Stop Your Own Knee-Jerk Habits

Stop Your Own Knee-Jerk Habits

When your child does something that scares you, is your knee-jerk reaction a yell or even a swat?

Even if you are firmly committed to a peaceful home and a great relationship with your child, if you were raised with yelling and spanking, they can be extremely hard reactions to overcome. Our simple coaching skills can help.

In the grocery store this week I saw this play out with a dad and his toddler son. His little boy was walking beside the grocery cart and his infant daughter was in her car seat in the cart. The dad stepped away for a brief second and…crash!

In the blink of an eye, his toddler son had grabbed someone else’s cart and pushed it backwards into the cart with the baby. The sound scared the dad and startled the baby.

The dad lunged and yelled to stop his son. Then in one quick move, he grabbed the child with one hand and swatted his puffy diaper with the other. The little boy didn’t cry but stood frozen and puzzled as the dad warned him not to push carts because he could hurt the baby. When the mom showed up minutes later, the dad apologized telling the mom he’d reacted out of fear.

His knee-jerk reaction took him by surprise and kept him from seeing what I saw:

  • The only thing that had really happened was that the handles of the carts had hit and the metallic carts rattled;
  • The dad didn’t need to stop the child. By the time the dad yelled, the child had already stopped himself AND pulled his cart back, automatically correcting the problem;
  • The baby wasn’t upset.

Success Training

While it’s hard to see past fear, there is something the dad could have done that would have woken him up. Instead of a yell/grab/swat sequence, with a few simple coaching skills he could have jumped straight into Success Training like this:

SAY WHAT YOU SEE: “Something crashed!”

Those few words, even if spoken immediately after the knee-jerk yell, would have given his brain time to catch up and get present. Then he could have used the moment to point out his son’s strengths:

STRENGTH: “You heard the crash, and you stopped yourself!”

Observing more he could’ve added:

SAY WHAT YOU SEE: “Look at that! The cart isn’t even touching the baby’s cart. You pulled the cart away all by yourself to keep the baby safe.”


STRENGTH: “You know carts aren’t for crashing!”

Looking at the child’s face could’ve helped him discover what his child wanted. Then he could’ve stepped onto his son’s side and helped him get it inside the dad’s boundaries:

SAY WHAT YOU SEE: “That startled you! You didn’t expect the cart to hit anything. That’s not what you wanted.”


CAN DO: “Here, show me how to push our cart so it doesn’t hit anything.”


STRENGTH: “Yep, you’re looking around the side to see what’s in front…That’s you being careful!”

Instead of using punishment to manage his child’s behavior, if the dad had used Success Training, he could have brought out his son’s STRENGTHs.

Need a transition step?

If you’re shaking your head thinking that even SAYing WHAT YOU SEE instead of reacting is too big a step for you, try a transition step instead. You can think of it as a kind of Success Training for you.

Transition steps can make the difference between changing a habit or repeating it. That’s because in a moment of fear, your need for power is at its highest. Even though you don’t like your knee-jerk reaction, meeting your need for power is what an automatic response of yell/grab/swat is designed to do. So rather than trying NOT to do anything and fighting against your need, you can skip the internal struggle by deliberately DOING something else that meets that need in a way you like. 

To do that, you can start with your existing pattern and tweak it slightly. For example, in the case of the cart crash, instead of the knee-jerk sequence—yell “No!”/grab your child/swat his diaper—you could yell your child’s name/grab the cart/swat your own leg, then SAY WHAT YOU SEE as above. No cart? Yell your child’s name/grab your own hand/squeeze. When you decide what will work for you, practice your new sequence in advance over and over until it feels natural to you.

The trick is to honor the pattern you already have and find a simple way to replace it with something else that meets the same needs. Meeting your needs in ways you like will open the door for bigger change, like stepping from managing your child’s behavior into using coaching skills to help your child learn to manage him/herself. Finding a transition sequence is an easy way to start creating successes of your own.

1 Comment

  1. Katherine Torrini |

    I love this! Thank you for acknowledging that not all of us are as ready as you are to leave the old ways we know. I will play around with this pattern interrupt practice thing!

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