Child development experts suggest a five-step method parents can use to help a child improve difficult behavior. The steps build on one another, so each one is important.
- Attending - Attending is simply reinforcing desired behavior by describing it aloud with enthusiasm (McMahan & Forehand, 2003), such as "Look how high you're stacking your blocks!" or "You're talking with your inside voice." Attending can be a powerful foundation for changing behavior because it helps parents relate to their child through constant, positive attention. It also improves the parent-child relationship. (McMahan & Forehand, 2003).
- Rewarding - Rewarding is showing a child approval for her good behavior. Rewarding doesn't take the place of attending but rather adds to it. As parents describe their child's appropriate behavior, at times they should add rewards and praise (Forehand & Long, 2002).
- Ignoring - Ignoring is a very effective way to reduce a child's unacceptable behavior, and it is much easier to use than punishment (McMahan & Forehand, 2003). But ignoring should never be used alone. Instead, once your child stops the unacceptable behavior, immediately reward him for his now-acceptable behavior (McMahan & Forehand, 2003). Ignoring also should not be used when a child's behavior is potentially dangerous to himself, others, or property. Instead, use more active measures, such as a time-out (McMahan & Forehand, 2003). Examples of behaviors that can be ignored include whining, nagging, temper tantrums, and interrupting (McMahan & Forehand, 2003, p. 117).
- Giving Directions - Parents sometimes give directions that are hard for a young child to follow. "Chain direction," for example, is when a parent gives several directions at once (Forehand & Long, 2002). Instead, parents should give one direction at a time. "Vague directions" aren't specific enough, such as "Behave yourself" or "Be nice." Instead, parents should say exactly what they want their child to do.
"Question directions" ask a child to do something rather than tell him (Forehand & Long, 2002). For example, "Will you please stop jumping on the couch?" Instead, parents should deliver their request in the form of a statement: "Please stop jumping on the couch."
Finally, directions are ineffective when followed by a reason. For example, "Pick up your toys because Grandma is coming over, and it would be nice if the house was clean when she got here." Instead, parents should make sure the direction is the last thing a child hears. For example, "Aunt Laura is coming and it would sure be nice if the house was clean. So please pick up your toys." (Forehand & Long, 2002).
- Using Time-outs - It takes time to help a child change difficult behavior. Even if you're using all the right techniques in all the right ways, your child might continue to behave badly, especially at the beginning stages of using a new approach. Time-outs are a helpful consequence for non-compliance, especially when they're used consistently (Forehand & Long, 2002).
Promoting Changes in a Positive Environment
While helping a child change is not easy, it can become easier and more effective when he or she has a positive environment. Parents can do many things to make the environment of their home more positive. Forehand and Long (2002) suggest the following:
- Have fun with your child.
- Communicate "I love you" often.
- Have structure and routines.
- Participate in family traditions and rituals.
- Be a good listener.
- Request feedback from your child and take turns talking. Work on developing patience.
- Build your child's self-esteem.
- Help your child solve problems with peers.
While helping your strong-willed child change his behavior is not easy, it is very important. The progress may come slowly. It will require much time and patience, and at times you might feel like his behavior is not improving. When you feel discouraged, it might be easy to slip back into old discipline habits, but it's important to stay constant in your efforts. If you do, you will eventually help your child improve his behavior and you will strengthen your relationship with him (McMahan & Forehand, 2003).