New Year’s resolutions remind us of how difficult it is to change, and our children are no different. As a child psychologist, I get daily phones calls from parents asking me “to change” their children’s behavior. While parents want to help their children, they often do not understand how the change process works for children. I hear their frustration when they ask me to “Please help him to stop lying, or teach him to control his anger, or get her to lose weight.” They are concerned parents and doing the best they can by asking for help. I wish it were as easy as waving a wand at their child and saying “Now change!” Children do not have the cognitive or emotional capacity to appreciate the importance of making positive behavior changes and thus they do not have the inherent motivation required to change. Children can develop motivation to change in response to strong connection with an adult. A classic example of this is when an underperforming child begins to perform after developing strong rapport with a new teacher.
Behaviorists, myself included, can impact behavior positively by teaching parents and children to participate in behavior change plans. Examples include: Ignoring a toddler child’s frequent tantruming behavior and instead rewarding compliance, eliminating blurting behavior by rewarding waiting behavior or teaching an anxious child relaxation and positive thinking techniques to use before peak anxiety times. In order to generalize these changes, the child needs to develop motivation beyond external rewards. Real change happens as a result of a strong connection between child and parent and the child developing an inherent desire to act differently to please the parent as a result of their connection.
Here are some considerations when helping children change:
1. Be flexible. Children change in response to their parents’ flexibility. For example, if a child hates the feel of wool against his bare skin, a parent’s ability to be flexible and accept that their child may not be able to wear the new, very expensive wool sweater, will not only eliminate behavior outbursts but also establish trust because the child sees that what he says is important and acted upon.
2. Parents may be frustrated because of their child’s problematic behaviors and yet they need to put their aggravations aside long enough to engage in a positive connection with their child on daily basis. Parents who initiate and commit to 5-10 minutes of daily or near daily, 1:1 time with a child doing an activity report an improvement in their child’s behavior. A child’s self-esteem is also positively influenced as a result of a strong parent-child bond.
3. Parents need to meet their child where they are. If rapport is tarnished and interactions are negative, this is not the time to focus on changing behavior. Instead rebuild trust and then together work on improving the troublesome behaviors.
4. Parents can model positive behaviors. If a parent wants a child to get more exercise, they can engage in an exercise program and demonstrate how it’s done.
5.. Parents can change together with their children. Parents who want their children to eat healthier need to have a healthy diet that they insist on for the entire family.
6. When parents are frustrated because they can’t get their child to change, they need to remind themselves of how difficult it is to change, especially when there is not internal motivation, as is the case for children. As a reminder they can ask themselves “How eager am I to start exercising when my spouse pushes me to?”
7.. Parents will be most effective when they can take a step back, trust the process and focus on connecting with their child instead of controlling his or her behavior.
Authoritative Parenting: Synthesizing nurturance and discipline for optimal child developmental. Larzelere, Morris and Harrist. American Psychological Association, 2013.