Something you may not know about me is that I graduated from college with a bachelor’s degree in Marriage and Family Studies. Basically this means that I took a lot of classes about marriage, family, parenting, child development, family finance, family systems and a million others in preparation to become a counselor. I loved (almost) all of them and they’ve been hugely helpful for me as a parent. Obviously I know that what I learned in these classes is the ideal and isn’t always achievable due to *ahem* human error. But at the same time, I’ve also learned that many of the methods and techniques taught are useful even when circumstances aren’t ideal. The one I want to talk about today is role playing.
In one of my behavioral classes, we learned about concepts like positive and negative reinforcement and how you can use each in parenting. To be honest, I don’t remember all the technical terms or theories from this class. But one that stuck with me is this: if you eliminate a negative behavior or response, you have to replace it with a positive behavior or response.
Let me give you an example:
Say you are trying to get rid of a bad habit such as chewing your nails. You’ve tried putting gloves on, putting your fingers in hot sauce so it burns your mouth when you try and cutting your nails down super short. Nothing works. You’re still biting your nails. Why? Because you didn’t replace the bad habit with a good one. Instead of simply trying to eliminate this habit or behavior so it no longer exists, you have retrain yourself with a new, more positive or acceptable behavior. (A really easy replacement in this example would be to chew gum or put a paperclip in your pocket that you can fiddle with.)
So how does this work in discipline?
A while back I wrote a post about a practice that will change the way you discipline. (Read more HERE.) In it, I explain the method that we use for disciplining our kids when they are doing something we want them to stop (the negative behavior) and it works well for us. But I was thinking the other day and realized that my husband and I weren’t taking the extra step of helping our kids understand what to do instead of the negative behavior. They knew what they’d done wrong and why it was wrong but not what to do instead (the positive behavior). This is where role playing comes in.
As parents, it’s our responsibility to help our kids learn how to respond in different situations. Role playing is a technique you can use with your kids as they get older and can be applied to so many challenges they have, whether it’s bullying, saying no to drugs and drinking, confronting a friend about a difficult issue and so on. Role playing gives them options for how to respond. Role playing gives your kids confidence that they can handle situations they may not have encountered before because it feels familiar to them.
For example, when my daughter gets frustrated because her little brother keeps knocking down her tower and retaliates by hitting him, she gets sent to time out. (Normally, she gets a couple of chances to stop her behavior, but I’m not going to give her another two opportunities to hit. Again, read more about our method HERE.) During her time out, she knows she is expected to think about why she got sent to time out and then tell me or my husband why she had to go to time out. In the past, we would have finished off with something along the lines of “Hitting your brother is not okay. It hurts him and makes him feel sad.” and then sending her on her way.
BUT we recently added the extra step I mentioned above: we help her think through what she can do if she’s faced with that situation again. This helps her understand her options and recognize other behaviors that are acceptable. Then we role play.
Role playing is pretty simple. You recreate the situation that caused the issue in the first place, then when you get to the part where they reacted negatively, you stop and ask them “what could you do differently in this situation?” Allow them the opportunity to come up with options for themselves. There have been times when my daughter’s response has been better than the one I had in mind. If they can’t come up with something, help them out with some ideas. Then role play again with the new (positive behavior) replacing the negative behavior. Depending on the situation, this could take a couple of minutes or it could take 10.
There are days when my kids have pushed my buttons and I’ve reached the limits of my patience. I know there are situations where I’ve overreacted or sent the wrong kid to time out. The time they are in time out is also a good opportunity for me to take a few deep breaths, maybe walk into a different room or step outside and think about how I could have responded differently. And thankfully, kids are pretty forgiving.
The other day, my daughter asked my husband if she could play a game on his phone. He said no. In the past, her response would have been to get mad and possibly yell or stomp away. But instead of all that, she just said, “okay, maybe another time” and went off to find something else to do. I was totally amazed! The conversations we’d had and role played actually stuck and she put them into practice. (Not to say that this happens every time of course.)
So the next time your child misbehaves, think of it as an opportunity to help them learn more about acceptable behaviors. Teach them to recognize their options and give them the confidence to deal with their daily situations in a positive way. Take a few minutes to go through a short role play with them. And remember that you’ll probably have the same conversations and the same role plays a few dozen more times until it sticks. *wink*
Do you use role playing with your kids? What are the benefits you’ve seen or think you would see by using this technique with your kids?