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“Ooh, Look – A Shiny Red Car!” – Should you use Distraction to Manage Behaviour?

Distraction is often recommended as a method of controlling child behaviour – but is it the best choice? Sarah Ockwell-Smith explores the issues…

Sarah Ockwell-Smith
by Sarah Ockwell-Smith

Imagine that you’re watching three children playing together. They are getting along well, each racing a car around a make-believe track.

One child decides she wants to use a car that one of the other children is using. The other child is not keen on giving up his car, however. It soon becomes clear that the situation is not going to be resolved amicably without adult help. What would your response be? Many adults would suggest that the child selects a different car. They might say, “Look at this shiny red car! Why don’t you play with it instead?” Or perhaps they’ll suggest something completely unrelated – “I’m going to get everyone a snack now, would you like to help me?”

Whatever the suggested solution, it will likely involve distracting the child with another, seemingly more attractive option – the idea being that the alternative will be so appealing to the child, that she will forget her upset at not being able to do whatever she wanted to do initially. This might seem like a solution that keeps everybody happy. It will keep the adult and the other children happy, certainly. But what about the child who was distracted? How does she feel?

Sobbing versus dismissal

Imagine the following scenario: you’ve just found out that your partner has been having an affair. You are heartbroken and call your best friend to ask if they can meet you for some moral support. You agree on a meeting point at a local park.

Some time later you are sitting on a bench with your friend. You start to pour your heart out about the devastation you feel, then start to cry in big heaving sobs. Now, you have two options to pick from, regarding how you would like your friend to respond to you:

a) Your friend puts her arm around your shoulder, tells you that she’s listening and to tell her everything. She sits quietly while you speak and listens. You cry until you feel you cannot cry any more, letting all of your emotions out.

b) Your friend puts her arm around your shoulder, smiles at you while looking into your eyes and then shouts, “Squirrel! Look, it’s a squirrel! Can you see it? Shall we go and look at the squirrel?”

Which option would you pick? The first may ‘cause’ you to sob for many minutes. The crying, however, is healing, despite the outpouring of emotions. Your friend listens and you feel able to show her your true feelings, knowing she will support you with them.

In contrast, the second will probably stop you crying quickly, once you get over your initial confusion. It will almost certainly take your mind off of your upset temporarily.

The problem, however, is the dismissal of your feelings – or more specifically, the dismissal of your feelings and the lack of help and support to help you cope with them, because the distraction is solely in favour of the person suggesting it.

While I’m not suggesting that distraction should never be used, it should be kept to a minimum.

There will be situations when you will need to distract children, for the benefit of others. There will be situations when you do not have the time or the resources to fully support the child with their feelings. These situations should be viewed as emergencies, a response to use when you have absolutely no time and resources available to respond in any other way.

Modelling behaviour

Why does it matter that children are supported with their feelings?

Aside from feeling listened to and understood, children learn emotional intelligence from experience. If they are not given opportunities to work through their feelings, they’ll find it much harder to regulate them when they grow. Children learn from real-life experience; not only does being supported through their difficult big feelings help them to learn how to control them, it also provides a great role model for them to follow.

If children spend time with adults who regulate their emotions well – particularly emotions such as anger, frustration and irritation – they slowly learn how to imitate emotional intelligence. Distracting children does not make for a good role model, or a good learning opportunity. As adults, we may feel that by distracting we are sparing children’s feelings and preventing upset that they don’t necessarily need to experience. In many ways we are scared and intolerant of their emotions. The minute they cry, we try to stop them – but we should ask ourselves why we are trying to stop the emotions. For whose benefit is it?

Sadness, anger and frustration are all legitimate emotions. It’s okay for children to feel them, it’s okay for them to cry and get mad. The role of supporting adults should always be to support, not ignore, wherever possible. So how should you support children to manage the big feelings they experience? I like to use the acronym ‘SENSE’. the meaning of which is outlined below. While this sort of response may not be ‘common sense’ (largely because we’re so trained to cover up feelings in our society today), I hope you’ll agree that it does indeed make sense when it comes to helping children in their emotional development.

SENSE requires a degree of one-to-one interaction, so I appreciate there will be times when distraction has to slip in to your practice. So long as these times are in the minority, that’s just fine.

Good sense

How to help children manage their big feelings…

Safety always comes first The safety of the child, other children in your care and sometimes the objects around you. If necessary, move with the child to a calmer space.

Empathise The child isn’t behaving in this way to be ‘naughty’, only because he doesn’t have the brain development necessary to behave in a more socially acceptable, mature way.

Name the child’s feelings “I can see you’re angry that you can’t have the car.” This helps the child to feel ‘heard’, validates his feelings and understand his emotions. In time children may be able to ask for help by naming their feelings.

Support the child As difficult as it is to cope with the child, it’s much harder for him to cope with his feelings. Try to work as a team to help the child to feel safe and supported.

Exchange Only at this point, once the child is feeling validated and understood, can you offer an alternative, such as “I can see you’re really sad, would you like to read a book with me?” Distraction comes last, not first.

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