Many parenting articles talk about dealing with difficult behaviour and yet, the ways we respond to children’s positive behaviour is just as important.
Due to an inbuilt negativity bias, we pay more attention to the bad than the good. The human species has survived for over 200,000 years in part because of our capacity to be alerted early to potential threats. While a focus on the negative would be useful for survival in the Savannah, it can greatly harm a parent’s relationship with their child when left unchecked.
For children with behavioural difficulties and their parents, a vicious cycle can develop over time. When a child behaves in a manner which elicits a punitive, angry, or hostile response from the parent, this often provokes the child to behave in an even more disruptive manner, and then the conflict escalates and continues.
Conversely, we build more positive relationships with children when we notice and remark on behaviour we appreciate. It helps children learn social and other life skills, it builds children’s confidence and sense of self, and it re-connects us to our love for our children.
The first step is to notice when you feel good (e.g., relief, comfort, pride, delight) in response to something your child has said or done. For specific behaviour concerns, look out for the exceptions. For example, if you are concerned about your child swearing, look out for times when your child speaks politely.
Focus on conveying genuine feelings, rather than providing an evaluation of the child’s behaviour. Avoid vague platitudes like “good boy/good girl”. Praise that feels mechanical or disingenuous can feel manipulative for the child.
Talk about how your child’s action positively affected you. Impacts might be concrete (e.g., in time, energy, money) or relate to your values (e.g., honesty, integrity, respect). Specifically describe the behaviour that you appreciated and why. For example, “I appreciate it when you wash up your cup, because now I have less dishes to do later.”
Sharing appreciation is one of the most powerful ways of building your bond with your child, so it is worth taking the time and effort to do it well and often.