If you’re a parent, then you are likely interested in finding ways to interact with your child or children that create a strong relationship, foster positive behavior, and respond to behavioral problems.
Take a look at any bookstore and the shelves will be full of advice. But figuring out which strategies are actually effective can be a challenge.
In this month’s American Psychological Association’s Monitor on Psychology, Amy Novotney asks leaders in child psychology about the best parenting strategies. Her quest was not for someone’s idea of the best way to parent, but for strategies backed by research studies showing their effectiveness in improving behavior, strengthening the bond between parents and children, and reacting to behavioral problems that arise.
The following seven empirically tested parenting strategies were the result.
- Provide Labeled Praise. Studies have shown that the behavior that gets attention is the behavior that you’ll get more of. Attention to undesired behavior — often in the form of reprimands or punishment — will increase undesired behavior. At the same time, specific, labeled praise of desired behaviors increase that behavior. Parents should not offer praise indiscriminately, says Sheila Eyberg, PhD, a psychology professor who conducts research on parent-child relationships. Instead, parents should give specific feedback on exactly what the child did that the parent liked.
- Ignore Minor Misbehavior. If a misbehavior is minor and not dangerous, ignore it. Ignoring when a toddler throws food on the floor or a pre-teen slams a door, while responding with attention when they ask nicely or express their feelings teaches the child that good behavior is a reliable way to get attention (The Kazdin Method for Parenting the Defiant Child).
- Become a Student of Child Development. Understanding developmental milestones can help a parent attend to and praise steps toward that milestone. Knowing a four-year-old wants to please friends will make you more likely to praise their positive behavior with friends. At the same time, understanding that young teens typically have concerns about body image, looks and clothes might make it easier to ignore all that extra time spent in front of the mirror.
- Do Time-Outs Right Along With Quality Time-In. Brief and immediate time-outs have been shown to work best, particularly when paired with parents who are also modeling positive behaviors and praising good behavior. Keeping calm — often a real challenge at the moment a misbehavior is occurring! — and praising compliance makes time-outs more effective.
- Focus on Prevention of Misbehavior. Paying attention to when a child gets tired or hungry can prevent a large portion of meltdowns. Planning ahead and anticipating potential problems and teaching a child strategies to cope with problems when they arise can even eliminate the need to use time-outs, says John Lutzker, PhD, the director of the Center for Healthy Development at Georgia State University.
- Take Care of Yourself First. According to a 2010 APA study, children are negatively affected by parental stress, with 86 percent of children reporting that parental stress bothers them. It can seem nearly impossible when you’re busy with the demands of parenting, work and life, but it is essential to take time to exercise, maintain hobbies and connect with friends and partners.
- Take Time and Do Nothing. Spend time with your child (experts recommend 1 hour a week per child) doing nothing but being with them, acting interested in them, and expressing positive thoughts and feelings to them. Avoid teaching, inquiring, correcting or offering alternative perspectives.
At times, parenting can feel like you’re in in an airplane in turbulence in a thunderstorm and the oxygen masks have dropped. As with on a plane, when parenting it’s important to remain calm and put your oxygen mask on first before you help your children. Once that’s accomplished you can give specific instructions of what to do, with lots of positive feedback for good behavior.