the brain just deletes it. It’s just the way the human brain works.
So more than likely they know “hit” well and hear “hit,” and of course, they then hit. And we feel like they are defiant or bad, when it’s just their brain putting 3 strikes against us. So what do we do? Well, if it’s urgent:
1) Use short, quick, firm word that will get their attention but also is something they can do, “STOP” is what I usually say. This is most effective when you RARELY raise your voice, that way when you do in the name of safety it’s something that surprises them and they look at you because they are confused and their brain wants to figure that out first. 2) Move quick, the toddler brain has a very underdeveloped prefrontal cortex and it doesn’t possess impulse control reliably (in fact that part of the brain isn’t done developing until age 25 or so!), so you’ll need to be the physical boundary by catching their hands, picking them up, blocking their path, or whatever else. You may have already missed the first one and have to block the 2nd blow instead because these kids are fast!
3) Help them to cool off so their logical brain can come back online. Sitting with them, singing to them, or just hugging them can work. It’s not rewarding the behavior, it’s meeting the need of connection so you can discipline effectively - and by that I mean teach them.
4) Teach them. Teach them how they were feeling. Teach them a tool to get your help, or teach them a tool to help themselves. Teach them how to repair any damage they may have done. This includes modeling for them, apologizing (you too if your shout scared them, it’s ok to be sorry they were scared), a hug or kiss, getting a boo-boo buddy (ice pack) from the fridge, getting a glass of cool water, helping rebuild, buying a new thing, doing something nice for someone else, or just having a conversation.
It it’s not urgent: 1) State exactly what you DO want done. “Butt on the seat please, feet on the floor”, “Inside voices like mine. You may shout when we get outside.” “Get down.” “Hands off.” “Gentle hands.”
2) Be the boundary if necessary. “You’re still jumping on the couch after I told you the rule was butt on the seat, so you’re showing me you need help following that rule.” *lift child off the couch and place on floor.* If they want back up, they need to treat the couch in accordance with the family rules (if your family is allowed to jump on the couch, that’s fine, just imagine helping your child comply with whatever rule is in your family). 3) They could need to cool off. Same as above. If calm, just use this time to reconnect.
4) Teach. Always teach. See these potentially frustrating happenings as great learning opportunities!
Remember your kids absolutely have to do things wrong in order to learn. There’s no sense in punishing them for doing things wrong when they are 100% guaranteed to and they have no control over that. When you expect these learning opportunities to present themselves, you see them differently. You can see an opportunity for connection with you and growth for their brains! Not all annoying things are bad, not all hard things are bad, in fact, sometimes they are just what we need to learn and grow.