How can I modify my child's behavior?

Diana K. Blythe, MD

While there are many ways to modify your child's behavior, the one I favor is "Water the roses. Starve the weeds." In other words, give your child attention for good behaviors and no attention (not even bad attention) for behaviors you do not like.  

What you want to do is encourage the behaviors you like and allow the behaviors you do not like to slowly disappear. Sometimes this takes longer, but the behaviors are gone rather than repressed.  

The hard times are when a behavior is annoying or embarrassing to parents. When this happens, stay strong and simply ignore the behavior. The only time you would need to intervene is if behavior is dangerous to your child or someone else.

Polly Dunn

Of course we all love our children, but let’s face it, they’re not perfect! They don’t always have good manners, throw more tantrums than we’d like to admit, and sometimes whine when they don’t get their way. Put the following behavior management principles into practice, and you’ll see an improvement in your child’s behavior in no time.

  • Choose your Battle. Every child has a handful of bothersome behaviors that their parents would like to see improve overnight. Sadly, it’s not that simple. For the most success, work on one problem behavior at a time.
  • Identify the Positive Alternative. Once you determine the negative behavior you want to eliminate, find a positive behavior to replace it with.  You can identify a replacement behavior for pretty much anything, although you may have to get creative! 
  • Reward the Replacement. Now that you have a positive behavior you want to increase, begin rewarding it whenever you see it happen! Verbal praise and attention are some of the quickest and most effective tools for improving behavior. Be clear and direct with your praise and be sure to identify what you’re praising your child for.
  • When they Misbehave. Of course, just because you’re focusing on the positive behavior doesn’t mean that your children will no longer misbehave! When they do, choose one of two alternatives. Either ignore the misbehavior or put them in time-out.  Ignoring is not as easy as it sounds. You truly have to restrain yourself from saying anything to your child (or even looking at them!).

    Unfortunately, you can’t ignore everything! If your children do something that is potentially dangerous or requires immediate attention, then they should be put into time-out. The length of time-out should be the child’s age in minutes. Also, time-out should be held in a safe location in your home with minimal distractions, like the dining room.

By implementing these strategies, you will be sure to see an improvement in your child’s behavior. If you are still concerned about your child or need help getting their behavior under control, try reaching out to your child’s teacher or pediatrician or meet with a psychologist to get more individualized guidance.

Best of luck!

Polly Dunn, Ph.D., Licensed Psychologist

Almost any behavior can be modified within 1 week as long as all caregivers are consistent and provide encouragement and praise. Whether you’re trying to stop your toddler from biting or getting him to sleep all night in a
big-boy bed, 1 week is usually all you need--as long as you stick with it.

• Be consistent--have all caregivers keep the same rules and routine.

• Encourage--read an encouraging book on the topic or tell a story.

• Have rewards--praise him for doing well; offer hugs and kisses, stickers, or a small token.

• Anticipate conflict--change your routine to avoid battle situations.

• Very quick response--immediately follow your child’s action with a consequence (good or bad).

• Ignore--minor, undesirable actions often aren’t worth your energy.

• One at a time--pick your battle and choose only one behavior to modify at a time.

• Role model--your child watches you and follows your lead so demonstrate good behavior, respect, and love to those around you.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.