Behavior management seems to be a big part of parenting. Parents struggle with their kids’ behavior over their entire parenting “career”.
Many times, I have been asked if I had a “magic formula” to solve behavioral problems and I always say that behavior management is not fixing behavioral problems but preventing them from happening.
The difference between fixing a problem and preventing it is the difference between a proactive mindset and a reactive one. When I need to fix a problem, I become “The Fire Brigade” and start putting out fires and that is no fun, because I am then controlled by the circumstances or the people around me (the kids).
Here are some tools from my “magic toolbox” to make sure you will not have to deal with any behaviour problems in your parenting.
1. Use Positive Language
Many behavior problems at home (and school, of course) are due to the use of negative language. If you listen to parents and teachers communicating with kids, you will notice they are very clear about what they do not want the kids to do. “Don’t run around”, “Don’t talk with your mouth full”, “Don’t be late”, “Don’t forget to …”.
But our brain cannot “not think” of things (see Pink Elephants), so it ignores the “don’t”, “no” and even “stop” and focuses on “run around”, “talk with your mouth full”, “be late” and “forget to …”.
It is just as easy to tell a child what you want them to do instead of what you do not want them. Do this and you will notice how they change after a short time. Say “Please walk carefully”, “Please eat quietly for a while”, “Please come on time” and “Remember to …”.
Despite my awareness of the use of language, I realised at some point that my son was the greatest “astronaut” on earth. We used to say that if his head was not attached to his body, he would have forgotten it too. Then, I noticed I was saying to him every morning, “Don’t forget to take this”, “Don’t forget you have band practice at 10” and so on.
I had done this every day for a few years and instead of making him remember, I was making him forgetful. So, I wrote on my whiteboard in big letters “Remember” and, sure enough, after 3 weeks I had a different kid. 3 weeks and he remembered every activity he had during his school day (and he had many of them).
2. Be a Role Model
Children, especially young ones, try different ways to get what they want. This is a good way for them to experience the world. If you want them to behave in a curtain way, tell them, show them and more than that, do it yourself.
I remember my dad getting very upset when he found out that my 16 year-old brother was smoking (he probably started when he was 12). I remember him shouting and screaming, until my sister, who was 17, said to him, “Why are you so upset? You smoke too. How can you tell him it is bad to smoke if you smoke yourself?”
My dad stopped. He looked like she had banged him hard on his head. He quietly left the room and we never saw him smoking anymore.
With young children, we can turn their attention to the good things we do by saying, “We put our toys away like this” or “I put my clothes in the laundry box when I take them off. Why don’t you put your clothes their too?”
With teenagers, before you become upset about what they do or do not do, ask yourself what you did when you were their age. Some things are not that big a deal. You did silly, irresponsible things too, right? Tell them about thing you did that did not work for you and give them examples from your own life.
If you have any fears about their future, take a look at yourself. You did not turn out so bad after all, right?
3. Respect Your Kids
If you are not happy with something your kids do, make sure to say it to them in private. Shaming your kids in public is humiliating and only increases undesired behaviour.
Respect their time – Planning is a good way to manage kids’ behaviour. If you are organised and take into consideration their time they feel their environment is a safe place.
With young kids, if you want them to do things or stop doing things while they are playing, give them a “heads up”. Because their perception of time is not fully formed yet, tell them what is about to happen. Say, “We are leaving in 10 minutes, so you have 10 more minute to play”.
With teenagers, letting them know the daily schedule is a great way to prevent many behaviour problems. We do this on our way to school in the morning by telling everyone in the car the plan for the whole day. If you take their schedule into account, they feel respected and show respect to the family schedule.
Respect their privacy. Assign your kids places that are only theirs and be strict about allowing them time for themselves and with their friends and respect their possessions. Ask permission to look at personal things, just like you needed privacy when you were a teenager.
4. Separate the Person from the Act
If you tell your kid you are not happy with something they did, make sure you are not calling names or labelling. Avoid saying “you are …” and say instead “this behaviour …” or “what you’ve just done” and be specific about what caught your attention.
Even when you are upset about your kids’ behaviour, tell them how much you love them. This is critical with teens. Keep the communication channels open at all times.
5. Focus on the Positive
Many parents pay attention to what their kids do “wrong” instead of paying attention to what they do well. Notice your kids’ good behaviour and it will grow. Do not take for granted what they do well and mention it as soon as it happens.
With young kids, you can say “You are eating so cleanly” or “Wow, did you just buckle your seat-belt by yourself? I am so proud of you”.
With older kids, you can say “I appreciate your help” or “I am very proud or you” for every little thing they do. We all love to be appreciated!
6. 12 Hugs a Day
Children need physical touch for their emotional health, so make sure you touch them enough during the day. Pat them on the shoulder, comb their hair, hold their hands or their face and hug them. Hug them when they are young, hug them when they are not so young, hug them even after they grow taller than you…
Physical contact is a basic need for all people, and if they do not get it from you, they will get it from somewhere else. Many Special Education children with behavioural problems, including violence, only need a hug!
7. Rewards Good Behaviour!
Whether we admit it or not, rewarding is a way of conditioning our kids to keep doing the things we want them to do. It can be a word, a touch or a material thing.
You need to be careful with rewards that the child will not condition you. I remember a friend I had who said to her 5 year old son every time we went to a restaurant, “If you eat your food, you can get ice cream”.
It did not take long before he started saying “If you want me to eat, I want my ice cream first” and nothing helped her. He ate his ice cream first and never ate the food. Be careful not to use conditioning like this. If you do want to use this method, use it on everyone at once – “If you all finish your food, we will be able to watch a movie together”.
Maybe the greatest secret is to align your behaviour management philosophy with your partner’s. Consistency makes kids feel secure and gains their trust. There is a great correlation between couples agreeing on their parenting style and kids with good behaviour.