How To Change Negative Behaviors Using Positive Attention

When children misbehave, adults try to correct them and point out exactly what they did or are doing wrong. Most times, we are not very calm when we do so.

man holding boy

Giving children positive attention rather than negative attention is much more effective in changing their behavior. Research informs us that praising good behaviors, the behavior you want to see them doing gets more results that pointing out things you want them to stop doing.

Positive attention is not looking the other way or excusing negative behaviors. For children, the need for attention from parents is so powerful that whatever behavior we pay attention to will increase, even if we’re telling them to stop.

Positive attention requires a mind shift for parents. It requires that we pay attention to and praise good behaviors, that which we expect of them. It means that we call out children for good behavior and ignore the not so good one, at least if not immediately dangerous.

Bottom line is that we want to catch children doing things that are right. This will take practice because parents have always viewed their roles concerning behaviors as disciplinary and punitive.

photo of man carrying his child

Positive attention can take many different forms. It can be:

  • hugs and kisses
  • rewards
  • high fives
  • rewards and
  • verbal praise.

It may look different with a 3 year old than with a teenager, but the idea is still the same. The key is to be as specific and descriptive as possible in your praise. This way children know exactly what behavior they should replicate. This is called “labeled praise”.

As opposed to saying “Great job”, try to spell out exactly what they are doing well. You can say “I love how you are sharing your toys with your little brother” or “It’s great that you did your chores before going outside to play”.When they know exactly what they’re being praised for, they will be more likely to do it again in the future.

Most challenging will be those bad behaviors. If your child is engaging in behaviors  that are unsafe for himself or others, you should definitely intervene. Otherwise, do your best to ignore the behavior. Then provide positive attention when the behavior stops. Experts call this “active ignoring”.

By withdrawing your attention, you are sending the message that acting out is not the way for them to get what they want. The message is reinforced when as soon as you see them calming themselves or obeying an instruction, you do give your attention.

Just because you are ignoring a behavior in the moment doesn’t mean that you don’t address it ever-quite the opposite. When you see a behavior that you want to decrease, that isn’t the time to interact with your child. That’s the time to take a deep breath, notice it, maybe gently try to redirect them to something else or actively ignore it.

Redirecting them can be anything from asking if they want a snack to pointing out something fun coming up on your family schedule. When things have calmed down, you can then circle back around to talking about it.

photo of mother and child playing

For example: your child is throwing a temper tantrum in the grocery store because they want a candy bar or that sweet cereal. Giving in will likely stop that tantrum very quickly, but it guarantees that your child will repeat that behavior again. It sends a terrible message that you will pay for later. Negotiating with your child[“I’ll give you a cupcake when we get home.”] will likely have the same effect.

It can be embarrassing, and you think that people are judging you as being a bad parent. So, you think that telling your child to stop, issue ultimatums, or that raising your voice will be the right thing to do. This kind of response won’t make you or your child feel good, and won’t prevent the behavior from reoccurring, since you inadvertently feed into it by giving your attention.

Don’t forget that your child craves your attention, and you can decide when you give it to them. If you are practicing positive attention, you would ignore the tantrum until it’s all over[easier said than done]. As soon as your child calms down, that’s the time to give attention and praise. “I’m really proud of you for calming down, for taking a few deep breaths, and for understanding that this is not something we could do right now”.

When you’re back home and things are less emotional, then you can address the tantrum. Use a lot of validation when talking to your child. You might want to say “I saw in the grocery store that it was really hard for you when I told you that you couldn’t have the candy. When I say no to something, that means that we can’t have it at that time. So next time that happens, what do you think we could do? How do you think we can better manage?”

This way, you acknowledge and reflect back their emotional experience and their needs and wants in that moment, and you are reaffirming your expectations and your boundaries and priorities as a parent.

It’s important to note that ignoring the behavior won’t always make it stop immediately. Be mindful of the “extinction burst”; it’s going to get worse before it gets better. The intensity of the tantrum may increase before it stops completely, and it may take a few times of ignoring tantrums before they cease.

If your child has tantrums in public spaces, don’t be embarrassed. Keep in mind that, if they, too, are parents, then they understand. If they aren’t parents, think to yourself that, they will go through the same thing, once they do become parents. Besides, ultimately, the joys of parenthood will always outshine the challenges.


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