Parenting: Managing Stop Behaviors for 2yr-12yr

I have always heard how important it is to have clear rules and expectations and to be consistent in discipline.  However, I’ve also read books about being empathetic and using teachable moments to mold my child’s heart.  I struggled with consistency as a parent.  I didn’t like disciplining my children so I tended to try to talk them out of their behavior and as you can imagine it quickly turned into the child getting their way or me getting too emotional.

To counsel parents with behavioral concerns I came across this book: 1-2-3 Magic: The New 3-Step Discipline for Calm, Effective, and Happy Parenting by Thomas W. Phelan, PhD.  I found that it is incredibly practical in providing tools that give parents the skills needed to provide that consistent discipline in a safe, loving way.  

The 1-2-3 Magic Program focuses on 3 main objectives

  • Managing difficult behavior – This is what this article is summarizing.
  • Promoting positive behavior – Charts, timers, and schedules are the main ingredients in this section.
  • Strengthening relationships- This where those other helpful books about molding your child’s heart and connecting to their emotions come in- not in the middle of stop behaviors.

A common mistake in parenting is that we expect very young children to learn like adults. When they behave in an inappropriate way we give long explanations of why they shouldn’t behave that way.  Often all of this talking can become overwhelming and confusing to the child. In early childhood children are more concrete learners. They are learning through experience and by copying behaviors they see.

The second common mistake is that parents can get too emotional. This emotion can quickly escalate to a full grown adult temper tantrum and sadly even abuse.

For stop behaviors (hitting, biting, whining, complaining, arguing, talking back, etc…) don’t go into long explanations and don’t get emotional.  Instead, show your child that this behavior is not acceptable by calmly implementing the 1,2,3 Magic Method- “Start counting!” (I wish I had read this book when my kids were younger!)

Here is my summary of Dr. Phelan’s  

1, 2, 3 Magic Method for Stop Behaviors:

  1. When a child does a “stop behavior” such as arguing, you simply count “That’s 1”
  2. Now the child has a choice to either stop the behavior or keep going.
  3. If he keeps going then you say, “That’s 2”
  4. The child has another chance to stop his “countable behavior”.
  5. If he keeps going then you say, “That’s 3. Take a break.” Some behaviors are serious enough, such as biting or hitting, that the parent can skip 1 and 2 and jump straight to “That’s 3. Take a break.”
  6. The child must then go to the designated break area for the allotted time- 1 minute for each year of age. It works well to use the child’s bedroom as the break area. Parents don’t talk or interact with the child during break time.  The child has no requirement, other than being removed from the situation and being required to stop the problem behavior. It’s best not to have any electronic devices in break time.  
  7. When the time is up, notify the child that break time is over. Don’t talk about it. Just go back to your regular activities.

Consistency is the magic ingredient that will help this method work.

Here are some tips for how to be consistent:

  1. As parents, decide that you are both adopting this method.  If there are grandparents or nannies that also have responsibility for the child’s care, they should be taught the method as well. It’s important to back up any other caretaker that has chosen to count so that the child will respect their authority as well.
  2. Next, decide which behaviors are countable behaviors. These are behaviors that are not acceptable in your home.  They can include complaining, arguing, fighting, etc.. This is how this method can work across cultures and personalities. Some parents may count a behavior that another parent might choose not to.  The key is consistently count the behaviors that you believe should be stopped.
  3. Explain to your children that you will be implementing the counting method.  Sit down as a family and talk about the behaviors that will be counted. Show them where the designated break area is located. Then, act out an example of how it works.
  4. Finally, be prepared to count.  You can expect children to test out this method. They may get all the way to three to see if you will follow through on sending them to break time.
  5. Most children will go to break time as soon as you say it.  Others may need to be walked to their room.  Remember, no talking.  Some strong-willed children will need to be carried to break time. They may even throw a fit in their designated break area. That’s okay. For younger children, they can come out of break time when the timer goes off. For older children simply explain “Your break time doesn’t start until the fit stops.” As soon as they are done throwing a fit, set the timer for designated time based on their age.  Remember to stay calm. Afterall, you have a method that works and they’ll soon figure that out.
  6. The first few days can be difficult as the whole family adjusts to this method. But, after time you will notice that children will most often choose to stop the behavior with the first or second count and won’t even need to take a break.
  7. Counting in public and when friends are over is equally important. In public, you may choose to take the child out to the car where you will sit with them until their time is up.  A bench will also work. It just needs to be somewhere away from the action. 

Other behaviors are “start behaviors”.  These are behaviors that take more energy and attention  such as the activities of daily living: brushing teeth, getting dressed, doing chores, doing homework, etc… The counting method shouldn’t be used for those behaviors.  

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