Monday, November 25, 2013

Intercepting "Bad" Behavior with HALT TOT

This time of year seems to be extra-challenging for families with children. Really, it seems as though once we've gotten through back to school season, we're hit in the face with The Holidays: three solid months of (tons of fun along with) sweets, routine changes, frenetic retail experiences, and higher stress levels. It's around this time of year that I like to remind myself of some of the strategies that work best for me to keep my cool when parenting a kiddo who is also experiencing the stress of the season.

Gentle discipline is not easy. There are definitely times that I feel like I want to hit my child when he's doing something that really triggers me. (Just being honest, folks.) Regardless of my urges, it's so very important to me to show him kindness, compassion, and gentleness in the way I parent him, and because of that I choose not to spank or use other forms of punitive discipline.

It helps me immensely to remember (and remind myself) that Daniel's behavior is always a reflection of his needs in that moment. One tool that I like to use—because it gives me a list to run through when I don't know what else to do—is the HALT TOT acronym. HALT TOT stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, Thirsty, Overstimulated, or (in need of) Toileting. These are some of the main basic needs that might not be getting met in any given moment, which would greatly contribute to difficult behavior.

Here's how I use HALT TOT when faced with an impending meltdown or other challenging behaviors:
  • I run through the list and try to help him verbalize his feelings and assess his body for what it needs. I often simply ask him, "What does your body need right now?" and he is learning to check in with himself and let me know what it is that's bothering him. 
  • Even when he can't verbalize a specific need (perhaps he's way past being able to assess himself and is melting down) it helps me to mentally check off which needs have been taken care of recently and think about which ones have not been met and could be adding to the challenge on the current situation.
  • Then I run through the list for myself, too. If I'm not getting my basic needs met, I'm not likely to be an effective parent in a difficult moment. (Run through it for yourself right now: When was the last time you had a snack? Do you really need to pee? These things can so drastically affect my patience level, it's pretty surprising.)

Another one of my main strategies when things get tough is to take mama time outs. I take these moments during the day to physically remove myself from the difficult situation and take some time to breathe and be alone (usually outside in the fresh air). It's important for me to give myself these opportunities to reset because they give my nervous system the time it needs to get out of reactive mode and into a place where I can be calm(er) and more loving with my responses.  

Finally, I try to make opportunities for moments of reconnection (hugging, cuddles, laughing, being silly) when my child is on my last nerve because it reminds me how much I love and enjoy him. It also reminds me that he's still so very young and very small, and he's still in the early stages of learning how to be a fully functioning human being. I know it can be really hard as an adult to deal with big emotions when they hit me, and I try to imagine feeling those same feelings (as Daniel does) without all of the coping skills I have learned over my lifetime so far.

Parenting is a very challenging job, and I didn't anticipate how much things from my own childhood would resurface as I grow into my new role as a parent. I have to be very aware of how I'm feeling when Daniel is doing something that is bothering me. Over time, I've found myself being more conscious of the kinds of situations we might find ourselves in that will cause me to want to react (automatically) instead of responding (thoughtfully). Only then can I anticipate and help us to meet both of our needs while being a more effective parent all around.

What are some of your tried and true gentle parenting strategies to get you through tough moments? I don't know about you, but I can always use more tools in my parenting toolbox. Please share in the comments!

I cannot remember where I first learned about HALT TOT, and extensive internet searches have failed to provide a source, so please let me know if you know the original source of the HALT TOT acronym. This is not my original idea, but I have found it so very helpful in parenting that I really wanted to pass it along!
Edited 11/25/2013 at 5:30PM to add: My fabulous (and wise!) friend Arwyn of Holding Space Massage and formerly of Raising My Boychick is the original source of HALT TOT, as seen in her 2010 post Choosing Joy. What a small world this is!

Please feel free to share and use the HALT TOT image for personal purposes with credit to me and this post. The image is my creation, adapted from "Tyler's Handprint Child" by Tyler Smith on Flickr (used with Creative Commons license).


  1. Very helpful, thanks! I found out too late how powerful communication is (long story short, I was speaking to my daughter primarily in my second language until she turned 3) and how much communication can prevent tantrums. I always hated taking her places, she would run around, not listen and leaving was a nightmare. Finally when she was 3 1/2, while taking her to the library, I spoke clearly and repeatedly my expectations of her. She seemed to be responding to the few rules I set in place. I did need to remind her a couple of time in the library, but leaving was far less traumatic. And now parenting her in all aspects has been much easier since I allow myself to speak with her in English (my mother tongue) and we both understand each other much better.

  2. I love the line "what does your body need right now?" and am definitely going to use it with my boys!


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