We all know that children will test our boundaries and patience. This is normal. As parents, teachers and caretakers we need to have a whole toolbox of techniques and strategies in order to deal with childish behaviors in a positive way. One technique which I have found to be very effective is what I call the Two Choices Technique.
I use the Two Choices Technique (TCT) when a child simply needs to see a necessary but possibly unpleasant course of action in a more favorable light. This is done by creatively reframing the choice in such a way that the child’s confidence or self-esteem gets a boost. I also use TCT when a child has moved from mere misbehavior to tantrums or dangerous behavior.
The Two Choices Technique Defined
The Two Choices Technique is an excellent technique of choice to be used after you reach some sort of behavioral impasse or obstacle. In TCT, you give your child two choices of action. The technique (or trick) is in the wording: you offer your child a choice of two alternative courses of action of your choosing.
One of the choices could or even should be unpleasant (for him) and quite possibly cause him to lose face; the other choice (the one you really want him to choose) is a better choice that allows him to save face.
The only hard part of using TCT is in determining just when the technique is the proper tool. TCT is meant to be a tool, not a lifestyle. There are many variations of the technique and it is really up to your creativity as to when and how best to use the Two Choices (in this and in future blog posts, I will offer several examples).
Using The Two Choices Technique
Here are step-by-step instructions for using the Two Choices Technique:
1. Calm yourself (and, if possible, your child)
2. Analyze the situation and mentally set your goals
3. Decide on your two choices (reframing)
•Present the two choices to the child twice in a calm voice
•State the choices: describe the positive choice first, and then the negative choice
4.Give a choice: offer the negative choice first, and the positive choice last
5. Follow through by acting on the child’s choice
The Two Choices Technique By Example: A Tantrum in the Parking Lot
It started out as a glorious, family afternoon at the Los Angeles Zoo. Then it was time to go home. Charlotte would not get into the van. She whined, kicked, hit her mom, and cried. She screamed so loud they could’ve heard her in San Diego. Nothing Charlotte’s mom did was effective in turning the tide of this tearful tantrum.
Time For The Two Choices Technique
I squatted down until I was eye to eye with Charlotte. Then in a quiet, calm voice I said, “Charlotte, we have to go. I have to work tonight, so we have to go. I’m the one who drove us to the zoo, so you and your mommy have to ride with me.
“Now your mom and I love you very much, so we can’t just leave you here. The way I see it, a big girl would understand that. A little baby would not understand.
“You have to ask yourself, ‘Am I a big girl who understands and can get into the van on my own? Or am I a little baby that has to be put into the van?’ Because, believe me Charlotte, we are going and I am big enough, strong enough, and mean enough to put a little baby in the van if I have to.
“So what’s it going to be Charlotte? Are you a little baby that has to be put in the van, or are you a big girl who understands and can get into the van on her own?” Charlotte hesitated a second, looking me in the eye, trying to gauge my seriousness, and then, without another word she climbed into the van on her own.
The Two Choices Technique In Action
Here is how I used the Two Choices Technique to defuse the situation:
- Calm yourself (and, if possible, your child)
I used deep breathing to calm myself. This may sound silly but believe me there is scientific, physiological evidence that deep breathing really works. As tempting as shouting, wrath, and/or smiting may be, they really don’t work. I only shout to get the child’s attention – and then I lower my voice. If it’s possible to get the child, in this case Charlotte, to breathe deeply, fine; but if not, I make sure that at least, I am calm (this is not always easy and frequently takes practice and patience).
In this case I stood by quietly as Charlotte ranted (yes it was embarrassing but let it go). I waited, making myself as silent, immovable, unperturbed and inscrutable as the ancient Sphinx of Giza. The attitude I tried to project was, ‘A tantrum on your part does not create an emergency on my part.’
Squatting down so that Charlotte and I were at eye level was also an attempt to calm her down by treating her as an equal rather than lording my “adultness” over her and talking down at her.
- Analyze the situation and mentally set your goals
In this case the situation was pretty clear cut. Charlotte was screaming and we had to go. My goal was to get her to calm down so I could safely drive home without the distraction of a screaming child next to me.
- Decide on your two choices (reframing)
Here again it was pretty clear cut. We couldn’t leave Charlotte in the parking lot and we couldn’t stay. So we had:
The Positive Choice: You can get in the van on your own like a big girl
(Reframe “I’m being forced to go” into, “We have to go. I can earn Big Girl status and all I have to do is act like I understand and sit down? Easy!”) and:
The Negative Choice: I will put you in the van like a baby
(Reframe “I’m being forced to go,” into, “We have to go. Do I want to be stuck with the status of a baby who has to be forced to do things?”).
- Present the two choices to the child twice (positive negative/negative positive) in a calm voice:
State the choices, describing the positive choice first, and then the negative choice
Describing the positive choice first, in a calm voice helps the child be receptive to whatever comes next. Beginning with a negative choice or an emotional delivery would have made Charlotte (or anyone else) shut down. I presented the negative alternative, but only after starting with a positive choice, so that Charlotte could already see a way out of her dilemma.
Give a choice, offering the negative choice first, and the positive choice last:
Next I rephrased the choices with the negative choice coming first to immediately reinforce it and so I could end with a positive. By starting (state the choices) with a positive choice “I can choose to behave like I understand and am a big girl.” and ending (give a choice) with the same idea, the positive choice becomes the easiest idea for the child to remember. I ALWAYS put the positive choice last when I give a choice, to make it easiest for the child/Charlotte to articulate that choice.
- Follow through by acting on the child’s choice:
Charlotte made the easiest choice and so I let her get into the van on her own (I stood close by in case she indicated she needed me). I was ready, however, to do it the hard way and pick her up and put her in her seat had that been necessary. NEVER give a choice that you’re unprepared to live with.
The Two Choices Technique works because you lose no authority, yet the child is empowered, by having been granted the power to choose between two possibilities.
Oftentimes, poor behavior results from a child feeling as though adults make all the choices. This can make the child feel like she’s being forced into a corner. She can see it as she’s being treated as if her feelings don’t matter. This is important when she’s looking for independence and being like the adults in her life whom she loves and respects. She wants to be like them.
In this case, giving Charlotte two choices to choose from made her feel as though she were in command of her own destiny. In reframing the conversation, I helped Charlotte make the best choice for all concerned, the choice which also had her own best interests at heart. Charlotte felt better about herself, and of course, the adults in her life were happy that all had ended well.
What could be bad?
The downside to the Two Choices Technique is needing to be quick in coming up with the choices, when it might be difficult to think straight. In Charlotte’s case, there was a screaming child in the background as I tried to calm myself and come up with the choices I would offer her. It can be hard to think when there is a child screaming next to you.
That’s why TCT takes some practice. You may not get it right the first time. It might take three, four, or even five tries before you start to feel confident using TCT.
Don’t give up if it doesn’t work right away. Just keep plugging away at TCT until you (and your child) get it right. Because it’s awesome when the Two Choices Technique works.
And with a bit of patience, the Two Choices Technique will work for you, too!
Next time, we’ll look at how to use the Two Choices Technique with an older, special needs child.