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Tips and Techniques for Parents:

Encouraging Good Behavior and Reducing Problematic Behavior
& the 9 Steps to Effective Parenting
 

Contributed by Emma Leah Hettrich, M.S., School Psychologist    

 

This article is written to provide parents with a brief overview on practical solutions and techniques for dealing with common behavior problems in their children. Parents are encouraged to utilize the resources cited for more information. 

Helping children grow mentally healthy and socially responsible

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) believes that the following parenting practices help children to grow up mentally healthy and socially responsible, and prevent problem behaviors (http://www.nasponline.org/about_nasp/pospaper_parent.aspx ):

  • Develop a trusting relationship between parents and children in which parents protect their children from harm, while still holding them responsible for the consequences of their own behavior. 
     
  • Develop appropriate expectations for children (e.g. appropriate for their age and developmental level), and believe that they can live up to those expectations.
     
  • Setting developmentally appropriate limits with children which are consistently enforced, and in which there are clear, appropriate and consistent consequences for challenging limits.  This can increase a child’s sense that the world is a “safe, predictable and orderly” place, and teaches children that there are rules to follow and consequences when rules are broken. 
     
  • Offering encouragement and recognition.  Supporting children’s efforts and recognizing their positive behaviors will increase these behaviors.  Planning, problem solving, discipline, positive action, self-restraint, and accomplishment are the basis for effective behavior management and should be abundantly encouraged and recognized by parents.

Reasons why parents may have difficulties effectively discipline their children 

When first trying to determine why children behave and misbehave and don’t seem to “respond” to discipline efforts by parents, it’s often helpful for parents to look within themselves first to see which characteristics they have that may be contributing to behavior difficulties in their children.  According to Clark (2008), there are number of reasons why parents don’t effectively discipline their children. 

First, the “hopeless parent” is one who may think, “My child is unable to change and will always behave poorly, so why try to discipline them.”  Second, the “non-confronting parent” is one who avoids confrontation with their child, and may think that if they place too many demands on the child, they may loose the child’s love.  Third, the “low energy parent” is one who, does not have the energy to effectively discipline their child.  This may be due to a number of reasons including being a single parent, holding a full time job, having many other obligations or other reasons such as depression.  Fourth, the “Guilty parent” is one who blames themselves for child’s problems and thus tends to feel guilt when attempting to discipline the child.  Fifth, the “angry parent” is one who gets so angry and upset when disciplining their child that they feel awful afterwards and therefore avoid it entirely. Sixth, the “hindered parent” is one who dies not have clear communication and goals with their spouse and is “hindered” by the spouse when attempting to discipline the child.  Finally, the “troubled parent” is one who has difficulties finding the energy or time to effectively discipline their children due to numerous difficult life situations such as marital problems, financial problems, other life situations, etc.  

Any of these characteristics can cause parents to have significant difficulties in effectively disciplining their children, and many parents will feel one or more of these ways at different times during the child’s development.  However, with some simple changes in the way that parent’s approach children’s behavior problems, there can be success in their ability to successfully discipline their children.

Six ways of increasing good behavior

Most behavior, whether good or bad, is shaped by specific antecedents in the environment (e.g. what comes before or “triggers” a behavior) as well as the consequences that follow a behavior.  By manipulating the antecedents or consequences of a given behavior, parents are often able to change behaviors their children may exhibit.  Specifically, Clark (2008) provides six ways if increasing good behavior. 

  • Active ignoring:  This is briefly removing all attention from your misbehaving child.  Often times the child is misbehaving for attention from the parents, and by removing the attention given, you are not giving them the motivation for the behavior.  This is particularly helpful for whining and fussing, pouting and sulking, loud crying to manipulate parents, demanding, and mild temper tantrums.
  • Reward good alternative behavior: One way to increase good behavior is to reward it every time it occurs.  This technique is called “catching them being good” and by praising them for behaving appropriately (rather than just punishing them when behaving badly) you are increasing the chances that the child will engage in the good behaviors again in the future. 
  • Help your child to practice good behavior: This technique involves teaching children the right way to do something, by demonstrating the skill yourself and then having the child practice.  For example, if your child grabs toys away from another child, tell them to trade toys instead, then demonstrate trading the toy yourself and help them actually practice this skill.
  • Use “grandma’s rule:” This involves pairing an undesirable behavior with a desirable behavior.  So for example, “you have to finish your vegetables and then you can have dessert…” or “you have to complete 5 more math problems, and then you can play video games.” 
  • Set a good example:  Parent’s constantly demonstrate or “model” behavior which their children observe.  Your children will learn to behave (and misbehave) by observing and imitating your behavior.  Therefore, do not engage in behaviors that you do not want your child to do (e.g. cursing, fighting, etc). 
  • Encourage and praise good behavior: Any behavior that is rewarded (i.e. praised) is more likely to be repeated in the future.  Therefore, it’s important to praise children when they make good choices and behavior appropriately.

Nine Steps to Effective Parenting 

A helpful article on Kids Health suggests nine steps to more effective parenting, that all parents can implement during their everyday lives.  (http://www.kidshealth.org/parent/positive/family /nine_steps.html

1: Nurture your child's self-esteem. 

Children start developing their sense of self as babies when they see themselves through their parents' eyes. Your tone of voice, your body language, and your every expression are absorbed by your child. Your words and actions as a parent affect your child's developing self-esteem more than anything else. Praising your child's accomplishments, however small, will make him or her feel proud; letting your child do things independently will make him or her feel capable and strong. By contrast, belittling comments or comparing your child unfavorably with another will make him or her feel worthless.  Avoid making loaded statements or using words as weapons. Comments like "What a stupid thing to do!" or "You act more like a baby than your little brother!" cause damage just as physical blows do. Choose your words carefully and be compassionate. Let your child know that everyone makes mistakes and that you still love him or her, even when you don't love his or her behavior. 

2. Catch your child being good.

Have you ever stopped to think about how many times you react negatively to your child in a given day? You may find that you are criticizing far more than you are complimenting. How would you feel about a boss who treated you with that much negative guidance, even if it was well-intentioned?  The more effective approach is to catch your child doing something right: "You made your bed without being asked - that's terrific!" or "I was watching you play with your sister and you were very patient." These statements will do more to encourage good behavior over the long run than repeated scoldings. Make a point of finding something to praise every day. Be generous with rewards - your love, hugs, and compliments can work wonders and are often reward enough. Soon you will find you are "growing" more of the behavior you would like to see.

3.  Set limits and be consistent with your discipline.

Discipline is necessary in every household. The goal of discipline is to help children choose acceptable behaviors and learn self-control. Children may test the limits you establish for them, but they need those limits to grow into responsible adults. Establishing house rules will help children understand your expectations and develop self-control. Some house rules might include: no TV until homework is done, and no hitting, name-calling, or hurtful teasing is allowed.

You may want to have a system in place: one warning, followed by consequences such as a "time out" or loss of privileges. A common mistake parents make is failure to follow through with consequences when rules are broken. You can't discipline a child for talking back one day and ignore it the next. Being consistent teaches your child what you expect. 

4.  Make time for your children.

With so many demands on your time, it's often difficult for parents and children to get together for a family meal, let alone spend some quality time together. But there is probably nothing your child would like more. Get up 10 minutes earlier in the morning so you can eat breakfast with your child, or leave the dishes in the sink and take a walk after dinner. Children who are not getting the attention they want from their parents often act out or misbehave because they are assured of being noticed that way.  Many parents find it mutually rewarding to have prescheduled time with their child on a regular basis. Create a "special night" each week to be together and let him or her help decide how you will spend your time. Look for other ways to connect with your child - put a note or something special in his or her lunchbox. 

Adolescents seem to need less undivided attention from their parents than younger children. Because there are fewer windows of opportunity for parents and teens to get together, parents should do their best to be available when their teen does express a desire to talk or participate in family activities. Attending concerts, games, and other events with your teen communicates caring and lets you get to know about your child and his or her friends in important ways.

Don't feel guilty if you're a working parent. It is the many little things you do with your child - making popcorn, playing cards, window shopping - that he or she will remember.

5.  Be a good role model.

Young children learn a great deal about how to act by watching you. The younger they are, the more cues they take from you. Before you lash out or blow your top in front of your child, think about this: is that how you want your child to behave when he or she is angry? Be constantly aware that you are being observed by your children. Studies have shown that children who hit usually have a role model for aggression at home. Model the traits you wish to cultivate in your child: respect, friendliness, honesty, kindness, tolerance. Exhibit unselfish behavior. Do things for other people without expecting a reward. Express thanks and offer compliments. Above all, treat your children the way you expect other people to treat you.

6.  Make communication a priority.

You can't expect children to do everything simply because you, as a parent, "say so." Children want and deserve explanations as much as adults do. If we don't take time to explain, children will begin to wonder about our values and motives and whether they have any basis. Parents who reason with their children allow them to understand and learn in a nonjudgmental way.

Make your expectations clear. If there is a problem, describe it to your child, express your feelings about it, and invite your child to work on a solution with you. Be sure to include consequences. Make suggestions and offer choices. Be open to your child's suggestions as well. Negotiate. Children who participate in decisions are more motivated to carry them out. 

7.  Be flexible and willing to adjust your parenting style.

If you frequently feel "let down" by your child's behavior, it may be because you have unrealistic expectations. Parents who think in "shoulds" (for example, "He or she should be potty-trained by now") may find it helpful to do more reading on the matter or to talk to other parents or child development specialists.  Your child's environment has an impact on his or her behavior, so you may be able to modify that behavior by changing the environment. If you find yourself constantly saying "no" to your 2-year-old, look for ways to restructure his or her surroundings so that fewer things are off-limits. This will cause less frustration for both of you.  As your child changes, you will gradually have to change your parenting style. Chances are, what works with your child now won't work as well in a year or two.  Teenagers tend to look less to their parents and more to their peers for role models. But continue to provide guidance, encouragement, and appropriate discipline while allowing your teen to earn more independence. And seize every available moment to make a connection! 

8.  Show that your love is unconditional.

As a parent, you are responsible for correcting and guiding your child. But how you express your corrective guidance makes all the difference in how your child receives it. When you have to confront your child, avoid blaming, criticizing, or fault-finding, which undermine self-esteem and can lead to resentment. Instead, strive to nurture and encourage, even when you are disciplining your child. Make sure he or she knows that although you want and expect better next time, your love is there no matter what. 

9.  Be aware of your own needs and limitations as a parent.

Face it – there are times when you are an imperfect parent. You have strengths and weaknesses as a family leader. Recognize your abilities - "I am loving and dedicated." Vow to work on your weaknesses - "I need to be more consistent with discipline." Try to have realistic expectations for yourself, your spouse, and your children. You don't have to have all the answers - be forgiving of yourself. And try to make parenting a manageable job. Focus on the areas that need the most attention rather than trying to address everything all at once. Admit it when you're burned out. Take time out from parenting to do things that will make you happy as a person (or as a couple). Focusing on your needs does not make you selfish. It simply means you care about your own well-being, which is another important value to model for your children. 

Raising children today is not an easy job.  Parents often have many different responsibilities, and balancing the demands of life, work, school and family can be a daunting task.  However, with the above suggestions in mind, most parents will be able to effectively increase their child’s good behaviors and decrease negative behaviors.  As noted above, setting clear and consistent limits and rules, informing children of what will be expected of them, as well as consistency and follow through with a punishment or loss of privileges when rules are broken are essential parts of effectively disciplining children.  Further information on parenting can be gained from the resources listed below.  In addition, there are many professionals and organizations within the school who are available to provide support and information, including the PTA, SEPTA as well as mental health staff within the schools, such as School Psychologists, School Social Workers and Guidance Counselors. 

References 

Clark, L. (2008). SOS for parents: A practical guide for handling common everyday behavior    problems, 3rd edition.  SOS Programs & Parents Press: Bowling Green: KY. 

Kids Health (2008).  Nine Steps to More Effective Parenting.  Retrieved from: http://www.kidshealth.org/parent/positive/family/nine_steps.html 

National Association of School Psychologists (2006). Position Statement on Effective Parenting:            Positive Support for Families.  Retrieved from:          http://www.nasponline.org/about_nasp/pospaper_parent.aspx

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