Motivate and encourage self-esteem with young children

By promoting autonomy, parents support their children’s individuality, empowerment and self-determination. In fact, autonomy-supportive parenting is associated with all sorts of positive child outcomes, such as increased school adjustment and psychosocial functioning (Joussemet, Landry & Koestner, 2008).

Dealing with fears and challenges is a part of life; but when parents provide a combination of empathy and encouragement (in cartoon: “You’ve trained so hard, so give it everything you’ve got”), children develop the self-confidence to safely explore the world and try new things. Helping children sooth themselves during stressful times (e.g., by taking a deep breath) is also a good coping mechanism that kids can implement on their own in a variety of situations. When children deal with challenges, optimistic parents who remind children of their past successes, enhance their children’s resilience while fostering belief in future endeavors (in cartoon: “Remember, last time you did great”). Such challenges need also to be approached with unconditional love, such that children know that, regardless of mistakes, their parents will love them no matter what. This warm, loving and supportive parenting style improves children’s confidence while empowering them with the knowledge and tools necessary to approach life as fully capable individuals.

It is also important that you point out that success comes from hard work and not intelligence or talent. If your child does well on a task, you might say, “you are so talented” or “you are so smart!”. According to research by Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University, praising children for their natural ability can be counter productive. Once people start to think that success is linked to skills and talent (versus hard work), they tend to think that failures come from their lack of natural abilities. This often results in a person giving up early rather than persisting through difficulty.

Instead, praise your children for their hard work (“You have really worked hard at that”). Studies show that focusing on the effort and determination makes people better at overcoming future obstacles. However, Carol Dweck also points out that you should only give praise for hard work if hard work was indeed performed (empty praise is counter productive).

Key take-aways to encourage your child’s self-esteem:

1) Empower your child and promote independence.

2) When doubt happens, encourage your child by reminding them of past successes (in cartoon: “Remember, last time you were stressed, but you still did great”).

3) Success comes from hard work, and not just intelligence or talent. If your child has worked hard and does well on a task, be quick to praise them (in cartoon: “You’ve trained so hard”).


Connecting before disciplining

Proponents of positive discipline argue that punishments should not be used. Research shows that punishment is generally not the best way to solve problems, and we have offered in this book a variety of alternative strategies proven to be more effective (see Magic Ways 1 to 5). Parents often perceive punishment to be a good strategy because they think it will help their child experience consequences and learn from mistakes to avoid repeating the same behavior. However, the reality is that punishment is often accompanied by anger, and anger rarely works to convince a child that they should behave differently.

Research shows that punished children often build up resentment toward the punisher, with negative consequences including resentment toward and rebellion against parents (Nelsen, 20067). Punishment remains a popular strategy with most parents, because it is an easy way to feel in control, even if it rarely works. We suggest replacing hard punishment and anger with:

1) Connecting and suggesting fun alternatives (as outlined in Magic Ways 1 to 5),

2) Respectful discipline, which defines firm boundaries and consequences ahead of time, in a positive and calm way.
Key components of respectful discipline include:

1) Setting expectations ahead of time. Discuss the consequences with your child before the events occur. The child should agree that the consequences are fair (the child can even contribute to deciding which consequences are appropriate). Parents should also keep consequences related to the offense (for example, a child can no longer use their bike for a day if they forget to put their helmet on).

2) Asking your child to describe the consequences back to you. This is a very simple and helpful technique to verify that the expectations have been clearly set and understood by your child. You might find that your child was not listening at all, or did not understand the expectations.

3) Enforcing in a calm manner. If the negative event occurs (for example, a child hits a sibling), parents should firmly, but calmly, implement the consequence, as soon as the situation has calmed down and tension is no longer running high.

4) Enforcing consistently. It is important to consistently enforce consequences when negative events take place.

Key take-aways to connecting before disciplining:

1) Anger and punishments rarely work as disciplining strategies.

2) Before implementing discipline, parents should first connect and use strategies from Magic Ways 1 to 5.

3) If all fails, parents should follow respectful discipline as a calm way to set firm boundaries, without building resentment. This includes setting expectations ahead of time, asking the child to describe the consequences and enforcing the consequences consistently and in a calm manner.


Using time-outs to stop tantrums

The Magic Ways outlined earlier in this book (Magic Ways 1 to 5) are very effective in most situations, but will not prevent all tantrums all of the time. For more extreme tantrums or situations where tension runs high, such as a fight with siblings, younger children might find themselves too overwhelmed with emotions. Listening, showing empathy and suggesting fun solutions might not be enough for parents to help defuse these tantrums. In these more extreme cases, parents have found success with time-out strategies. With time-outs, parents decide to take their children to a “quiet zone” where the child gets the opportunity to calm down and regain composure. A “quiet zone” is a safe area where children can retreat to cool down. Jane Nelsen, Ed.D. writes in her book “Positive discipline” that “strong emotions can feel overwhelming to a young child. A positive time-out gives them an opportunity to calm down and catch their breath, so they are able to work with you to solve the problem”. A quiet zone will help them become calmer in a safe place, without further engaging in fights or arguments.

But how can parents use quiet zones in an effective way? Thomas W. Phelan, Ph.D., author of “1-2-3 Magic”, recommends that parents calmly count to 3 before asking a child to go to their quiet zones. Counting to three gives children opportunities to calm down and change their behaviors. Here is how Thomas W. Phelan describes the process of counting to three, and enforcing the time-out when children continue their tantrums: “You hold up one finger, look down at your noisy little devil, and calmly say, “that’s 1”. He doesn’t care. He’s insane with rage (…). You let five seconds go by, then you hold up two fingers and say “that’s 2”. That’s all you say. But you get the same lousy reaction. So after five more seconds, you hold up three fingers and say “that’s 3”. Take five.” In this case, the child did not stop the tantrum when the parent counted to three, so the child will need to go to their quiet zone for a time-out. We recommend that children stay in their quiet zone for 1 minute for year of age (3 minutes for a 3-year old child, and 5 minutes for a 5-year old child). After a few minutes in their quiet zone and after regaining their composure, children can return to the original setting and work out solutions with the help of their parents. Nothing is said about the argument or the tantrum, as it is not desirable at this point to get into a heated discussion again.

When parents first implement the time-out strategy, children will likely not be responsive to this new method and will continue their tantrums. This means that parents will need to use the quiet zone quite often in the first few days. However, after a few days, children will start understanding the consequences of their behavior, and will start calming down after “1” or “2” and be more open to a constructive discussion to find solutions to their problems. The time-out method gives parents an easy method to respond to tantrums that seem out of control, and gives children an opportunity to understand that screaming or crying are not appropriate nor expected ways to behave. The method is not always easy to implement, however, as it often requires parents to be consistent and persevere for a few days, when children may be not responsive to the new method.
Key take-aways to using time-outs to stop tantrums:

1) Parents and children can build a “quiet zone”. In this safe area, children can retreat to cool down and regain composure in situations where tension runs high.

2) Parents count to 3 before asking a child to go to their quiet zone. Counting to 3 gives the child an opportunity to calm down and change their behaviors.

3) At first, children may not be responsive to this new method and may continue their tantrums. However, after a few days, they will start understanding the consequences of their behavior, and will start calming down after “1” or “2”. The process can initially feel a bit nerve-racking for the parents. However, parents need to remain consistent in their enforcement as everyone learns this new method.


Words to help children avoid conflicts on their own

Fights and tantrums can often arise when children play together. Children may struggle to manage emotions and lack the ability to communicate effectively with other children. Not having the skills to navigate the complex world of social interactions leaves children with few tools to manage them. As a result, children may resort to physical responses such as screaming, pushing, or fighting. Naturally, this escalates conflicts and can result in full-blown fights, leaving parents perplexed as to how to help children through these conflicts.

Learning to avoid these conflicts in a peaceful way through calm communication is an important life skill that can be learned early. Parents can proactively teach their children to avoid conflicts on their own by using simple words or sentences such as “Please give my body space” or “Can I play with this toy?”. By learning to use these simple words in common challenging situations, children may be able to avoid fights or tantrums on their own without parental intervention. Teaching and modeling these behaviors requires parents to be patient and persistent. However, these efforts will ultimately pay off with children developing improved conflict resolution and social development skills.

Cartoon 12 presents four examples of simple words that parents can teach their children to avoid common conflicts.


Prevent tantrums before they even start

Unfortunately, most parents follow a reactionary approach and try to find solutions only after a challenging situation has started. This results in parents constantly trying to resolve conflicts as they happen, multiple times per day. Because of this reactionary approach, these challenging situations keep happening again and again, pushing parents to the brink of mental exhaustion (“You can share, it’s not that complicated!!”).

Parents can work proactively to prevent some tantrums from happening altogether. Cartoons 10 and 11 present an easy step-by-step method to proactively identify and reduce tantrums and challenging situations. We will take the example of a family experiencing frequent fights between siblings over toys (cartoon 10) and challenging car rides (cartoon 11). Cartoon 12 gives simple examples of words you can teach children to help them prevent conflicts on their own.

Cartoons for this Magic Way:

Cartoon 10: Proactively prevent tantrums (fights over toys).

Cartoon 11: Proactively prevent tantrums (road rage).

Cartoon 12: Words to help children prevent conflicts on their own.

Set rules

Easy ways to set expectations ahead of time

There are two easy ways for parents to proactively prevent issues in day-to-day interactions with their children by clearly and explicitly set expectations ahead of time:

1) Show the way: show your child exactly what is expected of them instead of just asking them to do something. Too often, parents describe what they perceive to be simple instructions (in cartoon: “be gentle with the pet” or “be quiet”) but children don’t necessarily have a good understanding of what “gentle” or “quiet” really mean to the parent in a specific situation. A child’s understanding of being “quiet” can be very different from the parent’s understanding. This is particularly true with young children (age 2-5). Showing the way in a very explicit and obvious manner will leave no room for interpretation (in cartoon: “Be gentle… just like this…”, and “Listen, this is how I whisper. Can you whisper?”).

2) Rehearse ahead of time: setting clear expectations ahead of time can be a simple method to get the results you want, without the fights or the tantrums. Instead of trying to correct the child’s bad behavior (“You are too loud” or “Your shoes are not on the shoe rack”), parents can simply identify challenging situations ahead of time, and remind their child about expectations (in cartoon: “Do you remember where to put your shoes inside?”). When kids know what is expected, they are more likely to deliver, and parents can avoid having to correct their child, which neither the parent nor the child will enjoy (“You forgot to put the shoes on the rack!”). A reminder ahead of time is more likely to elicit a positive action, and less likely to create resentment.

See next page for cartoons illustrating examples to show the way and rehearse ahead of time.

Set rules

Set rules ahead of time to avoid fights

There’s one universal truth about kids: they are noisy, which can be highly challenging for family members. To address this effectively, parents need to set clear boundaries and expectations while using non-harsh, positive discipline practices. Providing expectations and consequences for behavior ahead of time also teaches children accountability and responsibility. The manner in which appropriate expectations are delivered is essential to achieving good outcomes. Diana Baumrind, a clinical developmental psychologist known for her research on parenting styles, recommends a balanced “authoritative parenting” style: authoritative parents set rules and limits and expect a high level of maturity and cooperation from their children. However, contrary to “authoritarian” parents, “authoritative parents” offer children lots of emotional support. When children make mistakes, authoritative parents help children understand what went wrong, explaining the consequences of good and bad behavior. This warm, democratic parenting style, which balances authority with emotional support, is associated with a variety of positive outcomes for children and adolescents, including increased school achievement and reduced risky behaviors (Steinberg, Elmen, & Mounts, 1989; DeVore & Ginsburg, 2005).

When children misbehave, we recommend that parents act not as tough disciplinarians but rather, as teachers. As our children’s teachers, our goal is to respectfully and calmly enforce rules, but also give them choices and positively reinforce good behaviors (in cartoon: “You can use your inside voice here, or go to your bedroom where you can be as loud as you want”). Authoritative parenting is administered in a way that is firm and loving at the same time. Such discipline is also preventative, as it means ensuring that children know family rules and consequences ahead of time (in cartoon: “Can you remind me the rules when you are inside the house?”). Reviewing such expectations serves to avoid the problems all together.

Noisy behavior can also occur when children are playing well together. Not such a bad thing! The fact that they are engaging in positive play should be rewarded (in cartoon: “You boys are doing such a great job playing together!”). While parents may want to address the noise level, they also want to continue encouraging creative play. To help accomplish this, parents can present choices or fun alternatives. If kids are not allowed to be loud in certain areas of the house and need to go to their bedroom, reminding them of this rule should be carried-out calmly and without anger. With this method, both parents and children win: parents achieve their desired outcome without resentment and children continue to enjoy their boisterous fun!
Key take-aways to set rules ahead of time:

1) Make sure that children are aware of rules ahead of time, and agree that rules make sense. You can ask the children to describe the rules back to you to make sure they understand and know them.

2) Discipline positively. You are a teacher, not a punisher. Rules are set to protect everyone’s safety and well-being (in cartoon: “We have to use our inside voice”), not to punish (in ‘What to avoid’ cartoon: “That’s it. I’m taking the toys away”).

3) When a child fails to abide by the rules, your job as a teacher is to give them reminders (in cartoon: “Can you remind me the rules inside the living room?”). You can even exaggerate in a playful way (“oh nooo… someone forgot the rule!”).

4) Suggest fun alternatives. This will help you avoid being perceived as the punisher. See Magic Way 2 for details.

Set rules

Set rules and expectations ahead of time

All parents experience issues with temper tantrums or fights between children. When tantrums happen, parents often perceive their children to be unreasonable and struggle to figure out how to best respond to these challenging episodes. Unfortunately, most parents follow a reactionary approach, trying to find solutions only after the challenging situation has started.

Preventing a problem from happening in the first place is actually easier. Setting rules and expectations ahead of time with young children will help avoid these tantrums happening in the first place. Parents must become skilled at defining clear boundaries, rules, and consequences, as well as communicating their expectations clearly and explicitly to their children ahead of time.

Cartoon 8 shows how setting rules ahead of time can help sort out a tricky situation with kids playing loudly. Cartoon 9 also shows quick and easy ways to proactively prevent issues before they happen.

Cartoons for this Magic Way:

Cartoon 8: Set rules ahead of time and enforce with calm (kids playing loudly).

Cartoon 9: Easy ways to set expectations ahead of time.

Fun solutions

Fun solutions to avoid a fight

Bickering children have been known to fray their parents’ nerves. Oftentimes, parents are not sure how to deal with fights and, in an effort to simply make them stop, don’t always make the most thoughtful decisions. For example, well-meaning parents may jump into their children’s arguments as referees or judges, trying to determine “who started it” or “which toy belongs to whom.” Excluding violent or dangerous conflicts, parenting experts suggest a different approach.

For example, the ‘Love and Logic’ method described by Cline and Faye (2006) suggests that parents “just go brain dead” during conflicts. What they mean is that parents should not argue; but remain calm, show empathy, and express their love for their children. They suggest that parents might say: “I love you too much to argue.” This does not mean giving-in; as ‘Love and Logic’ parenting is not permissive. Parent still need to make children accountable for behavior by understanding the consequences. But when these messages are communicated in a loving way, children are less likely to regard their parents as the enemy.

Similarly, noted positive parenting and sibling rivalry expert, Amy McCready (2019), suggests that parents stay out of squabbles about who is right, unless absolutely necessary. In doing so, parents are not reinforcing the disagreements; but rather, are enabling children to work out solutions together (in cartoon : “Let’s play with the yoga balls, and then find a solution together”). Parents are often surprised how often children can work out solutions together, without parents telling them what to do. McCready also suggests that parents put all children “in the same boat.” In other words, rather than trying to negotiate “who did what,” if all children involved in the conflict receive the same consequence, they learn that they each will benefit from getting along in the future (e.g., “If you both cannot play together with the toy, you will need to find something else to do”). When parental intervention is needed, it should be done calmly and without taking sides.

Distracting children with another fun activity or toy (in cartoon: the yoga balls or the volcano) is often helpful with younger children, as is modeling deep-breathing exercises that help calm the chaos. A cooling-off period is actually advantageous for both children and parents, who sometimes need to take a few breaths too! When both children and parents are more relaxed, they are better able to reduce frustration and determine positive solutions and fun alternatives.

Key take-aways to suggest fun alternatives to avoid fights:

1) Calmly interrupt the conflict (in cartoon: “Max, Klara, let me show you something very cool”), for example by using calming toys that are exclusively used when a child needs to calm down. Distracting children with another fun activity is often helpful, as is modeling deep-breathing exercises that help calm the chaos (in cartoon: “Look at these yoga balls”).

2) Do not take sides. If children can’t work out a solution, put all children “in the same boat”: if all children involved in the conflict get the same consequence, they learn that they will benefit from getting along in the future.

3) Do not argue. Parents should remain calm and show empathy.

4) Enable children to work out solutions together (in cartoon: “We’re going to relax, and then find a solution”). If they are old enough, you can even ask them to come up with a solution. You might be surprised how often children are able to find a solution you had not considered.

5) Find fun alternatives to help children step away from the conflict to focus on a more positive activity.

Fun solutions

Suggest fun alternatives to avoid a tantrum (child who wants to play outside)

Sometimes kids have pretty strange ideas about fun activities, such as building a hut outside when it is pouring rain (see cartoon). When their requests are denied, they feel frustrated and angry that their wants and needs are – yet again – vetoed by unfair parents who keep telling them what to do. Rather than simply denying requests, parents need to direct children toward more appropriate interests and fun alternatives without breaking their spirits. In doing so, parents avoid the negative consequences of constantly denying requests (in cartoon: “I don’t think you can. It is raining”), which may build resentment toward parents, revenge to get back at parents, rebellion against parents, and retreat, that may involve becoming sneaky or experiencing a loss of self-esteem (Nelsen, 2006).

By practicing non-critical parenting, parents show children that their ideas are valued (in cartoon: “It sounds like so much fun!”) even when parents have no intention of engaging in their children’s plans. Such situations are perfect for the ‘incompatible alternative principle’ of positive discipline (Kersey, 2006); wherein parents provide children with a new behavior to substitute for the undesirable one. For example, parents could suggest building a hut inside, rather than outside in the rain. Parents skilled at finding fun alternatives are more likely to get the child’s cooperation and, as a result, more likely to avoid tantrums altogether.

Suggesting several fun alternatives is also effective because children feel a sense of empowerment when given choices. Providing a reasonable compromise or a couple of alternate options (which are acceptable to the parent) helps the child feel a sense of control. It is a win-win situation for both parents and children. Additionally, brainstorming with children and involving them in decision-making to find alternative options teaches them valuable problem-solving skills and can be even more effective. After all, since “children are born good, are altruistic and desire to do the right thing” (Godfrey, 2019); gently and respectfully guiding them in win-win positive directions fosters cooperation.

It is even better if parents suggest activities that involve parental interaction (in cartoon: “How about we build a hut right in your bedroom?”). Positive involvement, accompanied by parental participation, builds lifelong memories and strong family connections. There is no substitute for getting down on the floor and playing with children. This supportive, involved parenting teaches social skills and is also associated with positive school adjustment and reduced behavior issues. It is a creative and fun solution to short-term problems, that has long-term benefits.

Key take-aways to suggest fun alternatives to avoid tantrums:

1) When a child makes an unreasonable request, your natural tendency might be to deny the request with a logical explanation (in cartoon: “You can’t go outside, it is raining”). However, this approach is likely to lead to a tantrum. Research also shows this builds resentment toward the parent.

2) Instead, show true empathy. This shows the child how much you understand and relate to them (in cartoon: “I know how much you want to build a hut in the garden”).

3) Show children that their ideas are valued (in cartoon: “That sounds like a lot of fun!”), even if what they are asking for might not be possible.

4) Provide children with new behaviors to substitute for the undesirable one, such as building a hut inside, rather than outside. Children feel empowered when given choices. The key is to make it playful and fun.