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How to increase good behavior in children

Getting the best out of your children is a key parenting skill. As a care manager providing mental health counseling at Vancouver Clinic, I often talk to patients about improving family function. I’ve discovered that most people can benefit from insights on how to handle kids’ behavior. Thoughtful changes can strengthen relationships and improve conduct.

One of the most effective approaches for reinforcing good behavior (and fading out bad behavior) is Parent-Child Interaction Therapy, developed at UC Davis. The therapy was designed for kids with behavior problems. However, parents of well-behaved kids also see improvements when they use these strategies:

1. Focus on what you want to grow. Use your words and actions to let your child know that you see them, appreciate them, and like them. Kids thrive off positive attention. Try to:

  • Praise: Compliment how they put their shoes away, played kindly with others, or tried their best. Generic praise is also helpful. For example, “You had a fantastic day.”
  • Reflect: Repeat what your child has just said to show that you are paying attention and listening. If your child says, “I really love cookies,” respond with, “You do really love cookies.”
  • Imitate: Play at their level. Copy their body language. If your child is building a crooked block tower, build a crooked block tower too. The goal is to be present with them, not teach them.
  • Describe: Narrate what the child is doing in the moment, letting them know that you are observing them. For example, “I see you are carrying the ball.”
  • Enjoy: Show children that you like being with them. Laugh with them. Use an enthusiastic voice. Pat them on the back.

I used these strategies with my kids when they were young and continue to recommend them to others. They are a powerful way to reinforce good behavior and build strong relationships.

2. Say what you want, not what you don’t want. When kids are brawling with a sibling or jumping on the couch, the first words that come to mind are likely “stop,” “no,” “don’t,” and “quit.” However, to get a child to choose a different behavior, it’s more effective to say what you want. For example, “Please keep your feet on the floor” is more effective than “Stop kicking the wall.”

In addition to saying what you want, noticing the behavior you want and ignoring the rest can also be helpful. For example, if a child is messing around with a fork at the table, completely ignore the cutlery issue and say, “I like how you are staying in your seat while you eat.”

3. Use timeouts to stop unwanted behavior, not to punish. As a therapist, I like the timeout approach detailed in 1-2-3 Magic by Thomas Phelan. It works like this:

  • Pick a timeout spot. The floor or a step work great. A chair or stool may get thrown.
  • Say what you want and wait for compliance. If the child doesn’t do what you ask, say “That’s one. That’s two. That’s three. Now you have a time out.”
  • Put the child in the spot for one minute. Many timeout strategies suggest one minute for each year of age, but that can backfire. The longer a child sits, the longer there is to plan additional trouble! One minute stops misbehavior, which is the goal.
  • End the timeout. Thank them for taking a break and ask if they are ready to follow the rules. Avoid the temptation to discuss what they did wrong—they know. If a child isn’t ready to comply, add another minute. Make sure that the adult ends the timeout.

Giving a child extra chances, negotiating with them, yelling, or becoming emotional make timeouts ineffective. It’s best not to provide any explanation after the original request. If a child doesn’t want to stay in the spot, try a more secure location, like a bedroom. Or put an item in timeout instead of the child.

If children really aren’t obeying, parents can start removing privileges. I always suggest imposing the smallest possible consequence to stop the behavior. This leaves room to go up. Plus, it’s difficult to remember and enforce long-term consequences. No screens for a week becomes hard on Friday after a great week at school.

The last key thing about timeouts is that if you find that you are using them frequently, it’s probably time to step back and refocus efforts on connecting with your child through positive attention. Be on the lookout for opportunities to offer praise, or carve out a few extra minutes for playing or reading.

Taken together, these strategies give children the connection and boundaries they need to learn how to make good choices. The upsides of using these techniques are enormous, and they don’t require perfection to work. I encourage all parents to try these ideas and see how their families can flourish.

Daphne Morrison believes that the job of a care manager is to help patients resolve problems faster than they could alone so that they can get more enjoyment out of life. She enjoys introducing patients to healthy solutions and supporting them as they gain new skills that allow them to feel and live better.