Misplaced Adult Attention

There are lots of reasons for problem behavior in children and just as many interventions. Several studies have focused on “misplaced adult attention” as both a cause of misbehavior and as a way to stop it. Basically, what we focus on as parents thrives in our children. Focus on their good behavior and we’ll see more of it. Focus on their bad behavior and we’ll see more of it. Focus on their bad behavior and that’s what grows.

Adult attention is paramount in shaping a child’s life. In our culture, parents have been advised and are accustomed to intervening when children misbehave. We try to talk to them, direct them, distract them, anything to get them to stop and behave properly. We end up spending more time attending to a chid’s problem behavior than their desirable behavior. One clinician found that adults typically ignore 90% of a child’s positive behavior. We may notice it, but we don’t comment on it, respond to it, talk about it or attend to it, the way we do with bad behavior. So, our children are getting most of our attention for acting unfavorably.

If parents can redirect their attention, often a child’s behavior will follow suit. So, parents should ignore bad, whiny, annoying and other undesirable behaviors, when they can, and start to pay attention to when kids do something positive. For example, if your child shares a toy with their sibling, take the time to let your child know you noticed and appreciated them sharing. If they help you set the table, tell them it is fun to have them help you. If they get in their car seat nicely, make eye contact and thank them generously.

It can sound easy to shift our attention from bad to good behavior, but in the hectic and busy moments of parenting it can be hard. It may also take a bit of time for your kids to notice the shift, but kids are perceptive and they will pick up on it. To help you:

– Think of one or two behaviors you would like your child to improve upon. Start to notice moments where they make progress in that area, no matter how small and comment on it. Ignore the unfavorable moments.
– Notice other areas where your child naturally behaves well and comment on those. You can comment in the moment or talk about it at a later time, like bedtime, when you both can slow down and connect. Just be sure your child remembers what you are talking about they can link their specific behavior to your positive comments.
– If you can, spend time with your child after praising them, especially in an activity they enjoy. It doesn’t have to be a lot of time and don’t do it as payment for good behavior, do it more so they form an unconscious association between good behavior and quality time. (When they are bad we often spend time talking to them or disciplining them for a few minutes. You are just refocusing that time.)
– If you are trying to avoid potential misbehavior like hitting, you can notice your child’s good behavior before they have a change to misbehave. “This is great. I can see you are frustrated with your sister, but you are trying to breathe and stay calm.”
– Don’t mix criticism with praise. For example, “it’s nice to see you sharing with your sister for once.”
– Remember to stay calm and unaffected when ignoring misbehavior. Take a few deep breaths if you need to.

There are times that parent’s cannot ignore a child’s bad behavior. Dangerous, harmful or very inappropriate behavior, like hitting, disruptive tantrums or not buckling up, need to be addressed immediately. Convey to your child that these behaviors are not acceptable and have consequences. Be sure that you remain calm, but clear in your conviction. Time out can be an effective tool and has been widely researched. To make it work:

1. Explain in a calm and simple way why the child is being put in Time Out. Don’t get into a discussion with them. For example, just say, “we don’t hit.”
2. Use a space that is boring for them. Not a place where your child can read, watch their siblings or text.
3. Keep them there for a few minutes. (The rule of thumb is one minute for every year in age.) Ignore any questions, protesting or requests. Stay calm and unaffected.
4. Make sure they are calm for at least a few seconds before letting them leave. Don’t let them leave beforehand. You can let them know they need to be calm before leaving.
5. Afterwards, do not engage in a big back and forth, just simple statements like, “I understand you were mad, but we don’t hit. It’s not safe behavior.”
6. Once the Time Out is over, move on. Don’t show disappointment or disapproval.
7. Sometimes spending quality time or quality moments with your child shortly afterwards can offer them an alternative to misbehavior. Why would they want to spend more time in Time Out when they are having fun during the day? It can also make parents feel better to connect in a meaningful way. Just be sure your child isn’t associating the extra time with Time Out time.

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