How To Improve Child Behavior
One of the most common reasons families choose to bring a child to therapy is because of some problematic behavior that they want changed. This is especially true for young kids. While we work with the kids on some of these challenges, a lot of the work we do is also with parents. After all, parents play a significant role in the lives of their children! Here, I want to cover some of the general tips we give parents to help them decrease unwanted behaviors in their child, and (more importantly) to increase desired behaviors.
In order for your child to know what you want him/her to do, it's important that you talk to them appropriately. Think about a physicist coming up to you and talking about string theory. Is the information going to be clear and obvious to you? Probably not! (Unless any advanced physicists are reading this, and if that's the case, welcome to my blog, and you're welcome to post about string theory in the comments =) ).
When talking to a child, it is easy to forget that they also have a hard time understanding a lot of adult language. Words, yes, but also style. For example, it's common for adults to use indirect language (e.g., "Can you pass me that pen?"). For a child, the answer may be a simple "Yes" or "No," not because they are trying to be sassy but because they don't understand the meaning of your request! Because children think much more concretely, it's important to be direct (e.g., "Please pass me that pen").
Along with being direct, it's better to focus on saying what your child should do, rather than what she/he should not do. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, it's easy for a child to miss the negative. Instead, they hear about a behavior, then they do it.
In fact, the same is somewhat true for adults. Let's use an example: don't think about trees. What's the first thing you think of? Trees! Even though you read "don't," your brain can't block out thinking of "trees" just because you read that. The same is true with kids and behaviors. If you say "Don't stand on the table," they may stand on the table before they fully realize "Oh, I'm not supposed to do this..."
Another reason to avoid saying what not to do is because it's confusing. If you only say not to do something, it's not obvious what your child should do instead. For example, if you say "Don't run," you know that you want your child to walk. But, when your child hears "Don't run," he/she is left wondering "Do I walk? Do I stand here? What should I do?"
Instead, it's better to focus on what your child should do. If you say "Please walk," it's direct and clear what your child should be doing. When things are clear and obvious, it's easier for kids to do the right thing!
Communication is one piece of the equation, but there is another way to help improve your child's behavior. In psychology, we typically think about rewards and punishments. Punishments reduce a behavior and rewards increase them. While many people are familiar with punishments, they may not realize how rewards can be more effective!
By rewards, we just mean anything that will increase a behavior. That can mean a gift, but it doesn't have to be! A reward can be something simple, like positive attention. In fact, kids often love positive attention from parents. Attention from parents is so loved, that even negative attention can sometimes be a reward (which is why punishments aren't very effective).
If you see your child do something you want them to do more of (e.g., working quietly on their homework), you can simply say "Wow, you're doing a great job working quietly on your homework! Thank you for working on your assignment without me needing to ask." Along with giving positive attention, it's also important to make it clear what the positive attention is for. By using a "labeled" praise, it's very clear to your child what she/he did to please you, and they'll be more likely to do more of that behavior. Try this, and you'll likely find your kid trying to do a lot of different things to earn positive attention from you!
Another option is to make a sticker chart, which is a common suggestion we have for parents. I'll detail sticker charts in a different post, though.
When it comes to child behavior, parents have a lot more influence than they probably think. If your child is misbehaving, try to think: "Are there things that might be rewarding the behavior?" In addition: "What do I want him/her to do instead? How should I communicate that to her/him? Is there a way I can reward that better behavior?"
Try these approaches, and you could see a very rapid improvement in your child's behavior!
Have you struggled with getting your child to behave differently? Were you able to get your child's behavior to improve with some of these suggestions? Let me know in the comments!