Witnessing your child act out for the first time can be a bewildering experience. Biting, screaming, fighting the cat — unwanted behaviors can run the gamut. While such displays can appear as suddenly and inexplicably as a new cold, there are clear, research-backed techniques to help turn them around.
Jocelyn R. Lebow, Ph.D., L.P., is a clinical psychologist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, who specializes in the treatment of children. She says the first step in encouraging positive behavior is to set realistic expectations for the parent and the child.
“The first thing I tell parents who come in with behavioral concerns,” Dr. Lebow says, “is to cut themselves some slack. Tantrums, fussiness and some disruptive behaviors are all part of typical childhood development. There are great methods for promoting positive behavior, but understand that kids will go through phases. You can’t shape every behavior, nor should you be expected to.”
Strategies for curbing disruptive behavior
There are two powerful tools at every parent’s disposal when dealing with unwanted behavior, Dr. Lebow says, and the first is attention. Children crave attention, and they quickly learn how to get it. Does batting ornaments off the Christmas tree get a big, drop-everything response from mom or dad? Then that, as Dr. Lebow puts it, “is where the money’s at.”
As counterintuitive as it might seem, Dr. Lebow says one of the best ways to decrease the frequency of unwanted behavior is to not react unless the situation is truly dangerous. When a child is being disruptive, banging on the cabinets, for example, remain calm or ignore the behavior altogether. Once the child realizes the behavior won’t get any attention, the child eventually moves on, though some children are more persistent than others.
“If they’re wrapping a cord around their neck, it’s not the time to be chill,” Dr. Lebow says. “But when it’s not dangerous, any time you make a big deal out of something is when a little kid will think, ‘aha.’ Kids study you their whole life, looking for these attention pressure points. The trick is to not give away any more than you have to.”
The crucial step in this technique, Dr. Lebow explains, is to provide plenty of attention when your child acts appropriately. Try to catch your child behaving in ways you like: playing quietly with toys, sharing with a sibling, or asking nicely for a snack rather than howling at the pantry.
The second powerful tool for addressing unwanted behavior is positive reinforcement.
“Positive reinforcement and praise are more durable than punishment and consequences,” Dr. Lebow says. “If you can praise a positive behavior instead of punishing a negative behavior, you’ll make much more of a lasting impact. Obviously, you can’t rely on praise alone, especially when the behavior puts your kid at risk, but praising a replacement behavior, paying a ton of attention to the behaviors you like, will make a greater impression.”
Research has repeatedly shown that rewarding a desired behavior will increase that behavior’s frequency. That’s also one of the fundamental tenets of parent management training, a program designed specifically for preschool and school-age children with behavioral problems.
To maximize the effectiveness of praise, aim to make it as specific as possible, Dr. Lebow says. Offer something like, “I love how you just cleaned up your spot without being asked,” rather than “you’re such a good boy.”
Making playtime special
One activity Dr. Lebow recommends to parents struggling with unwanted behavior is what’s called special time or special playtime. The practice stems from parent-child interaction therapy and involves setting aside time each day to be present with your child. The goal of special playtime is to foster a more durable relationship with your child and has been shown to reduce the severity of tantrums and unwanted behavior.
Special playtime guidelines:
- Allow your child to lead the play session. As the parent, your goal is to attend and be present rather than direct the activity. Avoid asking leading questions like, “Why don’t we play with your crayons?” Such questions can be taken as veiled directions.
- Keep the play session short at first, aiming for 5 to 10 minutes and increasing the playtime until you’re more comfortable with the activity.
- Describe what the child is doing and give specific praise. Using specific praise shows that you’re focused and present in the activity. It also provides an opportunity to clearly state what behaviors you’d like your child to repeat.
- Play along with your child in a sincere way and imitate your child’s behavior. Imitation is an effective way to show your child what behaviors you approve of.
“The idea with special playtime,” Dr. Lebow says, “is that you’re putting money in the bank. That way, when you do try to change behavior, when you try stuff like timeouts, you’ve got a little more buy-in and you don’t have a relationship that’s already burnt out.”
A parenting style that works
Beyond special playtime and addressing specific behaviors, Dr. Lebow recommends parents aim for what’s called authoritative parenting.
Authoritative parenting is one of the four Baumrind parenting styles and is often recommended by behavioral psychologists as an ideal approach to parenting. Other Baumrind styles include authoritarian parenting, permissive parenting and neglectful parenting. Originally conceived of by University of California, Berkeley researcher Diana Blumberg Baumrind, Ph.D., and later expanded in the 1980s, the four styles are defined by how demanding parents are versus how responsive they are to their child’s needs.
- Authoritative parents are both demanding and responsive. This parenting style is noted for being a balanced, child-focused approach. Authoritative parents set clear expectations while still recognizing a child’s emotional needs.
- Authoritarian parents are demanding but not responsive. This style relies heavily on punishment and restrictions. Authoritarian parents set high expectations while giving little concern to the child’s wants or feelings.
- Permissive parents are not demanding but are highly responsive. Parents following this style enforce few rules or behavioral restrictions but are actively involved in their child’s emotional well-being.
- Neglectful parents are neither demanding nor responsive. These parents enforce no rules and often pay little or no attention to their child.
Dr. Lebow suggests aiming for an authoritative approach not only to encourage positive behavior but to help children develop more emotional awareness. This parenting style relies on regular, open communication, along with setting clear, age-appropriate standards. Children raised in an authoritative household are noted for being emotionally stable, socially adept and more engaged in school activities.
When taking an authoritative approach, parents should set clear boundaries. They should communicate often, asking their child’s opinion and discussing choices for various activities when possible. A child can’t choose when to go to bed, but can choose what pajamas to wear. An authoritative parent is invested in the child’s emotional health and frequently expresses love and affection.
Authoritative parents rely primarily on praise and positive reinforcement to encourage behavior. However, when discipline is needed, an authoritative parent chooses a punishment equal to the transgression and explains why the behavior is inappropriate. An authoritative parent will also investigate the cause of an unwanted behavior and offer support to help the child avoid it in the future.
Ultimately, behavioral challenges will arise in children as a natural part of development, and Dr. Lebow recommends that parents remain flexible and avoid comparisons to overly rosy depictions of family life they might encounter in online articles or television shows. She also stresses that, while it’s important to be present and spend time with your child, one of the most important steps is making sure that you as the parent are taking care of yourself.
“I realize that might sound ridiculous,” Dr. Lebow says, “but making sure that you’re in a good place as a parent is critical. That’s hard to do when there’s so much else going on, but when you’re tired, when you’re hungry, when you’re mad at your spouse, you are not going to gauge things well or respond flexibly, which is at the core of effective parenting. It takes more energy to be present with your kid, and if you don’t have that energy to give, it’s not because you’re a bad parent, it’s because you probably need to take some time out to take care of yourself.”
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