Parenting Dilemmas: Managing Behaviour with Understanding and Empathy

Parenting styles have changed over the generations. The amount of parenting theories and approaches now publicised are mind-boggling for parents. The pros and cons of how you discipline a child are long debated. The ‘right’ way of doing things is sought after despite every child having different needs and every parent-child relationship having its own dynamic. As a parent, you will have an experience in mind of how you were parented. You will either work to replicate this (“it worked for me”) or you might actively try to be different; to correct for those things you found difficult from your parents as a child. Many parents report not feeling able to parent in the way they were parented because approaches have now moved on. Perhaps it worked at the time for you but this might not be the ‘norm’ today. Given this, it is no wonder parenting comes with so much second-guessing and self-doubt. So, what are the things to consider and hold in mind when parenting your child?

  • Being able to hold in mind your child’s experience is key. In this way, we can think about what thoughts, feelings or intentions are behind their behaviours. Being curious about what might be underlying their actions can give us the ability to respond in a more empathic and attuned way. If we can make sense of why they are doing what they are doing, we can more accurately understand their needs in that moment.
  • If we can think about their needs, we are in a better position to know what they need from us in our response. Is their behaviour all over the place because they need discipline from us? Or is it that they are struggling with their feelings and need some reassurance and support to calm themselves down? Do they need some attention (as we all do) and are seeking it in the way they know how? Are they feeling worried or unsure and they need some guidance?
  • In thinking about tricky behaviour, it is helpful to start from a position of “what is going to help them learn to do something different for next time?”. Discipline is fundamentally about learning which can sometimes be missed in some behaviour management approaches.
  • It is worth thinking about how your child experiences your response or your discipline. Does it provoke more anger and dysregulation when they were already struggling to calm themselves down? Does it induce strong feelings of shame which raises their defences? Once in this position, any of us would struggle to learn much from the situation. Are you experienced as a calm and measured parent who offers a safe base from which to learn? Or are you perceived as unpredictable and someone to be wary of?
  • As difficult as it is, much of the time, the behaviour we need to change first is our own. We need to try and stay calm so that we can offer a thought through response. Not only is this going to prove more effective, we are also modelling an exceptionally important skill for our children. This is not to say it’s easy.
  • Offering words for how your child might be feeling and trying to make sense of their behaviour out loud in a non-judgemental way, can help them make the links between their thoughts, feelings and behaviours. Feeling understood will often help calm them and their behaviour. To support their learning further, name your own feelings out loud; point out your own ways of managing and calming down.
  • In the heat of the moment, think first about whether you need to step in. Can they problem solve on their own? Do they need time to calm down? If you do need to step in, check you are calm first.
  • Before attending to the behaviour, focus instead on helping them to calm down first. Some children might need soothing or a hug. Some might need pointing to more tangible ways of calming down e.g. deep breathing (pretending to blow out birthday candles) or muscle relaxation (Frozen Anna thawing).
  • Before trying to correct behaviour, connect with your child. Show some curiosity for what was happening, empathy for how they were feeling (even the difficult emotions such as anger) and acceptance for what has happened. From here, you will be in a much better position to offer guidance they will respond to.
  • In terms of the behaviour; what do they need to learn? Does this require a conversation or some problem solving for next time? Does there need to be a consequence? If so, what is the natural consequence that will support their learning? Perhaps they need to make amends by saying sorry or making it up to someone. Perhaps they need to help clear things up. ‘Do-overs’ can be a great way of helping children practise what they could do instead next time.
  • After enforcing boundaries or consequences, it is important to repair the connection with your child. Make sure they know everything is OK and you will now forgive and forget.
  • If you are finding your child struggling repeatedly, it might be that the expectations placed on them are too high; perhaps they need more structure to help them manage. Perhaps they need more supervision to help them stay calm or manage situations as they arise. Consider the environment they are in; is there anything that could be altered to help?
  • This approach prioritises supporting your child’s emotions first, and in turn, their behaviour. It places emphasis on understanding and empathy. However, that is not to say that the boundaries or expectations are not firmly held. A warm but authoritative stance is central.

These top tips are offered as ideas as to what works well with children’s emotional and social development to help them learn to manage their own behaviour. Central to this is your relationship with them. If this is strained, your capacity for influencing them is reduced. Hold in mind you know your child best; if anyone can be curious about what is going on for them, you can. Consider how these ideas fit with your family routines and introduce them slowly. This will give you chance to practise and your child chance to learn what to expect. As ever, these approaches work best when shared across all those parenting your child.

While it sounds easy on paper, we know it rarely is! So as much as we advocate patience and empathy with our children, give yourselves the same chance. You will get it wrong and you will get stressed. The beauty of this is that you get chance to say that out loud, make amends and try again next time. There will no doubt be another opportunity to practise.

If you have any questions or would like support to think through your family situation and parenting approach further, get in touch with or visit for more details.