Improving Children’s Behavior

When you hear parenting advice that says, “When a child has such-and-such problem, here’s what you should do”, it implies that the problem will go away.  It sounds as if now you have the answer; all you have to do it follow that advice, and your problems will be solved.  Most parenting books or blogs don’t emphasize the slow nature of changing behavior.  It takes a long time to change!  When is the last time you accomplished your New Year’s resolutions in the first month?  More likely you are working on the same resolutions year after year!  When you try to do the right things as a parent and don’t see rapid improvement, don’t lose heart.  Have confidence in what you are doing and remember, it takes time for children to change and improve their behavior.

Think of your efforts as an investment in good behavior in the future.   And remember that as the child gets older, his behavior will naturally improve.  While you are waiting for that time, be kind; be patient with him.  Look at behavior in large, overall sweeps; don’t inspect each behavior or each day with a microscope.  Don’t get too bent out of shape about infrequent misbehaviors, or too worried about how to handle or fix one specific situation.  You won’t know exactly what to do in every situation, and that’s ok.

Raising children is like painting a landscape of a wheat field.  The individually painted stalks of wheat can be compared to interactions with a child or days spent parenting.  They don’t look like much on their own.  Even a few of them together look scraggly and small.  It takes many, many stalks of wheat to make a beautiful painting.  If a few of the stalks don’t turn out great, that’s all right.  The overall look of the painting is what matters.  It can take a long time to feel like your child’s behavior is improving, to see that big picture, but all your efforts count and help in the overall product.

Remember that a child’s behavior is molded more by positive reinforcement (noticing the good) than by negative reinforcement (reprimanding, punishments).  If there is a specific behavior you want to change in your child, sit down and write out the problem behavior and its opposite.  Then focus on complimenting the opposite! Reinforce the behavior you want.  Another strategy is to make a list of anticipated problems (things you know go wrong daily or often) and write your proactive responses to them.  Then practice them! These and other principles outlined in this blog will help guide you in your parenting.  Your child’s behavior will eventually improve, and you will have a positive relationship with him all along the way.

Parenting without Irritation

The more I learn about effective parenting (from observation and from study), the more I realize parenting without irritation is a key principle.  I used to joke with my husband that this would be the title of my parenting book, were I to write one.  As I have watched other moms that I admire, and as I’ve “experimented” with my own children, I’ve found that the most successful parents are the ones who enforce the rules, but don’t get irritated by the misbehavior. Let’s be honest, a lot of children’s behavior IS irritating.  They whine and cry and say the same things over and over and want to do things on their own and tell you that other kids have it better.  The list is endless!  But you’re not going to be an effective parent if you are consistently irritated.  So, take a deep breath and pretend you aren’t irritated.  Learn to tune out the annoying stuff and focus on the cute and good stuff. It’s really a tricky thing, though because you can disengage and not care what they are doing and not “toe the line” or enforce your rules – then you are not irritated, but you’re also not parenting effectively.  So the trick is to monitor and correct their behavior WITHOUT becoming irritated!  You say what needs to be said, “You may not drink fruit punch over the carpet,” “You need to finish your chores before playing with friends,” etc., without going on and on. Here are some tips for staying patient and not getting irritated.  See also Practice Patience.

How to Avoid Becoming Irritated

1. Ignore inconsequential behavior. The majority of annoying behavior is not really “misbehavior”.  It may not be your favorite behavior, but it’s not worth it to draw attention to it (and possibly reinforce it in the process).  Let these behaviors serve as a reminder to give Positive Reinforcement.  A classic example is nose picking.  No parent wants to view this, but many have found that asking them to stop doesn’t work, or sometimes makes it worse.  The best thing to do is say nothing when he is doing it; then find a time when he is not doing it and say, “Thanks for not picking your nose while we talked!  Mommy likes that.”  This may sound a little ridiculous, but do this a few times, without sarcasm and without making a big deal of it, and you will see the behavior change. On the other hand, if you’re asking him to stop all the time you’re not only drawing his attention to it, but yours, and then you feel irritated because “he picks his nose all day long!”  Tune out the unimportant but annoying behaviors and choose to focus instead on the things the child does right.

2.Understand the child’s developmental level and have appropriate expectations. This is one of many places where my favorite phrase needs to be repeated over and over, “That’s just how kids are.”  Kids take a long time to get ready for bed; they have to try to do things themselves; they have to see things or know the answer; they aren’t very patient; they hit others easily and often; they can’t stop talking.  These are normal behaviors for kids, but yes, they can be irritating.  But knowing that these behaviors are part of their developmental process can help.  You have to take the bad with the good, and just get over it.  Certain things are too much to ask of children.  Be familiar with what to expect at each age and what they are capable of. If you’re feeling frustrated repeatedly with a child over a task such as not cleaning up or not eating by himself or not dressing herself, you are probably expecting too much! She may not be ready for that task, and you have to take your expectations down a notch, which can be frustrating, I know.  You really think the child should be able to do this task, and you want to hold on to that and make her do it, but the end result is you’re getting frustrated over and over.  So it’s better to tell yourself, “That’s just how kids are,” “It’s too much to expect.”  And let it go. Sometimes the child will have performed that task last week, but that still doesn’t mean that he can necessarily do it this week.  Children’s progression is not linear; it’s not a straight line up the graph, getting better and better each day at responsibilities.  It’s an up and down line, which is so maddening to adults!  They will be doing something for a while (making their bed, playing on their own, sharing their toys, etc.) and a few weeks or months later they’ve gone back to the old, less desirable behavior.    You always have to remember that what a child can do one day or month he can’t necessarily do the next, and don’t be irritated by this fact!  If he is progressing or focusing more on large motor skills (climbing, riding a bike) then his attention skills may suffer during that time, or vice versa.  This is not a conscious choice for the child, it just happens.  Lots of progress in speech can accompany a slide in a child’s ability to unload the dishwasher without a fuss.

3. Set up the environment for success. This has a lot to do with having appropriate expectations of your child, but takes it one step further  – reminding you to arrange your home and your day so he can be successful.  Look at the situation you are repeatedly angry about and see what you can do to fix it.  Maybe you are not allowing enough time for the child to get ready for bed or ready to leave the house.  Maybe you need to spend more time and attention with him to help him through that process.  Maybe you’re expecting him to not get into things that are at his level, your make-up or cereal boxes, for instance.  You might need to rearrange the environment so he can make good choices.  Maybe you’re expecting him to get along with his brother for long stretches of time.  You have to remember there’s only so long that will last. Be proactive – not reactive! Think about situations ahead of time and how you are going to handle them.  If you’re going on a long car ride or an extra long church meeting, think through what you can do or bring to help the child get through it with good behavior.  What often happens is the parent hasn’t thought through the situation, and the child starts to misbehave, and then gets in trouble or frustrates the parent.  It’s on us as parents to be prepared for what the situation will entail. A quote from The Power of Positive Parenting:

When we see frequent inappropriate behavior, we should ask, “What are the consequences that are shaping and maintaining that behavior? What must we do to arrange the environment so that the behaviors that are in the children’s best interest are properly taught and reinforced?”

4, Reframe the behavior. If you try to understand the motivation behind an annoying behavior it can become easier to take.  A child who swears is trying out those words to see how it feels to say them (not that this behavior should be ignored, just dealt with in a teaching manner rather than a punishing manner).  The child who insists on putting on his own shoes is trying to be independent (and we all want independent children eventually!).  You can also reframe to “Looks like I haven’t taught him the correct behavior yet.”  Then you’re not annoyed by the misbehavior but reminded to teach him the right way to act.  A stubborn child who must get her own way is going to be a very successful adult (studies have shown!).   Looking at the situation in a different, more positive light can help reduce the irritation.

In between writing and publishing this post I was able to apply this principle.  I’d purchased an online winter driver course for my almost-16-year-old daughter and wanted her to watch it.  She had expressed interest in it before I bought it, and it would expire in two weeks, but now she was being negative about it and putting it off.  I was getting irritated and starting to nag, when I realized that she’s nervous about driving in the winter, and that anxiety was behind the dawdling behavior.  Realizing this didn’t change the fact that she needed to watch it, but it greatly reduced my irritation and helped me empathize with her and help motivate her in a loving way.

5. Don’t give unrealistic consequences. If you give excessively long or unrelated consequences the child is not going to learn from them and chances are you will not follow through.  Then you become irritated because she doesn’t listen to you, she doesn’t obey what you say, she’s not made to obey by the threat of consequences.  You feel ineffective and like you have no tools to draw on.  All that can make you very irritated!  You have to remember to say few words, focus on the good, give consequences sparingly and that are close in time and related to the misbehavior and follow through on them.  See Stop and Redirect.

6. Create positive interactions with your child. When your child is having a particularly hard time obeying (a phase over a few days or weeks) this is the time to spend a little extra time with him.  Give him your love and attention and he will feel comforted, but you will feel more positive about him also!  Many days all we do is critique – point out the negative behaviors.  That does not build positive relationships.  That can become a relationship that the child wants to get away from when he can (in adolescence).  You have to point out the good and take extra time to create positive interactions.  Do something that both of you enjoy.  Then you will see and feel the good in your child and not be as annoyed in the hard times.  See Stay Close to Your Child.

7. Identify what is behind or causing your irritation. Sometimes your own issues get in the way of enjoying your children and disciplining/teaching them appropriately.  It takes some insight to realize this, but when I examined my feelings I often found the following factors were at the heart of my irritation.

  • My pride. I am extra irritated when my pride is on the line. If we are at a public event where specific behaviors are expected, I am extra irritated with misbehavior.  When my parents are around and “observing” my parenting, I am extra irritable.  These are different moments for each individual person, depending on what matters to you.  But when your pride is on the line you have to stop and realize that.  Have some insight into the fact that this is YOUR issue, not the kids’.  The kids are being the same as they always are!  They’re just kids, sometimes behaving, sometimes not.  But if I have extra hyped up expectations of them, I’m likely to be extra irritated.
  • My indecision. There are many times when I’m not sure what the right answer is. Should I let her quit piano?  Should I make her sit right by me at the function or let her run around? Should I let her spend all her allowance on silly trinkets?  These are tough parenting decisions, and I feel like I get more irritated with my children when I don’t know what my right answer is.  They keep asking and I can’t decide, or I decide one thing and then question it.  Again, it’s okay to struggle through these times, but I just have to remember the reason my irritation is heightened.  The child’s behavior hasn’t changed.  They are always going to beg for what they want and ask for things that probably are not in their best interest.  I’ve found that I’m less irritated if I just make a decision and stick with it.  Many of these decisions are arbitrary anyway!  Just decide and follow through, and that reduces irritation.
  • My lack of follow through. When I say, “It’s time to go,” and then talk and talk, I can not be irritated that they are not waiting at my heels, coats and shoes on. Of course they are off playing!  They know that “It’s time to go” means “You can play for 5-10 minutes while I talk”!  The more I say things I don’t really mean (I’m going to take that away, it’s time for bed, etc.) the less the children will behave.  And that causes me to be irritated: “Why don’t they listen to me?!” I must remember to only say what I mean and follow through with what I say.
  • Parenting books. Parenting books cause me frustration. They say, “If child is doing X, you should do Y,” and infer that doing Y will make the behavior will go away. They set you up for disappointment!  I’m not saying don’t read them (I am addicted to reading them!) but I just have to keep in mind that any change takes time.  There is no magic cure. And kids are going to be irritating and misbehave no matter what you do.

I want to reiterate that the best thing I did as a parent was identify an overall philosophy (which is what this blog is trying to give you) and not get caught up in the small, frustrating interactions.  When I had a clear vision of parenting principles and things I was trying to accomplish (stay close to your child, have positive interactions, stay calm, etc.) then I could get through the tough times without overanalyzing or getting caught up in the emotions.  Before I had my core parenting principles I felt like each day I was judging myself and my child based on current, minute-to-minute actions.  It was maddening to have to worry so much about what the right choice was.  Once I developed my core principles I could relax a little and avoid getting overly irritated.

Explain Expectations

The basic task of parenting is teaching appropriate behavior. When you approach parenting in this way, you are PROACTIVE, guiding your child in the behavior you want, rather than reacting to whatever behavior he comes up with.  It takes time for children to learn and remember appropriate behaviors.  I tell myself it takes at least 100 times of telling them, and then I don’t count :).  Many misbehaviors can be reframed as teaching opportunities.   Certainly in each new situation, but even at each step of the day you can be reminding and teaching what actions and words are expected.

Here’s an example: “When we go to visit our friends we talk kindly and treat them nicely.  We share toys and clean up toys when we are done.”  You might want to get even more specific: “When we walk in the house and you see your friend, what are you going to say? Maybe you could say, ‘Hi, what do you want to play?’”  And continue on explaining each step of the play date.

Let me make it VERY CLEAR, however, that you are not expecting them to do these exact things when the time comes. That is setting you and your child up for failure!!  You don’t necessarily think they will say these exact phrases, and you certainly don’t expect that they will share the toys willingly or clean up with complete cooperation.  You’re just constantly teaching and talking about what the correct behavior is (see Stop and Redirect for what to do when the behavior isn’t actually what you want it to be).  Your constant monologue about what is going to happen and what you would like them to do will eventually sink in!  But please don’t lose heart if it doesn’t happen quickly.

If there is a certain problem your child is having, like leaving the play date when it’s over, then you could talk about this more often and clearly communicate your expectations, possibly with role-playing. It’s best to discuss it in a calm moment, when emotions are not high.  The conflict moment, when you’re trying to get your child to leave, is not the time for teaching.  That is the time for resolving the situation as calmly and quickly as you can.  Teach in times of good attitude and positive emotion.

So, if you have a play date scheduled for later that day or the next day you could say, “When I come to pick you up from Johnny’s house I’m going to say, ‘It’s time to go now,’ and you are going to say, ‘Okay, mommy.’”  (BTW – ‘Okay, mommy’ is one of my favorite phrases!)

“Let’s practice it now.  Pretend I just came to the door and I say, ‘Time to go!’ What do you say?”  Let the child answer, hopefully correctly.  “Good job!  You’ll say that even if you are having a lot of fun playing and really want to stay.  It’s important that you leave cooperatively when I say it’s time to go.  Then we can come play another time.”

You’re preparing the child to anticipate the fact that they will want to stay, that it will be hard to leave.  YOU’RE EMPATHIZING WITH THAT EMOTION, BUT STILL BEING FIRM IN WHAT BEHAVIOR YOU EXPECT.  This is key.

This teaching and role playing formula can be applied to any situation you are having trouble with, or just used all the time to teach and practice the behavior you desire.

Again, if you pick the child up the next day and he fights and screams, that’s ok.  Just because you taught him doesn’t mean you necessarily expect him to do it the first time.  You deal with the kicking and screaming, then later teach and role play the desired behavior again for the next time.  It takes a long time for children to learn these behaviors.

You can also teach your child what words to say if they want to stay (see Use Your Words, one of the most important posts!).  Like this, “If you want to stay longer you can ask me, you could say, ‘Mom, I’m having a lot of fun playing with my friend.  Is there any way I could stay a little longer?’”

You might think this sounds ridiculous – like, a child is never going to say that!  But if you model it and teach it to him repeatedly, he really will.  Plus, when a child uses words/sentences like this in any conflict situation it DIFFUSES the emotion.  This is so important, and such a magic tool – you will be amazed!  Even if the answer is no, the child will be way more compliant, way less emotional after using his words, and you respond with an equivalent explanation/sentence (“That is so nice of you to use your words and ask me like that.  We have to get home for lunch and your nap, so it is time to go now.  But you can play with Johnny another day.”).

You’ll see that I’m suggesting using a lot of words to explain expectations and teach appropriate behavior and speech, but in the high conflict moments or distributing consequences moments, you don’t use many words, as few as possible, in fact.  That is not a teaching time.

While we’re on this subject I have to say something else about leaving a play date or restaurant or getting your kids to bed or many other similar situations – the kids know you’re going to talk for a while (or read the paper or do something other than enforce the instructions you just told them).  They know they don’t really have to come when you say it’s time to go because you’re going to chit chat.  You might want to include this in your preparation explanation – that you will talk to the other mom for a while and then when you say ‘it’s time to go’ it really is time to go.  But you have to not say it until you really mean it, or else don’t be angry when they don’t listen!  If you really start to pay attention you might find that you often give instructions and then turn and do something else.  You don’t really mean it’s time for bed or time to go, it’s just a heads up that some time in the future we will be going.  Of course it’s polite to chat for a minute with the other mom, but just don’t say ‘time to go’ until you’re really ready.

Let me say a few more things about teaching what behaviors are expected.  One day I had tickets to a play in our town for that evening, for myself and two of my daughters, who were around 6 and 8 at the time.  When it was time to get ready, I told them they needed to go put on nice clothes so we could go to the play.  They threw a fit!  They complained and begged to wear their sweats or jeans, and whined and almost cried.  I was so frustrated!  Here I am, doing a nice thing and taking them to this fun play, and they can’t even change their clothes!  Suddenly I realized that I had not prepared them.  I should have been telling them all week about it – what it was going to be like, how people dress up for plays, what day and time we would go, how fun it would be, how long it would be, what it’s about, etc.  There were so many things I could have done to prepare them for that moment – gotten them excited about the event and also taught them what behavior would be expected.  But I had failed.  This is a helpful reframe of their behavior – they are not being bad, they don’t need to be punished or told they are ungrateful.  They are just being children.  Children need a lot of preparation for any new event.

A similar thing happened when we went to a church event and afterward there was a table of treats.  My kids took one treat after another, and I wasn’t really paying attention.  Then they were running around the gym, and then I realized they’d had five or more treats (possibly one of the children tattled on the other to share this helpful information).  I was really angry (irrationally so, I must admit – doesn’t this happen at almost all church functions?!), but then remembered that I didn’t prepare them.  I should have told them at home, or even in the car on the way to the church, what would happen, what I wanted them to do during and after the event, including how many treats they were allowed to have.  In this situation, as often is the case, other parents weren’t monitoring their children. “Shelly got to have five treats!” So I needed to also prepare my children for this: “Other kids might have more treats than you’re allowed to have, and other kids might run around/take their shoes and socks off/roam the halls, etc. but in our family we . . . .”

Still to do this day there are times when their bad behavior surprises me, and then I realize that I didn’t fully explain to them what is expected.  But I get more frustrated with myself than them, and remind myself to prepare them better next time.

So you need to be consistently thinking about what the next segment of the day is going to include or what events are coming up, and talk about what behavior is expected and what behavior is inappropriate.  Talk about it often, be specific, and role play. Kids love to role play – they think it’s so funny to pretend act.  This is all done in calm, positive-emotion times, and is not used to demean or punish or point out past bad behavior.

Remember, think of failure to behave well not as a reason to punish, but an opportunity to teach.