Almost every day I read a comment on a social media post suggesting that parents distract their children in order to avoid unwanted behaviour. It seems like sound advice, certainly if your toddler is about to bash your newborn on the head, quickly saying "shall we go and get a snack?" is infinitely better than shouting at them, or worse, smacking. Distraction certainly has a place in parenting, but in my opinion that place should only be very small and it certainly should be your 'main-line' approach.
Why? The best way I can explain this, is to ask you to put yourself in your child's situation. Imagine you have just found out that your long term partner, and the love of your life, has cheated on you and has been doing it for quite some time. You would likely feel devastated, angry and confused. You may call your best friend, mother, father, sister or brother to ask for their support and advice. Let's say that you agree to meet up with them in a local park. The two of you are sitting on a bench together, you are pouring your heart out, telling them about what happened and how it has made you feel. You shout and swear and end up crying, big heaving sobs. As you do, your confidant gently puts their arm around you. It makes you cry harder, but it feels good to get the feelings out that you have been bottling up since you found out.
....and then, mid sob, your confidant stands up, points and shouts "squirrel!", they tap you on the shoulder and say "look, look, can you see the squirrel?". What would you say? How would you feel? Imagine they go on to say "look, an ice cream truck, quick, let's go an get an ice cream, do you want strawberry sauce on top, what about a flake?". What would you say? How would you feel?
Perhaps you would feel confused, shocked and a bit put out that your confidant doesn't seem comfortable with supporting you through your emotions? Now, you may love squirrels and ice cream, in fact so much that the thought of them stops your anger and your tears. Have your feelings gone though?
Now, imagine how your child feels when you distract them with a snack, a TV programme, a craft activity, or pointing out a 'shiny red car'. Does this distraction help them to process and diffuse their feelings? Does it teach them that you will always help them to manage their feelings? Does it teach them that you will always listen, no matter how uncomfortable you may feel? Does it teach them that emotions are OK? Does it teach them how to manage their emotions in the future? No......each time you distract you lose an opportunity to teach your child about emotions and how to regulate them. Each time you distract you lose the opportunity to teach your child that you will ALWAYS listen to them and you will always be there for them, that you love them enough to 'hold' them when something has unsettled them.
Does this mean you should NEVER distract? No, it doesn't. I still distract as a parent, sometimes it is the very best thing you can do 'in the moment'. I would distract if a toddler had a tantrum at a funeral service, if my teen had an emotional meltdown at the theatre and if I knew it would work better than anything else to keep my child safe at any one moment in time. Distraction however should be used carefully and in moderation. In small doses it is a helpful parenting tool, that can help to keep us 'gentle', in more than small doses it has the very opposite effect to that which we are trying to achieve.
If this article has you thinking, then you may like my new book The Gentle Discipline Book, out now, it covers gentle and effective ways to discipline from toddler to teen.