I get the pleasure of working with a lot of wonderful loving parents who are at their wits end trying to wrangle their children into outstanding citizens of the world. I get a lot of questions about how to change bad behaviors like talking back, cursing, lying, hitting… you get the point. I thought I would take a moment and just give a general overview on how to change behaviors, because the concept of behavior change is the same, regardless of what you are changing.

Behaviorists like Pavlov and Skinner (feel free to google them) studied the natural reactions of animals when presented with unnatural situations. These behaviorists then experimented with different ways to change and shape the behaviors of animals from natural reactions to something new. 

For example, when dogs eat, they tend to drool and have more saliva in response to food. (Humans do this too, we describe it as “mouthwatering.”). Pavlov paired the sound of a bell with the presence of food to get dogs to naturally salivate. Eventually, dogs learned that the sound of a bell precedes mealtime and they would begin to salivate just from hearing the bell, even if there was no food around.

Bandura, another behaviorist, studied the effects of modeling behaviors of aggression in children. He had children watch adults acting aggressively towards an inflatable creepy clown doll. When it was the kids turn to play, they would be aggressive towards the doll too.

There are a few important messages we can take from Bandura’s studies. Number one, your kids are watching everything you’re doing, especially when you think they aren’t watching. Number two, your kids will repeat any and all of your bad habits. And number three, that means that they will repeat your good habits too.

So say you want your kids to stop doing something like calling names or talking back. You’ve probably tried talking to them, yelling at them, and ignoring them, but they’re still acting up. Chances are high that you’ve done several things that have perpetuated their continued behavior.

First let me tell you why what you’ve tried before hasn’t worked and won’t.

If you haven’t been consistent in disciplining, there has never been a clear boundary for your child to follow. If you give in once, it’s over. You’ve just made it that much harder on yourself to create a change. By giving in and taking the easy way out, with the justification of “just this once,” it’s going to be way more difficult for you the next time.

The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior (I am pulling out the cliches today!). Kids know these intuitively. If you’re said yes to something after they have whined or tantrumed, they learn that if they whine or tantrum there is a chance they will get their way. So guess what they do the next time they want something….? Yep, they whine and tantrum.

Now this second time you’ve stuck to you guns and didn’t give in. The whining and tantrum probably went on for longer and got louder and more wild. But you didn’t give in (good for you), and eventually they stopped and when on about their lives.

Here comes the third time. This is when bad habits can begin to form. If you give in the third time, they have gone down the path where whining is the way to get what they want and they will generalize this behavior with everything they want in the future. If however, you continue to stand strong and say “no,” the next time their whining period will be shorter and shorter, until they stop all together.

Going forward, give yourself time to think before saying “yes” or “no.” It’s okay to ask your child to give you time to think about it. It’s okay to ask them more questions so that you understand their viewpoints and what they are actually wanting rather than sticking to “blanket scripts” (when we model how our parents raised us.)

Let go of the expectation that your child will always do whatever you say. Yes, you are the boss and you are in charge, but that doesn’t mean they’re going to like it, understand, or agree. They don’t have to, though they do need to still show you respect. But respect is earned, and by being inconsistent you are teaching your child that you are an untrustworthy person. 

You can’t stick to your commitments, so why should they listen to you? You are teaching your child subconsciously that you are not a safe person because of your inability to hold boundaries like saying “no,” and sticking with it. The journey back from bad behavior is long and arduous. I mean it’s a huge battle, but you make it even harder if you don’t stick with it.

Depending on the age and ability level of your child, most of the time you want to include them in creating a change in behavior, especially if it is something that bothers them too.

You want to create an agreement that feels like a win for both of you. In order for this to work, you have to clarify the:

  1. desired results (what needs to be done and when), 
  2. guidelines (within what parameters/limits should a goal be accomplished), 
  3. resources (what you will need, such as tools, supplies, people, money, skills), 
  4. accountability (what the standards of change are and when to evaluate if change is occurring), and 
  5. consequences (what will happen as a result of completing or not completing a task) surrounding their behaviors.

HINT: This works for changing behaviors and teaching new skills

In the next post I will tell you exactly what you should do, and why to create change in all behaviors and habits.


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