Written by Regine Galanti
Many of the parents who walk into my office have a single complaint: They want their children to listen. They might be trying to help their child with problems at school, oppositional behavior, or even anxiety, but parents often articulate that getting their child to obey and respect their commands is a primary goal for treatment.
My response is always the same: to focus on giving children more attention. Before we implement any strategies for obeying commands, design a behavior chart, or plan exposures, we work on strengthening the parent-child relationship, mainly through giving children the right kind of social reinforcement, or effective attention.
Let’s start with a basic behavioral principle from Psych 101: behavior that gets rewarded is likely to be repeated. This means that any behavior that a parent notices and responds to is likely to be repeated. Paying focused attention to your children therefore gives you a valuable tool: it’s a chance to notice what they’re doing right, and tell them so.
Picture this scenario:
Sarah, age 4, and Jonathan, age 6, are coloring nicely at the table. As a parent, you think about commenting on how nicely they’re playing, but then realize that you want to send an email, and you’re nervous that your comment might interrupt the flow of play, and you won’t get your five minutes of alone time.
Staying away from the table might be the easier in the moment, but you would lose out on a fantastic opportunity: the chance to catch the kids being good! Think back to that basic principle of reinforcement: this is an opportunity to reward Sarah and Jonathan for cooperative play using another valuable tool in your parenting toolbox: praise.
Now you’ve caught your children doing what you want them to do, how do you reward them so that they’ll repeat the positive behaviors again in the future? Here’s where the importance of being specific in your attention comes in. To return to our example above, Mom turns to Sarah and Jonathan, noticing how nicely they’re playing together, attends to them, and tells them, “Great job!” They’ll probably feel good – we know that praise boosts self-esteem – but will they know what they did right? Is mom happy because of the picture they colored? Did she like the way they were sitting, or the way that they playing nicely with each other? Just saying “great job” doesn’t make any of this clear. Therefore, When you catch a child being good, make meaningful, descriptive and specific statements about which behavior you’d like to see repeated. This allows a child to know exactly what the parent is looking for, and repeat it in the future. So, instead of “great job,” try, “I love when you two share crayons with each other,” or “I love when you play nicely with each other.”
Set yourself and your child up for success by setting aside five minutes a day for playtime, so that you can pay attention to their positive behaviors in a specific way. This will allow parents the opportunity to notice good behaviors, and comment on them using specific praises. If you consistently give children specific, meaningful praise for good behavior, you will begin to notice behavior change. Children naturally crave their parents’ approval, and providing focused attention and specific praise to constructive behaviors is the first step towards establishing a solid foundation for discipline and a positive parent-child relationship.