How to Get Kids to Change Their Behavior for the Better

Research demonstrates a technique called motivational interviewing is effective.

Posted Oct 29, 2020

JackF/Adobe Stock
Source: JackF/Adobe Stock

When trying to convince someone to take action, our words matter – even more so when talking to a young person.

If you have ever parented a child or worked with youth, you have likely witnessed that lectures rarely lead to whole-hearted behavior change, even when the lecturer has the best intentions. So, what’s the best way to encourage behavior change in young people, especially when there is a serious health problem at hand?

A substantial body of evidence demonstrates that a method called motivational interviewing is effective in encouraging personal behavior change. Now a new systematic review published earlier this month in the journal Pediatrics finds that parents can use motivational interviewing to successfully encourage overweight young people to make better lifestyle choices.

What is this magical method for talking to kids? A typical motivational interview may go something like this:

“Chris, do you mind if we talk about your weight?” (Asking permission to have the conversation is an essential component of motivational interviewing.)

The next step is to cite concrete evidence about the health risks associated with the behavior. “We know that being overweight increases your risk of heart disease and diabetes. How do you feel about that?” (Asking again helps the young person to share feelings and become a partner in the conversation.)

The key to motivational interviewing is to find how the young person feels about the problems at hand and identify the barriers that are creating an issue. Then together, the interviewer and young person can come up with practical steps to take in order to work towards a goal. The method also includes a technique called reflective listening, which involves repeating back what the youth has said.

Motivational interviewing should not involve confrontation or conflict. The keys are to ask open-ended questions, affirm how the young person is feeling, and repeat what you hear to show you are genuinely interested in what the young person has to say.

The recent review investigating motivational interviewing for overweight youth included seven studies in total where parents were coached on motivational interviewing techniques, which they then used with their children. The review found that when parents used this method to have discussions about diet and exercise, the youth demonstrated significant improvement in their weight and physical health. In addition, young people engaged in motivational interviewing were more likely to report lifestyle changes that helped with weight management.

In other studies, motivational interviewing has proven effective in helping adolescents quit smoking, reduce marijuana use, and attend follow-up mental health appointments.

The take-home message: the way you approach conversations about difficult topics makes a big difference in how effective your words are—especially when it comes to encouraging individuals to change their behavior. Motivational interviewing is a proven way to connect with others, especially youth, and to inspire positive change.