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  • Lea Ray, LCSW

The simplest hack to get better behavior from your child

We’ve all faced it. The embarrassing meltdown in the grocery store. The lengthy squabble over whose turn it is to open the door first. The casual, “I’ll do it in a minute” when you ask your child to hang up her jacket…. that turns into hours of nagging. Sometimes, kids just misbehave. All children have their moments of feeling rebellious, or sometimes they’re just not in the mood to do a task. Some children may misbehave because they suffer from an emotional disorder such as anxiety, depression, or ADHD that causes them to be more irritable and distracted. Addressing child misbehavior is a multistep process, but there is one simple thing you can do right now to improve your child’s behavior.

Notice the times that your child is behaving well. This sounds too simple to be helpful and is likely advice you have heard before. But before you discount it as something you’ve already tried, consider that we all tend to do this less than we think. If you are trying to get dinner on the table and your children are squabbling, what are you doing? Probably running to check on them, possibly yell at them, and try to mediate the dispute. If you’re trying to get dinner on the table and your children are playing happily, what do you do? Probably breathe a huge sigh of relief and keep cooking, maybe getting engrossed in the task or thinking about your day. This is completely reasonable and we all do it, but your child learns, “when I’m behaving well, nothing very interesting happens, but when I act up, my mom will run in to check on me.” One of my coworkers once said, just as in show business any publicity is good publicity, for kids any attention is good attention. And even though our children love us and want to please us, sometimes it can be really interesting to see if they can get Dad’s face to turn that funny shade of purple again.

So, try an exercise for the next three days. Try to be very mindful of the times your children are behaving well. Really get out of your head and pay attention. This doesn’t mean you have to stop cooking dinner. Just stick your head in the living room for a minute and say, “I really like how quietly you’re playing right now,” or “You seem to be really into that game. When we have dinner I’d love to hear all about it.” Then over dinner, follow up. Let your child know you’re interested in what he was so engrossed in. Think about why you appreciate your child’s good behavior and tell her that too. “I like how you shared that toy with your sister. I could see that it really made her happy and that was very kind.” “You set the table the first time I asked. Thank you, that really makes cooking dinner so much easier for me!” We all like to know when we have a positive impact on others, and children are no exception.

Sometimes, we don’t notice when our children are behaving well because that’s how they should behave. It can seem silly or even harmful to give them extra attention for what should simply be expected behavior. But we all like a little appreciation for our efforts. You probably like it when your boss comments that you did a task well at work, even though the expectation is that you will always do your tasks well. And for kids, sometimes sitting still or not squabbling with a sibling really does take a lot of effort! You don’t have to shower them with lavish, gushing praise. Just let them know that you notice their good work and you appreciate it.

When you are able to, spend time with your children during the moments when they are behaving well. Sometimes this won’t be feasible, like when you’re cooking dinner after work. Even then, if your child brings a picture to show you, try to at least turn from the stove for thirty seconds to look at it and appreciate it. Carve out a few minutes every day to play with your child. Even five minutes each day can be enough to really make a difference in your child’s behavior. Give him your whole attention for these few minutes and really try to connect with him and what’s going on in his world.

If your child’s behavior problem is more severe, it’s possible that she needs a more intensive intervention. Some options include individual therapy, parent coaching, or an evaluation with a medical professional or an occupational therapist. If you think your child’s problems are more serious, you are welcome to call me for a free consultation.

Noticing good behavior alone won’t solve all of your child’s behavior problems.But it’s the single most powerful step you can take to improve your child’s behavior.

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