by Emily Kahn-Freedman, LMFT
As a marriage and family therapist, I am often asked for suggestions about how to help children behave better . All parents struggle at times with how to help their children learn to cooperate, do their chores, stop fighting with their siblings, reduce whining or temper tantrums. In my years of studying the subject – and practicing on my own children, who thankfully survived to healthy adulthood – I have developed the following list of parenting suggestions.
1. What you pay attention to, you get more of. We all need and deserve attention. Try to “catch your child being good,” and rather than using the peaceful time to check off something else on your to-do list, spend a moment paying attention to your child. By the same token, most parents can simply ignore a lot of negative behavior. Children (and adults) tend to repeat behaviors that are rewarded with attention. If negative attention is all they get, sometimes children will repeat negative behavior just to get whatever attention they can.
Positive attention includes:
- words of love
- questions, comments “looks like you’re having fun with your toy”
- joining in play, if child wants you to
- occasional rewards such as special treats, special parent-child time, cash, small prizes
2. For every negative statement (correction, constructive criticism, consequence) be sure you use at least 5 positive statements. (This works well with spouses too.)
3. VALIDATE emotions. “I know you really, really want to stay up and play your game. I bet you’d like to stay up all night long! I used to want to do that when I was your age. Maybe this weekend you can stay up later. But tomorrow is a school day and I’m turning off the computer in two minutes.”
4. Increase motivation by offering simple rewards: “Do you think you can find a way to put away all your toys before the timer rings? If you beat the timer, you get an extra story at bedtime!”
5. Never use punishment that hurts or shames a child. Avoid thinking of consequences as “punishment” at all but as a natural result of behavior: “No throwing balls in the house. If I find you you throwing your ball in the house again, I will need to take your ball and keep it for you until I see that you can be more respectful of our rules.”
6. If you concentrate on building positive experiences with your child, by expressing love and engaging in having fun together, your child will naturally want to please you. In the same way, if most of your time with your child is spent criticizing or correcting, your child will feel hurt and resentful. He or she may be unconsciously looking for ways to retaliate… or may unconsciously realize that negative attention is better than no attention at all.
7. Avoid responding when you are angry. If a child’s behavior angers you, take a time out – for yourself. Leave the room if possible, or if the child is too young for that, sit and close your eyes and breathe deeply for a couple of minutes before responding.
8. If possible, don’t decide on consequences right away. You may decide that consequences aren’t necessary, that a verbal reprimand is sufficient. Try to wait until you have time to think it over and discuss with the other parent, if any.
9. For repeated problem behaviors, have a problem-solving session with your child and develop a behavior contract with rewards for improved behavior and specific consequences for breaking the rule.
Some Helpful Parenting Books:
How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen so Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
Giving the Love that Heals by Harville Hendrix and Helen Hunt
Parenting With Love and Logic by Foster Cline and Jim Fay
For further help with your children’s behavior, you may want to contact Psych Choices of the Delaware Valley at 610-626-8085, or email us at Intake@psychchoices.com. Several of our therapists specialize in working with children and families.