Monday, June 16, 2014

Hugs: A Positive Discipline Tool Card

By Jane Nelsen, author and co-author of the Positive Discipline series

A Positive Discipline Tool Card  (available at

This tool card provides an example of asking for a hug when a child is having a temper tantrum, but that is certainly not the only time a hug can be an appropriate intervention when you understand the principle of hugs. Later, I’ll share where the example on the card came from; but first I want to share another example illustrated in a story shared by Mary Wardlow:

The Power of a Hug

My daughter Madisyn, who is a wonderfully strong-willed six-year-old child, didn't want to get up and get ready for school one morning. Being a strong-willed individual myself, I could sense a battle of wills brewing—though I was determined to avoid it.  I repeatedly asked her nicely to get up and get herself ready. I even picked out her clothes so she could move a little faster [a mistake that will be explained later]. Still, she refused to move.  I reminded her, still nicely, that the bus would be at our house soon, and if she didn't get dressed she was going to miss it.

She sat up, looked at her clothes, and screamed, "I don't want to wear that!"  Her tone was so nasty that I found it hard to keep myself composed, but I went to her room and picked out two other outfits so she could choose which one she wanted to wear.  I announced to her, "I laid out three sets of clothes. You need to pick one and get dressed."  I had almost made it to the bedroom exit when she fired back "I WANT FOUR!"

I was so angry at that point; and what came next surprised both of us. I walked over to her and said, "Madisyn, I am going to pick you up, hold you, hug you and love you...and when I am done you are going to get up, choose an outfit and get dressed."

When I picked her up and put my arms around her I felt her just melt in my arms.  Her attitude softened immediately and so did mine. That moment was amazing to me. A volatile situation turned warm in a few seconds—just because I chose to hug a child who was at that moment so un-huggable.

In your lecture you talked about the power of a hug to calm down an out-of-control child.  I've learned first-hand that you were absolutely right. Thank you for teaching others about the power of a hug!

Later Mary learned that the morning hassles could be reduced if her daughter picked out her own clothes the night before as part of her bedtime routine. This would help her feel capable instead of being told what to do, which invited rebellion. This example illustrates that even though hugs work to create a connection and change behavior, some misbehavior can be avoided by getting children involved in ways that helps them use their power in useful ways—for example picking out their own clothes.

Tantrums and Hugs

Now for the story that led to the example of asking for a hug when a child is having a temper tantrum.  I watched a video of Dr. Bob Bradbury, who facilitated the “Sanity Circus” in Seattle, WA for many years. During Sanity Circus, Dr. Bradbury would interview a parent or teacher in front of a large audience. During the interview he would determine the mistaken goal of the child and would then suggest an intervention that might help the discouraged child feel encouraged and empowered. Bob shared the following example (which I am now telling in my words from my memory of what I saw on the video).

A father wondered what to do about his four-year-old, Steven, who often engaged in tempter tantrums. After talking with the father for a while, and determining that the mistaken goal was misguided power, Dr. Bradbury suggested, “Why don’t you ask your son for a hug.”
The father was bewildered by this suggestion. He replied, “Wouldn’t that be reinforcing the misbehavior?”
Dr. Bradbury said, “I don’t think so. Are you willing to try it and next week let us know what happens?”
The father agreed with misgivings. However, the next week he reported that, sure enough, Steven had a temper tantrum. Dad got down to his son’s eye level and said, “I need a hug.”
Between loud sobs, Steven asked, “What?”
Dad repeated, “I need a hug.”
Steven was still sobbing but managed to ask incredulously, “Now????”
Dad said, “Yes, now”
Steven stopped sobbing and said, reluctantly, “Oh all right,” as he stiffly gave his father a hug. In a few seconds he just melted into his fathers arms.
After they hugged for a few more seconds, Dad said, “Thanks. I really needed that.”
Steven sniffled a bit and said, “So did I.”

There are a few points I want to make about this story. You may wonder why the father said, “I need a hug,” instead of, “You need a hug.”

1) Since the mistaken goal in this case was “misguided power.” To suggest that his son needed a hug would like invite him to say, “No I don’t,” and only intensify the power struggle. How could Steven argue with the fact that his father needed a hug?

2) Children have an innate desire to contribute. Contribution provides feelings of belonging, significance, and capability. Steven really wanted to “give” to his father, even though begrudgingly at first.

3) Children do better when they feel better. Once Steven felt better by giving his father a hug, he let go of his tantrum and the power struggle and enjoyed the hug with his father.

4) A misbehaving child is a discouraged child. It can be difficult to remember this when faced with annoying, challenging, or hurtful behavior. For this reason it helps to have a plan for behavior that is a pattern.

5) A primary philosophy of Positive Discipline is Connection before Correction. A hug is a great way to make a connection, but not the only way.  I will mention a few more of the many possibilities:

6) Simply validate your child’s feelings. “You are feeling really upset right now.” Then step back and give energetic support while your child works through it.

7) Name what is happening and then offer an alternative. For example:
 “It seems to me that we are in a power struggle right now. I love you and know we can work on a win/win solution if we wait until we calm down.” Or,
 “I can see you really want my attention right now. I love you and I don’t have time right now but I’m looking forward to our special time at 7:30.” (Of course, this requires advance planning to make sure you have set up scheduled, special time with your children.

8) Do the unexpected. Instead of reacting to the challenging behavior, ask your child. “Do you know I really love you?” This sometimes stops the misbehavior because your child is so surprised by your question/statement, and may feel enough belonging and significance from that simple statement to “feel better and do better.”

There are many other possibilities to make a connection and to help children feel better so they’ll do better. However, the main point is to see all of the Positive Discipline Tool cards NOT as techniques, but as principles. Techniques are very narrow and often don’t work. A principle is wider and deeper—and there are many ways to apply a principle. Go into your heart and your wisdom and you’ll know how to apply the principles of connection before correction, focusing on solutions, empowering children—and hugs—that are even better than the examples.


Caitlin @ Backlink Building said...

This is very true. My kid loves being hugged. And he's a hugger as well - you can see it when he enthusiastically hugs other people. And he doesn't give just a normal hug. He gives hugs with pat on the back. And that is coming from a 2 year old.

Jeanine Lebsack said...

Here I am crying tears of relief!!!! I've been on the not what to do list when your child has a temper tantrum. Thank you for making something so sweet and simple the answer to my power struggle with my son. So excited to implement this strategy today !!! Thank you, thank you, thank you you've made my day :)

Kate @ Modern Alternative Mama said...

I usually ask my children, "Do you need a hug?" They tend to fire back "No!" if I ask for one, because at the moment they're upset, it's all about them and their very big feelings. If I offer them a way out, by offering a hug -- they usually will stop and come and give me a hug. Then I can say, "I understand you are upset, but we don't bite people. Next time you can try saying, 'I don't like it when you take my toy' and walking away." I try to provide them with the words to use, because they act out physically when they don't know what else to do. How can we just say "Stop that" and not teach them what TO do? That's so confusing to small children.