Articles and Updates from Phoenix Children's
We all know the drill: “Please – just five more minutes!” “I’m almost done with my game, Mom!” “Ugh, Dad, can’t you just leave me alone?!” Whether it’s waking up sleepy kids in the morning, getting them to do their homework after school or shutting down their electronics before bed, kids want to have it their way.
Sometimes kids follow instructions; sometimes they don’t. Sometimes parents are able to keep boundaries; sometimes parents cave in and say, “yes,” just to keep the peace. This creates inconsistency at home and a yo-yo effect on the moods of both parents and kids.
Now, we’re not suggesting you try to create a perfect, “all-yes, no-mess” household – that simply isn’t attainable. Instead, let’s focus on evidence-based parenting strategies that tap into the way humans learn through behavior change. This can help slowly shape challenging behaviors into more adaptive responses that bring increased stability and happiness at home.
Step #1 – Observe
It sounds boring or unhelpful, but take a little time (i.e., a few days to one week) to observe what you consider “problem behaviors.” Then you can determine which ones are the priority, either because they are a) the most frequent, b) the most important or even c) the easiest you might have success with. Part of the observation is making sure you understand what behaviors are versus “non-behaviors.” For example, yelling is an observable, specific behavior. “Having a bad attitude” is a vague non-behavior.
Step #2 – Start small, and be consistent
This is one of those times where “good enough” equals success! Once you identify the problem behaviors, then consider what you would rather have your child do, also known as the “positive opposite.” For example, if the problem behavior is yelling when they don’t get their way, then the positive opposite is talking calmly when they don’t get their way.
If the problem behavior is having a messy room, you might need to break down the positive opposite into smaller steps. Telling a child to “go clean your room” can be vague and lead to arguments. The child can pick up a few toys and say, “I’m done!” You go in and see that there is still dirty laundry strewn everywhere. When you tell them it’s not clean, they can respond, “Well, you didn’t say how clean to make it or what to clean.” *Ding ding* an argument ensues! Sound familiar?
As best as possible, you want to avoid words like “stop,” “don’t” and “no.” Making statements like “stop running in the house!” doesn’t actually tell the child what they should do. Instead, say something like “please walk slowly.” Of course, if there is imminent danger (i.e., a toddler about to touch a hot stove), then focus on stopping that behavior first.
To prompt for the positive opposite, remember a few things:
- Give your prompt close to the time of the behavior.
- Use a calm tone of voice.
- Be specific.
Starting small not only is important for children, but also for adults. It helps avoid the common stumbling block of inconsistency between caregivers. This could include parents in the same household, divorced/separated parents, or even a grandparent who helps a lot. This inconsistency makes the child feel as if their environment is always changing. Imagine if you couldn’t expect what town, city or country you would be in day-to-day. Inconsistency creates stress, dysregulation of our nervous system and always being “on guard.”
Step #3 – Attending vs. ignoring
Make sure each problem behavior is specifically defined. After being specific and defining the positive opposite behavior, you can begin paying attention, or attending, to it. Make sure praise for the positive opposite is specific and combined with being authentic. Show enthusiasm for what your child is doing. Ideally, you want to praise the positive opposite when it is happening or immediately after.
“Planned ignoring” can be used to decrease the attention given to minor problem behaviors so that you don’t reinforce those behaviors. Choose what type of planned ignoring you’ll use when the problem behavior occurs. Ignoring could involve looking away, not making a facial expression, not talking with the child, ignoring requests or leaving the room (while still monitoring as needed for safety). Set an acceptable limit of tolerance for the problem behavior ahead of time to help guide you on when to use planned ignoring. For example, you could decide to ignore all requests after you’ve explained once.
You want to use the planned ignoring immediately after the limit has been reached and each time the behavior occurs. Of course, I’m not saying you should ignore physical violence, destruction of property or other extreme behaviors, but rather the smaller behaviors that do not threaten anyone’s safety.
Once again, consistency is key in regulating your child’s nervous system as well as your own. Remember that planned ignoring of the problem behavior is effective only if you attend to the positive opposite.
Again, you may need to start small. Set a simple, clearly defined goal for the child to use a quiet voice between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., for example. Starting small might make it more manageable for the child and also might make it more manageable for the parent. This could help you be consistent with attending to positive opposites versus planned ignoring during other times due to work, other children, etc.
Step #4 – Praise and rewards
Most of the time, behavior change comes down to positive reinforcement. That’s where we add something to the situation that encourages the child to repeat a desired behavior. Decades of research has proven positive reinforcement to be effective in changing human behavior, but just because it’s effective does not mean it’s easy – usually quite the contrary! It can be really difficult to carry out consistent positive reinforcement successfully.
Let’s start with tips for praising. I encourage parents to:
- Be specific.
- Be enthusiastic (not over-the-top, but authentic and engaged).
- Bring in small acts of physical touch.
- Be close to your child when giving praise.
- As best as possible, give points and praise immediately.
Now, for rewards. Choosing rewards often takes some strategy and thoughtfulness. It also depends on each family’s circumstances. Rewards shouldn’t be so easy that a kid could open the pantry and take the reward. But they shouldn’t be too hard or take weeks or months to achieve. If there is too much time between the desired behavior and the reward, the positive reinforcement loses its effectiveness for children and adolescents.
Rewards don’t always have to be monetary or tangible. They could range from choosing what’s for dinner to a parent-and-me outing.
Some families choose to use a point system for rewards. However, in order to build and maintain the momentum, I recommend having a small daily reward that children can earn “automatically” without having to use points.
Children earn points each day by using positive opposite behaviors. I recommend tiered rewards that require “cashing in” the points: a small reward (such as 2 days’ worth of points), a medium reward (such as 5–7 days’ worth) and a large reward (such as 10–14 days’ worth). Once they use the points for these rewards, kids start over to earn more points.
These are not magical numbers, just guidelines to help kids gain the rewards soon because getting reinforcement close to the positive opposite behavior creates more effective change. Don’t get sucked into the trap of giving a reward frequently as a desperate measure just to get a child to do something in the moment. If rewards are not planned out and agreed upon ahead of time, you risk setting a precedent for future power struggles with a child refusing to do something until they get the parent to give in.
Step #5 – Consequences
Consequences are sometimes necessary, but don’t count on them as the primary way to change behavior in the long run. They are part of punishment and technically stop a bad behavior. However, consequences don’t specifically promote the repetition of a desired behavior like positive reinforcement does. In addition, depending on how they are administered, they can increase the fight-flight-freeze response between children and parents. This can cause emotional dysregulation and blowups.
Keep consequences manageable, and don’t overdo it. As they say, the “punishment should match the crime.” For example, if a child pulls their sister’s hair, you don’t want to ground them for a week. A) You are setting up yourself to fail because it is unlikely you’ll be able to hold out for that long. Then you become inconsistent, and that interferes with your authority and how children can rely on you. B) Guess who will be faced with entertaining that grounded child – you!
Another important consideration is to reduce any overlap between rewards and consequences. If the daily reward for a kid is 15 minutes of extra screen time, then a consequence for pulling sister’s hair cannot be taking away that screen time. This causes you, as the parent, to be inconsistent, undermining your own authority (especially if you give in to future pleading). It also tells the child they cannot trust the plan anymore, and it sets the stage for dysregulation, arguments and power struggles.
Step #6 – Time in
Though this has less evidence in the research, another option to break the cycle of constant arguments is by planning a “time-in” instead of a time-out. When trying to make positive behavioral changes, there are frequent fights and power struggles between parents and kids. This creates a habitual “script” or expectation of a negative interaction in that relationship.
Instead, a time-in can focus on building dedicated, separate quality time between parent and child to help break that repeating pattern of a power struggle. Keep time-ins separate from other behavioral goals and not contingent on good behavior. That way, it cannot just be random or happen all the time, but they are planned and ideally child-led (within reason).
Lastly, remember that we all make mistakes, including kids, parents and even psychologists. We cannot expect perfection from children nor from ourselves as adults. Parents, if you slip up, that is okay. Focus on setting manageable goals that increase the chances for small wins and more consistency in behavior and regulation (both for you and your child). One final recommendation: Give yourself some grace as you try to do what is best for your child.