Applying the HALT method: a checklist for proactive parenting

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About Megan Tietz

Megan Tietz wants you to join her on the front porch for some long talks and iced tea. She lives in the heart of Oklahoma City with her husband, two daughters, and twin sons. Catch up with her at Sorta Crunchy and join the conversation in her Facebook community.

Recently, I learned from some wise like-minded parents about how to use the HALT method to both proactively guide our children, as well as finding a way to diagnose what is happening when things fall apart.

See, a key element in the successful practice of positive parenting is the ability to set our children up for success. It requires some effort to be thoughtfully and intentionally proactive in creating rhythms, routines, and environments in which they can feel their best.

Are you familiar with the HALT slogan often used in recovery programs? The idea behind it is that when a person is in recovery (specifically, addiction recovery), there are moments when he or she is vulnerable to making poor choices. HALT reminds us that when we are Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired, there is a need to be more sensitive to good decision making.

I’ve been using this as a guide to constructing and working through my days with my children, and it’s been simple to apply! Let’s break down what applying HALT looks like in the realm of parenting.

H: HUNGRY


Photo by rwkvisual

Anyone who interacts with children knows the importance of making sure blood sugar stays stabilized throughout the day. From church school teachers to daycare directors to parents with newborns on up to teenagers, we know that rumbly tummies often lead to difficult behaviors.

I’m particularly sensitive to this aspect of the HALT method because I’ve battled blood sugar issues my whole life. I know that for me, it’s imperative to have a snack or a meal every few hours or it will be Mama having the meltdown — not the kids!

Fortunately, the Hungry of HALT is one of the easiest aspects to manage on the list. Plan snack breaks into your daily routines, and when you will be out of the house or traveling, plan ahead with easy-to-transport snacks and drinks.

Earlier this month, Kara shared some simple summer snack ideas at Simple Kids, and the Food and Nutrition category there has even more helpful suggestions.

A: ANGRY

Of all of the aspects of HALT, Angry is certainly the easiest one to recognize. As adults, we know how hard it can be to control our own tempers — and we are the grown-ups! How much harder it must be for our little ones who don’t have the advantage of maturity, experience, and some serious neurological development.

Being proactive in helping our children learn to control their big feelings can be a little bit tricky. We don’t want to shield them entirely from situations where they might get upset, because an important part of learning to deal with disappointment is to be disappointed. They can’t practice those much-needed conflict skills if we don’t let them engage in a little conflict.

On the other hand, we can anticipate situations where their anger buttons might get pushed, and try to help them understand expectations beforehand. For example: “We are going to play with Sarah. I know Sarah sometimes takes toys away and that makes you feel angry. It’s okay to feel angry, but it is not okay to hurt Sarah or anyone else when you are angry.”

Try as we might, we can’t be proactive every minute of the day, and we certainly can’t always predict what is going to anger our children. Just this morning, my three-year-old got mad that I dared to put honey for waffle dipping in a bowl instead of on her plate! But simply understanding that the “angry” part of HALT can cause our kids to make poor behavior choices is helpful as we navigate through a rocky day.

L: LONELY


Photo by D Sharon Pruitt

This element of HALT can sneak up on us. All of us have an innate need for attention from others; when that need is unmet for a child, the result is often acting out in some way to get attention (positive or negative) from a parent or caregiver.

Certainly all children are unique, and all will differ in how a parent can best be proactive in meeting that child’s needs. Personally, I’ve found that planing intentional connection time with my girls throughout the day helps enormously. As they’re getting up, eating breakfast, and getting dressed, I try to stay away from the computer and focus in on connecting with them. Later, after lunch, we have special time to sit and read together. We finish our days with reading and snuggles at bedtime.

Some children are more needy than others, but for many children, the security of frequent connection pit stops helps to eliminate acting out brought on by loneliness.

T: TIRED

I have to smile as I recall that one of my grandmother’s most-often repeated diagnoses when one of her grandchildren was melting down a little bit (or a lot): “She’s just overly tired!” There is so much truth there, right?

If you think back to the sleep deprivation days of the newborn phase, you can recall just how significant of an impact a lack or sleep —  or even broken sleep — can have on behavior. Being tired can manifest itself in many kinds of behaviors in children.

My oldest daughter becomes extremely weepy, sensitive, and emotional; my younger daughter, on the other hand, is increasingly hyper and wound-up the more tired she becomes. Other children might become aggressive and mean, while still other children are lethargic and whiny.

Each family has to find a solution that works best for them to when it comes to proactively ensuring their children are getting enough sleep. Early bedtimes work for my family, but later wake-up times might work better for yours. Several short naps will fit some children, while one longer nap is better for others.

Even when our kids get enough sleep, there are still circumstances when being overly tired will negatively impact our little ones: an overdose of stimulation, a long day of play, and even a growth spurt are all situations when the T of HALT causes some crankiness.

As we think about ways to apply the HALT method, the pursuit of proactive parenting cannot take over our family’s life. Despite our best efforts, we simply cannot control every situation, nor should we try to. We have to be flexible, and we have to model for our children how to adapt.

The best part of applying HALT to our parenting toolbox is knowing what is triggering undesirable behaviors in our children. Armed with that understanding, we are empowered to respond to them from a place of empathy and understanding, rather than from a place of confusion and frustration.

And we may just find that in doing so, we’ll also learn how to use HALT to better manage of our own behaviors.

How do you approach parenting proactively? What are some critical factors you have observed that influence your child’s behavior?

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Comments

  1. I never heard of the HALT method, but I really like it! I like how you addressed identifying the trigger of the undesirable behavior. Just like medicine (well, naturopathic medicine)—find the cause! It’s a lot easier to address my child if I know why she is behaving a certain way, and I really feel like the discipline ends up being more appropriate in light of what’s behind the behavior.

  2. I am a parent educator by profession, but also a mom of six kids, a foster mom, and a once-upon-a-time home childcare provider for 22 years. This is everything I tell parents, all rolled up into one concise little simple formula. I had not heard of HALT before this, but I will most certainly be sharing it with any parent who will listen! Thanks!

  3. whoa! this is brilliant and amazing. thanks for this!

  4. Megan: I never heard this before…but it is such a great and simple reminder to go through as you guide your children through the ups and downs of their day!! Great for “big” kids too- sometimes just identify what is happening underneath so we can get at the root issue is so important.

    Thanks for this fantastic post!!

  5. Excellent information and I will be employing this method effective today! I have one child with sensory issues and I think this just might be the trick to understanding her meltdowns.

  6. I first read about the HALT method in a magazine when my first born was a baby. It was easy to remember, and very helpful, especially during the toddler years. I have found that a good percentage of parenting is anticipating needs. If I can stay a step or two ahead of my kids, it prevents a lot of problems. Not every day or situation can be planned out, but it helps to think through possible scenarios (such as, if we go to the park, do I have bug spray for the bug sensitive one, snacks and drinks for the one that gets hungry quickly, and a bucket and shovel and toys for the littlest one who will get bored the earliest?) Thank you for posting this!

  7. How funny. Yet helpful. I’ve only heard of HALT in relation to marriage and conflict. When you have a fight with your spouse, you’re supposed to say “HALT” (humorous, yes) and then go through the acronym… most likely you’re either hungry, angry, lonely, or tired, which explains why you are escalating or backing away, etc the conflict. So you come up with a time the next day – schedule it! – to talk through the issue.

  8. I’ve never heard of this approach before but it sure makes sense! I’m trying hard to become a reformed yeller with mixed results. I will try this to see if it helps!

  9. Thank you for this!

  10. I have a husband with diagnosed ADD and a son that will probably be diagnosed someday. Our son was recently having an unusually difficult time dealing with minor disappointments. Then we realized he’d been eating lots of popsicles (the stick kind that you push up) over the course of the previous few days – and thereby ingesting large amounts of artificial food dyes which we normally avoid as much as we can. After a day or two of “detox,” he was back to normal.

    One of his worst mornings though was after a breakfast of pancakes and syrup (at a restaurant, so not whole wheat and real maple syrup like he would have gotten at home) – lots of carbs and sweet with little protein. So with the “hungry” aspect, we also need to make sure that they’re not getting filled up with empty calories, but a good balance of foods.

    And my husband stayed home from work yesterday for my birthday. On days he stays home, he doesn’t take his meds to give his body a break. Usually on days like that, he’s able to take a nap, but we had a full day planned. By the evening (and after one of the aforementioned popsicles), he was having lots of issues with mood management. He’s recently switched to a generic version of his meds, so we’d never experienced a non-nap day off of this formulation.

    So, bottom line for us is that we need to figure out the triggers for the anger/moods, some of which are “crashes” from meds, the need for more sleep, or ingestion of food dyes.

    Staying adequately hydrated is important too!

    • Thanks for showing this can be applied in other settings, too! And yes, hydration really is something that is overlooked so easily but can make such a big difference.

  11. Like the others, I knew about the issues but not the acronym. And I must say, when I’m tired or frustrated, it’s harder for me to remember to check for these things in my kids. I like the acronym because it’s short and simple. I think I might put it on our fridge.

  12. avatar
    Ego Nemo says:

    Have snacks ready? WHAT A GREAT IDEA!!!!!!!!!!!

    Who knew that humans like to eat so often! Thanks for the advice!

    After reading it, it all now SEEMS SOOOO OBVIOUS!

    Please write another article that should tell me how I can tell if it is raining outside? THX!!!

    • avatar
      Katelyn says:

      Sometimes the most obvious answers are the ones most easily overlooked in the moment so it’s nice to have a reminder.

      What a really immature response. Are you hungry, angry, lonely or tired? Because it sounds like you are having a bit of a meltdown.

  13. For years I have kept a snack in my purse – for me. I’ve been a special education teacher for 30 years and I’m teaching more children with autism. Now I can really see the importance of HALT and so often children don’t have the words to express these needs. As parents and teachers we can use HALT, while we teach them that language.

  14. I laughed when I read what “HALT” stood for. These are the kickers in my house, all right! But I’m hoping the clever little acronym will help me be a better parent in the moment. Thanks!

  15. That’s an interesting method. I had to disagree with my husband a while back about how much kids should snack. He wanted snacks gone entirely. I pointed out that even as adults, we snack. It’s not a bad thing, just make sure it’s reasonably healthy and not so close to a meal as to disrupt that… or make the snack enough like a meal that it won’t really matter, for those times when the hunger clearly won’t wait with a very young child.

  16. I’m a big believer in trying to prevent problems like this, though the acronym is new for me. I also think, though, that these things are going to happen and I have to help my kids learn to behave in a reasonable manner. Sometimes we’re stuck at the store and I don’t have a snack. My 3yo who still mostly needs a nap doesn’t always take one and afternoons can be long. I wouldn’t deprive them to teach them how to deal, but I do try to work with them in those situations where a meltdown could occur – sometimes we don’t get all our needs met immediately. And I’m not sure it gets easier as we get older!

    • I definitely agree, and as I wrote in the closing paragraphs, sometimes things just happen and we just have to deal with it – no matter how old we are. I find that if I can understand the *why* behind a behavior, it helps me to respond from a place of empathy rather than frustration. As kids get a little older, it’s easier to help them become self-aware, too: “I know you are feeling so upset about this right, but I think you are even more upset because you haven’t eaten lunch yet. Let’s talk about this again later after you’ve eaten.”

  17. Isn’t it great that the same things we need as adults apply to our children?! I know the Lonely aspect is one that can turn into a downward spiral. When my son is going through a spell of bad behavior, my response is often to pull away and retreat, but perhaps that’s when he most needs me to sit close and give him my full attention. Or at least to follow that time-out with some focused story time, so we don’t get into a repeat cycle of acting out to try and engage a distracted mama.

  18. This makes SO much sense Megan – thanks for the wonderful post! I will definitely be putting this into practice.

  19. Bored! Let’s not forget bored. When I catch my 4yo acting up simply because he’s bored with what we’re doing (because let’s face it, he gets dragged along on boring errands sometimes), I make an effort to make a game out of little things to keep him from acting up out of sheer boredom.

    • Oh YES! For both of my kids, being BORED is a huge trigger for not-great choices! Maybe we could make this HALT-B? :) So true for so many kids, that’s for sure.

  20. This is a great reminder. What a wonderful way to easily see what is going on with our child that we should be more sensitive to!

  21. I used this when my kids were growing up and it is a great way to proactively keep your child on track. It is a good temperature guage, if you will, of their situation.
    As I think about it, it is not a bad technique for us as adults either!
    Thanks for reminding me of this!
    Bernice

  22. I never knew this had a name!!! But I am all about setting my kids up for success and I know if they are well fed, well slept and have had plenty of the great outdoors then we are well on the way to a great day… school happens without complaint, sibling squabbling evaporates. I have noticed that exercise does not equate to the great outdoors at all… and an hour or two at gym might be exercise but we all still need time outdoors in the fresh air to feel hundred percent.

  23. I think this is a brilliant reminder. Actually I think some people think I am just being a slacker when I go through this list out loud sometimes to diagnose my kids’ less than ideal behaviour (why are people so quick to want to judge kids as just being inherently ‘bad’??). Hunger is a HUGE trigger for my kids though and I totally agree with the other Mum who said you have to be careful of the quality of food they are eating as well. I have seen my kids bouncing off the walls and then calm done immediately once they get some good food in their tums.

  24. So helpful. Thanks, Megan, as always for practical and tender advice.

  25. avatar
    Sparkles says:

    I LOVE this approach!

    I know firsthand how offering a snack to my kids if they are cranky makes a world of difference! Ahhhhh, calm again! You might find Little Sugar Addicts an interesting read – it opened my eyes to the food/mood connection.

    Thank you for talking about this!

  26. As someone who has been in recovery for 2 years I knew what HALT meant for me, but I never thought to apply it to my kids. They are so much easier to refocus if I can catch them before the crash. Thinking of it in terms of HALT or HALT-B, will help me gauge the situation before it reaches the point of new return. Love learning how to apply something in a new way. Thanks!

  27. I really love this! I recently listened to a podcast of a parenting conference from the Village Church, and one of the things they really stressed was the importance of grace with your child. Grace doesn’t mean I let everything slide by, but grace does mean I parent with the knowledge that my child is going to have behaviors that are influenced by the very things you wrote about. While I can still help guide them in how to behave in spite of those things, it means I parent with a more gentle understanding.
    And, parenting with grace also means I remind myself that grace has been lavished upon me–allowing me to do the same.
    Thanks so much for a great reminder!

  28. Thanks Megan. I bet it’s going to be very useful especially to young parents.

  29. LOVE this–I write and share about recovery on my blog all the time but hadn’t applied this HALT method directly to parenting before. Thank you so much for clearly identifying that our kids are people too! Sometimes I forget this, I confess.

  30. Megan, I am sensitive to the hunger thing as well b/c I need to eat every few hours or I am apt to start biting heads!

  31. I don’t have kids, but I do use it with my friends. We call it “hangry”. Hungary and angry. But we also use it for being tired too.

  32. Hi Megan,
    Thank you for this article. I have never heard of The Halt Method, but it makes so much sense! I am sharing it on my FB page, and with other mommies that I know who will find it very useful as we head into summer break with our kids!
    Best,
    Suzi

  33. I grew up knowing this method as my Mom used it all the time. It works. It’s one of those ingrained reactions in my life. So thankful for my Mom’s instruction.

  34. Another great article, Megan, chock full of lots of practical wisdom.

    I found the “lonely” part of the HALT method the most enlightening. I realize that after I get my girls breakfast, I sometimes become distracted with my morning email check. My middle child always seems to pick a fight with her sisters during breakfast, and I guess I was being obtuse, but I didn’t even stop to consider that maybe she personally needs more connection time in the morning before Mommy gets “connected” to technology.

    At any rate, thank you for the helpful advice!

  35. Same here as for many others. We use this understanding even though I’d never heard HALT before. You also learn which is the most important for your child. If my daughter isn’t fed regularly we’re in for a long day, but she can make it without a nap and still have a wonderful afternoon (though an early bedtime that night!). Her best friend is the opposite – being tired spells disaster but missing a snack when you’re running errands is nothing. But I’ve yet to deal with anything that didn’t fall into one of these categories (if you include frustration with anger). Great acronym!

  36. A friend told me about HALT when she was in therapy a number of years ago. I thought it was absolutely profound and frequently have to remind myself not to make decisions when I’m hungry, angry, lonely, tired.

    I’m almost militant about naptimes for our kids. I don’t believe in a child-run household but we do schedule around naps and bedtimes. It makes for happier kids and happier parents!

  37. Hi Megan, while I didn’t know about the HALT method, this is pretty much the checklist we use when our toddler tends to act up or have a meltdown. Thanks for sharing this with us!

  38. I’ve never read about the HALT method before but I love it! It makes so much sense with my daughter. She is often moody and after reading this I realized that she is usually either Hungry, Angry, Lonely or Tired. Almost every time! Now when I hear that whiny voice I can just go through the list instead of searching my brain for what might be wrong.

    I definitely find that this works with adults too. Yesterday my hubbie came home from work and was all four of those. I reminded him of the HALT method and that it works for adults too. He ate and settled down with a book on the patio for 30 minutes of rest & peace. He was changed man :)

  39. I never actually heard of HALT before, but Hubby and I have noticed time and again that these are often present during times of unwelcome behavior in our kids. I’m actually planning on blogging something similar, and would love to quote 2 paragraphs and provide a link back here since you explain it so clearly. May I?

    Thank you for your clarity, and introducing me to the “name” of this!

  40. Hi Megan,
    I love your article, this is a great information you’ve shared..Hope to hear more from you..

  41. Great blog and some valid points. I had never heard of HALT before, but it’s definitely worth taking notice too. As my kids get older (and I’ve given birth to more of them), I learn better ways of handling situations.

  42. avatar
    Pam Rassatt says:

    I had a training once on this and helps so much to understand kids. My trainging had a S on the end for SICK. HALTS. I was looking to share this info with some parents at my daycare so I may be sharing your blog. thanks for the info!!

    • Pam, I agree that being sick can be a trigger of irritable behavior. It can be very hard to identify this if you have a child who doesn’t know how (or is too young) to express this. I’ve had several instances when a teacher emailed me to tell me one of my children had a rather rough day at school, and then I discovered within hours that they were coming down with a sickness.

      Another “H” word that can play a part in behavior is when they are “hurting.” This could be emotional or physical hurt A child could have some physical pain that is bothering them (whether they have specifically expressed it or not), or they might have had their feelings hurt in some way and they cannot “let go” of the associated negative thoughts/feelings without a mature adult to help them. I don’t know if I’d categorize this feeling as “anger” but it has the potential to turn into anger if not dealt with.

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