Behavioural approaches to parenting are viewed by some as lacking empathy or compassion. It is true that as Behaviour Therapists, we’re very deliberate about how we approach and respond to behaviour. And yes, we try to minimise the chance of accidentally rewarding what some may refer to as misbehaviour. However, it is important to recognise that these behaviours are often accompanied by genuine distress, and it is not OK to disregard a child’s feelings or distress. Many of these children genuinely struggle with emotion regulation.
Shape and Connect
Whittingham (2015) has proposed a simple model for supporting a child emotionally while still encouraging safer, more helpful behaviours. A behavioural model that can support emotion regulation. This involves an empathetic and accepting response to child emotions. Emotions are understood as opportunities for the child to learn and for the parent and child to achieve greater connection within their relationship. This model, Shape and Connect, involves 4 steps:
Step 1 – Reflect
When you notice your child is distressed, acknowledge and reflect. Offer a label for that big emotion and if possible or where known, acknowledge the trigger or reason. That might be something like ‘I notice you’re really sad. I think you really want your turn with the iPad right now. I know it can be hard to wait.’ Your child may be crying or screaming, possibly engaging in other behaviours, but it’s ok to let them know you understand they are frustrated and show compassion.
Step 2 – Scaffold
Next, provide guidance, support and encouragement to help your child perform a relevant behavior. This is a behaviour that would be more helpful in this situation, but that wouldn’t yet come naturally to them. So in considering the example above, you might suggest “maybe you could wait until your brother is finished that video, and ask for a turn”. Or they might ask “when can I have a turn?”. Another alternative for some children would be to encourage a mindfulness activity to support down-regulating. Check out our Instagram highlights for some ideas. Remember that during times of extreme distress that it may be difficult for a child to process all of this. Make your request as simple as possible and be as generous as you need to with the help.
Step 3 – Wait and Watch
It is important to offer time and space for your child to respond. Depending on your child’s level of distress, you may find yourself waiting for what seems like an eternity. And this may be a good time for you to practice some mindfulness yourself. If you appear frantic or agitated, this will only add to your child’s distress and likely prolong the situation. Just remain near without responding verbally to the difficult behaviour, while you continue to show acceptance and empathy nonverbally. Do not respond to shouting, banging fists off the table, etc.. Instead, wait and watch for your child to display movement towards a more helpful behavior.
Step 4 – Reinforce (a reward that works)
Once your child engages in any form of positive or helpful behaviours as already discussed, be sure to acknowledge these efforts immediately. This may be as simple as listening attentively to your child as they more effectively communicate their frustrations through words. Or it might involve following through with that turn on the iPad with the brother. But this is how you’re helping to shape more helpful and productive behaviours in the future by demonstrating how effective these behaviours can work.
Need more help?
Modelling acceptance and compassion will help your child learn important skills, and strengthen your relationship with your child. It can be tough, and progress may seem slow at times, but very much worthwhile. And if you feel progress is too slow or need a bit of extra support yourself, get in touch. Or check our learning page to see when our next parenting series begins, aimed at supporting families of children who struggle with anxiety and emotion regulation.
Whittingham, K. (2015). Connect and shape: A parenting meta-strategy. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science, 4, 103-106.