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Using Praise to Shape Behavior
When I am working with a family in my role as counselor, one of the things I find myself working most with is a parents desire to change a child’s behavior. It is common for parents to feel like they are not being listened to, or that their child is purposefully acting out.
Most of the time I find children are listening and in some instances they are in fact acting out.
Every child has the desire for attention. They need the adults in their life to acknowledge them, notice them and appreciate them. It is through these experiences they learn to believe in themselves and develop confidence and competence.
As a parent you may find yourself saying “no” an awful lot. “No” does have its place, especially in situations that may involve safety issues. However “no” can get used so often that pretty soon it can feel like everything is “no” and you are constantly at battle.
If we take the concept of children needing acknowledgement to heart, we can begin to see that even negative behaviors invoke a response from parents. Although these negative behaviors are not producing the desired “feel good” feelings, children will continue the behaviors if they see that they are getting attention for them.
So how do we shift these negative behaviors and take more of the “no’s” out of our interactions?
Think about a time when someone noticed you did a good job and commented on it. No matter how small the comment or the job, it probably felt pretty good to get that recognition. Chances are you had a little boost of confidence and a smile after such an interaction. You were probably more likely to repeat that behavior or give your next project your very best attempt.
We can give this experience to our children as well. No matter how “bad” behavior gets, or how much of your time power struggles feel like they take up in your day, I can guarantee that there will be moments in which your child is behaving in a way you are wanting to see. It is these moments that we want to reinforce with praise.
A simple “good job” can be helpful, but to really get the most out of praise, be specific. This will give your child a clear picture of what they are doing right and what they might be able to do again to get this positive attention from you. For example, if they are minding their manners at a restaurant you might say “You are doing such a great job sitting still while we wait for our food” or maybe you see your child sharing with another child, you might comment “wow you are being such a good friend by sharing your toys. I’m so proud of you.” The more concrete your praise, the more impact it will have.
Emily Morrison is a licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in Sonoma County California. She has a private practice in downtown Santa Rosa.