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How to change your kid’s behavior, according to the host of a hit parenting podcast

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Let’s say my three-year-old son just hit his sister. That is not at all good behavior. But if I base my mindset on the idea that my kid is “good inside,” then I can activate curiosity. Why is my kid hitting his sister?

When I don’t operate from that foundation, it’s easy to put frustration, anger and judgment in the driver’s seat and think, “What is wrong with my kid? Do I have kids who are never going to get along?”

The idea of “good inside” [helps parents] see the identity of our kid as separate from a descriptor of a behavior.

So let’s walk through how you would deal with your son in this situation. Your first step, you say, is to address the hitting.

Right. So I might say [to my son], “I’m not going to let you hit your sister.” Then I’d look at my daughter and say, “Ouch, I know that hurt. That wasn’t OK.”

And instead of disciplining the kid who’s hitting, which is what my instinct would be as a parent, your approach is to actually connect with that child. To you, that means making an effort to understand what’s going on and help them feel confident, capable and worthy. What does that look like in the real world?

So let’s stay with the hitting example. A “connection-first” experience [from a parent would be like]: whoa, it’s clearly not OK to hit and also I have a good kid. He’s struggling. I should connect to him. [To do that], I’m going to look at my son and say, “You’re having a hard time. I’m here. We’re going to figure it out together.” I am connecting to the kid having a hard time.

I’m not hearing any consequences to your son for hitting his sister. Some parents might take issue with that — for many, disciplining is a way to show kids that what they’re doing is wrong. Why do you prefer connection over behavior correction, as you say in your book?

[Chastising a child when they exhibit bad behavior] only increases their shame and belief inside of, “See? This part of me is so bad and so unlovable.”

What happens if a parent chooses the discipline route and yells at their child for hitting? How can they repair the connection with their kid?

The key elements to a repair — or some version of saying you’re sorry — is sharing your reflections with your kid about what happened, then saying what you wish you had done differently.

Something like, “Hey, last week something happened and maybe you’re not remembering it, but I’m remembering it and I want to bring it up again. I yelled at you big time. I was having a lot going on at work and I was having big feelings that came out in a yelling voice. And just like we talk about you learning to manage feelings, well, guess what? I’m still learning that too. It’s never your fault when I yell. I love you.”

Listen to the full interview with Becky Kennedy on Life Kit.

The audio portion of this episode was produced by Sylvie Douglis. The digital story was edited by Malaka Gharib. We’d love to hear from you. Leave us a voicemail at 202-216-9823, or email us at LifeKit@npr.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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