Robert J. Doman Jr.
Children often don’t behave as parents would like. Most parents suspect that if they reacted differently toward their children, their behavior would improve, but parents don’t know where to start. The first step is to identify the factors causing the problems. There are three major causes of behavior problems to watch for and eliminate:
- A negative environment
- A lack of structure
- An absence of constructive and positive feedback
The single-most effective method to improve a child’s behavior is to establish a positive environment. Additionally, the best way to teach a child correct ways of behavior is to increase the positive intensity of parental input.
Children primarily crave intensity, but parents tend to give the most intense reactions in negative situations. In fact, when a child’s behavior is difficult, parents commonly react with such negative intensity that it gets the sharp attention of everyone in the household. Intense positive reactions, on the other hand, are extremely rare. Because children do what works, parents are often confronted with persistent misbehavior. Frequently, for example, a mother might find her children pushing and pushing her with disobedience until she feels she could explode. She might even misinterpret the child’s motive as hate or some other negative feeling. What the child is really expressing is his or her need for an intense reaction.
In a positive environment, children engage in positive behavior because that is what works. In most children’s environments, the frequency and intensity of negative interactions far outweigh the positive. Nearly all parents give ten negative responses for every positive response. To create a truly positive environment, parents must give children at least four positive responses for every negative response.
Achieving a positive environment cannot be accomplished overnight. Information must be collected, and reasonable goals must be set and then updated. The parents may be used to expecting—and then ignoring—appropriate actions from their children. Parents must teach themselves to notice and reward the good things their children do. Moreover, when their child exhibits a positive behavior, parents need to make themselves comfortable with jumping up and down, In other words, parents must learn to use the same enthusiasm to praise the child that they formerly reserved for criticizing.
Within a structured home environment, a child often performs the day’s routine tasks without objection. However, it is not unusual for discipline to fall apart a little when schoolchildren are on summer vacation. Lacking the routine and structure of a set school schedule, children may turn once undisputed chores into the objects of a running battle. When the schedule is clear and positively supported, a child’s behavior becomes set. If children know that breakfast is only served at a certain time, they learn to be at the table by that time without argument. When an activity becomes negotiable, the parent’s authority is challenged. So often the behavior youngsters get away with varies considerably with the kind of day the parent is having. Since children have a level of concentration and a single-minded motivation that parents lack, a child’s singular determination not to clean his or her room will frequently triumph.
Following are some steps parents can take to create structure:
- Define activities that are not negotiable.
- Decide which behaviors will not be tolerated.
- Make the child aware of these restrictions by providing consistent, appropriate feedback.
This cannot be overstated: After setting expectations parents must explain those expectations to their children—clearly and specifically—and then enforce the rules. Telling children something as vague as, “Behave yourselves while I’m gone,” immediately causes anxiety levels to rise.
Also, ignoring jumping on the couch one day and severely punishing for it the next confuses the child. The expected behavior is no longer clear. When parents accept different behavior from time to time, the child will constantly test their boundaries. Not only does this lead to tension and arguments between parents and children, but it can also contribute to a building inner anxiety because the child can sense no firm limits.
Parents must consider possible reactions from children before acting and limit the number of actions or behaviors defined as nonnegotiable. Parents should schedule an activity a child sees as negative right before a positive activity. Parents ought to choose activities that can be enforced but do not require much positive attitude or concentrated initiative by the child. Here’s an example. Schedule chores to be done right after school, then allow a snack, television, or play only after the job is done. If an activity is required of a child daily, be prepared to enforce that activity. Never allow the issue to be negotiated. Learning should not be in this category. Reading, and anything else parents want a child to love, must be encouraged by a lot of positive input, not with forced compliance.
To be effective managers, parents must have realistic expectations and a structure of enforcement, reinforcement, and consequences. Children who learn that disobedience always results in the same consequence stop testing that rule. As a result, children feel secure within the appropriate boundaries parents have established. Parents must also reevaluate practices and punishments to be sure that what is being used is actually decreasing negative behavior and promoting a positive environment. Otherwise, it isn’t a punishment, but just another ineffective negative in the child’s environment. Make what is expected of a child explicitly defined. Be consistent in offering positive reactions to good behavior and in punishing unacceptable actions. Achieving a positive environment is a process of fulfillment.
Reprinted from the Journal of The NACD Foundation (formerly The National Academy for Child Development)