The Race to Good Health

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4 Parenting Myths: Tips on Managing Behavior Problems

Breaking the cycle of behavior problems in the new year.

The new year has begun and almost everyone has developed their New Year’s resolutions. While most develop fitness goals and life style changes, I encourage parents to have a fresh start on being proactive to prevent disruptive behavior. Parents often do a good job of managing behavior problems. However, there are times when a parents’ view of their child is misguided. Dr. Alan Kazdin, a clinical psychologist, has done extensive research on evidence-based treatments to address behavior problems in children. In his book, The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child, he discusses several myths parents have about parenting. Let’s take an in-depth look into some of these myths.

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Myth 1 Punishment will change bad behavior

It is general consensus for most parents that having a consequence for “bad” or inappropriate behavior will change a child’s behavior. However, parents tend to think that yelling or taking away a privilege will automatically decrease the problem behavior. According to Dr. Kazdin, “parents threaten time-out, shout “stop that”, or use eye-rolling to change their child’s behavior.” In reality, these forms of punishment alone are not effective ways to decrease problem behavior. The evidence base around punishment shows that although punishment may temporarily decrease or change behavior the effects are not long lasting. Using punishment often results in the behavior returning hours or days later. That being said, punishment has its place in an overall behavior management system that includes positive reinforcement.

Myth 2 Your child is just being manipulative

As a child psychologist, I often encounter parents who think that their child is purposely manipulating a situation to get their way. Although this may be somewhat true most children behave a certain way as a function of consequence and rewards, not because they want to manipulate you. In his book, Dr. Kazdin states “what parents interpret as manipulative behavior by a child is often just a tendency towards irritable actions, which the parents themselves may have reinforced and turned into a pattern”. According to the principles of applied behavior analysis, the functions of behavior may include: access to attention (from adults or peers), escaping demands (e.g., cleaning up toys), or gaining access to tangible objects (e.g., toys, snacks). In the future, when you notice that your child is misbehaving recognize what is going on and tie it back to what function is the behavior serving. There is always a reason for your child’s behavior.

Myth 3 More reminders lead to better behavior

Often children greatly benefit from reminders and prompts to initiate a specific action. However, for some children (who are prone to be more noncompliant) reminding them to do something will fall on deaf ears. Dr. Kazdin notes that, “studies show that saying something fifty times is usually less effective than saying it once or twice.” He states that “like punishment, excessive reminders become aversive”. The key to remember is that a reminder without some consequence to reinforce the behavior is not effective. For example, a parent may say “go clean your room” which results in the child either ignoring the request or saying they will but don’t comply. Then the parent may repeat the command several times to remind their child to go clean up but it never gets done. Clearly, frequently just telling your child to do something (without action) doesn’t work. In order for reminders to work the child must have some motivation or the parent must implement a reward to reinforce the behavior or a consequence for noncompliance.

Myth 4 Too much praise spoils your child

Finally, some parents have the belief that too much praise is detrimental. In fact, the research on positive attention is very strong with regards to how praise impacts children’s behavior. Dr. Kazdin notes that “praise in an essential ingredient in improving behavior”. However, as the research shows praising the wrong behavior can also make behavior problems worse. In my daily role as a psychologist I rarely encounter parenting praising their child too much. It is often the case that parents praise too little or praise simply by saying “good job”. According to Dr. Kazdin, the quality of the praise is just as important as the quantity of praise. In order for praise to be effective, it is recommended that parents provide specific praise for the child’s behavior such as “thank you for sharing with your brother”. Praise used effectively is one of the best ways to change your child’s behavior.

Follow me on Twitter @DrEarlTurner for daily post on psychology, mental health, and parenting. Feel free to join my Facebook group, “Get Psych’d with Dr. T” to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright 2013 Erlanger A. Turner, Ph.D.

References:

Kazdin, A. E. (2008). The Kazdin method for parenting the defiant child with no pills, no therapy, no contest of wills. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company: New York.

Photo courtesy Getty images

Erlanger Turner, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Houston-Downtown in the Department of Social Sciences and a Clinical Psychologist.

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