I’ve found, as a mother, that I’m constantly hearing and saying, “I wish I’d known [whatever], sooner”. So, when I had the opportunity to meet with Dr. Jennison Salata—Pediatric Neuropsychologist, Clinical Instructor at UCLA, and PhD in Clinical Psychology—I wanted to know everything I could, right now, about helping children to be well-behaved, happy, and mentally healthy. And I found out, I’m going to need a mini-series on child psychology to cover all of this (so stay tuned)!
First up, let’s talk about behavior. Dr. Salata suggested these ten tips for your infant or toddler now, as a foundation for a well-behaved child in future years.
- Follow a consistent routine. “Structure and routine are wildly under-rated and hugely important, for everything later,” explains Dr. Salata, “All the time, I hear, ‘He’s fine at school, but then he comes home and just loses it.’” This happens because at school, kids have a consistent routine. They arrive, participate in the same activities, and have lunch, at the same times, every day. Without a consistent schedule, some kids feel chaotic and may even try to take control of something else in their life, leading to strange or undesirable behaviors.
- In particular, maintain structure in the afternoon. Sometimes parents just let kids do whatever they want, between preschool/daycare and dinner. But, that afternoon time eventually becomes homework time. Kids can be very resistant to having homework forced into what’s always been free time. Instead, if you plan an activity for that time, from the beginning, you can avoid a challenge later. “It can be anything,” says Dr. Salata, “Walking the dog, coloring… but have it be something structured and routine.”
- Use positive reinforcement with negative punishment. “We know scientifically that positive reinforcement is the best way to mold or shape a behavior,” says Dr. Salata, “But we usually need a combination of positive reinforcement and negative punishment.” In other words, when your kids are good, praise their behavior (positive reinforcement). When they’re bad, take something away that they like (negative punishment). Avoid physical punishment, so that you don’t model hitting as an acceptable behavior. Also, avoid yelling, which can cause unexpected behaviors, like the kid making mom brush his teeth for him, just to stop her yelling.
- Really, don’t forget the praise. “The biggest mistake I see is parents focused only on bad behaviors and consequences… There’s never a reciprocal positive, for a good behavior,” says Dr. Salata. “I just feel like everyone needs to be praising their kids way more than they do”. So, if your child hands you a small piece of plastic off the floor, rather than putting it in their mouth, say “thank you”.
- Praise the right stuff. Try to praise the behavior you want to encourage. Praise your child for trying a new food, rather than saying “broccoli is good”. Or praise how hard your child studied, rather than just focusing on the grade they ended up receiving.
- Provide a context, a reason and an alternate behavior. “All the time I hear parents say to their child, ‘you’re killing me’”, says Dr. Salata, “But they don’t tell the child what they’re doing wrong.” Instead, she encourages parents to be more specific, for example, by saying, “When you talk to me in that tone, it hurts my feelings”. She also suggests telling them what you’d like them to do instead, such as speaking in a different tone.
- Set limits strategically. Try to acknowledge how your child feels, when you set limits. For example, “I see you want to play with that steak knife.” Then set a limit and offer an alternative, such as, “But it could hurt you. Do you want the spoon instead?” Or, you can force a choice between options, such as, “I know you don’t want to wear regular clothes to school, but why don’t you choose between these two outfits.” The keys are validating how your child feels and gently guiding them to an acceptable behavior.
- Use “no” sparingly and meaningfully. If you frequently yell, “no” to your child, they’ll likely starting yelling, “no”, back at you. Reserve “no” for safety situations, and then explain the situation to them. For example, you could say, “You were about to pull that toaster onto your head, so I said ‘no’ to keep you from getting hurt.” Then hug them and acknowledge their feelings of curiosity about the electrical cord.
- Beware giving food or material goods as rewards. If food is used frequently as a reward, this can set a child up for obesity or an eating disorder, later. Similarly, parents who use material goods as a reward may constantly have to try to top their last reward. Research also shows that kids whose parents give prizes as incentives tend to grow up seeing material possessions as a sign of success and happiness. Instead, Dr. Salata suggests trying a unitary reward like electronics minutes or minutes at a special outing, like the petting zoo. This also allows you to reward small steps along the way to a bigger goal.
- Play with your kids. Just by playing with your child with their toys, you can help them learn social skills like sharing. Try taking turns playing with a toy to encourage sharing. Encourage joint play and pretend play, to help develop their social and emotional skills.
Got all that? OK, now, your young child just ran up to you and bit you. What do you do?
Dr. Salata suggests letting the child know that it hurt, by saying, “Ow, that hurt me.” Next, she would try to figure out why the child bit—were they hungry, thirsty, or looking for attention? Then, she would acknowledge their feelings, try to give them what they need in a positive way, and help them figure out a better way to communicate this need, such as a gesture or word. And the next time they used the gesture or word, she’d praise them. Then she’d get back to the routine. And voila, a better behaved kid emerges (hopefully)!
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