Language & Discipline: Finding positive words for negative behaviour

father holding his crying baby girl at home

According to my dictionary the word ‘Parenting‘ is almost 100 years old even though the role has been around for ages. The definition is very simple: “the raising of a child by its parents,” but most parents would agree that this does not properly describe the really complicated and difficult job of parenting. Negative behaviour or ‘misbehaviours’ are one big reason why I find parenting very challenging.  The second is how easily I can lose my patience and respond out of frustration.

My son and daughter were just 13 months of age when they became a handful. They had learned how to walk and their increasing independence meant that I was constantly trying to stop them from going places or grabbing things to put in their mouth.

When I reached out to grab them, or hold them back – I used many different words like:

“No!” “Noooo!”

“No, no, noooo!” and my personal favorites,

“Nooo, don’t!” and finally, “What are you doing?!” 

I guess I was too exhausted to realize that they were not learning very much from my actions since they kept doing the same things over and over again.

A parent’s voice has the power to either inspire trust or create fear

Research tells us that a child’s response to a what a parent says has a lot to do with the child’s temperament, the parent’s words, and the parent’s ‘prosody’ which is a combination of pitch, intonation, loudness and rhythm of voice (you can hear those differences when comparing soothing, joyful and angry voices). It explains that a child’s temperament is unique and may not change, but that a parent’s voice has the power to either  inspire trust or create fear, and that a parent’s words can either increase a child’s understanding, or cause the child’s frustration to skyrocket.

The “DO” Command

My parenting style changed a lot after a nursing colleague introduced me to the concept of ‘do commands’. Imagine you go for a walk with your toddler and they start to run too quickly. You have two options of what to say:

Option A

“Stop” command: “Simone, stop running! Slow Down, no running! Stop it!”

Option B

Do command: “Simone, walk please! Walk slowly, please! Look, Dada is walking.”

Can you see the powerful difference between these two examples?

Only one example positively explains what the parent wants the child to do and uses labelling and modelling techniques that are so important in language learning and development. The parent is redirecting the child’s attention to a word target to achieve a behavioural goal: walk slowly like Dada does.

Option A mostly uses the negative expression of what the parent does not want the child to do and is unlikely to get the same results that positive parenting techniques do over time.

Tips to remember when your child misbehaves:

  • Try to understand why your child is misbehaving:
    • Are they tired or hungry?
    • Do they need attention, space or more independence?
    • Are they reacting to your mood, siblings or recent changes?
    • Are they too young or physically unable to do what you expect of them?
    • Remain calm and respond thoughtfully.
  • Ignore mildly irritating behaviour.

Learn more about positive discipline on our Parenting site.

Also, if your child is not meeting their expressive language or speech milestones, tell your child’s doctor and call Early Abilities to refer your child for a speech and language assessment at (416) 338-8255 or visit our website to make an online referral.

As of April 1, 2022 the Preschool Speech and Language, Blind-Low Vision and Infant Hearing programs have moved from Toronto Public Health (Early Abilities) to Surrey Place. To register for services or learn more about the programs, please visit Surrey Place or call 416-925-5141.

One thought on “Language & Discipline: Finding positive words for negative behaviour

  1. Wonderful reminder! Our 3 1/2-year-old has become very “opinionated” for lack of a better word – lately and dealing with outbursts can sometimes be extremely challenging.

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