Don't 'Tell Off' Your Kids, Say Experts – Here's What You Should Do Instead

Have you heard of the 'think through' parenting technique?

As a parent, it’s easy to feel as though you’re permanently at the end of your tether – or so far beyond your tether that you barely remember what a tether is (what is a tether?).

Exhaustion, boredom, stress and the seemingly supernatural ability children have to pick the worst possible time to play up, can lead to you frequently getting bored of the sound of your own voice. “Don’t touch that”, “PLEASE stop hitting me on the head”, or “Will you just STOP!”

Telling them off can become almost Pavlovian – look, there they are, probably up to no good, better tell them to stop. But according to parenting experts, the very idea of “telling off” our kids needs rethinking.

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“We never need to tell any children off in order to raise awesome adults,” says Bea Marshall, parenting coach and founder of Yes Parenting. “All behaviour is communication. When we understand this, we can begin to understand why the child behaved that way.”

But, erm, where does this leave us parents when our kids are behaving horrendously?

Marshall says when a child misbehaves – for example, hurts another child – then yes, we need to ensure that behaviour stops, but “we can support that child by exploring what might have led to their behaviour, and guiding them towards appropriate behaviour,” she says.

To put it simply, telling a child off is not the most effective way to improve their behaviour in the future, says Noël Janis-Norton, a learning and behaviour specialist, and author of Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting.

If we shouldn’t tell them off – what should we do instead?

If your child is doing something “naughty”, often no response is needed at the end of it because the misbehaviour is over already, says Janis-Norton. “You may want to respond even though it’s over, to minimise the likelihood of it happening again, but one of the best ways to do that, however counterintuitive it may seem, is to praise the child for the fact that they’ve stopped,” she argues.

Congratulating a child when they stop batting your round the head with a plastic hammer does seem counterintuitive – but Janis-Norton says you should then use the ‘think through’ parenting technique, which is strategy that helps children to visualise what they should have been doing.

“They know what they shouldn’t have done. Ask what they should have done instead”

- Noël Janis-Norton

If a child is being talked to about what they’ve done wrong – for example, being ‘told off’ after misbehaving – they are only visualising themselves doing that thing wrong. “It isn’t enough to tell children what they shouldn’t do – they actually need to be able to see themselves in their mind doing something different,” she says.

With a ‘think through’, you ask the child what they should have done instead. “They know what they shouldn’t have done,” says Janis-Norton. “Ask what they should have done instead, or what they should do next time, and eventually the child will say something which will show you that they’re visualising themselves doing that.”

The more frequently you ask that sort of question, she says, the stronger that mental image becomes – and the more likely they are, over time, to break that pattern and to start behaving properly.

Asking rather than telling? Talking to rather than yelling at? Focusing on solutions rather than dwelling on problems? These are all ways we, as adults would like to be treated – and however upset or annoyed we might be at how a kid is behaving, everyone is likely to come out of it better if they’re treated like a human being.

It’s worth a shot, at least.