One of the biggest challenges parents and caregivers face is how to respond when children are dysregulated. Whether it’s a tearful meltdown, an angry outburst, or running and shouting, you want to get the situation under control quickly—without being harsh, getting flustered, or minimizing their feelings.
It’s not an easy balancing act. Luckily, redirection techniques can help you walk that parenting tightrope.
Instead of punishment, redirecting children's behavior focuses on guiding your child toward appropriate behavior and ways to express their big emotions or use their energy. If you feel like you could use a new strategy for handling those big-feelings-moments, then these redirection techniques are for you.
What is Redirection?
Redirection is a simple but versatile technique that helps you gently guide your child from a challenging behavior to a more positive one. It involves calmly stopping an inappropriate behavior, acknowledging and validating your child’s feelings, and steering them toward a better way to express their emotions.
What does redirection look like? Take these instances as an example:
- When children are fighting over a toy – You say, “You both want this toy, but there’s only one. Let’s try to find a toy or activity that we can play together.”
- When your child is crying for a treat – You explain, “I understand that you want to eat the cookie before dinner. Would you like to help me prepare dinner before we eat a treat?”
Ideally, teaching redirection techniques should occur when a child is regulated. Trying to guide them when they’re dysregulated can be a challenge for you and your child. Also, the learning process should be the focus of these learnings rather than the desired outcomes. As their primary caregiver, you can empower them with the skills to navigate big feelings without making them feel bad about their wants and needs.
The Importance of Redirection in Child Development
Why should you redirect instead of simply saying no, using a timeout, or enforcing another form of negative consequence? For one thing, it’s helpful to remember that young children don’t sport “bad” behaviors for the sake of being troublemakers. Instead, behaviors like fighting, yelling, and crying stem from having a powerful feeling or need without the tools to fix it.
Your child can’t directly tell you, “I’m feeling lonely, so I started being noisy to get attention.”
So, punishment for problem behaviors is rarely going to get to the heart of the problem. Nor is it going to help your child learn how to change their behavior. When you use redirection, you don’t just tell them a problem behavior is off limits—you show them a positive alternative.
Practical Redirection Techniques for Children
With all of this in mind, let’s consider four real-world practical strategies for redirecting children's behavior.
#1 Creating a Safe and Calm Environment
When your child feels safe and secure, they’re less likely to act out their needs through problem behaviors. It’s important for a child to have a comfort corner or a safe place to go when feelings get big. Comfort corners are not timeout spots, rather a space where a caregiver can also help your child through their feelings. You and your child can also communicate better when you’re in a calm environment.
But the environment you create isn’t just about soft colors or soothing lighting in the playroom. It has much more to do with your child knowing that you are a safe, reassuring, and stable presence in their world.
When you go through a challenging moment (or day) with your child, take a few moments to repair and reconnect. Once you’ve both had time to cool off, you can try:
- Reminding them that your love is always there, even when you have a disagreement or tell them no
- Telling them something you appreciate about them
- Sharing an affirmation together
#2 Emotion-Focused Redirection
When your child seems flooded or overstimulated, avoid the quick fix—try not to shush or tell them to calm down. Emotional regulation activities for kids can be verbal and non-verbal. It can be difficult for kids to clearly communicate when they’re dysregulated. You can help them identify their feelings and open a dialogue. You might say:
- "Wow, that was frustrating, something about that felt REALLY hard."
- "I can tell you are feeling really sad. Let me know when you're ready to tell me more about that."
- "Something happened, but I missed it. I'm right here and would love to know more about what's bothering you."
Give them space to express their current feelings and feel heard. The next step is to problem solve together to get their needs met.
- “I understand that you want to play now. Can you set up the game and I’ll join you in 10 minutes?”
- “It’s okay to feel sad. What does your sad feeling need right now?”
Whether it’s needing a hug or to cry a bit longer, kids cope with big feelings differently. Equipping them with the skills to communicate their needs can lead to more resiliency in the future, rather than fear or avoidance when that feeling comes up in the future.
#3 Play-Based Redirection
Play-based redirection is just what it sounds like—using the power of creativity to turn your child’s attention in a new direction. We recommend this strategy when kids are engaging in an activity that is not safe or appropriate for the moment (i.e. drawing on the walls instead of paper or running inside the house).
This can be done by introducing a new toy or task that will shift the child’s interest from the undesired activity.
Here are some tips to make it work:
- Keep it similar – Try to suggest an activity that’s comparable to the undesired one. It’s hard to redirect a kid who wants to run into quietly reading. Instead, suggest a similar but appropriate active game. For example, if running isn’t acceptable, suggest hide-and-seek or hot potato.
- Join in – If you have time, get the new activity started alongside your child. Their interest is more likely to stick if they have a play partner.
- Offer a choice – Naturally, a child is likely to resist if you just take away one activity and tell them to do something else. No one likes to have their choices made for them. Instead, explain why the current activity is a no-go (“Your turn is done”), then provide two options (“Would you like to play with the puppets or the dinosaurs?”). Picking the new activity puts them in the driver’s seat while still ending the problem behavior.
#4 Engaging the Imagination
An effective way to redirect is by using storytelling or a role-playing game. Pretend play has been shown to help kids feel and express more positive emotions, so it’s a good way to refocus their attention.1
For example, if a child is upset or experiencing stress because they can’t go outside due to bad weather, you could say, “I know it’s disappointing that we can’t go outside. Instead, let’s pretend to go on an adventure inside with a pillow fort!”
Tips for Effective Implementation
One drawback to redirection is that it can be a band-aid rather than a solution. After a while, you might end up feeling like a magician endlessly pulling new tricks out of your hat to keep the distractions coming.
To avoid this, here are some tips for using redirection as a healthy tool, not a quick fix.
#1 Consistency and Boundaries
No matter what kinds of discipline techniques you use or what your household rules are, it’s key to be consistent.2 Setting clear boundaries and being consistent about them is also part of helping your child feel secure and safe.
When you use redirection, try to:
- Set boundaries clearly and make them consistent for all children
- Pair the redirection with an explanation of why the problem behavior is unacceptable
- Keep boundaries simple, clear, and specific (no running in the house, no hitting, etc.)
It can be tempting to enforce rules with punishment for breaking them. Punishment can (sometimes) result in quick obedience. But it doesn’t work so well for learning. Redirection helps your child build a deeper understanding of how and why to follow rules and expectations.
#2 Encouraging Reflective Communication
After redirecting from a problem behavior like tantrums, hitting, or yelling, give your child time to recover so they’re ready to communicate. Then, follow up with a conversation about the experience.
You might talk about:
- What happened to cause their big feelings
- How they could handle them differently next time
- Why it wasn’t okay to express their feelings the way they did (“You could hurt someone when you throw things,” “It hurts your brother’s feelings when you call him dumb,” etc.)
Be sure to make this a two-way conversation. Ask questions, and listen actively to their answers. Modeling open communication helps teach mindfulness for kids as they learn the dialogue that helps process their big feelings. The goal is to help your child notice their feelings and learn from patterns in how they act and feel so that redirection becomes a healthy habit they can use in the future.
#3 Recognizing Efforts and Achievements
Take time to show your child that you notice when they choose positive behaviors. If you only respond when they act out, you can inadvertently teach them that negative behavior gets your time and attention.
It can be helpful to set aside a special time to mention their accomplishments each day. For example, at dinner or bedtime, mention good moments from the day:
- “It was nice to see you sharing that toy with your sister.”
- “Thank you for helping pick groceries at the store!”
#4 Learning from Challenges
A growth mindset—the belief that mistakes are chances to learn and grow—is an important skill for building resilience and self-confidence in children. You can help foster a growth mindset in your child by treating challenges as opportunities.
Those “bad” behaviors? They’re the perfect chance to connect and grow.
When you help your child redirect from a negative behavior without blaming or shaming them, you demonstrate that mistakes are okay. After the situation is diffused, you can talk about what went wrong and what they could do differently next time.
Explore the Slumberkins World of Learning and Connection
Redirection is an effective way to put a stop to a problem behavior without punishment. Over time, it helps kids learn better self-control and how to choose appropriate expressions for their feelings.
Learning to understand and express their emotions is a big job for growing kids. That’s why Slumberkins is on a mission to help every family connect and grow through the power of play. Our family of cuddly Kins—along with our books, games, Mindfulness collection, and more—is here to show your child that every emotion is something to celebrate.
- Rao, Zhen et al. "You Pretend, I Laugh: Associations Between Dyadic Pretend Play and Children's Display of Positive Emotions." Frontiers in Psychology. 23 June, 2021. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.669767/full
- “Effective discipline for children.” Paediatrics & child health vol. 9,1 (2004): 37-50. doi:10.1093/pch/9.1.37