Your child is going to screw up. It’s inevitable, and that’s ok. But talking to a child when they’re in the wrong can either be productive and encouraging, or difficult and counterproductive. This is an attachment parenting-style strategy of how to talk to your child when they make a bad choice.

Attachment parenting really works to help you connect with your child; you are your kid’s teacher, role model, and confidant, not a dictator of tiny subjects. We need to see our child for who they are right now, as well as be aware of what’s developmentally going on at their age. A lot of this comes from regularly having a talk with your child to see where they’re at and how they’re doing.

For the purpose of examples, let’s assume that your child is less than five years old, and that they’ve done something you know is wrong. For my son, who just turned four years old, that would probably mean something like running through the house or taking something from his sister.

How to Talk to Your Child When They Make a Bad Choice - Real Simple Mama

The goal here is not to “win” the argument, nor is it really about discipline. Yes, you want your child to behave and speak in a certain way, but we all know that one person who is bossy and demands something is not truly the person we respect.

Respect is something you choose to give someone because you admire them and know that what they’re doing is right. It takes more effort and more time, but in the long run you’ll foster quality relationships which are built on integrity and trust.

Authority is a short-term way to get people to do what you say, by yelling or hitting or threatening, but you lose the relationship in the long term.

So with that in mind, here’s how I approach the situation.

Was my kid deliberately trying to piss me off? No, probably not. Does their behavior need to be corrected? Yes, in that this is not how they should react in this situation.

I really take a “same team” approach to this kind of scenario. I want my kid to learn how to act appropriately (and how to respond appropriately to others), so first I have to get into his head a little bit.

And to get him to open up to me instead of shut down, I need to talk to him, not at him.

I get down on his level and use a quiet, calm voice. This isn’t threatening; in fact, it will help he and I see eye to eye, literally.

How to Talk to Your Child When They Make a Bad Choice - Real Simple Mama

A big part of this concept is empathy: seeing how the other half feels. I need to guide my child through this discovery, so I ask what he’s feeling. (I also find that asking a “What” question is a lot easier for a child to answer than a “Why” question, which is usually more abstract.) I need to know his motivation and his thought process so I can help him through this situation, and understand why he did what he did. Again, the point here is to talk to your child. 

Back to my previous examples: if he’s running through the house, he was just excited and playing, and didn’t think. Now he’s probably upset that I called him out on it and made him stop playing so he could come talk to me. We talk about why we can’t run in the house (it’s not safe), and that the consequence of him running would be that he or his sister could get hurt. We talk about how he can try to do better, and how I appreciate that he came to talk to me about it. And then we hug and he’s off.

If he did something a bit more deliberate like taking a toy from his sister, I learn by talking to him that he wanted to play with it. Nothing personal against his sister, he just saw it and wanted it.

But we talk about that one time in playgroup a friend snatched a toy away from him, and it’s amazing how his face instantly changes to one of recognition. Now it’s making sense: that horrible feeling he had when someone took a toy from him, is what he just did to another. Empathy is an amazing tool, my friends. And a much better lesson than a spanking or a timeout. This is teaching him about the repercussions of his behavior in how it’s affected another human being.

So we talk about how his actions have made his sister feel, or maybe even what she thinks about him right now. (In this instance I also remind him that he’s her role model, so she’s going to start taking toys from him too because that’s what he’s teaching her to do!). He knows he needs to model taking turns, and that his sister can share with him if she wants to. I ask him to apologize to her, though I don’t force it (I hate insincere apologies, just ask my husband).

The dialogue should always end with you and your child coming to an agreement, or at least being cordial to each other. That can be a hug or a high five, a promise to do better or a compliment. We need to keep perspective here. Especially since your kid may do that same “annoying thing” a hundred more times!

What you’re really doing here is building the relationship you have with your kid. In these rough moments, you’ll teach them a lot about what a future spouse should be like; how they should act as a parent someday; and the kind of person you are, too.

While a whack on the butt may get your kid to obey you in the moment, something like that sends way different signals to your kid than taking two minutes to get on their level and really teach them. (And trust me, once you’ve done this a few times, it doesn’t take long at all. Reading this article will have been more time consuming!) But now you have some tools for how to talk to your child.

How to Talk to Your Child When They Make a Bad Choice

  • Ask them to come talk, or go to them
  • Get on their level
  • Soft, calm voice
  • Ask what they’re feeling or thinking
  • Use empathy as a teaching tool
  • Help them realize what they can do better, or what they can change
  • What will be a better choice? (What’s the kind choice?)
  • End with positive: appreciation, compliment, hug, high five

I hope that this has given you some tools to use when your child makes a bad choice. We all know it’s going to happen (hell, I’m in my 30s and I screw up all the time!) but what matters is that I’m trying; I’m actively working to learn from my mistakes and tweak what didn’t work and aim to do better. And my kids will benefit from that mindset, too!

If you’re interested in reading more about some AP techniques, you can find all of my related articles here. I appreciate you sharing and commenting, and please contact me if you’d like my help!

How to Talk to Your Child When They Make a Bad Choice - Real Simple Mama