October’s Monitor on Psychology, the monthly magazine published by the American Psychological Association, presented seven research-based ways to improve parenting. When used consistently, these strategies help parents manage children’s’ behaviors, improve the parent-child relationship, and reduce stress. Here are the insights from leading child psychology and parenting experts.
Embrace “labeled” praise. Provide children with specific feedback about positive behaviors and problem-solving efforts. If a child is angry, for example, tell him that you like the way he is sitting calmly instead of acting out. Alan Kazdin, Ph.D, Yale University psychology professor and director of the Yale Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic, says that paying attention to positive behaviors increases positive behaviors while attending to undesired behaviors increases undesired behaviors. Nagging, reprimanding, and punishing are less effective than modeling good behaviors, encouragement, and praise. Multiple studies have found that labeled praise improves children’s relationships with both parents and teachers. Praise should be honest so children can learn. David J. Palmiter Jr., Ph.D, author of “Working Parents, Thriving Families,” argues against praising children for poor performance. “This can often deprive a child of the wonderful learning that comes from failure,” he says.
Ignore minor misbehaviors. Annoying but harmless acts such as whining or throwing food are often ploys for attention. Attend to desirable behaviorssuch as sharing a toy with another child, and ignore the minor infractions. Children learn that acting nicely is a more reliable way to get attention, according to several studies conducted by Dr. Kazdin.
Understand the child’s point-of-view. Parents who are knowledgeable about child development are more likely to understand why a child is acting in a certain way. Babies who start to make a mess while eating, for example, are often doing so because they are learning to use their hands in new ways. Understanding ages and stages will explain certain behaviors and reduce parental frustration and stress.
Do time-in if you do time-out. Time-in consists of times when parents model and praise good behaviors. If time-out is necessary, it should be brief and immediate. Parents should remain calm and praise compliance when it’s over. Time-outs are meant to give the child time away from all reinforcement. When parents become overly upset or restrain a child, they are providing extra attention and reinforcing inappropriate behaviors, according to Dr. Kazdin.
Plan ahead. John Lutzker, Ph.D., director of the Center for Healthy Development at Georgia State University, advises parents to avoid using time-outs and instead to plan and structure activities to prevent misbehavior. He helps parents teach children effective coping strategies to deal with challenging situations. He uses “planned activities training” to help parents prepare activities to keep children engaged and busy rather than becoming bored and disruptive.
Take care of yourself. Children are negatively impacted by parental stress. One study showed that children feel sad, worried, and frustrated about their parents’ stress. Another showed that parents’ stress actually imprints on children’s genes and has long-lasting effects. Despite hectic schedules, things like making time for exercise and maintaining friendshipsmodels healthy coping for children. Dr. Palmiter says that making time for your spouse or partner is one of the best things a parent can do for a child. He suggests that single parents develop a community and nurture meaningful relationships.
Make “special” time. Spending time paying attention to children, expressing positive thoughts and feelings, being nurturing, and expressing support has positive effects on children’s brain development. Dr. Palmiter suggests spending one hour per week, either all at once or in segments, paying attention to your child while he is doing something pleasurable. During this time, children should not be scolded or corrected. The goal is to connect and see his point of view, not to teach new skills. Dr. Palmiter says, “What an apple is to the physician – ‘an apple a day keeps the doctor away’ – special time is to the child psychologist.”
Dr. Jaime Black is a licensed psychologist practicing in Westchester and New York City. In addition to providing general mental health services, Jaime works with individuals of all ages on the autism spectrum, doing psychotherapy, conducting evaluations, and facilitating social skills groups. Visit www.spectrumservicesnyc.com, e-mail JaimeBlackPsyD@gmail.com or call (914)712-8208.