The Parenting Code Blog

Raise Amazing Kids

Using Distraction to Change the Focus of Behavior in Children

Every parent faces behavior problems with their kids. Sometimes the behavior is isolated – like when little Johnny vandalizes the freshly painted dining room walls his Crayola-weapon-of-choice. 

But other times, the behavior problem manifests itself because there are two children present, and one gets bored. This is exactly what happened to me just yesterday. This article is about how I handled the situation. I think you’ll find it helpful.

It all began in the kitchen. We had come home from the shopping mall, where my two girls got a lot of attention from us. Now that we were home, my wife and I were engaged in some conversation while prepping some food. The girls were sitting at the counter on stools, having a snack and listening.

My six year old, Anne, was getting bored. She started to point, harmlessly but annoyingly, at Elizabeth, my younger daughter (almost four years old). This caused Elizabeth to start whining and complaining about her sister. Of course, I’m sure Anne felt there was nothing “wrong” with her behavior. After all she was just pointing, right? Sure. We all know better. She was doing it to get a rise out of her sister, and it was working.

It was turning snack time into fight time. No fun.

When I noticed this I did not want to ruin the fun afternoon we’d been having by scolding Anne, and siding with little Elizabeth. Without really thinking about it, I launched into one of my favorite tools – distraction.

The Goal of Distraction

Before I tell you exactly what I did, let’s think about the goal here. All I needed to accomplish was to distract both of the kids from what they were doing, and lead them into something else. That solves the problem 9 times out of 10.

Usually when I use distraction, I do it with silliness or games. This stems from what my wife would say is my “natural tendency to act like a child.” Ok. She’s right. But it works for me and it can work for you too. Or just do whatever works for you. 

So let’s get back to our story. Elizabeth is whining, and Anne is pointing at her. I instantly turned on my “game” voice. I said to them, “Girls – everyone point at the youngest sister!”

They responded. Anne kept pointing, but Elizabeth pointed to herself. The whining turned into a subtle smile. The game went on like this for about one or two minutes. 

“Point at the best Mommy”
“Point at the girl who’s name starts with A”
“Ok good job. Point at the oldest person in the family”

It only took about 10 seconds before the prior embers of a fight had been doused in a firehouse of entertainment. But it’s always good to keep the fun going just a bit longer, to be 100% sure you’ve distracted your kids from the prior problem.

When I wanted to end our little game, I just asked the girls to make sure they finished their snacks before putting their dishes in the sink. They kept playing the game on their own for a bit – and this time Anne was playing with her sister, not trying to annoy her. They were pointing at trees outside, toys in the living room, and all sorts of other things. 

Other Tools Baked into the Distraction

If you already own a copy of “Talking to Toddlers“, I hope you pick up on some of the tools that were wholly embedded in what I described above. Remember that this was not some consciously planned “thing” I did. I just used what I knew about communicating with kids to alter their experience – hence their behavior. 

The first embedded tool was a compliance set. I got my kids to do what I told them to do as part of a game. By doing this I massively increase my chances of getting them to keep responding to my suggestions after the game is over. 

The second tool was reframing. This one is a bit more subtle. What I did was called “context reframing”. To Elizabeth, having her sister point at her was a source of discomfort. By turning pointing into a game, it became fun. As a parent it is important to think about what meaning you (and your kids) associate to certain behaviors or activities. If the meaning you give something is not fun and positive, then change it. Reframing is something I explain more about in the “Talking to Toddlers” audio course.

Now it’s Your Turn

My challenge for you is simple. Find ways to use distraction to your advantage. Notice what works and what doesn’t. Refine your techniques. Think outside of the box. Allow yourself to be flexible enough to do things other than the usual – which is to yell at your kids and verbally assault them into submission.

Please post your comments below! I want to hear about your ideas!

Enjoy your children,
Chris Thompson

P.S. If you enjoyed this article please share it with your friends. Make sure you sign up to get my free parenting tips also. 

For further reading, you might want to check out Santa Claus: How to Introduce Toddlers to this Big Man and The Healthy Alternative to These Poisons in Your Fridge.