Why Distraction is a Valid Parenting Tool + How to Use It the Right Way

Navigating parenting is never easy, especially when your child’s behavior is testing your limits — or the limits of those around you. In those moments, you’re faced with the decision of either addressing the behavior head on or letting the behavior continue in order to avoid an argument (or meltdown, or tantrum…) As such, most parents find themselves quickly trying to make a decision, and with neither of them seeming to have the best outcome.

Thankfully, there’s another way to tackle misbehavior: Distraction.

At first glance, distraction might seem like “cheating” because it’s avoiding conflict. However, as a parent, isn’t avoiding conflict a good thing?

The trick to using distraction the right way is ensuring that you’re ultimately helping your child, not avoiding discussing or addressing behavior that could be especially harmful or dangerous down the road. Distraction is a great tool for managing behavior when your child is tired, cranky, or having a difficult time navigating a social situation with their peers. Older children, however, can also benefit from distraction, especially if they’re driven to continue focusing on one thing, like a game, a friend, or something that has happened to them.

Some of the best ways to distract children in order to help them (and you) are:

  • Start a new conversation
  • Point out something novel or interesting that you see
  • Change the overall mood by doing something funny or unexpected
  • Take them out of their environment and, if possible, outdoors
  • Play a game or sing a song

Additionally, you can distract your child by simply suggesting something new for them to do or giving them something different to do. For younger kids, that could include taking them on a walk or starting an art activity. For older kids, you might ask them to help you with something around the home or give them another job to do, like running an errand.

Teaching your child how to distract themselves from something that is upsetting them or getting them into trouble is also incredibly valuable. When your child learns how to move themselves out of a difficult situation so that they’re no longer tempted to make a mistake or focus on negative behavior, they learn how to better regulate their emotions and become more independent.

The Difference Between Distraction and Redirection

If you are wanting to incorporate distraction into your parenting toolkit, then it’s good to remember that there’s a difference between distraction and redirection. While redirection gives your child a more appropriate outlet for their behavior, like handing them a ball to throw instead of a rock, distraction completely changes what they’re doing. In the instance of throwing rocks, for example, distraction would look more like you inviting them to come inside to bake cookies with you or join you for a bike ride.

While redirection is another great tool to keep in mind as a parent, it can sometimes trigger an argument or tantrum because the child will oftentimes still be fixated on what they were previously doing. For example, if you ask a child to throw a ball instead of rocks (redirection), then they might continue to argue about why throwing rocks is better, more fun, etc. By distracting them completely from that activity, however, you can move them out of the behavior with less (or no) conflict.

Distraction Isn’t Always the Answer

Of course, distraction isn’t always the best way to manage your child’s behavior and actions. When they are doing something that is hurting, or could potentially hurt, themselves or others, it’s important to address that behavior head on. Additionally, if your child is very upset, you’ll want to validate their feelings and emotions which is why distraction isn’t the right tool in that moment.

If and when you decide to use distraction to help you better parent your child, make sure that the outcome is positive both right now and down the road. While distraction is often a great choice to help your child, there are definitely moments when it’s important to address behavior directly knowing that conflict now is better than that continued behavior in the future.

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