I’ve heard a lot of people say that when your child is doing something wrong, you should just say “no,” you should use redirection. But when I try to get my child to do something else, it doesn’t work! Why does everyone tell me “redirection” is better? Is there something I’m missing? —L.
You’re not alone in your bafflement. “Redirection” is a term that a lot of people are confused about—even people who think they know what it means! When used properly, redirection can be a remarkably effective way to change a child’s behavior—but it’s not a trick or an easy fix. It’s a way of thinking about and meeting your child’s needs.
Assume for the moment that a child’s behavior, including misbehavior, is always an expression of a need. For infants this is literally true—when a baby cries, it’s not trying to manipulate you; it NEEDS to be fed, or changed, or comforted, or whatever. As babies become children the word “need” becomes a little vaguer, and the distinction between “need” and “want” becomes fuzzy. But “need” can be a useful frame for addressing misbehaviors. Why did she punch her brother? Because she NEEDS more space; or because she NEEDS your attention; or because she NEEDS him to stop taking her toys; or because she NEEDS to exercise her arms.
The reason it helps to use the word “need” is because it helps you think of the motivation behind the behavior as non-negotiable. If that’s what they NEED, there’s no point trying to talk them out of it—they need it! But the behavior itself is not the need. The behavior is the best way they can think of to meet that need. Redirection is a technique where you give the child a BETTER way to get their need met.
It looks the same as simply saying, “Here, do this instead,” but is more subtle than that. When she punches her brother, saying, “Come punch this punching bag” might be a very effective redirection, but it’s only effective if she’s punching her brother because she NEEDS to swing her arms. If she’s punching because she needs more space and you say, “Come punch this punching bag,” she’s likely to shout “No!”, feel misunderstood, and keep hitting. It’s not that redirection didn’t work in this case: it’s that the suggestion wasn’t actually redirection, because it didn’t address the child’s need.
For redirection to be an effective approach, you need to be an acute observer of children. You need to see through their behavior with x-ray eyes and perceive the need behind the behavior. You need a healthy dose of intuition and luck. It gets easier with practice.
Here are some examples of good attempts at redirection:
You see him drawing on the walls. You hazard a guess that he NEEDS to express himself artistically on a large canvass. “Here,” you say, “Come finger-paint on the walls of the shower.” When he’s done painting he can help you wash the walls, because walls are not for drawing.
You’re trying to cook dinner, but every two minutes she starts shouting in the living room. You think maybe she NEEDS some parental attention and interaction. “It seems like you want to spend time with me,” you say, “but I need to finish making dinner. If you want to hang out with me in the kitchen I can talk to you, and I’d love it if you could help me mix the salad.”
You catch him taking a swing at his sister during an argument. You can tell he NEEDS to express his anger and frustration—physically! “Boy!” you exclaim. “You’re really angry! You may not hit your sister, but I can see you really need to hit something hard! Hit this pillow twenty times! After that we’ll talk to your sister.”
Children have a lot of different needs at different times, and it can be hard to figure out what need is expressing itself at any given moment, especially when you’re feeling upset/confused/frustrated at your child! Fortunately (in some ways), your guesses get instant feedback! If you guess right, the behavior will change almost instantly. If you’re wrong, the behavior will resume right away.
It helps to avoid discipline—or at least postpone it—even if the misbehavior is something serious, like hitting. It’s very difficult for children to learn or even listen when they have unmet needs. Meet the need first, and deal with restitution afterwards. You’ll be surprised how much more compliant and understanding your child is when he sees that you understand his needs.
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Having trouble making redirection or other approaches to behavior guidance work? I provide coaching on just that!