If you want your child to have better behavior and manage their big emotions, you need to stop focusing on the bad behavior. This is what to do instead.
The scene had repeated itself many times in our home. Then I finally caught on.
I’d get the baby down for a nap. Then I would start working with my seven-year-old on some school work or speech or OT.
All of a sudden, my three-year-old child would come over and interrupt.
He’d throw toys, take away our materials, or hit his sister. Exasperated, I’d complain to my husband.
One day, I finally realized that I’d fallen into the classic parenting trap:
I was focused on the bad behavior.
As parents, when we just focus on the bad things, the behavior doesn’t seem to improve. Punishments are often counterproductive.
So what should parents do?
Read on to see the one simple switch you can make to stop focusing on the bad behavior.
Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links; read more here.
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Why is your child’s behavior a trigger for you?
I love being a part of many parenting Facebook groups. But one thing I’ve noticed is parents can get stuck on how bad their child’s behavior is.
Even when offered with suggestions on how to manage the behavior, some parents get caught in a really negative loop.
If you find this in yourself, stop and recognize how you are behaving. Before you focus on your child’s behavior, it’s really important to understand why it’s triggering you.
Your child’s poor behavior could be upsetting for one of these reasons:
- You feel it’s a poor reflection of your parenting.
- You feel judged by other adults.
- It is just plain annoying.
- You feel disrespected.
- It’s a waste of your time.
- It is dangerous and you feel worried.
- You feel taken for granted.
You need to feel your feelings and learn to work through them. This could mean journaling, reading self-help books, or going to therapy.
It is normal to feel triggered by your children, and nothing to be ashamed of. But as an adult, it is your work to figure out why you find it triggering.
Then you can proceed to addressing it with your child.
Praise what you want to see
When your child is repeatedly misbehaving in the same way, you need to stop focusing on the bad behavior. Without realizing it, you’re giving negative attention instead of actually correcting the behavior.
It’s time to consider how you can praise what you want to see. Think specifically about the good your child is doing and actively find ways to see the good in your child.
This doesn’t mean to abandon your child when he or she is struggling. If your child is having a hard time, I don’t mean to ignore them.
It means looking for the good. If you’re getting stuck in a negative spiral, your kids will too.
As parents it’s important that we don’t give attention to what we don’t want to see; kids will act out for negative attention.
For my son, he was the brand new middle child. He needed to be praised for all the times he was the big kid.
He needed praise for when he was being generous and kind with his older sister.
This alone won’t correct the bad behavior but it shifts the focus and give us something else to focus on.
Invest in focused playtime
Investing in quality focused playtime is a great way to stop focusing on the bad behavior. Before your work on your child’s behavior, it’s also important to make sure your child is getting some really quality attention from you.
The best way to do this is through focused playtime.
There is abundant research on parents using focused or special playtime to improve behavior. Spend 5-10 minutes a day playing with your child.
I created a cheat sheet on focused playtime for you because parents have to relearn how to play with their children. Instead of directing the play even subtly, you let the child lead the play.
If you’re going to give this a try, make sure you’re going it in the structured way.
General free-play is likely not going to work and actually could completely exacerbate the bad behavior if you accidentally make suggestions and control the play.
With my son, I focused on giving him focused playtime for several days in a row. It helped but didn’t solve the problem, so we needed to keep digging.
Identify your child’s lagging skills
Your child isn’t a mini-adult. Remember the brain is a construction zone until the early 20s.
So while your child might understand the rules, he or she lacks the impulse control to reliably follow some of them.
Plus, all human beings (yourself included!) have lagging behavioral skills. It’s okay. No one has it all figured out.
Some of us have a harder time managing frustration (have you seen adults in traffic?!) and some have a hard time taking the perspectives of others into consideration (have you been on Facebook!).
It’s the same with children. Even if there are skills they should have already mastered developmentally, some of the skills can be lagging.
It’s helpful to figure them and you can find a list here. You can print out this checklist and mark off the areas you think your child is lagging in.
He also points out you wouldn’t punish a child for lagging skills when they learn to ride a bike. If your child is having a hard time learning to read, you probably don’t use time out.
So it’s important not to do that for struggling to learn behavior.
This doesn’t mean you accept the bad behavior. It means you need to strengthen the weak skill so the behavior stops happening.
When you switch to thinking in terms of lagging behavioral skills, you can stop focusing on the bad behavior.
So for my son, he was acting out because he didn’t know how to join. He wanted to be a part of the work with my daughter.
Teach the behavior skills you want to see
A lot parents use punishment and discipline interchangeably. It’s not the same.
Punishment is something that causes pain to another person; discipline means to teach.
You are your child’s first and best teacher.
So you need to teach the behavior skills you want to see.
First, that means getting clear on your expectations. What is it you want your child to do? Make sure you have clearly articulated what you want him or her to do.
For my son, that meant teaching him to ask to join in a friendly voice.
We use smiley behavior charts to show our children the behavior we want to see. It helps us to focus and target what’s most important.
It’s visual and manageable for a child. It focuses on the positive.
If you need a more complete set of smiley charts, check out the Smiley Behavior Chart Printable Pack.
It has 12 different behaviors with visuals of the desired behaviors. It includes four children of different races or ethnicity demonstrating the desired behaviors.
You can definitely DIY your own with the freebie, too, but this set will be helpful if you need more direction.
Recapping Stop Focusing on the Bad Behavior
Here’s the summary for all my busy parents:
- Identify when you’re caught in a negative loop about your child’s behavior.
- Figure out why your child’s behavior is a trigger for you.
- Praise the behavior you want to see.
- Don’t give negative attention to the bad behavior.
- Recognize your child has lagging skills (we all do in some areas).
- Teach the replacement behavior for the undesired behavior.
- Use a smiley chart to make a visual of the behavior of you want to see.
- Praise attempts at the desired behavior.
We all want to see better behavior in our children. You only get there when you don’t focus on the bad. Instead teach and praise the good.
Grab your free printable.