Behavioral Strategies and Parenting Guidelines

A combination of rewards/incentives and logical consequences seems to work well.

  • For example: you can make a list of rewards your child would like to earn depending on their age and interests and decide what they need to do in order to earn those rewards
  • Examples of rewards: renting a video, going out for ice cream, 30 minutes of special time (1:1 time) with either parent, a family game night, TV, computer or video game privileges, or go to the dollar store and get a bag of prizes if your child is young enough.
  • Whatever issues you and your child struggle over, should be included in the list of things they earn points for, e.g. doing chores, being respectful, doing homework etc.
  • The system may need to be “tweaked” a bit in order to be successful.  You may also need to change the rewards or the expectations as you go along…whatever works!
  • If it seems like it is not working, it may be that your child is just trying to wear you down, so you will give up on the system and they can go back to getting away with more.  Be patient, consistent and persistent.  It is also important, not to make the system too difficult or too easy.  (Although it may be better to err on the side of too easy at first to get your child to participate if that is a problem.)
  • You can offer bigger prizes where the child can earn points to cash in on a bigger prize later (a CD, video game or toy etc).
  • An alternative to keeping track of points is putting a penny/bean/poker chip in a large jar for every good deed/good day your child has. You can then allow them to cash pennies/beans in for a prize once they reach a certain number or level on the jar (you could label different levels as incentive).

Warning System/Three strikes you’re out

As a parent and a psychologist, I have found what I call the “warning system” to be a helpful tool.  What I find useful about this, is that it is very portable and easier to sustain than a sticker chart or point system (which can be great, but is sometimes hard to sustain over the long haul).  For example, a child I know lived for chocolate ice cream for dessert.  However, he had trouble with needing to be told many times to do things.  We instituted a system where we would warn him that if he did not do what was asked by the count of 5 he would get a “warning” (or a strike if you prefer).  If he got three warnings in a day he lost his chocolate ice cream/dessert.  Very soon, he would cry if given even one warning and I found that it took away the lecturing and angry display that we as parents tended to put on after the 5th time he was told to put on his shoes and didn’t.  Instead of lecturing and yelling at him, we just said, “You have a warning/strike” and walked away—he was upset and we went along with our day.  As your child gets older you can increase the expectations and decrease the number of warnings/strikes the child may get, before he or she loses a privilege.  Obviously as with all behavioral strategies/programs, you may need to tweak it a bit to get it to work.

A few guidelines about the warning system:

  • The key is finding something that works—dessert, screen time (includes TV, video games and computer), money— whatever works!
  • Once a warning is given, do not take it back unless you were wrong.
  • If a child has blown all of their warnings for the day at 9:05 am on a Sat. morning, it could be a long day unless you can find a way to build some incentive for good behavior—find another reward for the child (not the one the child lost by getting all their warnings or strikes).
    • For example, “ok you have already lost your TV privileges for the day but, if you can do a really good job listening from now until dinner time we can go get an ice cream after dinner.” Or “ok you lost your dessert for the day, but if you do a really good job until lunch time maybe we can go to the park this afternoon.”

General principles of parenting:

  • Be consistent: i.e. if you give a certain consequence for a certain behavior, do so consistently.  The ultimate goal is that the child will know what the consequence will be, before he/she engages in the negative behavior (and hopefully eventually he/she will decide it is not worth it).
  • Follow through: if you are going to threaten something, it is meaningless unless you follow through—children are quick to learn this.
  • Following through also goes for positive things, if you say you are going to do something for or with your children, do it.
  • Do not threaten to give a consequence that is so severe you know you will not be able to follow through.
  • If you are too angry to give a reasonable consequence, tell your child you need to think about what the consequence for his or her behavior will be, and you will let them know later (you can also tell them you need to discuss it with the other parent).  There is no law that says you have to give a consequence right away (obviously this is less true for very young children).  Immediate consequences are good, but appropriate consequences are better.
  • Once you give a child a consequence, do not take it back (unless you were wrong) even if they improve their behavior—reward them with something else instead.
  • Once you give a child a reward, do not take it away—the positive behavior still stands.
  • If you are going to use restrictions as your logical consequences make sure your child knows how long the restriction is and/or when and how he or she can earn the privilege(s) back.
  • I have found that withdrawing attention is often the most powerful consequence/punishment.  If at all possible (not for dangerous or destructive behavior) try to ignore the negative behavior, or separate yourself from your child by leaving the room.
  • Conversely, try to make a conscious effort to reward your child’s positive behavior with lots of positive attention/acknowledgment.
  • If you feel yourself about to lose your temper—give yourself a time out.  If you let your children know time outs are not necessarily punishment, but a strategy to use to help one calm oneself, they will be more likely to use it as a strategy themselves.
  • When children get into a negative behavior cycle, they are often rewarded by their parents’ anger.  In other words, it reinforces their negative behavior to see that they can upset their parents.  It makes them feel powerful and in control.  Sometimes they try to make us feel, as they feel (powerless and angry).  Often they are not feeling very good about themselves at this point.  If a situation gets to this point, it is important to take time out in order to regain your composure (or preferably never lose it), and work towards alleviating the child’s negative feelings by giving them some (acceptable) control and some success. Then try to turn the negative cycle into a positive cycle where the child is rewarded for positive behavior. It may also be important for you to seek some support.
  • It may get harder before it gets easier, once you change the rules of the game, as children may test your perseverance.  Children can be even more patient than adults can, when it comes to this kind of perseverance!  You may also want to let your children know, things are going to change before you institute these changes.
  • Choose your battles, some things are just not worth battling over.  But it is important not to give in after a temper tantrum, if you do this you are reinforcing/rewarding the temper tantrum.  It teaches the child that a tantrum gets him/her what he/she wants.
  • If “no” is not an option do not ask the question!  For example if you want your child to do something, tell them to do it, don’t ask it, unless it is optional.  “Please put on your pj’s now” vs. “Do you want to put on your pj’s?” (It seems obvious, but you might be surprised how often we do this.)
  • I have found parenting is much more challenging when I am stressed out.  Make sure you are getting the support you need, and are taking care of yourself too.  It will do your children good in two ways: they will get a more patient parent, and they will have a good example of an adult who has found a good balance and does not ignore his/her own needs.
  • Sometimes when I am stressed or cranky and my kids are whining I ask myself “what is more important now, that dinner be on time or that the mood in this house changes?”  The answer is always the latter…so I stop what I am doing and turn up some good music and have a dancing bubble party in the family room.  Ten minutes later, I can go back to what I was doing and we are all in a better mood and a potential total melt down has been avoided.
  • Allow your child some choices if possible (of course all choices have to be acceptable to you).  For example, would you like to take a bath first or brush your teeth first?
  • I do not suggest spanking, most importantly because it goes against what we are trying to teach our children.  How can we tell our children not to hit and then spank them?
  • You are your child’s example.  Treat your children and others with respect and they are more likely to do the same.  Also using manners with your children (please, thank you, excuse me etc.) encourages them to use manners as well.
  • Try not to respond to your children when they are whining and screaming. (I tell my children I do not speak whinese and that they need to speak in their regular voices for me to understand.)  Responding by giving them what they want because you can’t stand the whining or screaming anymore reinforces whining and screaming.  Tell your child you can give them what they want (if you can) when they can settle down or ask nicely.
  • Use humor as much as possible/reasonable.
  • Remember that aside from the basics of feeding, clothing, and housing much of what we do for our children (allowing them to watch TV, taking them to baseball practice, play dates etc) is a privilege.  If your child routinely acts in a way you are not happy with, and then gets pretty much everything a kid could want…you have a lot of work to do.
  • Following these strategies is hard work—don’t beat yourself up if you are not perfect… and don’t expect your kids to be perfect either.

A strategy for dealing with children leaving things all over the house:

Get a big box and put it somewhere in your main living area.  Once you have tired of telling the kids to pick up their stuff with no response (and have given warnings/strikes/consequences as needed), walk around the house putting all abandoned items into the box (belonging to everyone).  Announce that the box will remain in some central spot for the next several hours or days (depending on what you think is reasonable) and after that time all items in the box will be sold, donated to charity or thrown away—i.e. put out on the curb.  If there are items in the box that are essential (only fitting pair of sneakers, backpacks etc) the child will be expected to pay for their replacement (or some portion thereof depending on age and circumstances).

A note on feelings:

I think one of the hardest challenges as parents is tolerating our children’s negative affect/feelings.  When our children are sad about something, we have the natural tendency to want to tell them it is not so bad, so that they will feel better.  Although this is well intentioned, it is important not to do this before validating the child’s feelings.  It is never productive to try to talk someone out of his/her feelings.  It is already a done deal! Sometimes it even backfires and the child’s feelings intensify in order to justify their feelings.  If your child tells you he/she is sad, angry, or upset about something, first make an effort to empathize with their feelings. “I’m sorry that happened. That must have been very hard for you.”etc.  Then, you can help them look on the bright side or find the positives in the situation etc., but always try to validate the feeling first.

This can sometimes be hard to do, when we feel guilty about what the child is sad about. For example, a common situation where this comes up is in situations of divorce.  Here, the parent is partly responsible for the child being in the situation that makes them sad.  If a child is missing a parent because of a divorce situation, it is tempting to try to make them feel better by saying, “oh but you will see Mom/Dad on Sat. and you are going to have so much fun. And now you have two families and two houses etc.”  All of that may be true, however, it does not help the child stop missing that parent in that moment.  First, empathize at how difficult it is for them to always be missing someone or something and for them not to be able to be with both their parents at the same time, and then you can help them see the positives.

A note on protecting our children from negative feelings:

A related issue is how we as parents sometimes try to protect our children from experiencing negative feelings.  I think our generation of parents has worked so hard to be politically correct and fair that we run the danger of raising a generation of children who are ill prepared to deal with the real world.  To illustrate what I mean, I will use the example of a preschool child’s birthday party.  In order for “no one to feel left out”, we as parents feel the need to invite all 20 (or more) children in our child’s class, regardless of whether our child likes all those children or whether those children are reasonably well behaved or not.  Then of course, 20 children show up with 20 gifts for our child.  In my opinion, no child should get 20 gifts on their birthday! (Not to mention all the gifts from parents and relatives.)

In addition, we sign our children up for soccer, baseball etc. at the end of which they inevitably ALL get a trophy for participating regardless of how well or poorly they attended or performed.  (I actually attended a soccer awards ceremony in which parents brought a child to receive her trophy after she had quit soccer after the first or second practice and had never played in a single game!)  If we continue to create a world for our children in which they are never left out and nothing is related to their behavior/performance how do we expect them to function in the real world or the business world?

A note on doing too much for them:

I have noticed that a lot of well intentioned parents of this generation, tend to give too much and do too much to our children (I include myself in those guilty of this).  In some ways, what we are doing when we do too much for our children (ie when we do things for them that they could do themselves) we are robbing them of opportunities to improve their self esteem.  If you really think about it, young children derive a lot of their self esteem from not just praise (which is often doled out too generously in attempt to bolster self esteem and then backfires because it becomes meaningless) but from doing things independently.  Imagine the 5 year old who asks for juice and instead of being served it, learns to pour it himself.  If he learns to pour it himself he gains the sense that you think he is capable of taking care of himself to some extent, and that he can take care of himself in many ways.  He won’t die of thirst, because he can get his own drink!  Of course, this does not mean you should never do something for your child that he or she can do himself (as parents caring for them is one way of showing them our love).  But it is important to not fall into the trap of consistently doing much of what they can do themselves, for them.  Obviously it is part of our job as parents to teach them to take care of themselves, I think we are erring on the side of delaying this too much.

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