A parent was recently in my office to discuss her young daughter’s defiant behavior. She described noticing that, in her relationship with her children, she’s constantly busy with them, but rarely gives them her full attention, especially if they’re not misbehaving. As a parent, I can relate. My children take up almost all of my time, cooking their dinners, supervising homework, shepherding them between activities and friends, refereeing their arguments, but how much of this time actually contributes to building a positive relationship?
The argument for a strong, solid parent-child relationship has already been laid out. It is hard to pick up a publication without seeing another article about ways to improve your relationship with your children, or better discipline techniques, or more effective communication. On this topic, the media and science are united: the parent-child relationship is the most fundamental one we have, acting, for better or for worse, as a template for all future relationships.
So how do we, as parents, create that strong bond with our children and harness that power? As a behavior therapist, I argue for using social reinforcement to strengthen relationships. Mainly, the right kind of attention and positive, specific, praise can build a warm, solid relationship between parents and children. This is more difficult than it sounds: we know that any behavior that is rewarded is likely to be repeated in the future. Therefore, any child behavior that a parent notices and responds to, positively or negatively, will generally be repeated.
Picture this scenario: Your 6 and 4 year old children are coloring nicely at the table. As a parent, the logical thing to do would be to run as fast as you can in the other direction and get done everything you possibly can while they’re still occupied. Staying away from the table might be easier in the moment, but it would mean losing out on a fantastic opportunity: the chance to build goodwill, and reinforce behavior you’d like to see again! This is your chance to praise your children for their cooperative play.
It’s easy to tell a child (or an adult, for that matter) what they’re doing wrong. When children misbehave, parents often respond very clearly, outlining what they did wrong and why. It’s harder to stop our lives to tell our children what they’re doing right in that same clear and specific way, but that’s exactly what I teach parents to do. The path to a strong relationship is created by focusing on the positive things that children do, using specific and clear language to tell a child what you like about what they’re doing, even if it means possibly disrupting your magic, adult-only time. At the same time, this approach doesn’t have to mean ignoring the behaviors that you don’t want to see your children exhibiting. Instead, it means being proactive about praise.
To fight this natural inclination to focus on what you’d like your children to stop, spend a few minutes thinking about what you’d like to see your children doing instead. For example, think about the positive opposite of the behavior that you’d like your child to stop. If you would like to see less Lego throwing, you might choose to focus on praising your child for playing gently with the Legos and/or keeping the Legos on the table. Praising this positive opposite allows you the opportunity to teach your child what they should do, rather than only providing information about what not to do. This praise allows you to increase your child’s self-esteem and maintain the warmth of an interaction, rather than engage in a cycle of negativity around the misbehavior.
To use praise most effectively, first pay attention to your child’s behavior. Think about what the behavior you would like to see looks like and how you would describe it. Then, catch your child exhibiting that behavior, using specific praise. If your child kicks their feet at the dinner table and it drives you bonkers, “catch them” sitting with their feet on the floor and jump in with a labeled praise such as “Thank you so much for keeping your feet on the floor!” Telling a child what you like about their behavior, specifically using labeled praises, lets them know what to expect and encourages them to repeat it.
Set yourself and your child up for success by setting aside five minutes a day for playtime so that you can pay attention to their positive behaviors in a specific way. This allows you the opportunity to notice their good behaviors and comment on them, using these specific praises. This shift towards proactive and specific praise may seem like a small step but makes a huge difference in ensuring a warm and strong bond between you and your children.
Dr. Galanti is a licensed psychologist and founder of Long Island Behavioral Psychology in Cedarhurst. She specializes in treating anxiety, OCD, and behavior problems in children. She can be reached at www.longislandbehavioral.com or (646) 657-8149.