Of course we all love our children, but let’s face it, they’re not perfect! They don’t always have good manners, throw more tantrums than we’d like to admit, and sometimes whine when they don’t get their way.
Unfortunately, just trying to figure out how to improve their behavior can seem overwhelming with so many complicated theories and different opinions to choose from. And of course we all know that what works for one child doesn’t always work for another. If you’d like some practical down to earth tips to improve your child’s behavior, then give these simple behavior management principles a try.
Choose your Battle. Every child has a handful of bothersome behaviors that their parents would like to see magically improve overnight. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. For the most success, try to tackle one problem behavior at a time. When you’ve achieved success with one, then move on to the next! Let’s try this approach using a fairly typical problem, fighting siblings. Because this behavior is one many of us can relate to, and it can often escalate, it’s a good one for us to use as an illustration.
Identify the Positive Alternative. Once you determine the negative behavior you want to eliminate, it’s time to find a positive behavior to replace it with. In our case, the positive behavior for siblings fighting is siblings playing nicely. You can identify a positive replacement behavior for pretty much anything, although sometimes you have to get creative!
Reward the Replacement. Now that you have a positive behavior you want to see your child engage in, begin rewarding it whenever you see it happen! Verbal praise and attention is one of the quickest and most effective tools for improving behavior. Try to catch your child being good and move in quickly with a specific praise. For our example, a specific praise would be “You two are doing such a great job playing nicely together!” Be clear and direct with your praise and be sure to identify what you’re praising your child for.
When they Misbehave. Of course, just because you’re focusing on the positive behavior doesn’t mean that your children will no longer misbehave! When they do, choose one of two alternatives. Either ignore the misbehavior or put them in time-out after an initial warning. One of the reasons our children continue to misbehave is that we give them attention when they do. A quick way to stop that cycle is to ignore them when they do something inappropriate. Ignoring is not as easy as it sounds. You truly have to restrain yourself from saying anything to your child. Even saying something as simple as “I’m ignoring you” sends them the signal that you are paying attention to their misbehavior!
Unfortunately, you can’t ignore everything! If your child does something that is potentially dangerous or requires immediate attention, then they should be given a warning to stop. And if they continue to misbehave despite the warning, then they should be put in time-out. The length of time-out should be their age in minutes, so a six year old can reasonably be expected to sit in time-out for six minutes. Also, it’s important to have your time-out spot in a safe location in your home with minimal distractions, like the dining room. If your child is too old for time-out, try putting them (or one of their favorite electronic devices) on restriction instead.
Be Consistent. When the targeted behavior occurs, it’s important to handle it the same way each and every time. In our example, the parents always have three options. They can reward the positive behavior (playing nicely), ignore the problem behavior (fighting), or put the child in time-out if the problem behavior has escalated or needs immediate attention after a warning. To have the most success, parents need to be consistent in their responses so that their children always know what to expect whether they are behaving or misbehaving.
By implementing these simple strategies, you will be sure to see an improvement in your child’s behavior. For a more detailed behavior management program read Parenting the Strong Willed Child, one of my favorite parenting books. If you are still concerned about your child or need help getting more severe behavior problems under control, try reaching out to your child’s teacher or pediatrician or meet with a psychologist for more individualized guidance.