Rewards & Consequences

Easy, Friendly, and Effective: Behavior Tweaks That Really Work

Bad behavior kicks emotions — yours and your child’s — into high gear. Keep cool and calm instead, with these low-stress strategies that will improve your child’s behavior.

Children's feet, jumping on the bed, due to a lack of calm parenting strategies
Kid's feet jumping on the bed pink bed blue pajamas

When our children misbehave, we want to know how to stop the misbehavior as soon as possible. Whether your children are ignoring your instructions, whining or crying when they don’t get what they want, begging to buy something each time you go to the store, climbing on furniture, throwing things in anger, being aggressive with you or with siblings, or breaking some other rule, these “stop behaviors” can make parents frustrated.

There is much we can do to influence our children — to keep the misbehavior from escalating, to defuse an emotionally charged situation, and to help them stop misbehaving. We know that shouting, ignoring, giving in, or bribing and threatening a child are lost causes when it comes to turning around our kids’ behavior.

Here are some strategies that will help put a stop to those misbehaviors:

Keep It Friendly

My first guideline, to stay friendly, may be the hardest. Practice speaking in a low, calm voice, even if you are feeling stressed or annoyed. Friendliness often calls forth willingness from our children, and they are likely to meet us halfway, gradually becoming less antagonistic and more willing to cooperate. Knowing this, we can spend a moment being friendly, showing our appreciation for any tiny positive part of whatever they are doing.

Find Something to Praise

For example, we could say: “Those ornaments are so pretty and shiny, and you’re being so careful with them. Now it’s time to put them back.”

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Use your metaphorical magnifying glass to find some bits of OK behavior, or even a momentary pause in the misbehavior. If your child has spoken disrespectfully, wait a few seconds, until she pauses for breath, and say: “You’re not being rude or disrespectful now. I can hear that you’re upset, but now you’re controlling yourself. You’re using your words, not your body, to show how angry you are.”

Get Close

If your child is still misbehaving after you have praised him, immediately stop whatever you are doing, go to where he is, and stand very close to him. You may find that your close presence is enough to get him behaving properly again. In fact, many parents report that, as they are in the act of crossing the room, their child, who a moment ago seemed oblivious to everything except what he was doing, either stops the misbehavior altogether or de-escalates it considerably. When this happens, it gives parents the opportunity to praise some more. You might say, “I didn’t need to tell you to stop ripping that piece of paper. You stopped by yourself.”

Give Clues

Instead of giving direct instruction to a child who seems unlikely to comply, you can give a clue to help your child figure out what to do. Let’s say your daughter is jumping on the bed, and there is a rule in your house about not jumping on the furniture. She will probably have stopped jumping by the time you walk over to her and wait a few seconds. But if she is still jumping, don’t say, “Stop jumping!” or “How many times have I told you?” Say in a calm voice: “You know the rule about where you can jump.”

This generally makes children pause in their misbehavior, so seize the moment to praise and listen: “You’re remembering the rule. You probably wish we didn’t have this rule, but I’m glad you remember it.”

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Offer Alternatives

When we need to stop our children’s fun, offer an alternative activity. You might say: “I can see you want to hold a sharp knife, but you know the rules. We do not play with knives. But tonight you can help me cut the quiche. I know you want to be careful, and I will be there to help you.”

Make It a Rule for Everyone

It can help to depersonalize our instruction by stating that something is a family rule that applies to all family members. You could say: “This family has a very important rule—no hurting or frightening the cat. We are gentle with our pets.” By now your child will probably be cooperating.

Empathize

Another effective way to help our children want to cooperate is to show them that we understand how frustrated and annoyed they feel when we interrupt their fun. We imagine how the child might be feeling, and we reflect that feeling in words to the child: “You’ve got so much energy, and you love jumping. You wish you could jump on the sofa. What’s our rule about jumping? [Your child tells you.] Yes. You can jump on the trampoline, not on the furniture.”

Put It in the Positive

Your child may misbehave even after using all these techniques. In that case, you will need to tell him what he has to do. It is more motivating for children to hear what they should do, rather than what they should not do. “Put the salt shaker down, please” is an easier instruction to follow than “Stop playing with that.” “Talk quietly, please” is likely to get a better response than “Stop shouting.”

[Raising a Child Who Wants to Behave]

Excerpted from Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting, by NOEL JANIS-NORTON. Copyright 2012. Penguin Group Inc.

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