In the last blog post we talked about the path of learning bad behaviors and creating negative habits. If you haven’t read that already, check it out here. In this post I’m going to help you make a plan to minimize the behaviors that you don’t want your child to have.

Notice I said minimize, not get rid of. We are all humans, so I can’t make any guarantees that you will walk away with the perfect child, but I hope that you get some ideas that help you and your family.

Now remember, in the last post I talked about how not being consistent can be detrimental to creating change. There is another big boulder to move to defeating bad behaviors and that is attention, specifically: positive and negative attention.

When your child does something you like you give them positive attention (ex. Good job Joan! You did it!!). When they do something you don’t want you might give them negative attention (ex. Stop That! What are you THINKING!? I said NO!), or positive attention (ex. *chuckle* You need to stop that. *hehehehe*).

Paying attention (either positive or negative) to behaviors that you want to stop does not work. They will do it more because you paid attention to them, and that’s what kids want the most. Someone who sees them and shows they care for them by paying attention to them and letting them know that they belong.

So what are you supposed to do?

Ignore the bad behavior.

Now, this doesn’t work for trying to reduce violence directed at you, themselves, or another person. That needs to be handled differently. I’m talking more about verbal aggression, or nail biting.

Here’s what tends to happen. A parent tries ignoring a behavior and it gets worse, so they decide that ignoring doesn’t work and they try something else. This is actually a mistake (most of the time). Behaviorists call it an “extinction burst.”

An extinction burst is when by ignoring a behavior it increases for a period of time. By staying consistent, you can make it over that hump and over time the behavior gets better.

Now here is the part that often gets missed. While you are ignoring the bad behaviors you have to replace what you don’t want to see with what you do. As an example let’s look at 2 parents.

Parent 1 has a child who swears. Whenever their child swears they say “Language!” or “Stop swearing,” or “That’s not a word we use in this family.”

Parent 2 is ignoring the 5th F-bomb in a 2 minute period. Finally their child says and entire sentence without swearing. Now they can jump in with praise and rewards. They might say, “I really like how kind your words are.” 

Which parent do you think is going to walk away with a Parenting Win?

The issue with parent 1 is that they are giving the swearing negative attention, they are clearly telling their child what they don’t want them to do, but they are forgetting to tell their child what they DO want them to do instead.

Parent 2 is golden. They are giving specific feedback for their child to use kind words. Their kid learns that when they swear, it won’t be tolerated because mom goes temporarily deaf and no one wants to be the baby in the corner. But when they don’t swear they get that attention that they want.

Here’s a nifty little graph to show you what all this looks like.

Figure 1: Frequency of Behaviors Over Time

Figure 1: Frequency of Behaviors Over Time

Here’s the last thing I want to talk about: when to give praise and rewards. When you are first starting to create change you want to focus on being consistent. This means you give praise, every time your child does something you like. As time goes on, and they strengthen their positive behaviors and are engaged in less negative behaviors you want to praise on a lottery system.

So instead of praising every time you may praise for 5 positive sentences, then 2, then 10. And the amount of praise you give will be different too. Sometimes they can earn verbal praise, sometimes a trip to the store, sometimes a play date. You let them know that you are rewarding them for doing what they are supposed to do. Eventually, you can fade out rewards altogether.

The important thing is that you don’t do this too soon. You should see that they are consistent in their new behaviors and have established their own internal rewards (feeling proud of themselves). The length of time will be different for each behavior, but once a habit has stuck, only serious upheaval, like a traumatic event, will cause them to go back.

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