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Understanding Your Role in Shaping Your Child’s Behavior, part 2

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by Amy Churchill, LPC

In Part 1 of this article, I defined 4 important ways that parent can help shape their children’s behaviors: Validation, Reinforcement, Modeling, and Punishment. Now we will explore how these techniques can be used in real life examples.  When parents come in and express difficulty in dealing with a child’s behavior or expression of emotion, I often find myself often telling parents to, validate the feeling, but don’t reinforce the behavior.”

What does this mean?

Well, concretely, it means that there are many situations when a child is acting in a way you dislike/disapprove of, but the feelings behind the behaviors are real and important. This creates a difficult situation for parents because a careful and thought-out response can help to create a positive outcome; if executed correctly a proper response can help the child feel understood, cease the inappropriate behavior, and help replace it with a healthier behavior.

This concept is often more easily understood when applied to real life situations.

Example: The sometimes dreaded first day back-to-school separation scenario.

You are dropping your child off at school, and as you begin to walk away, your child becomes clingy, tears up, and asks for you to stay. You know that you can’t stay, but struggle with leaving her when you know she is upset and has a full day of school ahead of her. This is the perfect in-the-moment opportunity for you to recognize and validate the child’s feelings (fear, worry, sadness), but not reinforce the behavior (crying, running towards you, refusing school, etc).

An example of a good validating response could be to confidently state,

“I see you’re upset and I hear that you want me to stay (validating the feeling). Mommy is not upset and I know you will do GREAT today (modeling excitement). I am so excited for you to have a fun day and school and tell me all about it later over ice cream (positive reinforcement to stay). I love you and will see you soon.”

Then begin to walk away. Don’t wait for your child to give you permission to walk away; remember you are in charge, not your child. Additionally, speaking in an assured voice and walking away confidently will show your child that you (mommy) are not worried. This will hopefully comfort the child’s feelings and model a different way to respond without reinforcing her current behavior.

Keep in mind that as you respond to your child, you send many more messages than simply your words. As in any communication, it is important to be aware of the messages you are sending non-verbally. What is your facial expression saying? What does your body stance say? What tone of voice are you using?

For example, if in the same situation you bend down with a furrowed brow, slightly pout out your lip, and you tell your child in a higher pitched child-like tone, “aww, baby! Mommy will miss you so much too!” What message does this send your child? Perhaps a message that: Mommy is sad and potentially worried to leave me. This will only reinforce your child’s worry.

Remember, as humans we tend to match the behavior of those around us. Therefore as the parent, you should be the one setting the tone for the behavior. If you hold a confident body stance, with a positive attitude, your child will likely follow. Don’t fall into the trap of matching your child’s behaviors! If you are the parent who bends down and cries with your child, you are only matching your child’s behavior and sending the message that: “mommy is upset, so I  should be too.” Of course the first day of school can be an emotional day for parents, and sometimes a good cry is needed – but save it for the car! It’s not that your child shouldn’t see you cry ever, but in this situation, the reason a parent is emotional is not one a child can understand. And when kids don’t understand why a parent does something, they will undoubtedly come up with their own, incorrect explanation.

Another common example is: When your child is angry and throws the remote across the room.

Modeling a calm response that validates his emotion at the moment, but doesn’t reinforce his behavior could look like this:

“Bobby, I see that you threw the remote. That was a bad choice. I think you threw it because you are angry. It is ok that you feel angry, but not OK to let your anger out by throwing things. Sometimes when Mommy is angry I ________ (fill in the blank for a behavior that you want Bobby to learn). Let’s find a different way for you to be angry, because if you throw things when you are angry, you will have a time out.”

This is setting a clear tone that throwing when angry is unacceptable but feeling angry is OK. It also offers Bobby reinforcement to choose a healthier behavior or a consequence if he fails to do so. In this case it is critical that as you respond to Bobby, you remain calm as well, so your message matches your affact!

There are daily incidents you will run into as a parent that will allow you to help shape your child’s behavior in a healthy way. If you can try to catch these moments, you will not only be able to help your child learn appropriate ways of expression, but will capture the opportunity to help them feel understood as well, which will strengthen your relationship with your child.