Why Distracting Your Kids Doesn't Work And What Works Instead

Has your child ever been flooded with big emotions and because you didn’t know what to do you resorted to distraction?

Distraction usually works momentarily however it moves us away from confronting the issue at hand by in fact just making the child focus on something else. There’s so many learning opportunities we miss out on when we resort to distraction.

Maybe you’ve found yourself in a scenario similar to this:

Toddler is happily playing when other toddler comes along and snatches toy.

Your toddler is now uncontrollably crying (very loudly too) and because it is not possible to get the toy back (the other toddler has gone running off with it), you now start picking up other toys to try and distract your child.

Perhaps it doesn’t work.

And they still keep on crying.

So you find another distraction method. “Oh look over there - did you see that bird fly past the window? Come with me I’ll show you”.

I don’t think I’ve ever met a parent who hasn’t used distraction techniques on their child so please don’t feel bad if you currently do. The thing is when we are distracting children from what they feel it will discourage them from holding their attention on difficult things.

Because having a toy stolen from them is only the beginning and there’s going to be plenty of hard feelings they are going to have to learn to sit with as they grow older.

It’s our job as the parent to be the ‘facilitator’. This is where we hold space for our child to fully express their feelings and emotions.

Imagine yourself coming in from work and telling your partner that you had a really tough day and you are visibly upset. How would you feel if they turned around and said “Oh my goodness, look at that rabbit outside, can you see it?”

You would straight out feel unheard, unseen and unvalidated.

And if this started to happen regularly then you would likely start shutting down and would stop telling them about your day or any uncomfortable feelings you have.

“Distraction actually prevents and opportunity to closen and deepen a connection”

Perhaps think of another scenario:

You’re dropping your child off at nursery and they are really upset. They don’t want you to leave (which is a good sign they are attached to you!) and you find it really hard to see them crying. You’re in a rush for work so you start resorting to distraction. “Oh look, they have new toys over there - you’re going to have so much fun playing with them today!” or “Your teacher wants to give you a cuddle, go and sit with them".” (You then whizz off out the classroom door)

Again, its completely normal to not know what to do in these situations and to think that distraction is the answer. What distraction highlights however is that you yourself aren’t comfortable with your child’s feelings so you will do anything you can to stop their feelings. Which then sends the message to the child that there feelings aren’t ok to have.

What would be better in the above scenario is to offer empathy:

“You don’t want me to go back to work and you’re feeling sad because I’m leaving you at nursery? I understand that your feeling sad, I will be back after dinner time though and I will be driving you home later.”

The thing is you have to go to work and you have to leave your child at nursery. That there’s no denying giving this is a typical scenario for you. It’s not possible you’re just going to be able to give up work and let your child stay at home however these situations can be a great opportunity for you to connect over uncomfortable feelings.

Moving away from distraction is going to help your child to grow up and be emotionally resilient. It will help them develop self esteem and independence knowing that it’s perfectly OK and normal to have their feelings and for instance be upset about going to school. But they will also get a message that sometimes we have uncomfortable feelings that we can share with those close to us and we have our feelings and experiences validated,

“Ah that sucks, I hear you don’t want to go to school today, I can totally see why you feel that way, at 3pm I’ll come and collect you and you can tell me how the day went”

Not only that but when we don’t resort to distraction we can actually face conflict head on and give our child the opportunity to model ‘how to healthily resolve conflict’ which you won’t be doing if you constantly distract them. Maybe yourself now as an adult always tries to divert away from conflict as no one ever modelled healthy conflict resolution to you?

Children need to learn how to handle disagreements with us and their peers. If we are distracting our child with another toy when a toy they were playing with gets snatched by someone else, we are missing out on a valuable opportunity to learn how to manage conflict themselves.

So what would be better would be to explain to your child what is going out. Almost like you are narrating the story for them;

'“You were happily playing with Peppa Pig and then Thomas came over and stole Peppa from you. Now I see you’re feeling really upset and I also see that Thomas had been waiting some time to play with that toy. It’s hard when you both want to play with the same thing.'“

Talking to your child like this refrains from any name calling/labelling. You’re not saying that the other child is mean, selfish, or nasty. You’re simply stating what you have seen (to help their brains understand) and your also holding space for their feelings, validating them and their experience. Over time the more you do this, the more you child will be able to communicate this narrative to you and will be able to talk around some other solutions. Perhaps it’s asking Thomas if they can play together, or maybe it’s waiting 5 minutes and seeing if the toy becomes available again. Or maybe the child completely forgets and independently moves onto something themselves. What is important here is to empathise, acknowledge feelings and point of view and remain calm for them.

Now imagine how much they are going to learn from you when you stop resorting to distractions and you model how to handle conflict.

Next time you feel like you are going to panic and feel the urge to use distraction methods step back and see these situations as opportunities that your child can learn from.