Parenting SA

Parents talk about guiding behaviour

Positive approaches to guiding children's behaviour can:

  • lead to less behaviour drama in the family
  • help children develop skills for the future
  • build your relationship with your children.

Hear real-life stories from parents who’ve used these positive approaches, and how it worked for them.

This video is 23.32 minutes.


Hi, I’m Ann-Marie, Executive Director of the Early Years and Child Development Division of the South Australian Department for Education. I’m very pleased to be hosting this Parenting SA video where we’re going to look at how positive approaches to guiding children’s behaviour can:

  • lead to less behaviour drama in the family
  • help children develop skills for the future, and
  • build your relationship with your children.

We’re going to hear real-life stories from parents who’ve used these approaches, and how it worked for them. If what you hear interests you, there is more information on the Parenting SA website.

First, let’s hear how positive approaches to guiding behaviour worked in three families.

De: Parenting a 2-year-old, and an 8-year-old living with disability

If someone was going to ask me about using positive behaviours and using positive behaviours within my family and is that helpful, I would say, absolutely. Absolutely. Just do it. It changes everything. It changes the temperature of your household. You work together more as a team, than individuals head-butting each other. I found I actually already had a lot of the skills; I just didn't realise. So, it's actually not as hard as I thought it was going to be. The time I’ve invested in learning these skills has been really worth doing. So just do it.

Damian and Renee — Parenting a 2, 6 and 8-year-old

The most surprising things about using the positive strategies is the speed at which your relationship with your children can change. Especially I found with my 8-year-old. We had quite a fiery relationship because we’ve both got big emotions and that’s really re-set due to using positive approaches. We can have much more deep, meaningful conversations and build a much happier, fun relationship going forward, which is really exciting.

Lisa — Parenting a 10 and 11-year-old

The things that surprised me most about this approach were probably in terms of yeah how quickly they worked. Like, it was amazing. You'd try something out you know, you'd go a few days doing something the same way that you've always done it, and unsurprisingly you get the same result. And then you try something different and you know, wow, that was, how did that work? So that's been really good. But I think I was, as well…. the thing that surprised me about using this approach has been what I've learned about my kids and the things that have been unexpected about what I've learned about their personalities, and what they're capable of as well. They can do way more than I gave them credit for originally and they enjoy doing it as well. You know, they enjoy being more involved and having a bigger role in what happens with our family.

Narrator — Ann-Marie

So, what are positive approaches to behaviour all about?

They work with what the evidence tells us about children’s brain development. Children are born with a strong need for connection with parents and carers, and really want to cooperate and please them. This is because their survival depends on it. They’re also driven by a real need to feel capable and able to do things, and to make their own choices and decisions. When we work with these natural drivers, we’re meeting children’s basic needs, building our relationship, and giving them the chance to practise skills for the future.

Positive approaches also involve being clear about your family values, expectations, boundaries and limits. You can involve children from a young age in conversations about the kind of family you want to be. You might have family meetings, pizza nights or whatever works for you, and talk about what’s important to your family. It might be things like kindness, helping each other, staying safe, no hitting or name-calling. Children are more likely to adopt these expectations themselves, because they really feel involved in the family and that they’ve had a say. It’s a great way to build trust and understanding between you.

Damian and Renee — Parenting a 2, 6 and 8-year-old

I really like the idea that a family can have values that are what we're all about and what are really important things for us. So that was really insightful for us to have that discussion with our children that we're looking at establishing family values, and just each child, really just opening up about what they want our family to be like and what they are really passionate about. Some of them wanted to be an adventurous family and some of them wanted to be a connected family. So, some of the topics were quite adult in nature, but the kids understood them because I guess in today's world they do get exposed to a lot of mature concepts. It really gave us a really good insight into what our children are thinking and what kind of family they want us to be, which takes the pressure off us. They were enjoying being involved in it too, so they all got a certain number of votes for different types of values.

Narrator — Ann-Marie

Positive approaches also mean understanding that children’s behaviour is always communicating something, even if we don’t know what it is, and that children are doing the best they can at this stage of their development.

I mentioned that children need connection, that they have a strong desire to feel capable, to make choices and become more independent as they grow. When children push boundaries, it can sometimes be seen as naughtiness or disobedience, even defiance. However, they are like little scientists. They learn by doing, by getting an idea in their head and by testing it out. They need to find out what they are capable of and how the world works. This is part of normal development.

In a particular situation, they might be:

  • trying to meet a need or a desire in the best way they know how
  • trying to achieve something that makes sense in their mind
  • they may not be developmentally able to do what you expect of them
  • they may be tired, hungry or unwell, or
  • it might be something else that’s going on for them that you are not aware of.

When we understand what’s behind children’s behaviour, how we respond will be quite different. It becomes a chance to guide and teach, rather than to punish.

Salvatore — Parenting a 7-year-old

I was surprised indeed in this change of approach because prior to that my concern was if I'm softer he is going to take advantage of it because he's a very assertive and proud, stubborn little boy. But I found that it wasn't the case. I was surprised that he became more cooperative because he could save face when I gave him an instruction rather than an order. He could get the feeling that he was deciding to do it not because I forced him to do it. And that satisfies his pride, his self-determination. So instead of taking advantage he cooperates because he likes to be nice, he likes to be a good person, he likes to please me. But at the same time, he wants to be self-determined. He's a proud boy, so with a proud boy, that's the way to go.

Narrator — Ann-Marie

So, how should we respond if children’s behaviour is challenging?

The first step is to pause and calm yourself and not react from emotions, even though that might be the thing you want to do in the moment. You may feel irritated or angry or frustrated. Take a little break if you need to. When you stay calm you can think better and work out the best way to respond, and you’re showing your children that emotions can be managed.

It can also help to know your triggers, and what really pushes your buttons. Anticipating your emotions can make it easier to work on ways of staying calm.

This is what parents say about getting calm before responding.

Bridget — Parenting a 4 and 6-year-old

I think the really important thing that I learned from the positive approaches is the pause. That stopping and managing my emotions before I react to what the children are doing, so the pause, connect, and then having time to think of a new solution with the child. I think it's something that we all know, but it's something that we forget to do. Emotions can snowball and children take on the emotions you're exhibiting as well. So, if my children are yelling or grumpy, I can mirror their emotions. It’s making theirs even worse. So, if I can pause and stop and control myself, it's as simple as taking some breaths. Turn away, don't react straight away. The children can see that, and we can have a calmer discussion, deal with the emotions in the moment and then come back when we are both calm to find a new solution for the situation we are in.

Jade — Parenting a 5 and 8-year-old

So simple but so effective. Just in backing off a little bit and not being so hard on yourself. Just a simple, tiny little thing that you can change every day can make a massive difference in their behaviour, and ultimately that's what we want. We don't want to be yelling at our kids and things like that. So, I was most surprised something as tiny as, you know, learning to step back and take a breath and back-off can just change how you totally deal with that situation in the next moment.

Damian and Renee — Parenting a 2, 6 and 8-year-old

I'm more mindful of my parenting now, whereas before I was probably more ruled by emotions, how I was feeling, and then I just really respond from there. Whereas now I'm coming to a situation and I'm assessing it and I'm thinking about ,well, how am I feeling at this moment? Do I really have the emotional ability to deal with this in the way that I need to? How are they going? Are they particularly tired or are they really hungry? They definitely assess your emotion you’re bringing to the interaction with them. So, if you're going to come in hard they're going to equally meet you there.

Narrator — Ann-Marie

The next step is to help children become calm if they have big emotions. It’s scary for them to feel out-of-control. They can’t hear your guidance or learn until the emotional part of their brain is calm.

Staying with children and helping them manage their emotions is called ‘time in’. If you say things like, ‘I see you’re feeling really angry or cross about what’s happening’, you’re helping them name their feelings, and naming feelings is an important stage in learning to manage them.

Talk with children about the situation and show you really understand their point of view or what they were trying to achieve, even if you don’t agree or approve.

When children feel like you really ‘get them’, it builds trust and connection and they are likely to listen to your guidance. Even as adults, we all know we want to feel understood and children need this too.

Here’s what parents say about emotions and helping children to calm.

Georgina — Parenting a 3 and 5-year-old

Just recognising emotions a bit more rather than getting frustrated by them being frustrated. Kind of stopping and thinking about why…why the frustration’s there and kind of being with them rather than, you know, your instinct is to kind of, you know, ‘Stop being upset. Come on, it's fine. Calm down’. Now I’ll kind of stop and think well, the last thing I want to hear is, ‘Calm down’. And I think now I probably give more of an opportunity for them to have a cry and to kind of go, ‘You know, it's okay to be upset’ and allow them to have those tears and it's like, you know, once you are…you know, once you've got your tears out and you're feeling better, then let's talk about it. Let’s come back to me and, you know, have a talk about it rather than trying to solve it in that moment when everyone just ends up getting really upset.

Carolyn — Parenting a 5-year-old

Engaging with him on how he's feeling. I think that's been a big one, and just trying to figure out what's happening for him in that moment. Actual sitting down being with him and just talking to him about, ‘Okay, are you feeling angry? What are you feeling at the moment? Are you angry? Are you sad?'

De: Parenting a 2-year-old, and an 8-year-old living with disability

I engage them more. Instead of shutting down that big emotion that they're experiencing, I'm able to go, ‘Okay, I can I can see that you're sad’, or ‘I can see that you're angry’, and I can kind of help them travel through that experience, you know. ‘What is making you sad? Oh, your brother's stolen your truck. Okay, well why don't we talk about getting that truck back or playing a different game together?’ And they're definitely involved in that process more, but they're also understanding how they're feeling and how they're operating better. That big explosion emotion stuff lasts for less time because we can kind of work through it together.

Amelia — Parenting a 4-year-old

Hitting was something that was a problem a couple of months ago. My little boy is four-and-a-half and it was really confronting because he’s quite a gentle little soul and all of a sudden out of nowhere he would just explode and start pummelling me. And it was really quite upsetting because I thought I don’t know where this is coming from. This is not who I thought he was. And then I sort of had to reset and think well this isn’t who he is, he’s not a violent person, he’s not out to hurt me, he’s just really frustrated. So, he’s not allowed to watch another program on television because it’s bath time or he doesn’t want to eat this for dinner or just the smallest of things could set him off. And so just sitting down and having a bit of compassion and thinking you know when the printer at work stops doing what I want it to do, I want to throw it out the window. So, he’s trying to put his train set together and it’s not working so he’s thrown it across the room and then come at me because he doesn’t know how to deal with those emotions. And so dealing with that now, what I learnt to do was to talk to him about it and have empathy and say look I know you’re frustrated that’s really hard. The train set… you know, the bits don’t fit together like you want them to. Let’s do it together. Let’s work together. And yeah, just letting him know that I understand that life is hard and frustrating and even though he’s four-and-a-half, we have different issues that frustrate us but it’s all the same stuff at the end of the day and so he learnt to stop and think as well and to ask for help. And I said you know, I say still, because it happens still – we don’t hit, it’s not the way that we do things but also to let him know that I understand why he’s done that, and give him permission to feel but just to try to express himself in a different way and that seems to be working now.

Carolyn —parenting a 5-year-old

I spoke to him the other day about how, just setting, trying to set the, I suppose the beginnings of, norms in our family in terms of: Okay, I understand that you're angry, but I don't want to be punched. I don't find that very respectful. So, to actually understand that we as parents have feelings too.

Narrator — Ann-Marie

The next step is involving children in finding solutions to the situation.

Ask what they think. Encourage them to come up with ideas. Even young children have lots of good ideas. Discuss the suggestions and agree on a solution that works for both of you.

When children are involved in solutions and feel they have a say, they are much more committed to making things work. They are also practising very important life skills such as problem-solving, communication, negotiation and building a real sense of feeling capable.

Let them be involved and make choices within limits that are suitable for their age and development. As children develop more skills, their level of input and choice can increase. This is much more effective than telling children what to do.

This is how some parents involved their children in finding solutions.

Georgina — Parenting a 3 and 5-year-old

A way to build in some family values so things around helpfulness so it's you know we all help each other in the family. So, you know when everyone's kind of shouting at me that they're hungry and they want dinner and it’s like well if we can all help, we can get it on the table quicker. So, my son actually the other day he went and drew himself a task chart and stuck it on the fridge and said these are all the jobs I can do to help the family. He can set the table, he can give the cat biscuits and things like that. So he actually stuck it on the fridge and, yeah, drew all the pictures of the different activities that he can do to help and get things moving. So, yeah, so he'll automatically clear his plates from the table when you know I would not have thought that he could do that at five. Like just in terms of, just, yeah, we don't even remind him. He'll just get up and move his plates into the kitchen and, yeah, can reach everything. So, you know, I've put things at a level where they can all get to their stuff. So, she sees that and then she'll help as well. So he'll get things to pass on to her to set the table.

Tiffany — Parenting a 4-month-old and a 6-year-old. Co-parenting a 7, 9 and 11-year-old

I talked to my daughter about how we can get ready for school in the morning without all the drama. I've got my four-month-old as well that I'm trying to negotiate, and we're alone in the mornings because my partner leaves at 6:00 to go to work. So, we decided that it would be easier to wake up earlier and not rush and fight our way through traffic. That we actually could take our time and that she could actually play in the mornings. So instead of me nagging her every two seconds, ‘Come on, come on, we have to go’, I said to her, ‘Well, how about, what do you think if you're running late then you have to go to the drop-off zone because I won't have time to find a park and walk you to class?’And she said, ‘Yep. That's fair’. So, she then said, ‘Okay. How do I know what time it is?’ And I said, ‘Well, you make a chart in the morning of what you need to do. We'll put it on the fridge’. So, she drew pictures of what she had to do, we put it on the fridge and then I say to her, ‘Okay. You've got this amount of time. Let's go’. And I say, ‘Check off your things, and if you do them, you know without too much messing around, you'll be on time to not go to the drop-off zone’ and that's worked really well.

Damian and Renee — Parenting a 2, 6 and 8-year-old

Something new we've been focusing on is involving our children in part of the problem-solving. So, I guess we had an interesting situation where my daughter had just started a new sport and she'd got her new uniform and she was very excited about it and wanted to wear it the day before she actually needed it. And it was freezing cold. It was just a tiny pair of shorts and a t-shirt, and I was quite against this fearing that it was going to get dirty — it's white and red. So, she was very adamant that she wanted to wear it, but I knew that she wouldn't want to wear it dirty the next day. So it was a real…I could see she was really going to really dig her heels in. So I was able to just kind of take a pause and think about her and validate her and say, ‘Yes, wow, I really can see that you love your uniform and that you are really enjoying wearing it, but…’. And then I was able to just really share with her the potential implications of what might have happened if she'd worn it where she wasn't meant to. And you could see her mind was ticking over. She still wanted to wear it though. And then I was able to say to her, ‘Well what do you think we can do in this situation? What is it that you would like to do?’ And we were able to just kind of dig into what it was about this situation that she really wanted. And it was really just that she wanted to show it to her neighbours, so we were able to come to the agreement where she could wear another…she wanted to wear shorts, she could wear a different pair of shorts but she was able to take the uniform with her and show everybody and it was still pristine for the next day, I guess. So, it was just nice to be able to say, ‘Oh, right’ and I don't have to have all the pressure on me and make all the decisions to come up with all the options. They can actually help. I mean, it's actually a lot more validating for them. Validating and peaceful for us. Yeah, which was really great.

Ellen — Parenting a 4 and 7-year-old

If they have problems, I will ask them you know I asked them, ‘What do you think? What do we need to do to fix that?’ What we needed to do to do that better. For example, I will ask, ‘If you get a chance to do it again, what will you do differently?’ Even though I have those leading questions probably, eventually, most of the time the answer will be still from me. But I would just hope you know they could give them something to start thinking about, even though they don't know the answer now. And I mean, they're still quite young.

Narrator — Ann-Marie

This way of guiding behaviour will take practice if it’s new to you. Each time you use this approach, the situation will be different, but you’ll become more confident the more you do it.

When you give children room to make choices and decisions within your safe boundaries and expectations, it reduces their resistance. It supports their push for independence while ensuring children stay safe as they learn. It also means you can both be part of the solution and there is no need for a power struggle.

It’s about influencing your child and their behaviour rather than controlling them. Changing what you do will change what they do.

And now a last word from two parents. They say that positive approaches don’t mean being a permissive parent or a perfect parent.

Amelia — Parenting a 4-year-old

I see guiding children’s behaviour in a positive way not as permissive at all. I believe it’s a way of having empathy and it’s a way of balancing power, nurturing children, understanding that they’re humans, little people, that have the same issues that we have on a different level. I don’t see that listening to your child, trying to understand what they’re feeling, having empathy for the situation that they’re in – I see that as a really positive way of guiding them through life, not as being permissive. It’s different to giving in all the time to their demands. It’s not spoiling a child, it’s creating a relationship in which you both get what you need and what you want and it’s helping to nurture that child’s personality and the person that they’re meant to be or become. If we’re constantly nagging, if we’re constantly making them submit to our power because we’re the parent, that dynamic just doesn’t work and I think we see that in broader society. You know, when we see each other eye-to-eye things work out much better. You know, it’s a democracy that we live in so I think if you see your family more in that way where you can sit down and negotiate. And negotiation isn’t giving in. It’s making sure that everyone gets what they need and what they want.

Lana — Parenting a 2 and 5-year-old

So, when we talk about changing behaviour in our family, I was thinking more of learning to be like a perfect mum and to make this beautiful, perfect family that everyone's behaved so well and they're all cheery and they're all happy. But I learned that that's not life and that's like a dream. So I think my thinking changed a lot. I learned that there's no such a thing as a perfect mum and there's no such thing as a perfect child or a husband. It is how we work through our day-to-day life problems and overcome them positively and become a very strong family.

Narrator — Ann-Marie

Thank you for watching and we really hope you found this useful. If you need help and support with your own situation, please contact a health professional.

You can find out more information about positive approaches to guiding behaviour on the Parenting SA website.

More information on positive approaches to guiding behaviour (2 to 12 years) (PDF 199KB).


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Last Updated:
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