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Parenting Tips for Changing Kids' Behavior -- Without Screaming

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For even the most seasoned parents, everyday responsibilities like enforcing bedtimes, establishing good eating habits and managing sibling infighting can feel overwhelming. We discuss strategies for using positive reinforcement to deal with a range of ordinary parenting challenges throughout a kid’s life — from toddler to teenager — with Dr. Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Parenting Center and author of the new book, “The Everyday Parenting Toolkit.”

Interview Highlights

ABC's of Parenting

"The A is "antecedent." The antecedent, or what can you do before a behavior to get the behavior you want. And it turns out, there's a lot you can do to get the behavior you want and also a lot of normal things we do as parents that make sure the behavior won't come through. So for example, you wanted – again, if normal parenting is going fine, this doesn't apply – if you have some challenge, getting your child to bed, the antecedent would be very clear instructions of exactly what you want to do and calmly. We ask that you put the word "please" in front of it, not to be polite, because "please" often changes the parent's tone of voice and tone of voice alone can make it so the child's more likely to comply."

"So B is behavior. And what the B is here is that you want to get the child to practice the behavior. And actually do it. Many times. A best analogy of this is a musical instrument. As a parent, you want some Rachmaninoff piece. No, no, it's not going to happen. We work on gradually, small segments, and repeated practice, and we change their brain in the process of that repeated practice. Do this program two or three weeks, forget the program, put the tool back in the kit. So among the key concepts is gradually shaping the behavior. You argue with your child for that one hour of homework because the teacher is on your back: He's not doing your homework. Well, we can get that hour, we can get ten minutes, five minutes, ten minutes, easily, then twenty, then thirty, then we can get the hour, and we can stop the program. But it's got to be gradual. The research shows that the gradual is critical."

Host Penny Nelson: And now, on to C – something every parent is familiar with, that's the use of consequences?

Alan Kazdin "Well they are [familiar with the use of consequences], but the familiarity actually makes this task very, very difficult. And so, consider, for example, praise, which is the main ingredient of these consequences. By the way, once in a while we use points and charts and stars. But to be honest with you, we use them for the parents, not for the child. And the reason we do that is that the parents do these programs, do praise better when they're doing something like a praise or charts."


Dr. Alan Kazdin, professor of psychology and child psychiatry at Yale University; director of the Yale Parenting Center; and author of "The Everyday Parenting Toolkit: The Kazdin Method for Easy, Step-by-Step, Lasting Change for You and Your Child"


So praise is the issue, for the usual consequences. And there are two kinds of praise, to simplify it. One is, the wonderful praise parents normally do in their everyday life. Keep it up, hug your child, don't change a thing. But the praise talked about here is based on research on how to change behavior, and that's a very different kind of praise and we have to practice our parents in doing that.

So for a young child, the praise should have three ingredients, and they all make a difference. One is the praise should be effusive. "That was really great!" That makes a difference. That makes a difference. Then followed with that, it should say exactly what you're talking about. "You've picked up the toys just the way I asked. And then the third ingredient is you go over and touch And so you re-practice those three ingredients, and they make a huge difference.

Now when you get to a teenager, now you have to be a little cool. So you cut back on the effusiveness: "Hey, that was good." And then you go over, and you say what you did, and then you go over, and some teenagers will shy away if you try to touch them, so just do a high-five in the air. Same ingredients, executed a little differently."

On the Power of Choice

If you can, give the child a choice. "Could you put on your red sweater or your green jacket? We're going out." Why? The research is very clear. When there's choice, compliance is much greater. And so just on the antecedent side, I've named some of the things, and it's about what you do ahead of time, and the how, and now you've increased the likelihood that the child will comply. So, three parts: antecedents, behaviors, and consequences. I've just highlighted some of the antecedents.

On Why Demands Don't Work

If you make it a demand, you'll get resistance, and then you'll end up saying things like, "Because I'm your parent," or "Because I said so." And we know from those statements that that will make compliance much less likely than ever before. So when you go to authority and you go to power, you actually increase non-compliance. So it's not demands, it's requests. Now many parents will say, "This is my child, who's in charge? I'm the boss." That's a misplaced emphasis. You want to build character in your child. You want your child to be kind, to be honest, and to comply. And we're going to get you there, but it's not by pulling authority."

On the Concept of Positive Negatives

"If punishment worked really well, or even a little bit well, this would be called, "How to Punish Your Child and Get What You Want." But the research is rather amazing here. That punishments do not teach the behaviors you want very well. They are pretty good at momentarily suppressing, but they won't change things overall. So you scream at your child for swearing, and that will stop him or her from swearing, right now, on the spot. But the overall rate of swearing won't go down. And same thing: "You show me respect because I'm your parent, stop talking like that." That might get respect for the moment, but it won't change it at all.

And so positive opposite is, whenever you think you want to get rid of something, say to yourself, "Well what do I want in its place?" Now, we develop that, whatever that is. We want your child speaking nicely? Your child is speaking nicely, sometimes, you just let it all go. So we develop that, and the other part you don't like drops out. If you just keep suppressing the negative, no behavior will replace it. That?s why the negative keeps popping back."

On the Importance of Touch

Host Penny Nelson: You mentioned the importance of touch — its this powerful, powerful tool in our box.


Alan Kazdin: It is. We emphasize it more on the consequence side, because sometimes on the antecedent side, parents could push a little bit or force or move a child to his or her room, but touch is important there. You want to have your child clean his or her room? Put your arm around the child, walk to the room, say "Hey, let's go to your room and let me help you, let's start together." That's a great antecedent. But touch is turning out to be unusually important. It really changes a whole variety of bodily processes. Touch is even used with premature babies to help them grow faster. So there's much more to touch than meets the eye. It's extremely rewarding and adds greatly to anything like verbal praise. No, touch [is] critically important."

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